Many people throughout the college football world are giving Notre Dame a shot to return to the National Championship because of the defense. With eight starters returning from a unit that ranked seventh last year in total yards allowed, the Irish are in good position to win a lot of games in 2013.
Although, with spring ball ready to take place soon, two key players from that defense will miss all of the practices and the spring game that kicks off in the middle of April. According to Tony Krausz of the The Journal Gazette, those two guys will be cornerback Bennett Jackson and linebacker Dan Fox. (H/t College Football Talk)
Most would consider this terrible news, as you never want to see key players go down with an injury. Practices in the spring are extremely valuable and injuries just mean that both players will be behind once fall camp rolls around. You only have so many practices available during the offseason and every one of them counts big time when it comes to being in game shape for the regular season.
However, this isn't a torn ACL we are talking about here. It is shoulder surgery for both players, an injury that both should be well recovered from once fall camp arrives. Irish fans should also be fortunate that it happened to two players who already have experience under their belts and know the ropes. Jackson finished last season third on the team in tackles with 65 and Fox was right behind him with 63 on the year.
If anything, this may be a blessing in disguise. Behind Fox at the linebacker position is a battle between several guys that will be competing for playing time. The list includes Joe Schmidt, who saw limited playing time last year; Carlo Calabrese should be in on the action as a fifth-year player, as well as 2013 recruit Michael Deeb, who will enroll later in the year. This also gives us more time to watch Jarrett Grace, who is expected to replace Manti Te'o at middle linebacker.
There is no question Fox will remain the starter because he has been the most improved player from year to year for the Irish, but without him taking reps in the spring, it gives other guys a chance to make an impact. With the backup linebacker spot behind Fox in question, we may have this position filled by the time spring is over with. On the other hand, with Fox on the field, it could have been a question that lingered up to the opening week.
The secondary was an area for concern with the Irish last season due to injuries and inexperience. If this team could have afforded an injury to a member of the defensive backfield, it would have been to Jackson, who is entering his senior year. Much how the backup linebackers will gain valuable experience due to Fox going down, the corners will benefit with the injury to Jackson.
This is a chance for cornerback Jalen Brown to make an impression with the coaching staff. A solid recruit back in 2011, Brown had a disappointing season in his first year on the field. Playing in only seven games and finishing with three tackles, this gives Brown a chance to get reps with the starters and prove that he deserves increased playing time next season.
The secondary should be improved next year with KeiVarae Russell making an effortless transition from wide receiver to corner and Max Redfield likely filling in one of the vacant safety spots. However, the depth in the secondary remains an issue and should benefit with one of the surefire starters not around to steal a lot of the reps in the spring.
Spring practice is all about finding out what you have to work with and who some of the younger guys are who will be able to step up during the season. Everybody knows that Fox and Bennett are going to contribute on defense. The questions that remain are located in the depth department.
These aren't injuries that are going to cripple the Irish during the regular season. They may answer as many question as they have posed once spring arrives.