With Irish BCS Hopes Dashed, Depth Chart Battles Should Begin Early

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With Irish BCS Hopes Dashed, Depth Chart Battles Should Begin Early
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

The negatives are still piling up from Saturday night's 28-21 loss to Pitt. A ground game that finally looked on track disappeared. A senior quarterback who had put turnover problems in the rear-view mirror fell off the wagon. And a team that had played its best football in November the past few years picked a terrible time to lay an egg. 

With Notre Dame's BCS dreams up in smoke, now is the time to look towards the future.

That doesn't mean giving up on the season, especially with critical games against BYU and Stanford on the horizon. But it should mean getting a jump-start on positional battles that'll carry forward from this year until next. 

Let's take a look at three positional battles that deserve immediate inspection. 

 

Running Back

The six running backs on the Irish depth chart all return next year, so if you're expecting clarity to come naturally, you're out of luck.

But after two seasons of type-casting their own running backs, it's time for Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin to establish a pecking order and give the team's top two backs a chance to establish themselves. 

At this point in his career, George Atkinson feels a lot like the quarterback who gets an NFL head coach fired. He's big, he strong, he's fast, but his tantalizing natural gifts blind you from the fact that he just isn't a consistent player. It's difficult to give up on a back who averages 6.3 yards per carry, but putting up with the shoe-string tackles and lack of vision might not be worth the explosiveness that keeps his average up.

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The fact that Cam McDaniel led the Irish in carries on Saturday tells you that the staff still trusts him. But McDaniel hasn't shown himself to be the all-purpose back many hoped he'd be. While his numbers are solid, they just aren't spectacular enough for him to be anything more than quality depth on a BCS-level team. 

Amir Carlisle's debut season with the Irish has been all downhill since his opening carry against Temple. Since coughing up a fumble against Purdue, Carlisle's confidence has been shot. He's dropped two straight passes thrown his way in consecutive games.

Right now, it doesn't look like Carlisle has the size to be a featured back in this system. And until he can rebuild his confidence, he's a lost cause in this offense.

It's also been a lost season for Will Mahone. Injuries are the main culprit here; Mahone impressed Kelly and the staff during training camp before an ankle injury doomed him. 

Freshman Tarean Folston has the inside track to enter spring ball at the top of the depth chart, but he'll have to prepare himself for a fight with fellow freshman Greg Bryant. Folston looks like the ideal combination of size and speed, a natural runner who understands how to run behind offensive line coach Harry Hiestand's zone-blocking scheme.

But Bryant has all of the same attributes that have Irish fans so excited about Folston, and once he gets past a nagging knee injury and the burden of great expectations, he'll likely force the staff to give him some touches. 

 

Projected Running Back Spring Depth Chart

Tarean Folston, Soph.
George Atkinson, Sr.
Cam McDaniel, Sr.
Greg Bryant, Soph.
Amir Carlisle, Sr. 
Will Mahone, Jr.

 

Inside Linebacker

Everybody knew there would be growing pains at inside linebacker after Manti Te'o. But the position may have an even tougher time replacing Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox.

That's not to say that Calabrese or Fox have played great football this season. But the options behind the two fifth-year seniors are few and far between, one of the few roster holes Brian Kelly hasn't been all that successful filling since taking over the program.

With junior Jarrett Grace done for the year with a broken leg, seldom-used senior Kendall Moore is getting reps as the third linebacker. So is former walk-on Joe Schmidt, awarded a scholarship after mainly contributing on special teams.

At this point, freshman Michael Deeb's redshirt isn't coming off, a strategic decision that makes sense considering the lack of numbers. But wondering who is going to play the position next year is one of the great mysteries of the offseason, a concern that Kelly shrugged off a few weeks ago when talking with the media. 

Incoming freshmen Greer Martini and Richard Yeargin III could be answers on the inside, though Yeargin projects to be an edge player. There could also be position switches in the future, with obvious ones coming from players like Anthony Rabasa or Doug Randolph.

But next spring should see a lot of new faces at inside linebacker, especially if Grace isn't fully healthy by then. 

 

Projected Inside Linebacker Spring Depth Chart

Jarrett Grace, Sr. 
Kendall Moore, Sr.
Michael Deeb, Soph.
Joe Schmidt, Soph
Anthony Rabasa, Sr.
Greer Martini, Fr. 

 

Safety

If there's been one disappointing position in the Irish defense, it has been safety, where Bob Diaco's ability to limit opponents from making big plays has been done in by the unit's last line of defense.

Heading into the season, the coaching staff chose to go with experience over youth, pushing Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley into the starting lineup while younger players like Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield stood by.

But choosing steady over (potentially) spectacular hasn't paid off. Collinsworth has been a non-factor in his eight starts. Farley's play has regressed, with missed tackles plaguing the Irish defense. Shumate has had a chance to start a handful of games, but he has also battled hamstring problems, slowing down a season that looked promising.

If there's been a silver lining at the position, it's been the emergence of Eilar Hardy, who was on the brink of being lapped by younger players before taking control of his fate. Hardy's solid play the past few weeks could shake up a depth chart that'll also have everybody returning, including Nicky Baratti, who missed the season with a shoulder injury.

There is talent here. Bob Elliott's first objective is to get consistency out of a group that's relied on Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter and Harrison Smith the past few seasons. That'll likely mean pushing Redfield to achieve, matching his mental aptitude with his physical gifts.

 

Projected Safety Spring Depth Chart

Elijah Shumate, Jr. 
Max Redfield, Soph.
Eilar Hardy, Sr.
Matthias Farley, Sr. 
Austin Collinsworth, Sr.
Nicky Baratti, Jr.
John Turner, Jr.

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