Explaining the picks -- Top Notre Dame players: 20-16

Explaining the picks -- Top Notre Dame players: 20-16
July 16, 2013, 11:30 am
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Over at Inside the Irish, NBC partner Keith Arnold began rolling out his annual top 25 Irish players series this week, with eight panelists "voting" on the rankings. I had the pleasure of taking part in the list this year, of which Keith revealed Nos. 20-16 on Tuesday.

Head over to Inside the Irish to see how the panel voted. My picks are below:

[Top Notre Dame Players: 25-21]

No. 20: Troy Niklas (TE, junior)

"Hercules" may only have five receptions to his name, but he has the size (6-foot-7, 260 pounds) and athletic ability to be a very good tight end for the Irish. He's a matchup nightmare in the red zone and is the kind of guy who could be next in the recent line of excellent Notre Dame tight ends. Still, he's a relative unknown at this point, so expecting him to live up to the legacies left by Kyle Rudolph and Tyler Eifert is a bit unfair, for now.

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No. 19: Tommy Rees (QB, senior)

If Notre Dame is going to have a successful 2013 season, Rees can't play like he did in 2011. Two years ago, the Irish had a strong defense and a solid rushing attack -- but a spate of turnovers, plenty of which were on Rees, limited Notre Dame to an 8-5 record. Sound familiar? In 2013, Notre Dame has what looks to be a solid rushing attack, and even without Manti Te'o, returns an excellent defense.

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Rees is two years older and has a great grip on Notre Dame's offense. If that translates into a season that isn't filled with ill-timed turnovers, the Irish will be fine. If those issues pop back up, Notre Dame's hope of making it back to the BCS Championship -- let alone a BCS bowl -- won't materialize.

No. 18: Greg Bryant (RB, freshman)

Bryant is the highest-ranked freshman on my list, and comes to campus with a blue-chip pedigree and a good shot at earning playing time this fall. Rated as the nation's No. 3 prep running back in the class of 2012, Bryant rushed for 3,644 yards and 44 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla. Notre Dame has a deep backfield, but its members have their own flaws and specialties -- and if Bryant can show that five-star talent, there will be an opening for him on Saturdays.

No. 17: Lo Wood (CB, senior)

Wood was set to step in to a starting role in 2012, but a ruptured Achilles kept him on the sidelines for last year's run to the BCS Championship. It also paved the way for KeiVarae Russell to emerge opposite Bennett Jackson at cornerback, so Wood will have to battle for a spot atop the depth chart in August. But even if he doesn't garner a starting gig, he'll provide defensive coordinator Bob Diaco with something he didn't have in 2012: cornerback depth.

No. 16: George Atkinson III (RB, junior)

We saw the kind of game-breaking ability Atkinson possesses at Soldier Field last October, when he broke a 55-yard touchdown run and ran for 123 yards on only 10 carries. But Atkinson didn't get many touches after that game, as the Irish even went away from Cierre Wood -- who was coming off a 1,000-yard season -- and he only rushed for 92 yards on 20 carries the rest of the season. Maybe an increased workload will help his production, but that remains to be seen.

Even if Atkinson is only able to slide into a change of pace/home run threat role, it'll be one that's valuable to an Irish backfield comprised of Bryant, Amir Carlisle, Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel and Will Mahone.