Notre Dame Football: Ranking the Position Groups
Notre Dame's 2013 season kicks off in a mere 82 days. The Irish should again sport one of college football's best rosters, but like any program, they are stronger at certain positions than at others.
The offense must replace its starting quarterback, top two rushers, leading receiver and two offensive linemen. Defensively, each of the three units loses its emotional leader.
From seventh to first, let's took at where each of Notre Dame's units rank heading into the fall.
Projected Starters: DaVaris Daniels, TJ Jones, Troy Niklas, Daniel Smith
Key Backups: Chris Brown, Ben Koyack, James Onwualu, C.J. Prosise, Alex Welch
Tight End U. sees, perhaps, its best ever, at the position, head off to the NFL in Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert. Niklas has the talent to replace Eifert, but he will have to be more consistent now that he'll have a featured role.
On the outside, Jones and Daniels are a solid—but not spectacular—top two. Who emerges as a third receiver will be one of the biggest storylines of fall camp. Smith is the most experienced, but Brown is the best deep threat, and Onwualu might be the most versatile.
Projected Starter: Tommy Rees
Key Backups: Andrew Hendrix, Malik Zaire
The loss of Everett Golson was a significant blow, but most coaches can only pray to have a quarterback who has won 14 games ready to step in. That is reality for Brian Kelly, as Rees will, once again, be called upon to make the most of a messy situation.
Hendrix has yet to earn the trust of the coaching staff to be more than a change-of-pace quarterback. Zaire impressed in the spring and looks to be the most ready to play of any freshman quarterback Kelly has had at Notre Dame.
Kelly has won with every type of quarterback imaginable throughout his career, so there is less to worry about under center than it may seem in the wake of Golson's departure.
5. Defensive Backs
Projected Starters: Matthias Farley, Bennett Jackson, KeiVarae Russell, Elijah Shumate
Key Backups: Nicky Baratti, Austin Collinsworth, Max Redfield, Lo Wood
The biggest concern going into last season was quickly stabilized, due in large part to the emergence of two freshmen, Farley and Russell, and some excellent coaching by assistants Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott. The unit returns three of four starters, with only safety Zeke Motta needing to be replaced.
Lo Wood returns after missing the 2012 season with an Achilles tendon injury and could challenge Jackson and Russell for playing time at cornerback. The depth at safety is excellent, with Shumate and Redfield the most talented of the bunch. Should someone go down, there are plenty of "next men in."
4. Running Backs
Projected Starter: George Atkinson III
Key Backups: Greg Bryant, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel
Much like the secondary, there's a lot of quantity here, but not necessarily proven quality. Whether or not Atkinson III can emerge as an every-down running back could be the key to the season, If he doesn't, however, there are options behind him.
Carlisle, a USC transfer, will finally be healthy after ankle and collarbone injuries caused him to miss the 2012 season and 2013 spring practice respectively. McDaniel isn't a game-breaker, but could assume Theo Riddick's between-the-tackles role. Bryant will see carries, but when that happens is an unknown.
Projected Starters: Dan Fox, Jarrett Grace, Prince Shembo, Danny Spond
Key Backups: Carlo Calabrese, Ben Councell, Romeo Okwara, Jaylon Smith, Ishaq Williams
For a unit that must replace the Heisman Trophy runner-up, the Notre Dame linebacking corps enters the fall in excellent shape. Grace will join Fox and Calabrese as the three inside linebackers. The junior had a strong spring at Mike linebacker, and the run defense should not miss a beat without Manti Te'o.
Shembo emerged in 2012 after moving from Dog linebacker to Cat linebacker, a more natural fit for the senior. He'll be pushed by Okwara and Williams, which should be a good thing for all involved. Smith is the most likely of three incoming freshman to see significant snaps, spelling Spond at the Dog.
2. Offensive Line
Projected Starters: Conor Hanratty, Christian Lombard, Nick Martin, Zack Martin, Chris Watt
Key Backups: Steve Elmer, Matthew Hegarty, Ronnie Stanley
While Zack Martin and Watt won't quite be the dominant left side that Alabama's Cyrus Kouandijo and Chance Warmack were in 2012, they could come close to the Tide duo. The pair of fifth-year seniors has combined for over 60 starts in their careers and will be on NFL rosters in 2014.
Nick Martin appears to have the inside track to replace Braxston Cave at center. Lombard will start somewhere on the right side, but whether it's guard or tackle depends upon Hanratty and Stanley. If Hanratty is deemed a starter, Lombard will remain at tackle. If it's Stanley, Lombard would slide inside.
1. Defensive Line
Projected Starters: Sheldon Day, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt
Key Backups: Jarron Jones, Kona Schwenke, Tony Springmann, Tyler Stockton
This ranking comes with a caveat. A significant injury to this unit would cause it to plummet. The unexpected losses of Aaron Lynch and Eddie Vanderdoes have crushed the depth of this unit, making it imperative that the starting three stay healthy,
Nix and Tuitt will appear on many preseason All-American teams, while Day appears poised for a breakout season as a sophomore. Irish fans should pray that the bad luck that has seemed to hover over the program this calendar year avoids Day, Nix and Tuitt this fall.