Notre Dame Football: The Top 10 Opposing Players the Irish Will Face in 2014

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIApril 18, 2014

Notre Dame Football: The Top 10 Opposing Players the Irish Will Face in 2014

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    With a schedule ranked as the eighth-hardest in the nation, Notre Dame will face some of the premier players in college football during the 2014 season. The difficult slate includes a trip to defending national champion Florida State, the Irish's first regular-season game against the reigning title winner since the "Bush Push" game against USC in 2005.

    Notre Dame will also face the previous year's Heisman Trophy winner for the first time since that October Saturday nine years ago. Jameis Winston is just one of multiple Seminoles, by far the most talented team on the Notre Dame schedule this year, to make this list.

    Which Irish opponents cracked the Top 10? Let's dive in.

Honorable Mention

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    S Su'a Cravens, USC

    WR Rashad Greene, Florida State

    QB Keenan Reynolds, Navy

    S Jordan Richards, Stanford

    WR Jaelen Strong, Arizona State

    WR/KR Ryan Switzer, North Carolina

    QB Marquise Williams, North Carolina

10. TE Devin Funchess, Michigan

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    Notre Dame might have become Tight End U. over the past decade, but the best tight end on the Notre Dame Stadium turf on Sept. 6, when Michigan and Notre Dame tangle, will be wearing a winged helmet.

    Funchess was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season, finishing the year with 49 receptions for 748 yards and six touchdowns. With Jeremy Gallon off to the NFL and fellow tight end Jake Butt sidelined for likely at least part of the season, Funchess will be the top target for whoever emerges in the quarterback competition between Devin Gardner and Shane Morris.

    At 6'4" and 235 pounds, Funchess fits the mold of the modern tight end in that he's a threat in the vertical passing game more than as an in-line blocker. The Irish defense held him in check under previous coordinator Bob Diaco, as the senior combined for just five catches and 30 yards in the past two meetings.

9. WR DeVante Parker, Louisville

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    Louisville needed more than Teddy Bridgewater to go a combined 23-3 in 2012 and 2013. The Cardinals offensive attack was aided by Parker, who somewhat surprisingly elected to return for his senior season despite Louisville losing both Bridgewater and head coach Charlie Strong.

    Parker made his name nationally with highlight-reel touchdown catches late in the season against Miami (Fla.) and Cincinnati. While he has a penchant for the end zone, with 12 touchdowns a year ago, he was Bridgewater’s most consistent target each of the past two seasons.

    Will the rapport with new quarterback Will Gardner match what Parker had with Bridgewater? The Cardinals have plenty of time to find out before visiting Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 22.

8. CB Blake Countess, Michigan

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    Countess is back to full health after suffering a torn ACL in the 2012 season opener, sidelining him for the remainder of the Wolverines’ 8-5 season. He returned last fall, playing in every game and leading the team with six interceptions, two coming against the Fighting Irish.

    At 5’10”, Countess doesn’t succeed with size, but with good speed and sound technique. His play last year was good enough to earn him All-Big Ten honors in a conference that included Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard, Ohio State’s Bradley Roby and Purdue’s Ricardo Allen, among others.

    The second year off of an ACL injury is usually when a player truly returns to form. If that holds true for Countess, the sky is the limit for the junior cornerback—especially with 5-star defensive back Jabrill Peppers joining him in the Wolverines secondary this fall.

7. WR Nelson Agholor, USC

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    Despite taking an official visit to Notre Dame in the fall of 2011, Agholor could not be swayed to attend school in South Bend, instead opting to sign with the rival Trojans. He played in the shadow of Robert Woods and Marqise Lee in his first two seasons, but the junior now appears poised for stardom.

    With Lee missing three games last season, Agholor led the team with 918 yards and six touchdowns. Agholor plays bigger than his 6’0” frame would suggest, and his 16.4 yards per catch average shows his ability to thrive in the deep passing game.

    Finding a complement to Agholor was one of USC’s biggest questions this spring. Will he continue to shine with the attention of opposing secondaries now squarely on him? The call here is a resounding yes.

6. RB Karlos Williams, Florida State

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    The Florida State backfield was crowded last season, as James Wilder Jr., Devonta Freeman and Williams all shared carries in the Seminoles’ run to the national title. Only Williams returns this season, meaning he’ll be asked to produce more than the 91 carries and 730 yards he had in 2013.

    The senior is a converted defensive back who is still polishing his skill set as a runner. At 223 pounds, Williams is a load to bring down. The best news for Williams, however, is the lack of mileage on his legs after spending his first two seasons in the secondary. That bodes well not only for his NFL future, but for his final season in Tallahassee.

    He should get some help from sophomore Mario Pender and freshman Dalvin Cook, in addition to Jameis Winston, but Williams could be looking at a 200-carry season. A dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate? Sharing a backfield with Winston probably prevents it, but Williams’ numbers should be staggering.

5. QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona State

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    While not recruited by Todd Graham, Kelly and Graham quickly became a perfect match upon the latter’s arrival in Tempe in December 2011. A better fit for Graham’s system than the offense of previous head coach Dennis Erickson, Kelly won an open competition for the quarterback job and has led the Sun Devils to 18 wins in two seasons. He should close his career in the top three on the school’s career passing list.

    Kelly had two costly interceptions in last season’s 37-34 loss to Notre Dame, but did throw for 362 yards and three touchdowns. He’s not a true running quarterback, but more of a passing quarterback who can run. He finished 2013 with 608 yards on the ground and nine touchdowns.

    He has his top two targets returning in juniors Jaelen Strong and D.J. Foster, meaning the Sun Devils passing game should continue to fire on all cylinders. Kelly should do his part to ensure that the Nov. 8 meeting with Notre Dame at Sun Devil Stadium will again be a shootout.

4. RB Venric Mark, Northwestern

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    Perhaps no team saw its season spiral downward faster than Northwestern. A 4-0 start and a visit from ESPN’s College GameDay turned into a 5-7 disaster, as the Wildcats dropped seven straight games. Much of the downfall can be blamed on injuries, none more so than the ankle injury that sidelined Mark for all but three games last season.

    The do-everything tailback was awarded a medical redshirt for last season, meaning he’ll return for a final year in Evanston. During Northwestern’s 10-win 2012 season, its most victories since the 1995 Rose Bowl season, Mark had more than 2,000 all-purpose yards.

    At just 175 pounds, there’s little physicality to Mark’s game. But a lack of size hasn’t kept Northwestern from being competitive in the black and blue Big Ten almost every season. If the Wildcats hope to repeat their 1995 upset at Notre Dame Stadium, Mark will have to lead the way.

3. OT Cameron Erving, Florida State

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    In Notre Dame’s last meeting with Florida State, the Seminoles were forced to start four freshmen offensive linemen due to a rash of injuries. Those freshmen are now seniors, and all four could be in the starting lineup when the Irish travel to Doak Campbell Stadium in October.

    FSU's best offensive lineman, however, is Erving, who was a defensive lineman in 2011 before his conversion to offense. The Seminoles left tackle would likely have been a first-round pick in next month’s NFL draft had he left school early. At 6’6” and in the 330-pound range, the ‘Noles have a massive body protecting Winston’s blind side.

    There’s still some technique work Erving needs to do to succeed at the next level. In college however, his sheer size and athleticism makes him a dominant player. Erving won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy last season as the ACC's best offensive lineman and was a second-team All-American.

2. DE Leonard Williams, USC

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    Under now-dismissed Lane Kiffin, USC was unable to reel in the monster recruiting classes that it did under Pete Carroll. NCAA sanctions kept the overall numbers down for the Trojans, but Kiffin’s staff was able to bring in some 5-star talents like Williams.

    The junior must adapt to the new 3-4 system run by coordinator Justin Wilcox, Williams’ third coordinator and system in as many season in Los Angeles. Williams will play one of the two defensive end spots on the three-man defensive line.

    His 2013 season, in which he had five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss, ended by being named to the All-Pac 12 team. He now has 13 sacks in his USC career. Notre Dame won’t face a better defensive lineman all season than it’ll see in the Los Angeles Coliseum two days after Thanksgiving.

1. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State

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    While Gunner Kiel received most of the headlines for his indecisiveness in the recruiting process, it was Jameis Winston who was considered by most experts to be the top quarterback in the 2012 class. After spurning in-state Alabama to play both football and baseball at Florida State, Winston redshirted in 2012 behind senior E.J. Manuel.

    Winston held off a challenge from Jacob Coker last offseason (who has since transferred to Alabama) for the starting role. It took all of one half of football to know that Winston was the real deal. On Labor Day, in front of a national television audience, Winston shredded Pittsburgh for four first-half touchdowns, finishing the night 25-of-27 for 356 yards.

    His season continued on an upward trajectory, as the Seminoles rolled over their first 13 opponents before rallying past Auburn for the national title. With any Heisman Trophy winner that returns to school, the obvious question is, can he do it again? The bar is always set higher for a previous winner, but Winston has as good of an opportunity as any returning recipient to become just the second two-time winner.