Welcome to the 3rd Annual Shamrock Awards, a less formal season preview for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
This is always a great time of year because it means we can have a little fun and you know the season is just around the corner. I'll say no more, let's get to the awards!
TOP NFL PROSPECT: MLB Manti Te'o
For the second straight year, the answer here is obvious. Middle linebackers typically aren't drafted in the upper-half of the first round, but Te'o has the possibility to be a top 15 pick in next April's draft. Hopefully with an injury-free senior season Manti is able to enter the NFL around the same draft spot as Boston College's Luke Keuchly, who went 9th overall to the Carolina Panthers.
MOST LIKELY TO BREAK SCHOOL RECORDS: TE Tyler Eifert
The big 6'6" tight end broke a couple of single-season marks last year and this year he should be able to own several more career school records. Eifert needs just 39 receptions and 605 receiving yards to break Ken MacAfee's all-time Notre Dame records at the tight end position. Barring injury, he should get there in under 10 games.
PLAYER POISED FOR A BREAKOUT SEASON: WR DaVaris Daniels
The redshirt freshman will be making his Irish debut in Dublin in a month and the perfect circumstances may be lining up for the Illinois native to have a big season. There's a lack of size and playmaking ability at the outside receiver position, Daniels has all the tools to fill that role, and he'll also be pushed by the incoming freshmen receivers who will be chomping at the bit for playing time. Add it all together and DaVaris may finish with a fine first season in South Bend.
THREE THINGS THAT WILL BE IMMEDIATELY APPARENT IN THE FIRST GAME
1. 2010 Meadowlands game is fully in the rear-view mirror
Yes, Navy is going to struggle to run the ball and score points.
2. The offense is running at a smoother pace
Many expect the opposite to happen. How dare you doubt the work of Chuck Martin.
3. The Irish passing game is surprisingly more vertical than we thought it would be
Just a hunch. Especially for this first game against an inferior defense.
ASSISTANT COACH WHO WILL PROVE THE DOUBTERS WRONG: OC/QB Chuck Martin
This was a pretty tough award to give out this year. Interestingly, there aren't many Irish coaches with the usual hoard of doubters in their face this year. You could probably mention Scott Booker as an added full-time assistant and his role with special teams, or perhaps Mike Denbrock and the outside receivers as big worries, but the microscope is clearly on new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin.
Martin has been successful as a coach at Notre Dame so far, and his no-nonsense approach as well as familiarity with Brian Kelly's offense should allow him to prove the critics wrong in 2012.
BIGGEST IMPACT FRESHMAN: WR Davonte Neal
The hype continues to grow for Neal, who was the top-rated athlete in the nation according to ESPN. If the summer reports prove accurate, he'll be (at worst) in the two-deep at slot receiver and a favorite to return punts. Put another way, he's the heavy favorite to see the most minutes and he'll surely touch the ball on offense more than any other true freshman.
FRESHMAN WHO SHOULD PLAY BUT WILL PROBABLY REDSHIRT: WR Justin Ferguson
Word out of summer practice was that Ferguson was running behind both Neal and Brown in terms of picking up the offense and running crisp routes. Unless there is a surprise in fall camp, it's likely that Ferguson is going to sit out his freshman season. However, I'd try very hard to get him working into the rotation later in the season---it's my belief the receiving corps needs need blood bad and Ferguson has the physicality and size to contribute if he can nail down the mental aspects after a month or two with the offense. Judging by Kelly's words so far through a couple practices, we might see Ferguson this year after all. We'll see though.
FRESHMAN WHO SHOULD REDSHIRT BUT WILL PROBABLY PLAY: DE Jarron Jones
Notre Dame is in a great position almost across the board for not having to use freshmen this year. You could probably argue a defensive back or two should be here but I don't think anyone is going to jump the Jackson/Wood/Atkinson trio for starters minutes, nor really make anything but a tiny impact in 2012.
Jones has the size to play right away, but he probably could use a redshirt to bulk up and tone up. It's still probably a 50/50 chance that he plays this season though. If the staff really wants tremendous depth on the line, Jones might break in to the rotation, yet it's better for his long-term prospects if he doesn't.
MOST BORING GAME: Boston College Eagles
This rivalry went south real fast. Despite close games in two out of the past three seasons, the Irish have won all three games and the Eagles have not been the least bit entertaining since Kelly took over. This is also a road game inside BC's small stadium and the only game of the season that is going to cause television viewing problems across the country.
MOST EXCITING GAME: Oklahoma Sooners
The Michigan night game, Miami neutral site at Soldier Field, and season-ending visit to the Coliseum are all great choices as well. However, nothing beats Notre Dame's first visit to Norman since 1966 against a Sooner team that is a national title contender.
3 OPPOSING PLAYERS WHO NEED TO BE STOPPED
1. QB Denard Robinson (Michigan)
Just a quick reminder: Robinson and the Wolverines completed just 11 passes last year against Notre Dame---only Navy had fewer completions in a game. Yet, Michigan passed for more yards than any other team that faced Notre Dame in 2011. It's still absurd given how those passed were completed.
2. RB Le'Veon Bell (Michigan State)
The Irish kept Bell in check last year (7 carries for 27 yards) and they'd better do it again in 2012 because he's the only returning threat for the Spartans offense.
3. QB Matt Barkley (Southern California)
Barkley has toyed with Notre Dame so far in his career, and remember he missed the 2010 contest and has shined twice on the road against the Irish. He's the top Heisman contender and for good reason. His 43 completions, 67.1% accuracy, and 5 touchdowns to just 1 interception against Notre Dame in his career are superb.
3 ISSUES THAT NEED TO GO AWAY
On both sides of the ball---just protect the ball a little better and cause a handful more turnovers on defense.
2. Quarterback Carousel
The program will likely remain stuck in neutral without "the guy" stepping up.
3. Blaming the Administration for Not Wanting to Win
A new leaf has been turned over for at least the past 3 or 4 years. Let's grow up, and try and support these efforts.
PERSON WHOSE POPULARITY HAS SKY ROCKETED SINCE 2011: RB George Atkinson III
As you can see from the title, this award could go to a coach as well, but GA3 clearly deserves the honor. He didn't run the ball much out of the backfield last year, but his two kickoff returns for touchdowns and explosive Blue Gold Game have fans drooling from coast to coast over his potential.
MOST LIKELY TO OVERACHIEVE DURING THE SEASON: S Zeke Motta
I can't believe I'm saying this but...Zeke Motta might come through with a really strong senior season. Just improved tackling angles and a few interceptions and he should win this Shamrock Award. You can do it Zeke!
PLAYER DEALING WITH THE MOST PRESSURE: QB Andrew Hendrix
As always, a lot of players are eligible for this award, but none more than Andrew Hendrix who has the pressure of game experience and a starting role to lock down with Rees suspended. Whether the Voodoo Child emerges from the two-man race this August may very well have to do with how well he handles this pressure.
PLAYER WHO WILL BECOME A HOUSEHOLD NAME: DE Sheldon Day
Day has been on campus since January, participated in spring practice, got rave reviews from many people, so he's likely to be in the rotation on the defensive line. He may not have the high performance level that Aaron Lynch flashed last year, but I'd bet he has a bigger freshman season than Stephon Tuitt in 2011. Look out for Day to be one of the major building blocks in the future.
PLAYER FLYING UNDER THE RADAR: TE Alex Welch
Eifert is the All-American, Koyack is the heir-apparent as the team's top pass catcher, and Niklas is the beefy new toy that everyone is intrigued to see perform. But where does that leave rising junior Alex Welch? Flying under the radar of course, and if he stays healthy I think he'll surprise a lot of people.
TOUGHEST ROAD GAME: At Oklahoma
The Sooners are something 877-3 at home under Bob Stoops. Yeah, yeah, yeah...they don't play Texas at home at all but still, come on it's an impressive record. Oklahoma will get tripped up once in a while but not usually when they're playing a marquee opponent at home.
TOP TWO HOME GAMES TO ATTEND
The second straight night game in two years, this time against the rival to the north. Michigan is threatening to win four straight in the series for the first time in over 100 years.
Along with the above Michigan game, this tilt against Stanford sold out in a hurry. With no more Andrew Luck, Irish fans are expecting a closer competition---even a win.
MAJOR WORRY THAT WILL SUBSIDE BY OCTOBER
The Defense Backfield Doesn't Look Terrible
I think we're going to be okay.
MAJOR WORRY THAT WON’T SUBSIDE BY OCTOBER
Can the Defensive Backfield Contain Landry Jones and Matt Barkley Though?
...until later in the season when a couple of elite quarterbacks get a crack at the Irish defensive backs. Hopefully by then Notre Dame's green corners have gained invaluable experience and confidence.
TOP 3 OPPONENT UNIFORMS
Still messing things up with unnecessary piping, but it continues to be one of the freshest looks in all of college football.
The winged helmets, the bright yellow---yes I know most Notre Dame fans hate it.
3. BYU Cougars
They're like Penn State, but with more character. May I be so bold as to suggest a return to the royal blue?
UGLIEST UNIFORM: Pittsburgh Panthers
Just sneaking ahead of Wake Forest. Can anyone give me a good reason why Pitt doesn't go back to their Tony Dorsett/Dan Marino-era uniforms? I shudder to think what would happen if Notre Dame made blue and gold as boring as the Panthers do.
SENIOR WITH THE MOST TO PROVE: WR John Goodman
I wouldn't have guessed at any point last year that Goodman would return for a 5th year in South Bend. But here is and the team is looking for him to hold down a starting spot and be a productive receiver. He may not get true starter minutes with Eifert split out wide often and Daniels nipping at his heels, but he's the senior with the most to prove.
TOP TWO OPPONENT COACHES
1. Bob Stoops (Oklahoma)
139-34 heading into his 15th season at Oklahoma. 4 BCS bowl victories and a current 3-game bowl winning streak pad his resume.
2. Mark Dantonio (Michigan State)
44-22 heading into his 7th season at Michigan State. Back-to-back 11-win seasons, at least 9 wins in 3 out of the past 4 seasons, and a bowl win over Georgia this past season pad his resume.
3 GUARANTEES BEFORE THE SEASON STARTS
1. The Irish Will Generate More Turnovers than Last Year
The probabilities on this are overwhelming. If Vegas has a line on this you have to take the over.
2. The Running Game Produces Over 30 touchdowns
The team had 25 last year. With a more mobile quarterback, strong offensive line, and a renewed commitment to the run game, the Irish top the 30 mark in 2012.
3. An All-American Not Named Te'o or Eifert Will Emerge
Who will it be? Zack Martin? Cierre Wood? Jamoris Slaughter? Kapron Lewis-Moore? I'll go with the big left tackle in Z-Mart.
ONE OPPONENT THAT CAN’T BE OVERLOOKED: Purdue Boilermakers
There not that good, but like most teams they've struggled without competent quarterback play. If they can figure that position out they might not be half bad in 2012. They have a good secondary, one of the best defensive tackles in the country, and a handful of quality playmakers on offense. If someone can get those playmakers the ball, Purdue might surprise some folks.
PLAYER WHOSE BANDWAGON IS FILLING UP QUICKLY: RB George Atkinson III
Are you on board?