Notre Dame Football: Power Ranking the Strongest Positional Units for 2013
While the 2012 edition of Notre Dame football is but a distant speck in the rearview mirror, the identity of last season's outfit has translated over into the 2013 unit.
Yet with elite talent continuing to flow and coalesce within the program, head coach Brian Kelly's bunch is evolving into a more multi-dimensional team intent on building upon the program's first appearance in college football's national championship game in 24 seasons.
Which positional groups along the depth chart will be the most crucial in returning to the sport's mountain top?
Let's get started.
With former starting quarterback Everett Golson's departure from the university for an academic issue and Gunner Kiel's transfer to Cincinnati, Notre Dame's gunslingers took two massive blows.
In the absence of both Golson and Kiel, the Irish are left with seniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, as well as true freshman Malik Zaire.
Much to the chagrin of Irish fans, Kelly named Rees the team's starter roughly two months prior to fall camp, though the decision arrived with little surprise, as Rees started 11 of 12 games during the 2011 season.
The Lake Forest, Illinois native completed 269 of 411 pass attempts for 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns during the 2011 campaign, though his mind-boggling 19 total turnovers earned him the ire of the fanbase.
The 6'2", 210-pound Rees will likely be spelled by Zaire in brief stints in an effort to prepare the true freshman for a run at the starting position beginning in 2014.
During Kelly's first two seasons at Notre Dame, the receiver position would have been considered a strength, particularly with Michael Floyd—the most decorated receiver in school history—in the fold.
Since Floyd's departure to the professional ranks, his position has taken a southern turn.
Entering the 2013 season, the Irish feature just one receiver with at least one season of starting experience—T.J. Jones, who has been a starter in each of his first three seasons at Notre Dame.
DaVaris Daniels, who will start opposite Jones, is a proven playmaker, as witnessed by his six receptions and 115 receiving yards against Alabama in January's BCS National Championship Game.
Aside from Jones and Daniels, question marks are plenty and answers far and few between.
6. Tight Ends
Losing former starter Tyler Eifert to the NFL certainly hurts the Irish, though the talent existing at the tight end position should have Irish eyes smiling.
Troy Niklas, a 6'7", 250-pound specimen, is the overwhelming favorite to fill the No. 1 tight end spot. Alex Welch and Ben Koyack join him to form what is expected to be a solid trio throughout the 2013 season.
Recruited as a linebacker to Notre Dame, Niklas, a California native, transitioned to tight end during 2012 spring practices and hasn't looked back since. Niklas' numbers from 2012—five receptions for 75 yards and one touchdown—belie his breathtaking talent, which will be on display beginning August 31 against Temple in the Irish's season-opening game.
Welch will relieve Niklas occasionally when the Irish employ one-tight end sets, though health concerns exist, as the Cincinnati native has battled knee issues since arriving at Notre Dame three years ago.
5. Running Backs
In an ideal world, Notre Dame's running backs would be ranked higher on this list, but raw potential as a single criterion isn't sufficient.
Despite former backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick departing for the NFL, the Irish still boast a slew of elite running backs: George Atkinson, William Mahone, Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
Atkinson is expected to earn the starter label, but by all indications, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin will likely employ a committee approach at the position, with Mahone and Carlisle each listed as candidates to complete a dynamic trio.
Fans have been clamoring for Folston and Bryant to see the field, though that's unlikely to occur.
4. Offensive Line
Since arriving at Notre Dame in December 2009, Kelly has preached his desire for his teams to control the line of scrimmage on each side of the ball.
The offensive line he has assembled in the time since will be relied upon as the focal point of the offense this season, especially with a run-first approach.
The left side of the line will be anchored by veteran fifth-year seniors Zack Martin (left tackle) and Chris Watt (left guard), while Christian Lombard returns for his second season as the starter at right tackle.
Martin's younger brother, Nick, is the favorite to fill the vacancy at center, while the right guard spot has come down to Conor Hanratty and Mark Harrell. How the two new starters jell with the three returning starters will be essential in the fortunes of the Irish offense in 2013.
One year ago, the Irish secondary was considered the team's overwhelming weakness.
My, what a difference a year makes.
Entering 2013, the same unit is considered a strength, with three returning starters—cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, along with safety Matthias Farley—in the fold.
That trio, along with a new starter at strong safety—Elijah Shumate is assumed to be the favorite to replace former starter Zeke Motta—will likely improve upon its stellar 16th-place national finish in passing efficiency defense.
The key for the secondary will be creating turnovers, perhaps the one area in which Notre Dame's defense struggled a season ago.
In a 3-4 defensive scheme, the linebackers are often featured on the highlight reels more than members of the secondary or defensive line.
While the Irish do boast a star-studded defensive line—I'll discuss that group shortly—their linebackers are not a group to undersell.
Three returning starters feature a group that lost a leader in Manti Te'o, who was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the 38th overall pick in April's NFL draft. Reproducing Te'o's productivity is virtually impossible, though his replacement—Jarrett Grace—received much praise during spring practices.
Add in the return of pass-rushing specialist Prince Shembo, and Notre Dame has itself perhaps one of the country's best groups of linebackers.
1. Defensive Line
Notre Dame's biggest strength of the 2013 season is without question.
The Irish's defensive line, complete with two potential first-round draft picks, has been rated as the nation's best by Phil Steele's college football preview magazine.
The action along the defensive line begins with massive nose guard Louis Nix, a 6'3", 326-pound monster, who has been pegged as the No. 22 overall selection to the Miami Dolphins in the 2014 NFL draft, by WalterFootball.
Joining Nix is another surefire first-round selection in defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who led the Irish in sacks last season.
Also per WalterFootball, Tuitt has been pegged as the No. 10 overall selection to the Kansas City Chiefs.