Notre Dame Football: Meet the Irish's New Starters for 2013
Out with the old and in with the new.
That phrase fits seamlessly with the cyclical nature of college football, with new players filling starting roles left vacant by NFL departures, graduation, transfers, etc.
The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame are experiencing their own roster turnover, with the replacement of linebacker Manti Te'o and tight end Tyler Eifert—both NFL rookies—at the top of the fall camp checklist.
In total, head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have nine vacant starting spots to fill.
Who will those new faces be?
George Atkinson III, RB
- Height: 6'1"
- Weight: 220
- Position: Running Back
- Player Replacing: Theo Riddick
The identity of Notre Dame's backfield underwent a rapid transformation when former running back Cierre Wood declared for the NFL Draft, joining fellow running back Theo Riddick in the same draft class.
With Wood and Riddick accounting for roughly 67 percent of the Irish's rushing yards a season ago, the onus is on Atkinson to evolve from a situational spark plug to an every-down back capable of not only providing highlight-reel plays, but grinding out the tough yards between the tackles.
Atkinson III realizes the challenge involved in that process, via Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune.
Just realizing every play is not going to be a 50-yard run is a big step for me. Last year, I was more focused on trying to make that big play, and trying to break it outside every chance I got to outrun the defense. Now I realize it's about getting those vertical runs and getting those tough yards through the defense.
The junior running back spent the first two years of his career at Notre Dame moonlighting as a sprinter on the Irish track and field squad, but hung up the spikes to fully focus on becoming the Irish's No. 1 running back.
The result was Atkinson III beefing up to 220 pounds, 26 pounds heavier than when he arrived on campus as a freshman in 2011.
Whether that decision paid off remains to be seen, though, for now, the Stockton, Calif., native will take the field with the first team offense during Notre Dame's season-opening contest against Temple Aug. 31.
Chris Brown, WR
- Height: 6'2"
- Weight: 191
- Position: Receiver
- Player Replacing: John Goodman
Much like Atkinson III, Brown was a speedy enigma last season as a true freshman.
A prep track star at Hanahan (S.C.) High School, Brown's recruitment came down to Notre Dame and his home-state South Carolina Gamecocks, with the 6'2", 191-pound receiver eventually choosing the Irish.
Brown's enormous potential was on display during Notre Dame's 30-13 victory at Oklahoma last season, when he hauled in a game-altering 50-yard reception from former starting quarterback Everett Golson.
It was the first of only two receptions for Brown during the 2012 season, causing wonder of whether the fastest player on the Irish roster would pan out as a consistent receiver.
Thus, the challenge for Brown is proving he's more than simply a weapon to attack defenses over the top, and a receiver capable of contributing in the short and intermediate passing game.
Troy Niklas, TE
- Height: 6'7"
- Weight: 270
- Position: Tight End
- Player Replacing: Tyler Eifert
Replacing the most productive tight end in program history—Tyler Eifert—is not an enviable task, but it's the challenge facing Niklas.
The 6'7", 270-pound tight end now finds himself listed as the Irish's No. 1 tight end, though skepticism still lingers around the Servite, Calif., native.
Having played linebacker as a freshman during the 2011 season, Niklas was transitioned to tight end the following spring, and is still in the midst of gaining consistency as both a run-blocker and pass-catching threat (via Jim Johnston of WNDU.com).
"I think I have made strides everywhere," Niklas said. "I think coming in I had physical ability, but didn't have the technique with blocking. I was naturally pretty good at catching the ball, but I would cut my route at 10 yards instead of 12 yards. I think the things I have improved on is those minor details."
Ronnie Stanley, RT
- Height: 6'6"
- Weight: 318
- Position: Right Tackle
- Player Replacing: Mike Golic Jr.
Replacing Mike Golic Jr.'s vacant starting spot at the right guard position was a point of emphasis during the offseason, with a viable solutions at the coaching staff's disposal.
Promoting Connor Hanratty was the original decision, though fall camp has seen the staff go in a different direction.
Rather than move Hanratty to No. 1 right guard, incumbent starting right tackle Christian Lombard was moved inside to guard in order to present both Ronnie Stanley and true freshman Steve Elmer—two superior athletes—the opportunity to get on the field.
Stanley, a 6'6", 318-pound behemoth, seems to have cemented himself as the Irish's starting right tackle, though is out of action until Monday after suffering a concussion during Wednesday's practice.
The former 4-star prospect, per 247 Sports, made just two appearances as a true freshman last season after committing to the Irish over Arkansas and Nebraska.
Nick Martin, C
- Height: 6'5"
- Weight: 295
- Position: Center
- Player Replacing: Braxston Cave
One ideal of Nick Martin's decision to commit to Notre Dame during the 2011 recruiting cycle was to play alongside his older brother, Zack, who happens to be the Irish's starting left tackle.
After spurning Kentucky to attend Notre Dame, the younger Martin's dream of playing with his brother has come to fruition, after beating out Matt Hegarty for the vacant starting center position left behind by Braxston Cave.
Fortunately so, head coach Brian Kelly has noted Martin's seamless transition to the starting role, via JJ Stankevitz of CSNChicago.com.
"He doesn't seem like a first-year starter," Kelly said. "Just the way he handles himself, it just seems like he's been in there for a couple years. It's very impressive."
After redshirting the 2011 season, Martin took on an expansive special teams role last season, while playing sparingly along the offensive line.
Tommy Rees, QB
- Height: 6'2"
- Weight: 215
- Position: Quarterback
- Player Replacing: Everett Golson
Before you think I'm unaware that Rees has started 18 game during his career at Notre Dame, do understand that he has only reclaimed the starting job due to Golson's suspension for the fall semester.
Rees, who owns a 14-4 career record as the starting quarterback, was usurped by Golson during last year's fall camp, with Kelly recognizing that Rees' physical limitations only hindered the Irish offense—a result of Rees committing 19 of a team total 29 turnovers during the 2011 season.
Yet Rees is back in the fold as Notre Dame's starter, and the Lake Forest, Ill., native seems sure of himself in the given situation, via Matt Hayes of Sporting News.
"I'm not 19 anymore; I've grown up a lot," Rees said. "I've dealt with adversity, I've learned a lot about the game and this place. I've grown up with my teammates. I'm really excited to show how I've developed."
Rees has talked the talk. Now it's time for him to walk the walk, and that begins with a strong showing against Temple Aug. 31.
Sheldon Day, DE
- Height: 6'2"
- Weight: 290
- Position: Defensive End
- Player Replacing: Kapron Lewis-Moore
Sheldon Day's ascension to a starting role at defensive end is a testament to the notion that Notre Dame will no longer rebuild; the Irish will simply reload.
The Indianapolis native starred as a freshman after committing to the Irish over the likes of Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Michigan and Stanford, among others. Day tallied 23 tackles and two sacks during the 2012 season, including three tackles against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
The sophomore only continues to impress, with Kelly singling him out during a media session last week, via Keith Arnold of NBCSports.com.
"I mean, I know all the talk is about Nix and Tuitt, but I can tell you, Sheldon Day is...just watch the film," Kelly said. "His first step quickness, he's an impressive football player. I wouldn't trade him for anybody on our football team right now. He's as impressive of a football player that we have on our defense."
Jaylon Smith, LB
- Height: 6'3"
- Weight: 230
- Position: Linebacker
- Player Replacing: Danny Spond
Smith's rise to the starting DOG linebacker position was the result of some very saddening news.
Incumbent starter Danny Spond was essentially forced to walk away from the game of football due to suffering chronic hemiplegic migraines over the course of the past calendar year.
While Smith lacks the expansive knowledge that Spond possesses, Kelly believes that the coaching staff has the ability to seamlessly transition Smith into Spond's vacated post, via Rachel Terlep of The Elkhart Truth.
"Jaylon has done remarkably well in such a short amount of time in picking up the defense," Kelly said. "Jaylon has incredible athleticism to be able to play in space."
Terlep also noted the Fort Wayne, Ind., native took all observable first team reps during Thursday's practice.
The former 5-star prospect, per 247 Sports, will be the first freshman linebacker to start for Notre Dame since Manti Te'o, with each player choosing Notre Dame despite offers from nearly every major program in the country.
Smith gave his pledge to the Irish over offers from the likes of Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and USC, among others.
Carlo Calabrese, LB
- Height: 6'1"
- Weight: 250
- Position: Linebacker
- Player Replacing: Manti Te'o
Inside linebacker is a position thin on depth, but brimming with experience.
After splitting reps with Dan Fox opposite Te'o for the past three seasons, Calabrese has become a fixture of sorts within the Irish front seven.
But with Te'o's departure to the NFL, Calabrese has been tasked with filling the enormous shoes left behind by the current San Diego Charger. Calabrese, a fifth-year senior, tallied 49 total tackles last season, tying for ninth on the team with safety Matthias Farley.
"It benefits both of us," Calabrese said. "If we're tired, then we can switch. And he's telling me what I did wrong and I'm telling him what he did wrong, and we're getting better from that."
Elijah Shumate, S
- Height: 6'0"
- Weight: 213
- Position: Safety
- Player Replacing: Zeke Motta
Shumate is entering what is now a deep and experienced secondary, being the only new starter among fellow safety Matthias Farley and cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.
The sophomore, while one of the most physically gifted players on the roster, is still battling the steep learning curve associated with the mentally taxing position, according to head coach Brian Kelly via LaMond Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times.
We do some things defensively that require him to communicate very well. Those are the things that he has to grow into, he's made those strides. But again, a young man that didn't play very much last year that is now playing a lot more with that first group. Just an evolution process for him. But he's got all the skills.
The former U.S. Army All-American earned a small portion of the playing time he did get last season during the BCS National Championship loss to Alabama, surrendering a touchdown reception to Tide receiver Christion Jones.
While a bad moment, the experience gained is invaluable to a player struggling to learn the concepts of a new position.