College football has an inherently cyclical nature, presenting coaching staffs across the country the task of replacing starters each and every season.
Notre Dame, which is coming off an appearance in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, has a number of voids to fill, as the Irish lost a slew of key contributors from last season's historic squad.
And if the Irish are intent upon becoming a program that reloads rather than rebuilds on an annual basis, they'll have to prove that losing key starters won't be a detraction; those players who have been waiting in the wings, at long last, have the opportunity to showcase their abilities.
The only vacant positions with clear-cut starters are left defensive end (Sheldon Day) and left inside linebacker (Jarrett Grace).
Yet perhaps the most crucial position at which a new face exists is along the offensive line.
For the first three seasons of head coach Brian Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame, he had the luxury of a quality leader at center in the form of Braxston Cave, a product of nearby Penn High School.
The 6'3", 303-pound Cave provided consistency along what was an inexperienced offensive line during the 2010 season and led the transformation of the unit into one of the nation's best.
But Cave has moved on the NFL (signing as an undrafted free agent with the Cleveland Browns) and in his place steps Nick Martin—a surprise name since many observers of Notre Dame football assumed that Matt Hegarty was Cave's heir apparent to the starting center position. But after suffering a minor stroke last December, Hegarty's future in football was in peril.
Hegarty has since recovered, though he was outclassed by Martin during spring practices, leading to the belief that Martin will in fact be Notre Dame's starter at center when the Irish begin the 2013 season against Temple Aug. 31.
Like Cave, former starting free safety Zeke Motta was a mainstay during Kelly's first three seasons at Notre Dame. And along with Cave, Motta has taken his talents to the NFL, as he was selected in the seventh round (244th overall) by the Atlanta Falcons during April's NFL draft.
His backup in 2012, Nick Baratti, seemed to be the apparent replacement, though that has since changed.
Elijah Shumate, who was recruited to Notre Dame as a safety but played nickelback for the Irish last season, has returned to his natural position and seems primed to fill the vacant starting role.
Kelly virtually named Shumate as the starter in April, though he didn't make the definitive statement:
So he’s our guy back there, and he’s got to continue to learn. The spring has been very good for him. He’s going to have to continue to take steps forward in the summer.
The natural athletic ability possessed by the 6'0", 198-pound safety goes without question, but how well he grasps both the mental demands and the leadership requirements of the position will determine the fortunes of the Irish passing defense.
Replacing Tyler Eifert, arguably the best tight end in school history and current Cincinnati Bengal, is an impossibility.
However, a committee approach can certainly soften the blow of his absence. A similar worrisome predicament befuddled the Irish after Michael Floyd, the best receiver in school history, departed for the NFL following the 2011 season.
While no individual player matched Floyd's production, the combination of Eifert, T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels and Robby Toma aided in easing the Irish into the post-Floyd era.
And luckily for Notre Dame, the program has stockpiled a wealth of talent at tight end.
Troy Niklas, Alex Welch, Ben Koyack and Mike Heuerman are available this season, and each is expected to contribute, as Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin are likely to employ more two- and three-tight end sets in the absence of former starting quarterback Everett Golson.
Thus, the label of "starter" won't hold much weight, though Niklas is the favorite to sit atop the depth chart at the conclusion of fall camp.
This may be the most perplexing position within the entire depth chart in terms of finding a replacement for former starter Mike Golic, Jr.
Per IrishIllustrated.com, Connor Hanratty is currently listed as the No. 1 right guard on the most recent depth chart, which was updated on June 6.
Yet he and Mark Harrell may be sitting on the bench when the season begins because of the arrival of true freshman John Montelus, a former 4-Star prospect who checks in at 6'5" and 305 pounds. Because Montelus will arrive on campus with the blessing of a college-ready body, he may become the most pleasant surprise of the summer entering fall camp.
He's the lone true freshman of the 2013 recruiting class who I have predicted to earn a starting job during fall camp.
When the news broke that Davonte' Neal was transferring from Notre Dame to be closer to his girlfriend and infant daughter, the Irish were forced to scramble to find a suitable replacement at slot receiver.
Kelly and Co. acted quickly by moving sophomore C.J. Prosise from safety to the offensive side of the ball, which didn't arrive as much of a surprise, as the Petersburg, Va., native lined up at both safety and receiver during practices leading up to the BCS National Championship Game.
Through an impressive performance in the Blue Gold Game, which included one touchdown reception, Prosise seems to have earned the distinction of starting duties at slot receiver.
However, the 6'2", 208-pound Prosise will be pushed by senior Daniel Smith, who will also earn his fair share of snaps.
How the two coexist at the position will gain clarity throughout fall camp.
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