Notre Dame Football: Projecting Post-Spring 2-Deep Depth Chart
For the Notre Dame football team, the work on the field is done. The Irish's 15 spring practices gave Brian Kelly and his retooled coaching staff a look at the pieces that'll assemble to form the 2014 Fighting Irish.
On offense, Everett Golson returned to a talented offense to find competition from Malik Zaire at quarterback. On defense, Brian VanGorder will need to rebuild a front seven that lost elite talent in Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt and long-time starters Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
The attrition will hurt, with Kelly needing to find replacements for potentially three first-round draft picks (left tackle Zack Martin could be the first Irish played picked), not to mention team MVP T.J. Jones. But the cupboards are far from bare, with Kelly calling this his deepest team at Notre Dame.
With a schematic shakeup on both sides of the ball, there will be unanswered questions that follow this team into the season. But with spring practice behind us, let's take a look at the projected two-deep depth chart heading into the summer.
1. Everett Golson, Senior
2. Malik Zaire, Sophomore
For the first time since he's been in South Bend, Brian Kelly has two quarterbacks custom fit to his preferred offensive system. In Golson, he has a veteran quarterback who last played for a national championship. In Zaire, he has a sophomore who spent last year learning behind Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.
Zaire's excellent spring game made Golson's assumed return to the starting lineup less of a sure thing. But in all actuality, this is the veteran quarterback's offense. But the Irish are one hit away from playing a quarterback with zero experience, and the only scholarship option behind Zaire is incoming freshman DeShone Kizer, who won't be on campus until this summer.
It's a talent rich two-deep that'll finally be able to utilize the zone-read concepts that Kelly built his spread attack around, but there isn't a ton of depth.
Running Back Two-Deep
1. Tarean Folston, Sophomore
or Greg Bryant, Sophomore
or Cam McDaniel, Senior
Don't expect Brian Kelly to be in a hurry to name either of his talented sophomores a starter over veteran Cam McDaniel, who is one of the program's best leaders both on and off the field. But the reality of the situation—and the immensely talented duo of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant—might relegate McDaniel to spot duty or situational play.
Last year's Irish ground game was a disappointment, with a handful of backs never truly able to find a rhythm. George Atkinson's early departure to the NFL helped clear that logjam, and both Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone's move to wide receiver did too.
If it's possible for Folston to be overlooked, he just might be. After taking over as the featured back down the stretch last season, Folston could already be the most complete back Kelly has coached at Notre Dame. And Bryant's big Blue-Gold Game affirmed just about every fan's belief that the talented runner was too good to keep off the field.
How will Kelly, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and running backs coach Tony Alford split up carries? That's a problem to deal with this fall. Until then, there's nothing to worry about at running back.
Tight End Two-Deep
1. Ben Koyack, Senior
2. Durham Smythe, Sophomore
or Mike Heuerman, Sophomore
The early departure of Troy Niklas didn't clean out the tight end depth. But it thrust the focus onto veteran Ben Koyack, who'll now be asked to be the Irish's do-everything tight end. Koyack struggled to make an impact early in his career, but came on late last season, providing a competent No. 2 at a position that's been one of the strongest on the Irish roster since Kelly took over.
Who plays the role behind Koyack this year is still up for debate. But the early candidate looks to be rising sophomore Durham Smythe. After redshirting last season, Smythe looked good this spring and is capable as both a receiver and an attached blocker. Mike Heuerman still needs to bulk up to be a contributor in both the run and pass game. But he's a willing competitor and will spend the summer adding mass to his frame.
The tight end won't likely be the factor it was in the past two seasons, with Kelly bringing spread principles back as the focus of the offense. But don't expect such an essential position to all of a sudden disappear either.
Wide Receiver Two-Deep
1. DaVaris Daniels, Senior
2. Chris Brown, Junior
1. Corey Robinson, Sophomore
2. Will Fuller, Sophomore
1. Amir Carlisle, Senior
2. C.J. Prosise, Junior
The wide receiver position epitomizes the Irish roster. Talented, but unproven. Only DaVaris Daniels is a truly proven commodity, and his return to campus still necessitates a rubber stamp from the university's administration after academic struggles forced him from campus last semester.
But while there isn't much proven production behind Daniels, this group looks primed for a breakout. Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will see a lot of playing time, with Robinson's ability to catch everything almost as valuable as Fuller's ability to get behind a defense. Junior Chris Brown had a big spring as well, much needed as the team's elder statesman at the position.
In the slot, the Irish seem to finally have a competent duo with Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise. Carlisle looks at home there after getting lost in the shuffle at running back. Prosise's long touchdown during the spring game gave Irish fans a look at the explosive athlete Brian Kelly's been waiting to emerge.
Offensive Line Two-Deep
1. Ronnie Stanley, Junior
2. Hunter Bivin, Sophomore
1. Steve Elmer, Sophomore
2. Mark Harrell, Senior
1. Nick Martin, Senior
2. Matt Hegarty, Senior
1. Christian Lombard, Grad Student
2. Conor Hanratty, Senior
1. Mike McGlinchey, Sophomore
2. Colin McGovern, Sophomore
While the spring was spent mixing and matching combinations, it looks as if Harry Hiestand has found his optimal starting five. The only caveat will be the continued emergence of Mike McGlinchey, who takes off his redshirt and moves immediately into the starting lineup.
If McGlinchey is able to carry his weight at right tackle, the rest of the line fits in perfectly, with Steve Elmer staying inside at guard. If McGlinchey isn't ready, Elmer will likely shift outside to right tackle, pushing McGlinchey into a swing role as a combination of veterans Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty and Mark Harrell push for time at the open guard position.
No doubt, the Irish will miss captain Zack Martin and three-year starter Chris Watt. But the size and athleticism of the Irish's starting five is very impressive.
Defensive Line Two-Deep
1. Romeo Okwara, Junior
2. Isaac Rochell, Sophomore
1. Sheldon Day, Junior
2. Chase Hounshell, Senior
1. Jarron Jones, Junior
2. Tony Springmann, Senior
1. Ishaq Williams, Senior
2. Anthony Rabasa, Senior
Brian VanGorder will have his hands full making this group productive. Outside of Sheldon Day, the rest of this two-deep has only played a complementary role, with Jarron Jones and Ishaq Williams the only other players with any starting experience.
The shift to a four-man front might help the Irish defense, but it'll be contingent on the defensive end play. There's a lot of weight on the shoulders of Romeo Okwara and Williams, who will be counted on to provide a pass rush and hold up against the run.
The same can be said for seniors Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann. Hounshell has had his career at Notre Dame diverted because of multiple shoulder surgeries, though he's healthy again and made it through spring. Springmann sat out spring workouts as he continued to recover from an ACL tear, but is desperately needed on the inside.
1. Jaylon Smith, Sophomore
2. Doug Randolph, Sophomore
1. Joe Schmidt, Senior
2. Michael Deeb, Sophomore
1. John Turner, Junior
2. James Onwualu, Sophomore
If the defensive line is the position group filled with the most question marks, the linebacking corps is just a shade behind. Outside of Jaylon Smith, who the Irish put on the field is a mystery. In Smith, the Irish have an All-American-caliber performer. In everyone else? Who knows.
At this point, we need to assume that Joe Schmidt is going to be the Irish's starting middle linebacker. As Jarrett Grace continues his slow recovery from a badly broken fibula, Schmidt's knowledge base and athleticism makes up for his below-average size. And Brian VanGorder already loves the diminutive former walk-on.
With VanGorder's scheme favoring speed over size, John Turner moved from the bottom of the safety depth chart to the top of the outside linebackers. He'll be part of a revolving sub-package that mixes and matches based off of the opponents' personnel. Converted wide receiver James Onwualu had a nice spring as well, giving him a chance to compete for playing time quickly.
1. KeiVarae Russell, Junior
2. Devin Butler, Sophomore
1. Max Redfield, Sophomore
2. Eilar Hardy, Senior
1. Austin Collinsworth, Grad Student
2. Elijah Shumate, Junior
1. Cole Luke, Sophomore
2. Jalen Brown, Senior
1. Cody Riggs, Grad Student
2. Matthias Farley, Senior
Listing five starting positions isn't a stretch after seeing Brian VanGorder in action this spring. And while the talent pool still isn't deep enough for Brian Kelly's liking, the secondary features plenty of skill.
Leading the way is KeiVarae Russell. The junior cornerback has started 26 straight games for the Irish and has the trajectory of a player that's set to dominate this season. Likely starting opposite him is sophomore Cole Luke, who takes over for Bennett Jackson and immediately upgrades the team's pure cover skills.
At safety it looks like Max Redfield will pair with Austin Collinsworth. Redfield got his first start in the Pinstripe Bowl and is an elite athlete on the back end while Collinsworth lacks the high-end talent but makes up for it with on-field knowledge.
Florida transfer Cody Riggs will see a ton of playing time. A starter at both safety and corner for the Gators, Riggs will likely be an inside cornerback capable of coming off the edge and covering slot receivers. Matthias Farley moves from the starting lineup into a slot corner role as well, giving the Irish another contributor with a lot of playing experience.
1. Kyle Brindza, Senior
2. Tyler Newsome, Freshman
1. Kyle Brindza, Senior
2. Tyler Newsome, Freshman
1. Amir Carlisle, Senior
2. Greg Bryant, Sophomore
1. Greg Bryant, Sophomore
2. Amir Carlisle, Senior
It's Kyle Brindza or bust in the kicking and punting game, with the senior one of the top specialists in the country. And after featuring George Atkinson as an elite kickoff returner, the Irish will likely turn to Amir Carlisle, who did a nice job returning kicks in the Pinstripe Bowl. At punt returner, Greg Bryant will get the first opportunity to replace T.J. Jones.
Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Scott Booker hit the road this offseason, looking for solutions after their coverage teams and return units hit rock bottom. New schemes and replenished personnel will help as the cover units get much needed reinforcements.