LB Manti Te'o (2009): Inarguably one of the five best at his position and on the short list of the program's best ever defenders. (Said list shortens more still regarding its beloved student-athletes). Te'o will finish his career third among career tacklers; among the top 8-9 in tackles-for-loss, and likely as the program's highest-placing Heisman Trophy candidate on the defensive side of scrimmage (Ross Browner finished 5th in 1977). Should the Irish finish 13-0 and champions, Te'o's legacy will be etched on the Mount Rushmore of most important Notre Dame players.
TE Tyler Eifert (2009): Head coach Brian Kelly jokingly referenced Eifert's predecessor, Kyle Rudolph, would get "Wally Pipp'd" by the unknown Eifert if Rudolph didn't return from a hamstring injury quickly in training camp 2010. That wasn't quite the case, but few could have predicted Eifert would raise the overall level of play at the position -- especially as a pass-catcher -- to a new standard at the program. If there are 10 more reliable pass-catchers in college football over the last decade I'd like to meet them.
LT Zack Martin (2009): Expected to become the first three-time winner of the program's Guardian of the Year award, Martin has been Kelly's best offensive lineman since the latter arrived on campus in December 2009. He's graded at above 90 percent through 11 games, easily the best mark among the offensive line and has allowed just one sack this season -- during The Opening drive vs. Navy in Ireland. Should Martin return for a fifth year next fall, he'll join the most accomplished blockers in program history by season's end 2013. A team co-captain this fall.
RB Cierre Wood (2009): No former freshman redshirt ever lead a Notre Dame program in rushing during his ensuing Irish career -- until Wood, who did so twice (2010-11). No runner in history with as many carries (438) has averaged more yards per carry (5.5) over his career. Wood is the class's leading scorer (18) touchdowns and his 1,102 yards gained on the ground as a junior last fall has been surpassed by only six runners in program history: Autry Denson, Allen Pinkett, Vagas Ferguson, Reggie Brooks, Julius Jones, and Darius Walker. Wood ranks ninth -- behind Tim Brown and ahead of Rocket Ismail -- in terms of combined rushing/receiving yards in program history.
DL Kapron Lewis-Moore (2008): A 220-pound hybrid OLB/DE recruit for the previous regime, Lewis-Moore has evolved into the prototypical NFL 3-4 defensive end. His ability to play nearly every positioning both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts has been an unheralded key for the team's best and deepest defensive line since 1993. A 40-game starter with 20 tackles-for-loss to his credit, Lewis-Moore will finish his career among the program's top 15 tacklers among defensive linemen with 174 stops at present. (It appears #10 overall, 204 stops, is out of reach). He earned co-captain honors this fall, calling the honor the greatest of his athletic life.
RB Theo Riddick (2009): Started for two years at slot receiver for Kelly before moving back to running back this fall. He's capitalized on the opportunity, leading the Irish in rushing attempts, yards, and first downs gained while ranking third in pass receptions and targets. Riddick's 11 career touchdowns rank tied for second on the active roster. He's accounted for a team-high 56 first downs (combined rushing/receiving) this season.
S Jamoris Slaughter (2008): Began his career under Charlie Weis as a cornerback but quickly switched to safety under the Kelly regime. Slaughter proved to be among the staff's most versatile defenders, playing his best football from mid-season 2011 until early 2012 when he was lost for the season due to a ruptured Achilles Tendon at Michigan State. Has applied for an unlikely sixth season of eligibility as a result of his injury.
S Zeke Motta (2009): A two-season part-time starter (splitting with Jamoris Slaughter) prior to 2012, Motta has logged 49 games in an Irish uniform, his last 13 -- dating back to a loss at Stanford one year ago this Saturday -- have been by far his most consistent and productive. Motta served as the veteran leader for an otherwise rookie-laden secondary populated by players recruited to the program to play on the other side of scrimmage. He evolved as a senior into the team's most physical back line hitter since at least Tom Zbikowski, 2005, or dating back to Glenn Earl, 2002.
LG Chris Watt (2009): Should receive a 5th-season of eligibility next year and start for his third consecutive season on the left side. A true mauler -- classmate Dan Fox called him a bowling ball with knees --Watt has evolved into the program's top run-blocking guard in recent memory, perhaps dating back to the option era prior to the new millennium. Has started 24 consecutive games dating back to his first, the season-opener 2011.
C Braxston Cave (2008): Part of the 2008 recruiting class's home town glue, Cave became a three-year starter as the offense's pivotman. Should the Irish capture the national title, Cave would join Mike Heldt (1987-90) as the only three-year starting center to play for an Irish national title team. The offensive line has allowed just 20 sacks in the 20 games Cave has started over the last two seasons; it allowed a combined 11 in the four he missed.
LB Carlo Calabrese (2009): A part time starter (13 games) over the last three seasons, Calabrese has compiled 143 tackles including eight for lost yardage with 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a trio of passes defended. Calabrese's best statistical game was a 2010 effort at Boston College in which he produced 10 tackles including 3.5 for loss with . The Verona, N.J., native is eligible to return for a 5th-season in 2013.
LB Dan Fox (2009): Started all 13 games last season (20 in his career) and has split the duty with his classmate Calabrese this fall. Fox has 122 tackles including 4.5 for lost yardage with two sacks, a forced fumble, and three passes defended -- the latter four big play categories each occurring over the last two seasons. Like Calabrese, Fox can and is expected to apply for a fifth season of eligibility at season's end. Fox and Calabrese have combined for 185 tackles over the last two seasons as a tag-team at Will linebacker next to Manti Te'o.
WR Robby Toma (2009): Late-blooming slot receiver has evolved into one of the team's most reliable chain-movers; a short-yardage crutch for starter Everett Golson and backup Tommy Rees. Toma 58 receptions including 38 in his last 15 games for a career total of 633 yards and a touchdown. He ranks fifth on the team with 11 first-down receptions this fall and fifth in total pass targets (33). Toma played in three games as a true freshman under Charlie Weis -- all in November -- and is thus not eligible for a fifth season of eligibility in 2013.
WR John Goodman (2008): After three seasons, 35 games, and 27 receptions with just one touchdown grab, Goodman has made the most of limited opportunity in an injury-plagued 2012, securing three touchdown catches including one for 50 and one for 36 yards among his six receptions and seven pass targets. Goodman added a crucial 3rd and 10 grab to keep alive Notre Dame's game-winning drive in a 20-17 win over Purdue in the home opener this fall.
RG Mike Golic, JR. (2008): Started four games at center in relief of Cave last season but has blossomed as a full-time player at right guard, starring as a move ("pull") blocker in the team's rushing attack. Golic executed key blocks on crucial gains vs. Oklahoma (a 62-yard score by Cierre Wood), Michigan State (a 26-yard cut-back run by Wood for a first down in the fourth quarter), the game-ending 8-yard run by Theo Riddick vs. Michigan, and perhaps most important, a 10-yard run for Riddick through the heart of Purdue's previously stingy front to set up Kyle Brindza's game-winning field goal in Game Two.
P Ben Turk (2009): The team's starting punter for the equivalent of 3.5 seasons (and each of the last three), Turk has averaged a career-best 40.3 yards per kick this season, one more than his career average through 43 games.
LS Jordan Cowart (2009): The program's first ever scholarship snapper (its since signed another in true freshman Scott Daly), Cowart has served as the long snapper for four seasons and the team's short-snapper (field goal/PAT) for the last two.
K Nick Tausch (2009): Set a program record with 14 consecutive field goals made as a true freshman under Charlie Weis in 2009. Tausch lost his job the ensuing August to David Ruffer, a walk-on who thereafter broke and extend the program's field goal record to 23 straight prior to his first miss. Tausch has battled injuries since the season opener this fall and did not kick at all in 2011, thus making him eligible for a fifth season application in 2013.
S Dan McCarthy (2008): Neck, shoulder, and hamstring Injuries leveled his career but was asked back for a fifth season for 2012 and has since played in every game, recording a career-best eight tackles and a fumble recovery, primarily on special teams. McCarthy will likely finish his career with 37 games played in an Irish uniform. He has 24 tackles, a forced fumble, recovery, and tackle-for-loss on his resume.
DL Tyler Stockton (2009): Played in six of the first eight games of the Kelly era but none since. Stockton endured shoulder surgery in December 2010 and sprained his PCL the ensuing spring. He'll finish his career with a sack to his credit: at Boston College, 2010.
TE Jake Golic (2009): Played in three games in 2010 and two this season. Offered a key block on a Cam McDaniel touchdown run vs. Miami in Game Five.
Eligible to apply for a fifth season in 2013: Eifert, Wood, Martin, Watt, Calabrese, Fox, Tausch, Stockton, and Jake Golic