The Notre Dame Fighting Irish shocked the college football world last season by making it all the way to the National Championship Game by virtue of an undefeated regular season.
The Irish were crushed by the Alabama Crimson Tide in the title game, but it was a great year for Notre Dame nonetheless. Brian Kelly's squad has a lot of work to do if it intends to get back to that point this season, though.
Notre Dame lost several notable players to the NFL as well as through graduation, so Kelly needs to find out which players on his roster can handle expanded roles.
There are definitely some tough games on the schedule this year, but another undefeated season could be there for the taking. It all depends upon whether or not a small sampling of players is able to rise to the occasion.
Here are three players in particular who must step up in a big way for the Irish this season if they are to have any hope of getting another crack at the Coaches' Trophy.
It doesn't exactly take a rocket scientist to figure out that the quarterback must play well in order for a successful season to occur. Tommy Rees has more pressure riding on his shoulders than most, though, as he is a senior with starting experience.
Rees lost his starting job to Everett Golson last year, and Golson went on to lead Notre Dame to the National Championship Game. Golson has been suspended for the entire 2013 season; all eyes are on Rees to see if he is capable of being a title-contending quarterback.
Although Rees showed flashes of brilliance in the past, his penchant for making mistakes often overshadowed that.
Rees was solid as a starter two seasons ago as he completed for 65 percent of his passes for more than 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns. Rees did throw 14 interceptions, though, which is something he can't afford to do this year.
Early reports regarding Rees leading up to the season are good, however, as Jeremy Fowler of CBS Sports has heard that Rees' understanding of Kelly's playbook is masterful.
#NotreDame receiver DaVaris Daniels on Tommy Rees: "He knows the plays better than some of the coaches do."— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) August 14, 2013
That type of leadership is precisely what Notre Dame's offense will need as it will be without several key players who made a major impact last season.
Also, it seems likely that Notre Dame's defense will take a step back even if it's a slight one.
The Notre Dame defense singlehandedly won plenty of games last year, but it's going to need more offensive support. That means Rees can't sit back and be a game manager. He needs to be the reason why Notre Dame wins games this season, and if he can do that, then the Irish will be in good shape.
He became a punch line by the end of last season, but there is no denying the fact that linebacker Manti Te'o was the driving force behind Notre Dame's magical 2012 campaign.
Te'o was all over the place last year as he made big tackles, forced fumbles and intercepted passes at will. It's difficult to remember a defensive player having a bigger impact over the course of a season than Te'o did last year, so there is going to be a transitional period for the Irish.
Which player must step up most for Notre Dame to return to the National Championship Game this season?
Te'o very nearly won the Heisman Trophy, and while it's unlikely that the Irish have another Heisman-caliber linebacker on their roster, they do have a considerable amount of depth at the position. It will probably be a group effort in terms of replacing Te'o's production, but senior linebacker Carlo Calabrese will shoulder much of the load.
Calabrese has been a steady defensive contributor for the Irish over the past three seasons, but his role has never really be expanded. That will inevitably happen this season, though, as Kelly needs a senior leader like Calabrese to take on some of the responsibilities that Te'o dealt with so well.
There is a lot of talent on the Notre Dame defense, but they need direction.
Te'o was like a coach on the field in a lot of ways as he seemingly always knew where he needed to be, and he knew where his teammates needed to be as well. Nobody is asking Calabrese to play like Te'o as that is nearly impossible, but he does need to have the best season of his career by a considerable margin. Provided Calabrese shows some leadership and acts as the heart and soul of the defense, Notre Dame will have a chance to do some damage.
George Atkinson III
A much underrated aspect of Notre Dame's success last season was its running game. It was easy to see the impact that the defense made, and Golson received much of the credit whenever the offense made plays, but the Irish rushed for nearly 2,500 yards last season, which allowed them to control the ball for large chunks of time.
Notre Dame has its hands full in terms of replicating that success this year as leading rushers Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood have graduated and departed South Bend. That means well over 1,600 rushing yards and nine touchdowns have been lost.
All hope is not lost, though, as George Atkinson III made quite an impact as Notre Dame's No. 3 back last season.
Atkinson had just 51 carries, but he made the most of them as he rushed for 361 yards and five touchdowns. That means he averaged 7.1 yards per carry, which is nearly unheard of. Atkinson isn't exactly a small guy either at nearly 6'2" and 220 pounds, so he brings a mix of explosiveness and power to the table. That combination of skills has landed him on the College Football Performance Awards' All-Purpose Performer of the Year watch list, according to Notre Dame assistant director of media relations Michael Bertsch.
George Atkinson III named to 2013 @CFPerformance All-Purpose Performer of the Year Watch List— Michael Bertsch (@NDsidBertschy) June 25, 2013
Even though Notre Dame's defense won't be exactly the same as it was last year, the winning formula will remain unchanged.
Notre Dame needs to be able to stop the run on defense and run the ball effectively on offense, and the onus will fall on Atkinson when it comes to the latter point. The junior running back seems ready to accept a bigger role, so there isn't much reason to be concerned about him. Provided he is able to remain healthy, Atkinson could be Notre Dame's breakout player of the 2013 season.
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