Notre Dame Football: 2012 Top 25

Top 25 player countdown: No. 1

August, 31, 2012
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Our countdown concludes today, less than 24 hours before the opener. The top Notre Dame player should come as no surprise to regular fans and readers of this space.

No. 1. Manti Te'o, ILB

2011 numbers: Te'o started all 13 games last season, recording 128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and two forced fumbles. He made a number of All-American teams.

Making the case for Te'o: Little can be said about Te'o that hasn't already been said. He is arguably the nation's best inside linebacker, a player who would have likely been drafted in the first round this past April but surprised some by electing to return for his senior year. Spurning USC and becoming one of the biggest defensive recruits in Notre Dame history, the Laie, Hawaii, native has made big impacts both on and off the field and is an unquestioned leader of a young defense. He enters 2012 No. 8 on the school's all-time tackles list, with 324.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 2

August, 30, 2012
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No. 2. Tyler Eifert, TE

2011 numbers: Eifert caught 63 passes for 803 yards -- both of which are Notre Dame records for a tight end -- and he added five touchdown receptions last season, becoming a finalist for the Mackey Award and making a number of All-American teams.

Making the case for Eifert: Named to the preseason watch list for both the Mackey and Maxwell Awards -- the only tight end to make the latter list -- Eifert enters 2012 as arguably the nation's best tight end. Having turned down NFL fortunes in the offseason for another year of school, Eifert will be the Irish's go-to target, spread all over the field to stretch defenses. He enters the season 39 catches and 605 receiving yards shy of breaking Ken MacAfee's school career record in each category.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 3

August, 29, 2012
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(Note: These rankings were made before head coach Brian Kelly suspended Cierre Wood and Justin Utupo for the first two games of the season.)

No. 3. Cierre Wood, RB

2011 numbers: Wood played in all 13 games and started nine, rushing for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns on 217 carries, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. He added 27 catches for 189 yards.

Making the case for Wood: Wood became just the 11th player in school history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. And he did it despite splitting time with Jonas Gray for much of the second half of the year. Named to the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award, Wood figured to head a rushing attack that includes the talented Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III. But he may have some catching up to do after being suspended Sunday for the first two games of the season following a violation of team rules.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 4

August, 28, 2012
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No. 4. Stephon Tuitt, DE

2011 numbers: Starting three game and playing in nine, Tuitt recorded 30 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and five quarterback hurries.

Making the case for Tuitt: Yes, he was overshadowed by Aaron Lynch last season. Yes, Lynch had bigger numbers. But Tuitt may be just as good, and he can play inside when needed, too. Tuitt and Lynch did not play at Michigan, a missed class cost Tuitt a trip to Purdue and mono forced him out of two games late in the season. But he is bigger and stronger entering his sophomore year, with a solidified starting spot and a much better expectation of the college level. Look for the 6-foot-6, 303-pounder to take the next step this season and explode onto the national scene.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 5

August, 27, 2012
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No. 5. Jamoris Slaughter, S

2011 numbers: Slaughter was invited back for a fifth season following a 2011 campaign that saw him play in every game, recording 45 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, one interception and one forced fumble.

Making the case for Slaughter: There may be no more versatile player on the Irish defense than Slaughter, who was valuable in nickel coverage last season when moving up to replace drop linebacker Prince Shembo and was even used some at cornerback in the spring, though that idea has been shelved for now. Slaughter has played in 36 games for the Irish over the past three seasons, and he will be the anchor of a secondary that has had to retool on the fly after injuries to Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 6

August, 24, 2012
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No. 6. Louis Nix, NG

2011 numbers: In his first year of playing following a redshirt season in 2010, Nix started 11 games and appeared in all 13, recording 45 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.

Making the case for Nix: Nix said entering the 2011 season that the coaching staff said he wouldn't see 20 snaps a game. He was right — for a good reason, as that number often doubled in 2011. He split a lot of time with Sean Cwynar, but Cwynar's broken hand forced him to miss some time early in the season and put even more pressure on Nix, who delivered. Homesickness plagued the Jacksonville, Fla., native this past spring, affecting his play enough for Brian Kelly to put him behind Kona Schwenke. Nix has seemed to rebound nicely this summer, and he and Schwenke should make quite the tandem in the middle.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 7

August, 23, 2012
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No. 7. Zack Martin, LT

2011 numbers: The 6-foot-4, 304-pound Martin started all 13 games last season for a unit that allowed just 17 sacks. He was named the team's best offensive lineman for the second straight season.

Making the case for Martin: When Brian Kelly is asked what he knows about his team going into this season, he says he knows his team will win the battle in the trenches, and that's a good feeling. His left tackle is a big reason for that, as Martin returns after 26 straight starts on the line. The redshirt junior will anchor a unit that brings back three starters from the same position as last season, four in all, and is under a new coach in the well-traveled Harry Hiestand. Like center Braxston Cave, Martin is also on the watch list for the Outland Trophy.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 8

August, 22, 2012
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No. 8. Theo Riddick, RB/WR

2011 numbers: Riddick played in 11 games and started nine, hauling in 38 receptions for 436 yards and three touchdowns and carrying the ball 14 times for 63 yards. He returned three punts for a total of minus-1 yard, fumbling twice and losing one of them.

Making the case for Riddick: Nothing has been simple about Riddick's career so far in SouthBend, as he has gone from running back to receiver to, toward the end of last season, running back again. Now? He'll be featured as both under running back/slot receivers coach Tony Alford, and he seems to have finally found a comfort zone within the offense after an inconsistent junior season. He had a very strong spring and could end up seeing as many carries as Cierre Wood, who is a returning 1,000-yard back. If Riddick can develop into a formidable punt returner, he will have himself a very nice final college season.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 9

August, 21, 2012
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No. 9. Braxston Cave, C

2011 numbers: The 6-foot-3, 304-pound Cave started the season's first nine games in the middle before suffering a season-ending foot injury at Wake Forest. Cave was a rock in the middle, having started 22 straight games before the injury.

Making the case for Cave: Cave is a fifth-year senior who has been around the block. He appears to be fully recovered from his foot injury after seeing limited time in the spring. Notre Dame's offensive line returns three starters in the same position from last season -- and four players with starting experience -- and figures to be one of the team's strengths. Cave, who is on the preseason Watch List for the Outland Trophy, has appeared in 35 games and is one of the unit's, and team's, biggest leaders.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 10

August, 20, 2012
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No. 10. George Atkinson III, RB

2011 numbers: As a true freshman last season, Atkinson returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, averaging 26.1 yards per return. He added 27 yards and two scores on nine carries.

Making the case for Atkinson: Atkinson made an immediate impact his first year on campus, and his second year might be even better, even if the numbers don't show it. Kickoff rules in place for this season will make big returns less likely, but Atkinson should see some time in the running back/slot receiver role, behind Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. Carries may be hard to come by given the unit's depth, but Atkinson figures to see enough time to make an impact. His spring-game performance -- 15 carries for 124 yards -- wowed fans and defenders, but he also coughed up the ball twice, so consistency will be a key for him as he matures on the field.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 11

August, 17, 2012
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No. 11. Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE

2011 numbers: Lewis-Moore started the first seven games last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury against USC. As a redshirt junior, Lewis-Moore notched 32 tackles, four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one quarterback hurry.

Making the case for Lewis-Moore: There were times this spring where it looked as if Lewis-Moore, who was invited back for a fifth season at Notre Dame, would be a reserve after starting for much of the past three seasons. But the transfer of Aaron Lynch to USF, along with the improved health of Lewis-Moore, have him primed to finish his career alongside Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt on what should be a very strong first-team defensive line. Considered one of the leaders of the defense, along with Manti Te'o and Jamoris Slaughter, Lewis-Moore has spoken about having a better understanding of the defense as a whole entering this season. His numbers don't jump off the page, but he is an invaluable veteran presence up front, especially since his co-starters are entering just their second years of playing.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 12

August, 16, 2012
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No. 12. Everett Golson, QB

2011 numbers: Golson redshirted last season as a true freshman, winning offensive scout team player of the year.

Making the case for Golson: The 6-foot, 185-pound Golson is the prototypical fit for coach Brian Kelly's spread offense. He has a strong arm and is the most elusive of the Irish's quarterbacks. His 151 career touchdown passes at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High School are the sixth-most in national high school history. Golson has taken most of the first-team reps during media viewings of practice, and the starting job for Week 1 appears to be his to lose at the moment. He dazzled in the spring game, though Kelly said afterward that Golson had trouble getting the plays in on time. Both have seen an improvement in that area through camp so far, and Golson has said he has been humbled since being forced to sit a year ago as a highly-touted true freshman. If he can put it all together during these final two weeks of camp, Golson will likely take the field first in Dublin, Ireland.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 13

August, 15, 2012
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No. 13. Andrew Hendrix, QB

2011 numbers: Appearing in five games last season, Hendrix completed 18 of 37 passes for 249 yards, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions. He carried the ball 25 times for 162 yards and a score.

Making the case for Hendrix: Hendrix looks to be in a two-man race right now to start Notre Dame's Sept. 1 opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. Coach Brian Kelly has said that the redshirt sophomore has split many of the practice reps with Everett Golson, though Golson has seen more first-team action during media viewing portions. Hendrix is probably the fastest of the Irish's four scholarship quarterbacks, and the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder can certainly absorb hits. Given the Irish's recent troubles at the position, it would be premature to write off any of the quarterbacks from seeing action this season. With the opener a little more than two weeks away, the job is certainly there for the taking, and Hendrix looks to be firmly in the mix.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 14

August, 14, 2012
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(Note: This list was created before Brian Kelly suspended Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese.)

No. 14. Tommy Rees, QB

2011 numbers: Rees started 12 of 13 games last season, throwing for 2,871 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. He was 8-4 as a starter, and is 12-4 as a starter for his career.

Making the case for Rees: Rees is the only quarterback on Notre Dame's roster with starting experience. For as much frustration the fan base has had with the junior, Rees has displayed an uncanny ability to bounce back from mistakes and recover from big hits. (Look no further than his final drive at Michigan last year.) Without seeing much action in fall camp, Rees has taken on a coaching-type role with the younger signal-callers, who have said that Rees aspires to be a coach someday. No one will argue that he is the most athletic of the Irish's quarterbacks, but Rees knows the playbook better than any of the others. If he is unable to climb back atop the depth chart following his Week 1 suspension against Navy -- and the odds don't look to be in his favor right now -- he would be more than an ideal reserve, someone with experience entering during emergency situations, and someone the offense would not have a difficult time adjusting to.

Top 25 player countdown: No. 15

August, 13, 2012
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No. 15. DaVaris Daniels, WR

2011 numbers: Daniels redshirted during his freshman season at Notre Dame.

Making the case for Daniels: Coach Brian Kelly raved about the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Daniels' testing this winter, with the receiver saying he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, did 10 feet, 5 inches in the broad jump and jumped 38 inches. Many have pegged him as the heir apparent to first-round NFL Draft pick Michael Floyd, though Daniels is smaller. He has been running mostly with the second unit in practice, but the potential — and, with Floyd out of the picture, the opening — is certainly there for Daniels to make a big impact in his first season of playing college football.

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