The long, cold winter has come to an end. Spring practice at Notre Dame is just over a week away, as the memories from an unforgettable 2012 season subside and the focus shifts to the 2013 Fighting Irish.
After finishing the regular season with the best scoring defense in college football, Notre Dame was humbled by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Most of the key figures return this season, but the Irish will need a number of young defensive players to go from bench warmer to role player or role player to starter.
True freshmen are excluded from this list, as are any players who have completed two seasons of eligibility. Let's look at five Irish underclassmen whose performances will help define the 2013 Notre Dame defense.
With Kapron Lewis-Moore's departure, Day figures to slide into the vacant spot after a productive freshman season in which he played in all 13 games. He won't have to be the star of the defensive line, which includes All-American candidates Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, but he must be a solid performer for the Irish defense to match its 2012 season.
Day recorded a sack in back-to-back games last season against Michigan State and Michigan. He'll be pushed by true freshman Eddie Vanderdoes in the fall, which should fuel his competitive fire.
Like Day, Shumate was a valuable role player during the Fighting Irish's run to the BCS National Championship Game. His true position remains a question, as he was recruited as a safety but could slide over to cornerback, especially in nickel situations.
The role of the fifth defensive back seems likely for Shumate this fall, as it fits his versatile skill set. He could start the year at safety and then slide over to cornerback, depending on the development of true freshman safety Max Redfield
Hounshell dealt with a lingering shoulder injury last year before ultimately being shut down at midseason. Despite not having played a snap since 2011, Hounshell should find himself on the two-deep at defensive end at the start of the season.
He doesn't need to be a 50-tackle, five-sack player, but must ensure that there is not a significant drop-off when Day and Tuitt are on the bench. Vanderdoes could upstage him at some point in the season, but if healthy, Hounshell should be an important piece on an elite defensive line.
Few players were more of a pleasant surprise last season for the Irish than Farley. Thrust into a starting role after Jamoris Slaughter's season-ending injury, Farley proved to be a very good run defender and also recorded an interception against Stanford.
However, to say Farley is a natural, polished safety is far from reality. His inexperience at the position was exploited at times, and now, in his second year at the position, he must be more than just a fierce tackler, especially with the reliable Zeke Motta no longer playing behind him.
The likely successor to Manti Te'o at middle linebacker saw limited action last season after redshirting in 2011. He finished with 12 tackles, four of which came in the opener against Navy, a game whose outcome was determined by halftime.
The likelihood of one of the fifth-year seniors, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, sliding over from the WILL linebacker spot is minimal. Grace is the best fit for arguably the most important position on the Irish defense. Perhaps no player will be asked to take his game to the next level more so this year than Grace.