5th-year Senior Left Tackle Zack Martin: Though defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix are better pro prospects, you could argue Martin is Notre Dame's best, or at least most polished player. The program's only three-time winner of its Guardian of the Year award (outstanding offensive lineman), Martin has started every game of the Brian Kelly era at left tackle after redshirting as a freshman under Charlie Weis.
Kelly noted late last year that Martin was grading out in the 93 percent range, and that no one else on the offensive front was even close. Beaten just once for a sack last year (Navy in the opener) the 6'4" 305-pound Martin has always excelled on the move and at firing out to secure linebackers at the second level. His added bulk (about 25 pounds since he began starting in 2010) allows him to win at the point as well.
Of the team's 22 starters, I'm most confident that Martin will win his assignment throughout, and his fellow left-sider Chris Watt is rock solid as well. But look for Michigan to win more often than not against the opposite side of scrimmage where true sophomore Ronnie Stanley won the right tackle role, shifting 2012 right tackle Christian Lombard to right guard -- Lombard gave up the line's only sack last week to Temple and was twice beaten inside by power moves in the running game.
Senior Wide Receiver #7 T.J. Jones: Quietly tied Tyler Eifert for the team lead in receptions last season while moving the chains more than did the NFL first-rounder (though Eifert was the offense's choice on third-down). Jones finished with a career-best 138 receiving yards vs. Temple, but it was his effort in wins vs. Stanford (a remarkable game-winning catch on a slant thrown low and behind him) and his contributions in road wins vs. Michigan State, Oklahoma, and --though too little, too late -- against Alabama last season that gave head coach Brian Kelly confidence he could be a go-to player as a senior. (Kelly called him a potential "first-round pick." At 5'11" 195, that's unlikely, but Jones will constantly get open this fall vs. college corners.)
Jones, a four-year starter who'll also return punts Saturday night, secured touchdown catches vs. the Wolverines in both 2010 (59 yards) and 2011 (a short crossing route).
Junior Wide Receiver #10 DaVaris Daniels: Was the offense's X-factor last season, a third option (fourth if you include graduated runner Theo Riddick) in the passing game, but an athlete that could win any battle for the ball in the air. A redshirt-sophomore entering 2013, Daniels was listed at No. 7 on the Irisheyes.com Top 10 Player list and his debut didn't disappoint: a pair of 32-yard touchdown catches on the season's first two drives.
Daniels left the game with a groin injury shortly thereafter -- the third time he's left a game due to injury in his brief career. He's expected to play, but don't expect an accurate report from Notre Dame on his condition as it's of great advantage to the Wolverines if Daniels isn't ready to go.
Jones is the most polished collegiate receiver on the roster, but Daniels is the best athlete and future prospect.
Junior Running Back Trio: At 5'11" 190, USC transfer Amir Carlisle (#3) runs hard through traffic and has the quickest first two steps on the roster. He's nowhere near the burner #4 George Atkinson is, but Atkinson has yet to produce vs. a quality defense (he torched Navy and Miami last fall), and Kelly is searching for at least one reliable, well-rounded 'back to replace graduated NFL'ers Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.
Carlisle had a 45-yard run vs. Temple but not much else. Atkinson scored on a short touchdown, but his upright running style resulted in a brutal shot on the first carry of his season, and there wasn't much to offer other than a 14-yard run on his Week One resume. The key ingredient for the former track star Atkinson: if he gets the corner, it's lights out vs. anyone. Most good defenses don't allow such open lanes.
The most consistent runner last week was #33 Cam McDaniel. He's compact, shifty, runs with a low base, not all-that-fast but quick enough, and has great balance. In other words, he's a change-of-pace back, not a starter … but he might be worth 10-12 quality, unspectacular carries Saturday night in the Big House.
Notre Dame's running back future lies with its freshmen, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. Both played late last week -- I'm not sure they'll get the call in Ann Arbor.
Senior Quarterback #11 Tommy Rees: Rees' history with the Wolverines is intriguing: he scored his first rushing touchdown vs. Michigan last year -- the only touchdown in a 13-6 Irish win. He tossed the first interception of his career (and one of only two passes he threw in relief that afternoon) three years earlier as Denard Robinson dominated the contest in a 28-24 in South Bend.
And of greatest relevance, Rees' first loss as a starter occurred in his team's last trip to the Big House, a 35-31 classic won near the gun by the Wolverines in which Rees directed a go-ahead touchdown drive that staked his defense to a lead, 31-28 with just 30 seconds remaining. Rees' evening in that first-ever under-the-lights game in Ann Arbor was notable: 315 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions (including one in the red zone) and perhaps the most vexing fumble in recent memory -- a ball he simply dropped when attempting to toss a fade route from the Michigan 7-yard line.
Not many Irish quarterbacks have played a major role in four games vs. Michigan (Rees will be the main quarterback in three after Saturday night). He'll conclude his career at .500 vs. the Wolverines if he can avoid costly turnovers. Notre Dame's defense can get by with one error by Rees and the offense -- two sways the contest heavily into Michigan's favor.