With spring practice less than a month away, Notre Dame will get to work reestablishing an identity that could be vastly different than the team we saw in 2013. Gone are coordinators Bob Diaco and Chuck Martin. In are Brian VanGorder and Mike Denbrock, with Matt LaFleur now coaching quarterbacks.
While only two members of the 23-man freshman class are currently on campus, 13 redshirt freshmen will be battling for playing time this spring. With six starting jobs on defense and a handful of crucial spots on the offense available, the 14 practices that lead up to the Blue-Gold game will go a long way toward establishing a depth chart for fall camp.
Here are the 13 redshirt freshmen participating this spring:
Malik Zaire, QB
Greg Bryant, RB
Torii Hunter, WR
Mike Heuerman, TE
Durham Smythe, TE
Colin McGovern, OL
Hunter Bivin, OL
John Montelus, OL
Mike McGlinchey, OL
Jacob Matuska, DL
Doug Randolph, OLB
Michael Deeb, ILB
Rashad Kinlaw, CB
Let's take a look at the five that are most likely to win starting jobs.
That Bryant gets another shot at his freshman year is a victory for all parties involved.
For the Irish coaching staff, it essentially turns Bryant into a member of the 2014 recruiting class, a group that didn't add a running back after Elijah Hood decommitted in August. For Bryant, it gives the running back a mulligan after a nagging knee injury finally ended his season after getting a meniscus repair.
Even with Tarean Folston taking charge of a talented running back depth chart in 2013, Bryant can use spring practice as a springboard into the starting lineup. With the ability to run with power, catch the ball out of the backfield and break a long run every time he touches it, there will be carries available for Bryant if he earns them.
Even with Cam McDaniel and Amir Carlisle fighting for touches, the 1-2 punch of Bryant and Folston could make their presence felt quickly.
Among the most physically impressive members of the 2013 recruiting class, many expected to see Michael Deeb on the field sooner than later. A key candidate to contribute on special teams while apprenticing at inside linebacker, Deeb instead spent the season on the sidelines, saving a year of eligibility.
With Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox graduated and Jarrett Grace still recovering from a leg injury that was broken in four places, the door is wide open for the 6'2", 242-pounder to step into the starting lineup. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will get plenty of chances to watch Deeb this spring, with the depth chart nearly empty until freshmen reinforcements arrive.
Expect to hear about Deeb splitting time with fifth-year candidate Kendall Moore and former walk-on Joe Schmidt, if only because there aren't any other healthy scholarship options on the roster. A good spring practice could give Deeb the inside track to a starting job.
The tight end depth chart took an unexpected jolt this offseason when Troy Niklas declared early for the NFL draft and Alex Welch decided to play out his final year of eligibility at Miami with former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. But that opens the door for redshirt freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe, who both spent the year watching and learning.
With Ben Koyack cemented into the lineup after an excellent rebound season in 2012, the hunch here is that Heuerman has the best bet to fill a starting role, albeit a niche one. While Smythe drew some compliments from head coach Brian Kelly during bowl prep, the coaching staff loves the athleticism Heuerman displays. With the ability to detach or play from the backfield, the 6'3.5", 225-pound Naples native has the chance to give defenses fits as they try and match up with him.
Does Heuerman truly have a chance at being a starter next year? No, not in the traditional sense. But for a team that started James Onwualu four games last season, Heuerman could turn into a key situational player.
Notre Dame never got to see what Torii Hunter Jr. could do this season, with the Texas native suffering a freak non-contact broken femur during practices before the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The injury, along with a setback during rehab, kept the 6'0", 178-pound receiver on the sidelines in 2013, forced to slowly rehabilitate the injury.
But Hunter was cleared for workouts in December and spent the weeks leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl showing flashes of greatness. And any worry that the leg injury could linger throughout his career was erased, as Hunter resumed looking like the player that had many believing he was the most ready to contribute of the four freshmen wideouts.
After four seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly is still looking for the perfect slot receiver. Hunter has the athleticism and speed to fill the role and we'll see shortly how quickly he establishes chemistry with Everett Golson this spring.
Zack Martin was a fixture at left tackle the past four seasons after redshirting his first season in South Bend. Now Mike McGlinchey has a chance to follow the same path to the starting lineup.
The Philadelphia native has drawn nothing but compliments from the Irish coaching staff, impressed by the athleticism of the 6'7.5" tackle, who has likely bulked up considerably (and probably grown a bit more, too) from his listed weight of 290 pounds.
With Steve Elmer, Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars all looking like potential left tackles, McGlinchey has the chance to beat them all out, utilizing a skill set that has had Kelly saying some pretty interesting things about the offensive tackle.
Coming out of high school, Kelly thought McGlinchey was athletic enough to be a tight end or a power forward on the Irish basketball team.
If he turns out to be a starting left tackle, that'll make Kelly even happier.