The five most important players for Notre Dame in 2014

The five most important players for Notre Dame in 2014
July 30, 2014, 12:45 pm
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If Notre Dame is able to reach its goal of making the four-team College Football Playoff, plenty will have to go right.

This is a team coming off a nine-win season that lost two stalwart offensive linemen, an emerging star at tight end, one of the program's best wide receivers and 57 percent of its starting front seven, among others. And on top of that, both coordinators left to take head coaching gigs.

That's an awful lot of turnover. In some areas, Notre Dame is well-equipped to deal with the departures of those players, namely on offense — especially with the return of quarterback Everett Golson.

But consider these five players (well, four players and one coach) critical to Notre Dame's chances of making some noise in the playoff race this fall.

1. QB Everett Golson

The discussion about Notre Dame's offensive success begins and ends with Golson, who's back from his academically-imposed exile from campus last fall. Coach Brian Kelly hasn't had a chance to lead Notre Dame with his ideal quarterback since coming to South Bend — even in 2012, Golson was gradually eased into things as an elite defense led the Irish to the BCS Championship. Tommy Rees, while having a great mind for football, turned the ball over too much and had neither the arm nor legs to make the kind of plays that could've pushed Notre Dame to more than eight or nine wins.

[MORE: Notre Dame unit preview: Defensive backs]

Kelly came to Notre Dame with the reputation of being a quarterback guy; Ben Mauk, Tony Pike and Zach Collaros at Cincinnati as well as Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan buoyed that notoriety. Golson has all the tools to be the next great Kelly quarterback — a strong arm, elusiveness running the ball and added maturity from his year away from campus.

If Golson becomes the kind of quarterback that can propel the offense to win games, Notre Dame could very well be in good shape this fall. But that requires Golson to make a significant leap from where he was in 2012, and with a year off, he's still a bit of an unknown until he takes the field Aug. 30 against Rice.

2. DL Jarron Jones

By no means is Jones the key to Notre Dame's defense like Golson is to the offense. But if Jones — who, lest we forget, was a four-star recruit out of high school — develops into a consistently-solid player in the trenches, it'll go a long way toward solidifying a front seven that appears shaky heading into fall camp.

We caught a glimpse of Jones' promise last November when injuries to Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke forced him into action. Jones' rise up the depth chart wasn't just due to circumstance, though — it spoke to the work he put in following a humbling demotion to the scout team in early October.

During spring practice, Jones talked quite a bit about how Brian VanGorder's defense suits him better than Bob Diaco's two-gap ethos. Jones has the confidence to attack the guy across from him and force his way into the backfield, and the next step is not only doing that in games but doing it consistently.

3. LB Ben Councell

Councell didn't get a whole lot of publicity last year serving as Jaylon Smith's backup as the weak side 'dog' linebacker in Diaco's 3-4 scheme. He tore his ACL in early November against Navy, and beside that the only headline he made was for earning a targeting ejection against Oklahoma.

But Councell very well could wind up being a crucial component to Notre Dame's defensive success this fall. His versatility to play outside and inside makes him sort of an X-Factor for the Irish defense, especially on the strong side.

[RELATED: Notre Dame unit preview: Special teams]

Notre Dame went through spring practice with a converted safety (John Turner) and a converted wide receiver (James Onwualu) primarily playing Sam linebacker. Using those guys may work against pass-oriented offenses, but if Notre Dame needs someone who can play a little more physically and control a tight end, Councell could be that guy. Kendall Moore and Romeo Okwara — if the latter doesn't stick on the defensive line — are options here as well. But if Councell's able to succeed as a Sam linebacker — he's been a weak-side guy his whole career — it'll eliminate a glaring hole in the Irish defense.

4. WR Corey Robinson

There's quite a bit of positivity surrounding Robinson heading into spring camp, as well there should be. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound sophomore has all the mental and physical tools to be an elite wide receiver, though it's worth noting that he's still early on in his development.

Robinson was targeted 16 times in 2013 for nine catches, and while he proved to be a matchup nightmare on fades and corners, he didn't run many other routes than those. He put an emphasis on bulking up and improving his knowledge of route concepts in the offseason, and Kelly raved about how easy a player he is to coach.

All that adds up to Robinson looking primed for a breakout, one which would be huge for Golson and the Irish offense. If Robinson emerges as a top target alongside DaVaris Daniels, Golson should have more enough firepower to beat opposing defenses through the air.

5. DC Brian VanGorder

Okay, he's not a player, but VanGorder brings to Notre Dame a 180-degree turn in defensive strategy from the one implemented by Diaco. Notre Dame didn't take many chances under Diaco, rarely blitzing or trying to force fumbles and pick off passes.

That'll change under VanGorder. Expect more sub packages with a greater emphasis on generating sacks and turnovers with the Irish playing a more aggressive brand of defense.

It's a change that probably had to happen, given the inexperience permeating Notre Dame's 2014 defense. Diaco's system worked well with a disciplined, veteran-laden group; Notre Dame doesn't have that luxury this fall. And the good news for Notre Dame is players seemed to buy in to VanGorder's strategy during installation this spring — if that can translate to success on Saturdays, Notre Dame's defense will be solid and possibly good enough to keep them in the playoff discussion.