Noie: Watch these four do work in North Carolina-Notre Dame football game

Tom Noie
ND Insider
For the second straight week, the Notre Dame defense will be stressed having to cover one of the game's top receivers in North Carolina sophomore Josh Downs.

PLAYERS TO WATCH 

NORTH CAROLINA 

WR JOSH DOWNS 

For the second straight Notre Dame home night game, along comes one of the nation’s premier pass catchers to challenge the Irish defense. All USC’s Drake London did was make 15 catches for 171 yards last week. This week, the Irish have to deal with Downs, a true sophomore with 60 catches for 837 yards and eight touchdowns. 

Downs ranks third in the nation in receptions per game (8.6), fifth in receiving yards per game (119.6) and seventh in overall receiving yards (837). He also averages nearly 11 yards per punt return and leads the Tar Heels in all-purpose yards (951). Unlike London, who works mainly outside and deep, the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder does most of his damage underneath from the slot. He’ll likely do more on one drive Saturday than he did last time the teams met (one catch, 10 yards). 

Last time out against Miami (Fla.), Downs had 11 catches for 96 yards and a score. 

North Carolina linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel is nicknamed "the General" for his ability to know everything about the Tar Heel defense.

LB JEREMIAH GEMMEL 

It’s easy to spot the 6-1, 225-pound Gemmel doing captain stuff from his linebacker spot. He'll settle into his stance before the snap, then start flailing his arms back and forth and side to side. He’s been nicknamed “the General” for the way he directs the defense. Move up here. Go cover there. He’s said to know all 11 assignments on a given play. 

Speaking of plays, the three-year starter and two-time team captain makes them. Gemmel is tied for the team lead in tackles 38, to go with four tackles for loss, two pass breakups and a team-high six quarterback hurries. He made four tackles with two hurries in last year’s Black Friday loss to Notre Dame. 

As a freshman, Gemmel made one tackle. That's all. He's made 170 in the two-plus years that have followed. He’s coming off a season high nine tackles in the Sept. 16 win over Miami (Fla.). 

Senior free safety D.J. Brown may make his first career start Saturday against North Carolina if standout Kyle Hamilton cannot go.

NOTRE DAME 

FS D.J. BROWN 

Irish coach Brian Kelly confirmed early Monday afternoon during his weekly press conference (and on his 60th birthday) that all-everything free safety Kyle Hamilton will miss this game. Kelly was hopeful late Saturday night after the junior injured his right knee early against USC. But Hamilton’s out, which means Brown is in for his first career start against a pass-happy outfit. 

Brown played the bulk of the USC game for Hamilton and tied for the team lead with seven tackles, including four solo stops. For Brown to become a main guy, Kelly said, the 6-foot, 200-pounder first had to become a better tackler. Done. He had made only 17 stops the previous five games (one DNP). Brown made only eight tackles last season in a reserve role. He’s worked hard and waited his turn. Now he gets his chance against a talented Carolina offense. The Irish will miss Hamilton. How much they miss him is up to Brown.  

Can Notre Dame freshman Lorenzo Styles build off his big effort Saturday against USC with another against North Carolina?

WR LORENZO STYLES JR. 

A show of hands for those who had Styles pegged as the leading receiver in terms of yards against rival USC. Yeah, right. Nobody saw that coming from Styles. It wasn’t that much — three catches for a team-best 57 yards — but it was more than he had done to date. He had two catches for 22 yards the previous six games. Doing what Styles did Saturday got him off the “What about...” wonder list and firmly puts him in the receiving rotation as the backup to veteran Braden Lenzy. No more slow-playing guys like Styles If he’s ready, he’s ready. Styles is. 

Styles didn’t seem to let the big-game atmosphere faze him, something that can be to his benefit moving forward. Want more? Go back and watch the 6-1, 195-pounder block veteran USC cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart into the end zone before finishing with a pancake. You don’t often see a freshman do that to a junior.  

Styles delivered in his first home game under the lights. Time for another chance at more of the same Saturday. The Irish have only five available wide receivers. Styles picked the perfect time to throw his hat — and his hands — into the rotation. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI