Notre Dame Football: 5 Most Important Players for the Irish in 2012

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IAugust 9, 2012

Notre Dame Football: 5 Most Important Players for the Irish in 2012

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    Entering year three under Brian Kelly, the Notre Dame football team likely enters the 2012 season with more question marks than answers. 

    The quarterback situation has yet to be resolved—the same story that has existed in South Bend since Jimmy Clausen left for the NFL. 

    Playmakers in Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith were taken in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, leaving big holes on both sides of the ball. If the Irish are to improve on their eight wins in 2011, those questions will need to be answered. 

    In the following five slides, we run down the five (or more?) most important players for Notre Dame's 2012 season.

One of the Quarterbacks

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    It's a no-brainer, but Notre Dame has to get the quarterback position figured out. 

    The old saying of having two (or in this case, three) quarterbacks competing for the starting job probably means you don't have one starting-quality player. Maybe that is the case in South Bend for 2012. 

    The cast of characters may suggest that, too.

    Tommy Rees had every chance in the world to prove he's the No. 1 guy, but he mostly squandered those opportunities. He won't play in Notre Dame's opener after a suspension stemming from an offseason incident with the police (via ESPN).

    Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson are dual-threat options with good arms, but both are inexperienced. Could either guy win more than seven or eight games in 2012, especially with the Irish's schedule?

    Somehow, someway, coach Brian Kelly needs a player to take this position by its neck. Without a true No. 1, the Irish are looking at another average season. 

TE Tyler Eifert

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    Regardless of who's playing quarterback, the offense can feel confident in the playmaking skills of tight end Tyler Eifert. 

    As a sophomore, Eifert stepped out of the shadow of Kyle Rudolph in a big way. The 6'6", 250-pound tight end caught 63 passes for 803 yards and five touchdowns in 2011. Rudolph never had more than 33 catches or 364 yards in one season, although injuries plagued his collegiate career. 

    Eifert now enters his junior season as one of the best tight ends in the nation. He's widely considered a top tight end prospect for the 2013 NFL draft, too.

    At the very least, he can make life much easier for whoever is throwing passes in South Bend this season. There's not much more you can ask for in a security blanket than a tight end as talented as Eifert.

LB Manti Te'o

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    It's no secret who Notre Dame's most important defensive player is, and that's senior linebacker Manti Te'o. 

    A likely first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft had he entered, Te'o bypassed the NFL for one more year in Notre Dame. Te'o now stands as one of the few returning defensive playmakers for the Irish. 

    Te'o, one of the highly-touted players in the 2008 recruiting class, has led Notre Dame in tackles the past two seasons, eclipsing 100 in each year. Barring an injury, he'll do the same in 2012. 

    If Notre Dame is going to be any good on the defensive side of the ball this season, they'll need Te'o to play an even bigger role. 

WR T.J. Jones

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    The departure of All-American Michael Floyd to the NFL has left a sizable void in the receiving depth chart, and it may be up to Jones to fill the biggest hole. Of the 100 catches Floyd leaves on the table from last season, Jones should be expected to seize the most. 

    Jones caught 61 passes in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, but he's preparing for a bigger role next season, according to the Chicago Sun Times. 

    I definitely worked harder in the weight room. I put on another seven pounds (up to 190) to prepare myself for the physical beating that getting more catches is going to put on my body.

    No one is planning for Jones to become the next Floyd, but there's an important opportunity for him to grab in 2012. 

RBs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick

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    With the quarterback situation unresolved, the Irish may (or even should, to be honest) lean upon their running game more heavily in 2012. 

    The two leading that running game will be Cierre Wood, an explosive multi-talented back, and Theo Riddick, a former receiver who is pushing for touches after his transition. 

    Freshman Robert Atkinson III is also an explosive option who Notre Dame may ask to handle kick returning duties. 

    But Wood and Riddick will be the feature backs, and for good reason. Wood ran for over 1,200 yards last season and is considered a potential 2013 draft pick. Riddick put on weight in the offseason and should be ready to handle a role as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.