As the long wait before the start of fall camp draws to an end, the major storylines for Notre Dame Fighting Irish heading into the 2014 season are well-documented. But the Irish are only half of the story. The other half? Their 12 opponents.
As with any Notre Dame schedule, the slate is littered with some of the marquee players in college football. Who are the best at their respective positions among the teams the Fighting Irish will battle this season?
Let’s introduce the 2014 Notre Dame All-Opponent Team.
Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Florida State (So.)
A no-brainer here. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner led Florida State to the national title, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns along the way. His lengthy release is the only real flaw in his game, but with arguably the best offensive line in the nation in front of him, he usually isn’t pressed for time.
Notre Dame last faced the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in 2005, when it lost to Matt Leinart and USC in the “Bush Push” game.
Backup: Taylor Kelly, Arizona State (Sr.)
Running Backs: Karlos Williams, Florida State (Sr.); Javorius Allen, USC (Jr.)
Williams was overshadowed last year by the since-departed Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. Starting his career as a defensive back, Williams is still extremely raw as a running back. That’s the scary part for opposing defenses, as he ran for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013.
Allen will split time with Tre Madden again this season, but he had a nose for the end zone, scoring 14 touchdowns last year compared to just three for Madden. Twelve of those scores came in the final six games when the Trojans went 5-1 to close the season following a loss in South Bend.
Backups: T.J. Logan, North Carolina (So.); Venric Mark, Northwestern (Sr.)
Wide Receivers: Jaelen Strong, Arizona State (Jr.); Nelson Agholor, USC (Jr.)
Strong gave the Irish fits last season in the Irish’s 37-34 win at AT&T Stadium, catching eight passes for 136 yards and a touchdown. The junior made the All-Pac 12 team as a sophomore and could contend for All-American status this season in the Sun Devils’ high-powered offense.
Agholor, a Floridian who Notre Dame recruited heavily, will fill the void left by the Trojans’ all-time leading receiver, Marqise Lee. With Lee missing three games last season, Agholor led USC with 918 yards and six touchdowns.
No position among Notre Dame opponents comes close to the talent of the wide receivers that the Irish will face.
Backups: DeVante Parker, Louisville (Sr.); Rashad Greene, Florida State (Sr.)
Tight End: Nick O’Leary, Florida State (Sr.)
Instead of the narrative being that O’Leary is Jack Nicklaus’ grandson, it’s now becoming that Nicklaus is Nick O’Leary’s grandfather. A near-certain Mackey Award finalist, O’Leary enters his final season in Tallahassee off of a 33-catch, seven-touchdown campaign in 2013. At 6’3”, he’s not as tall as recent Fighting Irish star tight ends, but he does pack a punch as a blocker.
A motorcycle accident kept him out of much of spring practice, but there should be no lingering effects this fall.
Backup: Gerald Christian, Louisville (Sr.)
Offensive Tackle: Andrus Peat, Stanford (Jr.); Cameron Erving, Florida State (Sr.)
Peat went from backup to second-team All-Pac 12 last season, and has now anchored down at left tackle for the Cardinal. There are some question marks in the trenches for the first time in a while in Palo Alto, but left tackle is certainly not one of them.
Erving would likely have been a first-round NFL draft pick had he left school early. Unfortunately for Irish fans, he’ll again be protecting Winston’s blind side this season. He played in the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl against Notre Dame, but as a defensive tackle.
Backups: Jamon Brown, Louisville (Sr.); Sean Hickey, Syracuse (Jr.)
Offensive Guard: Josue Matias, Florida State (Sr.); Tre Jackson, Florida State (Sr.)
Matias and Jackson made their first career starts against Notre Dame three seasons ago. At a combined 670 pounds, they’ll be a challenge to move for Irish defensive tackles Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Tony Springmann.
Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand doesn’t take a backseat to many peers, but Florida State’s Rick Trickett might be one. Due in large part to the development of third-year starters Matias and Jackson, Trickett has again molded one of the nation’s best units and is replacing only one starter this season.
Backups: Vi Teofilo, Arizona State (Jr.); John Miller, Louisville (Sr.)
Center: Max Tuerk, USC (Jr.)
There’s no dominant center on the Irish schedule, so Tuerk gets the nod here. A Freshman All-American in 2012, Tuerk will start at his fourth different position on the Trojans offensive line this season. The transition should be a smooth one, but there is always some natural hesitation when making a position switch.
The departure of third-round NFL draft pick Marcus Martin leaves a big void, but Tuerk has always answered the bell wherever he is needed during his time in Los Angeles.
Backup: Jake Smith, Louisville (Sr.)
Defensive End: Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville (Sr.); Mario Edwards, Florida State (Jr.)
There are four clear-cut candidates for two spots here. Mauldin and Edwards have a slight edge here due to their pass-rushing ability. With 9.5 sacks last season, Mauldin was a first-team all-conference performer, but he will see a step-up in competition this year in the ACC.
Edwards was one of the top players in the county in the 2012 class, and he finally came into his own late last season as a sophomore. He’ll be asked to do even more this season without second-round NFL draft pick Timmy Jernigan. Can he meet the lofty expectations?
Backups: Henry Anderson, Stanford (Sr.); Frank Clark, Michigan (Sr.)
Defensive Tackle: Eddie Goldman, Florida State (Jr.); Leonard Williams, USC (Jr.)
Goldman isn’t a stat-sheet guy but can consume multiple blockers in the middle of the line. His ceiling is infinitely high, and 2014 could be the year that he comes close to reaching it after being a 5-star recruit in the 2012 class, per 247Sports. Not having Jernigan alongside him, as is the case for Edwards, presents come challenges. This will be the biggest test of the season for Irish center Nick Martin.
Williams is the best defensive player Notre Dame will see all season. He’s had to battle through three different defensive coordinators in three years, but he still consistently produces, whether it be at end or tackle.
Backups: Christian Covington, Rice (Sr.); Chris Wormley, Michigan (So.)
Outside Linebacker: Norkeithus Otis, North Carolina (Sr.); Chi Chi Ariguzo, Northwestern (Sr.)
Of all the position groups, outside linebacker is the weakest among Fighting Irish opponents, lacking a true star. Otis plays the hybrid “Bandit” role in North Carolina’s 4-2-5 defense. At 235 pounds, he’s undersized for a 4-3 defensive end, so he’ll play both with his hand in the ground and standing up. He had 7.5 sacks in 2013.
Ariguzo was one of the few key Wildcats to stay healthy in last year’s 5-7 season. His 106 tackles last season are the most among returning Big Ten players.
Backups: Desmond Morgan, Michigan (Sr.); Dyshawn Davis, Syracuse (Sr.)
Inside Linebacker: Jake Ryan, Michigan (Sr.)
Ryan missed last year’s Wolverines win over Notre Dame in Ann Arbor while recovering from a spring ACL tear. He was impactful in both the 2011 and 2012 games, and Michigan likely wouldn’t have won the 2011 game without his drive-ending tackle.
Ryan slides inside this year for his final season at Michigan. A classic overachiever without any eye-popping physical qualities, putting his versatility on film bodes well for his NFL future. He’ll surely leave his mark on the final game in the Michigan-Notre Dame game rivalry.
Backup: A.J. Tarpley, Stanford (Sr.)
Cornerback: P.J. Williams, Florida State (Jr.); Blake Countess, Michigan (Jr.)
After a brief Florida State hiatus at linebacker (the only real question mark for the 2014 ‘Noles), Williams provides a return of the Garnet and Gold. He was a bit of a surprise as a sophomore last season after playing mostly on special teams in 2012. He finished with three interceptions, including a key return for a touchdown against Boston College—the Seminoles’ lone test prior to the BCS National Championship.
Countess, like his teammate Ryan, is now in his second season off of an ACL tear—generally when players truly return to pre-injury form. He was a thorn in Tommy Rees’ side last season, intercepting him twice in the Wolverines’ victory. Expect a second straight all-Big Ten season from Countess.
Backups: Ronald Darby, Florida State (Jr.); Alex Carter; Stanford (Jr.)
Safety: Su’a Cravens, USC (So.); Jordan Richards, Stanford (Sr.)
Notre Dame will see arguably the Pac-12’s two best safeties this year in Cravens and Richards. Cravens has already lived up to his massive hype after just one season, recording four interceptions and 52 tackles as a freshman. A Freshman All-American, Cravens is a big hitter at 215 pounds.
Richards loses partner-in-crime Ed Reynolds after two years together at safety. But with two returning starters at cornerback, Richards should be freer to take some chances and play closer to the line of scrimmage. He had his only career multi-interception game in the Cardinal’s big win over undefeated UCLA last October.
Backups: Durell Eskridge, Syracuse (Jr.); Jalen Ramsey, Florida State (So.)
Kicker: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State (So.)
Aguayo won the Lou Groza Award last season as the nation’s top kicker. The good news for Seminoles fans is that he still has three seasons, and possibly more trophies, yet to come. He converted nine of 10 attempts from 40 yards or more, a rarity in college football.
Perfect seasons in extra points are not as uncommon, but when your team scores 94 touchdowns, converting all 94 attempts is an impressive feat. (Florida State did not attempt a two-point conversion last season.)
Backup: John Wallace, Louisville (Jr.)
Punter: Tommy Hibbard, North Carolina (Sr.)
Hibbard brings 166 career punts into his final season in Chapel Hill. After averaging just over 39 yards per punt as a freshman, he has posted matching 43.0 averages in each of the past two seasons. He was only third in the ACC in 2013 in gross yardage, but the Tar Heels led the conference in net punting, a credit to not only their coverage but also to the height and placement of Hibbard’s punts.
Backup: Pablo Beltran, Navy (Sr.)