We're about nine months away from Notre Dame taking the field again, and as we learned in 2013 plenty can change in the coming months. But if Notre Dame is going to contend for the college football playoff next season, that push will center around these players.
1. QB Everett Golson. No player will provide a bigger boost in 2014 than the strong-armed, mobile Golson, who led the Irish to the BCS Championship Game a year ago. While Tommy Rees was an excellent game manager who almost always got Notre Dame in the right offensive look, his physical limitations often were the difference between a win and a loss for the Irish. With Golson, who added weight and refined his mechanics with quarterback guru George Whitfield while in exile this fall, Notre Dame's offense should be dynamic enough to compete against a very difficult 2014 schedule.
2. DT Jarron Jones. With Louis Nix off to the NFL and Kona Schwenke done in South Bend as well, Notre Dame will turn to the highly talented but inconsistent Jones to occupy the middle of its defense. Jones was dropped to the scout team in October but flashed potential late in the season — and if Notre Dame's defensive line is able to hold together next season, it'll be because Jones realizes that potential on a consistent basis.
3. RBs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. We've seen Folston already, with the freshman earning a start in the Pinstripe Bowl and finishing the season averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Bryant came to Notre Dame with more hype than Folston but sat out 2013 as he dealt with a knee issue and adjusted to college life. Expect both to take steps forward in 2014 and earn the lion's share of carries, with Cam McDaniel still serving as a late-game battering ram.
4. OL Steve Elmer. For the first time since 2009, Zack Martin and Chris Watt won't man the left side of the Irish offensive line. The right side appears to be set, with tackle Ronnie Stanley returning and guard Christian Lombard a likely fifty-year player. But the all-important left tackle position — the guy who protects Golson's blind side — could very well go to Elmer, who mainly played guard in his freshman year but came to South Bend a natural tackle. He has loads of potential, and if he can learn to slow his game down a bit should start to reach it in 2014.
5. LB Jaylon Smith. As a true freshman, Smith finished third on Notre Dame in tackles and second in tackles for a loss and also contributed in pass defense too — in other words, he filled the responsibilities of the dog outside linebacker position very well. Smith appears poised to be the next impact player in Notre Dame's defense and the kind of guy who could be a difference-maker against the more potent offenses on the Irish schedule.
Bonus: DE Stephon Tuitt. We'll know sometime in the next two weeks if Tuitt will return for his senior season or leave for the NFL Draft. If Tuitt returns, Notre Dame's defense retains an impact player; if he goes it very well could cost the Irish a win or two next fall. While Tuitt received a second-round grade in the evaluation he received earlier this month, plenty of mock drafts have him pegged as a first-round pick (even going as high as No. 14 to the Bears). Nobody should blame Tuitt if he turns pro, though his return would be just about the best late Christmas present Notre Dame could receive.