Notre Dame football schedule littered with quality players

BOB WIENEKE
South Bend Tribune

The conversation thus far has centered around which Notre Dame football players will emerge and star during the 2014 season, which is less than four weeks away.

But there will be guys on the other side of the ball this year that will play just as important of a role in ND's success.

Devin Gardner, Michigan QB: Gardner may not strike fear because of the way he ended last season, but Ol' No. 98 was pretty good last year in Michigan's win over the Irish in Ann Arbor.

Gardner accounted for 376 total yards (294 passing, 82 rushing) and five touchdowns (four passing, one running) in the Wolverines' victory. He's got the talent to be special, and Michigan QBs over the past few years (with the exception of 2012) have managed to be very, very good against Notre Dame.

Ty Montgomery, Stanford WR/KR: Montgomery is battling an arm injury that threatened to wipe out his first two weeks of the season, which is big because the Cardinal's Week 2 opponent is USC.

Montgomery is a threat from a lot of places. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder had 958 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 15.7 yards a catch. And that's just the start.

The senior from Dallas ranked second nationally with an average of 30.3 yards on kickoff returns, two of which were returned for touchdowns. He also carried 13 times for 159 yards. The ways in which Montgomery is given opportunities to make a difference make him a challenging guy to game plan against.

Ryan Switzer, North Carolina PR: Switzer is three punt returns for a touchdown from tying the NCAA career record. And he's only entering his sophomore season.

The 5-10, 180-pound Switzer is listed as a wide receiver, but his biggest impact comes on special teams. He returned five punts for touchdowns in a five-week span to end last season. He averaged 20.9 yards per return, and that big number was produced on 24 returns, not exactly a small sample size.

Teams will no doubt give up yardage by punting near the sidelines this year in order to keep the ball out of Switzer's hands, so Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora's biggest challenge will be finding ways to get the ball in Switzer's hands on offense.

Jameis Winston, Florida State QB: The face of college football has faced some off-field problems in his two years in Tallahassee, but his talent is undeniable. All it took was watching him direct the Seminoles' national championship-winning drive against Auburn to see just how valuable Winston is.

The redshirt sophomore faces a decision at the end of the year on whether or not to return for another season. Draft analyst Scott Wright told the Tribune recently that if he were putting together a mock draft for 2015, Winston would likely be the top pick. If that's the case, that would figure to make Winston's decision a no-brainer.

Keenan Reynolds, Navy QB: Reynolds may seem like a surprise to have a spot on this list, but he's earned it. The junior is 15-6 as a starter and he has a chance to go down as one of the best at the position at the school in terms of option quarterbacks (Roger Staubach, a drop-back star, holds a permanent spot atop the list).

The 5-11, 195-pound Reynolds registered 29 rushing touchdowns last year, which set an NCAA single-season record for quarterbacks. Reynolds won't throw a lot, but he can when asked as evidenced by his 8-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio last year.

D.J. Foster, Arizona State RB: Marion Grice was the main man in ASU's backfield last year, but Foster still managed to lead the nation in receiving yardage by a running back with 653 yards. With Grice departed, Foster's rushing numbers should go up after he ran for 523 yards and six TDs as a sophomore.

The 5-11, 203-pound Foster is comfortable running between the tackles and kicking it outside, which creates the potential for an intriguing one-on-one matchup with Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith.

Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville DE: Mauldin registered 9.5 sacks for an impressive Cardinal defense last year, and his offseason was spent working on pass defense, so the potential is there for him to cause all sorts of problems for the Irish offense. The 6-4, 244-pound Mauldin was graded as a round 3-4 talent last year, but don't be surprised if that grade goes up.

Another Cardinal to watch? That would be wide receiver DeVante Parker, a 6-3, 208-pound specimen whose 55 receptions last season resulted in 12 touchdowns. A Parker-KeiVarae Russell matchup could be very entertaining.

Nelson Agholor, USC WR: Agholor enjoyed a breakout season in 2013, and one of the big questions facing new coach Steve Sarkisian this fall is who complements Agholor, much like Marqise Lee took pressure off Robert Woods in 2012 and Agholor did the same for Lee last year, when Lee was healthy.

The 6-1, 190-pound Agholor is a threat at receiver and in the return game. In last year's ND win over the Trojans, Irish fans had to be holding their breath every time Agholor touched the ball. He caught six passes for 89 yards and returned four kicks for 100 yards.

One play that stood out though? Irish fans were able to see just how talented Smith is when he was alone in coverage and intercepted a pass intended for Agholor.

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will prove to be a tough opponent for Notre Dame's defense in 2014.