Notre Dame has had plenty of marquee players along the way to its 12-0 regular season, but in order to pull off an undefeated regular season you need plenty of unsung heroes to help out along the way. Here are eight players who may not have picked up any off-season hardware of made any All American lists whose contributions were vital to getting Notre Dame to Miami for the BCS Championship game.
1. Mike Golic Jr
At the end of last season, many posters on forum were debating whether or not Notre Dame should invite Mike Golic Jr back for a 5th season. Golic had filled in admirably for Braxston Cave when Notre Dame’s starting center went down with an injury at the end of last season, but he also has his fair share of struggles as well. Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame coaching staff ended up inviting Golic back for a 5th year and they have been rewarded for doing so. Golic didn’t make any All American lists, but his play has been a big reason why the Irish running game has been as strong as its been this season. Other linemen may have had better years, but Golic has played better than anyone could have hoped when he locked down the starting spot despite some problems with procedure penalties in the middle of the season. Against the stout Alabama defensive front Golic will have his hands full in pass protection – the one area where he has struggled some this year – but his run blocking, specifically his ability to pull, is one of the many reasons Notre Dame will be facing that stingy defense next week.
2. Robby Toma
One of the more under-appreciated players for Notre Dame over the last few years, Robby Toma was once again his normal, reliable self in 2012 catching whatever got thrown his way when called upon. Toma is a player that would have really benefited from redshirting in 2008 because he could be a dangerous weapon for Notre Dame next year if he had some eligibility remaining, but unfortunately the BCS Championship game will be his last in Fighting Irish uniform. Toma isn’t flashy. He isn’t a speed demon who is going to put up 10 catches and a 100 yards each week, but he is a steady and reliable target for whoever has been the quarterback for Notre Dame the past four seasons – the kind of player you need to make championship runs like the Irish have made this year. With Davaris Daniels back in the lineup for the title game, Toma’s playing time could be cut into, but it would be very surprising to me if Toma didn’t come up with a key grab like he did against Purdue on Notte Dame’s game winning drive.
3. John Goodman
John Goodman only had seven catches this season, but he made them count. Against Purdue, Goodman hauled in a desperation heave from Tommy Rees for a crucial third down conversion on the game wining drive. A week later Goodman pulled in a 36 yard bomb from Everett Golson with a Michigan State defender draped all over for a tone setting touchdown. Of his other five receptions, two more went for touchdowns including a 50 yard bomb from Golson on senior day against Wake Forest. That means that three of his seven catches on the year result in seven points for the Irish offense. Prior to this season Goodman only had one career touchdown – the long strike from Dayne Crist against Washington State back in 2009 when the two were both freshmen. This season, only TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert had more receiving touchdowns than Goodman this year and each had just one more than the Fort Wayne native.
4. Danny Spond
Danny Spond missed the first two games of the season after a concussion scare this summer. Upon his return against Michigan State, the Notre Dame defense went on a streak of 13 straight quarters without allowing a touchdown. Coincidence? Probably not. Spond’s return allowed Notre Dame to have its best set of linebackers on the field at all times and the result was one of the stingiest defenses in recent Notre Dame memory. Spond recorded just 38 tackles this season in 10 games, but he also picked up three pass break ups and four defended passes. It was also Spond who made the game sealing interception against BYU. Manti Te’o, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and others in the front seven have garnered most of the attention of bloggers and writers when explaining the success of the Notre Dame defense in 2012 – and justifiably so – but the contributions of Spond should not be overlooked either.
5. Keivarae Russell
One of, if not the biggest, area of concern for the Notre Dame defense in 2012 was at cornerback where Notre Dame had to replace Robert Blanton and Gary Gray. Then the Irish lost the only experienced corner on the roster, Lo Wood, for the season in training camp. Then if all of that wasn’t enough, Notre Dame lost Jamoris Slaughter for the year in week 3 leaving Notre Dame with a very inexperienced and green secondary. Least experienced of the bunch was freshman Keivarae Russell whom Brian Kelly and staff recruited to play offense. Russell moved to cornerback out of necessity and after one full season as a starter under his belt, it is safe to assume that a return to offense will not be in the cards for him. Against Navy Russell showed his inexperience, but since then, he has been almost unflappable for a rookie while picking two passes and collecting 50 tackles. Those 50 tackles in fact, might have been the most impressive part of the frosh’s game. No other defensive back has shown the open field tackling ability the Washington native has displayed. No one could have predicted Russell would play as well as he has this year and without him the Irish are almost certainly not 12-0.
6. Kyle Brindza
Notre Dame fans got spoiled by having the closest thing to an automatic place kicker as we’ve ever had with David Ruffer kicking field goals for the Irish the last two seasons so sophomore Kyle Brindza had some huge shoes to fill this year. While the big legged kicker hasn’t been quite as automatic as his predecessor, Brindza has stepped in and made some big kicks for the Irish this year starting in week 2 when he kicked the game winner in the final 10 seconds. In week 6, Brindza came through in the clutch again by nailing the game tying field in the final moments in a driving rain storm to send the game into overtime and setting the stage for Notre Dame’s epic goal line stand. Brindza’s greatest act of the season, however, came in the season finale against USC when he kicked 5 field goals including a career long 52 yarder while accounting for 16 of Notre Dame’s 22 points in the game. He’s had a couple of misses a long the way that could have been costly, but for a first year kicker, Brindza has been very clutch for the Irish.
7. Zeke Motta
After the injuries to Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta was the only remaining player in the secondary with experience and was called upon to be the leader of the group. He didn’t put up flashy stats, but he was a big reason why Notre Dame was as effective as they were st stopping the run throughout the season and he did finish second on the team in tackles with 61. Motta was excellent in coverage as well and helped Notre Dame ease in a pair of inexperienced corners in Russell and Bennett Jackson and provided support for a first time starter at free safety, Matthias Farley. With all of the injuries, Motta was forced to make some of the defensive calls and help get everyone lined up properly pre-snap – duties that Jamoris Slaughter had previously assumed before his injury.
8. Matthias Farley
Matthias Farley is the third member of the Notre Dame secondary to make our list. In fact only Bennett Jackson didn’t make the list and the only reason he didn’t is because he has gotten plenty of attention and praise throughout the season. Farley, like Russell, converted to defense this off-season after he spent his freshman season playing wide receiver on the scout team. Once Slaughter was lost for the season though, Farley was thrust into a starting role and he seized the opportunity. There were times he struggled a bit, but there were other times when he excelled like when he recorded his first career interception against Stanford and when he played the same week after breaking his hand. Farley has a bright future and his ability to step in and be the “next man in” after Slaughter went down is a big reason for Notre Dame’s defensive success.