After losing some key players to the 2013 NFL draft, Notre Dame will be counting on some up-and-coming stars to fill some big shoes this year.
It appears the national media doesn't believe Brian Kelly's program has enough star power to replicate the success it had last season, as both major preseason polls have the Fighting Irish outside the Top 10.
It's a bitter pill to swallow considering that this team was just 60 minutes away from winning last season's national championship. However, considering the level of uncertainty surrounding the Irish at some key positions, it shouldn't surprise anyone that most in the media are selling Notre Dame short this year.
Should the team exceed expectations again in 2013 as it did last year, then the following players must emerge as breakout stars.
George Atkinson, Running Back
The Fighting Irish lost their two top running backs from a year ago, as both Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick left the college ranks to pursue careers in the NFL.
Atkinson, who was a home run threat last year, rushing for 361 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and five touchdowns, will take over as the team's starting running back in 2013.
Along with this new responsibility comes a new set of rules.
Atkinson was a change-of-pace back last season known for making huge gains on sweeps and draws, thanks to his sprinter's speed. This year, he'll be doing a lot more running between the tackles and he's had to adjust his style of play, as noted by Rachel Terlep of the Elkhart Truth:
"Just realizing every play isn't going to be a 50-yard run is a big step for me,” Atkinson said. “Last year I was more focused on trying to make that big play, trying to break outside every time, every chance I got to out-run the defense. Now I realize it's about getting those vertical runs, getting those tough yards through the defense."
Once Atkinson learns how to slow down and let his blockers set up running lanes, he'll be electric.
Though the speedster only caught two passes for four yards last year, he'll become a potent weapon as a receiver out of the backfield on screen passes and dump-offs.
Sheldon Day, Defensive End
Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are the big names on Notre Dame's defensive line, but fans in the know realize there's another player worth talking about these days—something I've discovered in part through comments in past articles on Bleacher Report.
After his freshman campaign as a backup and role player, Day is ready to break out in a big way in 2013. He played in all 13 games last year, logging 23 tackles (13 solo), two sacks and 3.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
He's been turning heads throughout this past offseason and Kelly is amped about the sophomore's arrival as a full-time starter for the team's defense this year, as noted by CSNChicago.com's J.J. Stankevitz:
"I know all the talk is about Nix and Tuitt, but I tell you, Sheldon Day is -- just watch the film," Kelly said. "His first step quickness, he's an impressive football player. I wouldn't trade him for anybody on our football team right now. He's as impressive a player as we have on defense."
It remains to be seen if Day will live up Kelly's praise, but with Tuitt and Nix sure to be demanding double-teams on a regular basis, the sophomore defender will certainly get his chances to shine.
Troy Niklas, Tight End
The young man known as "Hercules" has some impossible shoes to fill in replacing Tyler Eifert, who now plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. Thankfully, Niklas doesn't see himself replacing Eifert, according to Stankevitz.
That doesn't mean Kelly doesn't envision big things for the 6'6", 270-pound physical freak. As Stankevitz, noted, Kelly wants Niklas' production to match his stature:
His size and physical frame were up here and his accomplishments were here,” Kelly explained, raising one hand above his head and putting another around his chest. “I want to see his accomplishments meet his size and stature. And I think they're getting there.”
Who will be this year's biggest breakout star?
Niklas didn't see much action last season as a sophomore, catching just five passes. That said, he showed himself capable of making big plays when he did catch the ball, averaging 15 yards per reception and hauling in a touchdown pass.
Notre Dame needs the converted linebacker to break out with a big season. Quarterback Tommy Rees will have an easier time of replacing Everett Golson this year if he can count on Niklas to be his security blanket in the middle of the field and in the red zone.
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