This year the defense will face two of 2012’s top rushing teams and a top-five passing team. Two opponents finished in the top 15 in scoring and two others finished in the top 10 for red zone offense. Another had the third-best time of possession mark in the nation last year. Here we ranked the top tests for the Irish at each position group. Check back tomorrow for a review of what Notre Dame’s offense will have to run through in 2013.
USC receiver Marqise Lee will be one of the biggest offensive threats Notre Dame will face in 2013.
Redshirt junior Devin Gardner showed enough promise to force a former Heisman contender out of the quarterback spot midway through the 2012 season. His five starts should eliminate a tough transition period to start the season. If fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Touissant can return to full health from a broken leg, he’ll bring a measure of experience to the Wolverines backfield. If not, blue-chip freshman Derrick Green will get a chance to showcase his power and speed early in his career.
2. Arizona State
Taylor Kelly set school records for pass attempts and completion percentage in his first season as a starter. He still has room to cut down on mistakes (nine interceptions last year), which would make him even more dangerous in 2013. The return of senior Marion Grice (1,104 all-purpose yards) gives the Sun Devils a threat to run and catch passes out of the backfield.
The Trojans may be low on numbers, but the talent is still flowing at the running back position. Freshmen Justin Davis and Ty Isaac are good enough to push veterans like Silas Redd and D.J. Morgan for carries throughout the season. USC heads into training camp with a competition between redshirt sophomores Max Wittek and Cody Kessler at quarterback. Wittek has the slightly stronger arm, but both have promising futures.
Whoever wins that Trojans quarterback job will have an embarrassment of riches to help ease him into the position. The list starts, of course, with 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee. He posts eye-popping statistics while opening up the field for teammates like sophomore Nelson Agholor and junior George Farmer. Redshirt junior tight ends Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble provide a pair of big, reliable targets across the middle as well.
The Sooners lost their two top receivers from a year ago in Kenny Stills and Justin Brown, but the biggest question in the passing game is when they’ll find the right quarterback to get the ball to all the guys they have left. Along with Jalen Saunders (62 catches for 829 yards) and Sterling Shepard (45 catches for 621 yards), Oklahoma will add promising former junior college receivers Trey Metoyer and Lacolton Bester to the mix. Jaz Reynolds will also be back after a suspension kept him out for the entire 2012 season.
Senior Cody Hoffman is the main reason Brigham Young is in the conversation for top receivers. Barring any injury or major letdown, he will pull ahead of former Cougar Austin Collie in almost all major receiving records for the program. Hoffman will get help from junior Brett Thompson, who had a strong spring after bumping from receiver to tight end. The team’s new fast-paced offense should help both of their stats.
The Cardinal’s 2012 recruiting class featured three of the top five offensive linemen in the country. That group has had a full year to mature into college players and is ready to make its presence known on the West Coast. Left tackle Andrus Peat, guard Josh Garnett and right tackle Kyle Murphy are all likely starters this year. They have the luxury of All-American David Yankey and all-conference pick Kevin Danser to show them the ropes.
At 298 pounds, fifth-year senior Gabe Ikard is the only Oklahoma starter on the offensive line who isn’t over three bills. Tackles Tyrus Thompson and Daryl Williams were each at least 315 pounds in the spring. The Sooners lost four starting linemen to injuries last season, which put a damper on their production. If they can stay healthy this year, there should be a lot more road-grating in Norman than in the recent past.
The Wolverines are unproven in the middle of the line with three promising underclassmen set to start at center and the two guard positions. Luckily for Michigan, tackles Michael Schofield and Taylor Lewan have enough experience to keep the new guys in line.