Notre Dame's 2013 season has been a roller coaster ride for Fighting Irish fans.
Many expected the defense to be better than it was in 2012, but so far, that is not the case. On the other side of the ball, clear leaders are emerging in the battle for running back and primary receiver, and they may not be who you expected.
Here are four players who have surprised us—either by exceeding or not living up to their preseason expectations this season.
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When it was announced that Everett Golson would not be playing for Notre Dame this season, there was a collective gasp of horror released by the Irish fan base.
Rees—who threw a whopping 14 picks in 2011—was deposed by Golson at the start of the 2012 season and wasn't expected to return in any substantive capacity.
Although 2013 was feared to be a disappointing season due to the return of Rees, it has not exactly panned out that way. Instead, it has turned into a redemption story for the senior quarterback.
In each of his first three starts of the season, Rees threw for over 300 yards—including a career high 346-yards against Temple. Interceptions—once Rees' Achilles heel—have only occurred twice this season, and neither were against the No. 1 ranked Michigan State defense.
Rees has also demonstrated solid leadership qualities on a team that lost the vast majority of last seasons play-makers.
"That's something as a leader, as a quarterback, I've always felt I had the confidence in myself to do," Rees told Brian Hamilton of The Chicago Tribune. "It's something I've really worked hard at and developed over the past couple of years — being more vocal and taking that accountability and that responsibility to be the guy and bring the team together."
That is why we are pleasantly surprised by Tommy Rees' return to starting duties at quarterback.
Going into the 2013 season, Fighting Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt was considered to be a potential All-American and first-round draft pick.
With 47 tackles including 13 for loss and a team-high 12 sacks, Tuitt was one of the many stars on the feared Fighting Irish defense in 2012.
Fast forward to last Saturday. Tuitt entered the Michigan State game with just four tackles, one sack and a single interception for the entire season.
To his credit, he more than doubled his tackles for the season against the Spartans, logging six tackles and a sack in the fourth quarter. However, he is still not performing at the level he proved he was capable of in 2012.
Tuitt—and the Irish defense as a whole—have decidedly not lived up to the high expectations Notre Dame fans carried off the banner from last season.
Seriously, is there an Irish fan out there who isn't pleasantly surprised by Cam McDaniel?
With only 23 rushing attempts last season, McDaniel entered this season without much fanfare; squarely in the shadow of George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle.
Today, he has surpassed USC transfer Amir Carlisle to be the top rusher at Notre Dame with 45 attempts for 169-yards.
With his north-south style of running, McDaniel's power rush has turned him into a serious threat when he gets between the tackles.
In addition to his rushing skills, McDaniel is tough.
During the Purdue game, he received stitches for a head wound during half time and returned to score a touchdown in the third quarter.
Last weekend, McDaniel played with a broken hand during the slugfest against Michigan State, and he still scored a rushing touchdown.
McDaniel is not just surprising us this season, he's asserting himself as the future of the Irish offense.
In the stable of talented receivers at Notre Dame, it would be easy for a true freshman to get lost on the depth chart. Not so for Corey Robinson.
The son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson, he had a breakout game last weekend against the Michigan State Spartans.
Robinson had three receptions for 54 yards against Michigan State; each came on third down and each resulted in a first down.
His talents are not lost on Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He's a big target,” he told Tom Davis of The News-Sentinel. “He tracks the ball so very well. Look, if you can keep the ball in a position where he can play (6-foot-6), he's very difficult to defend.”
Robinson's performance is particularly impressive when you consider the Spartan defensive secondary is ranked No. 3 in the nation.
The Irish take on the Oklahoma Sooners next week in South Bend. The Sooners are currently ranked well below Michigan State at No. 39 nationally in passing yards allowed, so look for Kelly to put the ball in the air next weekend.
With his impressive performance last week, expect to see Robinson recieve signifficant time on the field agaisnt the Sooners.