Notre Dame is through the first three quarters of the 2011 season and while there is still plenty left to be played for this season, it’s never too early to start looking towards next season. With that in mind, here are a few players with a lot at stake for 2012 over the final quarter of the 2011 season.
George Atkinson III – Atkinson has already established himself as the most dangerous kick return man for the Irish since Julius Jones this season. No Irish freshman has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in their rookie season as Atkinson has since some guy they called the Rocket did it over 20 years ago.
It will be more critical, however, for Atkinson to see some time out of the backfield given Notre Dame’s lack of depth at the position heading into 2012. With Jonas Gray exhausting his eligibility this season, Notre Dame will be left with a major void to fill at the position and right now, Atkinson looks like the most logical choice to do so. That could change, of course, if a recruit like Keith Marshall signs with Notre Dame. Should Marshall sign with Notre Dame it wouldn’t surprise me to see Atkinson get a look at wide receiver again.
Regardless, Atkinson has shown that he is a playmaker and is extremely dangerous in the open field. Brian Kelly needs to find some ways to get Atkinson the ball over the next few games and figure out what role he is going to play for Notre Dame moving forward.
Theo Riddick – I had some high hopes for Theo Riddick this year. Some really high hopes. It looked like Riddick was on the verge of becoming a big time playmaker at wide receiver last year before injuries derailed his 2010 season. This year injuries have slowed him until this week (Riddick will miss this weekend’s game against Maryland), but his production hasn’t been close to what it was pre-injury 2010. He has totaled over 60 yards of receiving just once this year and has only three games with more than five catches. Against Michigan Riddick reached the endzone twice, but since then he has scored just one touchdown.
With some talented freshman coming to campus next year, Riddick is going to need to elevate his or risk getting passed on the depth chart. Notre Dame hasn’t had a wide receiver without the last name of Floyd step up and play a prominent role this year and with #3 headed to the NFL at the end of this season, the Irish have to find some playmakers at the position for next year or the offense will struggle with consistency again next year.
Robby Toma – With Riddick out this weekend, junior Robby Toma will step into the starting lineup. I have been hoping to see more of Toma throughout this season because every time he is on the field he just produces. He isn’t the fastest or the biggest, but he knows how to get open and work the middle of the field. In this offense that ought to be enough to see more playing time than the Hawaiian native has seen, but for whatever reason he has been limited to spot duty and has caught just 3 passes for 35 yards this year.
Last year when Riddick was sidelines with injuries, Toma filled in admirably including posting 60+ yards against both Tulsa and Army. Look for Toma to make his case for more playing time this weekend against a weak Maryland secondary.
TJ Jones – Sticking at wide receier (notice a trend here?), TJ Jones is another wide receiver who has had his moments at times, but has struggled with consistency both this year and last. After scoring three touchdowns through the first five games of the season, Jones hasn’t reached the end zone in the last four games and has topped 50 yards just once this season. He has a catch in every game, but hasn’t had more than 5 in a contest since the season opener against South Florida and has just 9 catches total over the last four games.
Like Riddick, Jones will have a fight on his hands for his starting spot in the spring and fall if he doesn’t start to establish himself in a hurry. Freshman Davaris Daniels and sophomore Daniel Smith figure to challenge for Floyd’s vacated starting spot next year, but if Jones isn’t careful, the loser of that battle could end up battling Jones as well. Smith has been limited this year because of injuries and Daniels is being redshirted, but both have the ability to play the outside receiver positions.
Mike Golic Jr – With Braxston Cave going down for the year with an injury this past weekend, Mike Golic Jr will get the first starting action of his career and with three games left this season, he’ll have an open audition for a 5th year in 2012. Notre Dame loses two starters along the offensive line in Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever as well as super sub Andrew Nuss to graduation. If Golic shines over the next three games in Cave’s absence, he could earn himself a 5th season next year.
Golic looked very solid filling in for Cave last week after Cave went down with his injury and has played guard on top of center in the past so he gives the Irish some flexibility.
Ishaq Williams – Notre Dame signed three headlining defensive recruits last year – Williams, Aaron Lynch, and Stephon Tuitt. Lynch and Tuitt have already begun to make their impact thanks in part to injuries thrusting them into prominent starting roles on the Irish defensive line, but to this point Williams has not had the same type of impact. He has seen some playing time, but has clearly experienced a few growing pains.
Notre Dame has a chance to get players like Williams, who will be counted on in 2012, some more playing time over the next two weeks with Maryland and Boston College on the ledger. With Notre Dame losing Darius Fleming to graduation at the end of this season, there will be an opening at the CAT linebacker position and Williams would seem to be the early odds on favorite to take it over.
Tommy Rees – Much has been written about Rees this season and whether or not he is Notre Dame’s long term answer at quarterback. These next three games will be critical for Rees in answering that questions. Rees had one of his most uneven performances of the season last week against not to stellar Wake Forest secondary.
At times Rees has looked very strong this season, but he’s looked more than a little shaky just as often. Rees should have big games the next two weeks if he is the long term answer at quarterback for the Irish. Neither Maryland or Boston College features a very strong secondary and if he struggles the next two week’s it’ll be very disappointing considering the experience he has already.
The most telling game over these next three stretches, however, will be the Stanford game. If Rees can maneuver the Irish to a win over a potentially undefeated Stanford squad, he will silence many of his critics. If he struggles to push the ball down the field as he did against the likes of USC, Pitt, and Wake Forest, he could find himself in another quarterback derby in the spring.