Notre Dame Football: 5 Key Players for the Blue-Gold Game

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIApril 12, 2013

Notre Dame Football: 5 Key Players for the Blue-Gold Game

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    Next Saturday's Blue-Gold Game marks the final formal activity for the Notre Dame football team until fall camp commences in August.

    Spring games are often over-emphasized by both fans and media, as the final impressions used by pundits for preseason predictions generally occur during spring games.

    While the spring game is really just one of 15 practices, it's still an important measuring stick for many players fighting for starting jobs to see how they perform in the most game-like atmosphere they'll experience until late August.

    Here are five players who could take a giant leap forward next Saturday with a strong conclusion to the spring.

Cam McDaniel

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    The starting running back job is George Atkinson III's to lose, but Notre Dame needs to find out exactly what it has in junior Cam McDaniel.

    McDaniel played sparingly a year ago, finishing with 125 yards and a touchdown. McDaniel is a tough, between-the-tackles runner in a similar mold to Theo Riddick, whom the Irish used as their primary inside runner last year despite a smaller frame.

    True freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston arrive in the summer. If the coaches believe McDaniel can be a significant component of the running back equation, they could shift Folston to slot receiver, a position with major question marks after Davonte Neal's transfer.

Conor Hanratty

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    There's nothing to worry about on the left side of the offensive line with fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt. The concerns are at center and right guard with Braxston Cave and Mike Golic Jr. moving on.

    Conor Hanratty has reworked his body over the past two years into what Notre Dame wants in its starting offensive linemen. If he can win the right guard spot, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand can keep Christian Lombard at tackle, where he thrived last year in his first year as a starter.

    With Nick Martin looking like a capable center, shoring up the right guard position is the only thing preventing the Irish from sporting one of the better offensive lines in college football again.

Ishaq Williams

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    It's now or never for Ishaq Williams, who has shown occasional big-play ability in his first two seasons with the Irish but has yet to live up to the hype with which he arrived in South Bend.

    Two factors have hindered Williams' development: the complexity of the "Cat" linebacker position and Prince Shembo being in front of him on the depth chart. Shembo will still be the starter when the season opens, but Williams should be able to double his 22 tackles from 2012.

    An experiment this spring with Williams at defensive end was squashed, as the New York native is much more suited to be an edge-rusher (4-3 defensive end, 3-4 outside linebacker) than to always play with his hand in the ground. He'll have to fend off sophomore Romeo Okwara, who has turned some heads this spring with his play at Cat.

Jarrett Grace

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    It's never easy to follow a legend, especially as a football player at Notre Dame. That's the task facing Jarrett Grace, a junior linebacker, who will be replacing Manti Te'o at the "Mike" position.

    The Irish coaches appear to want to maintain status quo at "Will" linebacker, with Carlo Calabrese's run-stopping ability and Dan Fox's pass coverage skills making for the perfect platoon role. That leaves the Mike position solely to Grace.

    Grace has been one of the most impressive performers so far this spring. While Grace doesn't have to be amazing (I'm here all week), he still must be comfortable making pre-snap calls in a defense that might be a bit more exotic this season with more blitzing and nickel packages.

Austin Collinsworth

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    Austin Collinsworth had to be shut down for the season last June due to a shoulder injury, which was the first of a rash of injuries to the Notre Dame secondary.

    The senior is fully healthy now and should be a major factor in the Irish defensive backfield this fall. With the Irish likely not to be in strictly base sets this year, Collinsworth's skill set fits well as a nickelback behind projected starters Elijah Shumate and Matthias Farley.

    Collinsworth is also a valuable special teams player, but that won't be on display next Saturday with punt situations not expected to be live.