Power Ranking Notre Dame's Positional Units for 2014
We're only slightly more than two months away from Notre Dame football beginning the 2014 season.
So with players assembling on campus in South Bend, Indiana, let's take stock of Notre Dame's positional units for the upcoming campaign.
In power ranking the groups, we'll consider past production, spring development and projected upside in 2014. Talent and skill will be important, as will depth. For each position, we'll highlight top players as well as question marks. In some cases, the question marks aren't intended to be harsh negatives; those players may be regarded more as X-factors.
Now, without further ado.
9. Special Teams
Top Player: Kyle Brindza
Question Marks: Kick and Punt Returners
Why They're Ranked Here: Senior Kyle Brindza is a rock as both a kicker and a punter, but those are just two facets of the entire special teams.
In particular, the punt return game has struggled during Irish head coach Brian Kelly's tenure. While there are seemingly talented options like Greg Bryant, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr., among others, until the Irish become a legitimate threat on punt returns, this remains a major question mark.
Notre Dame also has struggled mightily with its kick coverage. In 2013, the Irish ranked 122nd (of 125 teams) in opponent kickoff returns, per CFBStats.com, allowing an average of 25.68 yards per kick return.
8. Defensive Line
Top Player: Sheldon Day
Question Marks: Ishaq Williams, Jarron Jones
Why They're Ranked Here: Replacing two starters along the defensive line is never easy. It's an even more daunting task when those departed starters are as talented as Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.
Junior Sheldon Day seems primed for a breakout campaign, but the Irish will need production from Ishaq Williams and Jarron Jones, as well as defensive end Romeo Okwara. Outside of Day, this group didn't typically draw major praise from the coaching staff and players throughout the spring.
The unit does, however, have a fair amount of depth with the likes of seniors Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell and sophomore Isaac Rochell.
Top Players: Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt
Question Marks: Jarrett Grace, Ben Councell, John Turner
Why They're Ranked Here: Prince Shembo, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are all gone from last year's squad, leaving Jaylon Smith as the only returning starting linebacker.
But senior Joe Schmidt had a strong showing in spring ball, for which he was named one of our biggest winners.
Beyond Smith and Schmidt, though, there are a host of unanswered questions. Senior Jarrett Grace's status is still uncertain. Kelly did tell reporters earlier this month they'll be "aggressive" with Grace's rehab, according to Blue & Gold Illustrated's Dan Murphy. Ben Councell is farther along in his recovery process from last year's season-ending knee injury and could provide the versatility to log time at multiple linebacker positions.
For now, there aren't enough proven and healthy commodities.
6. Tight End
Top Player: Ben Koyack
Question Marks: Durham Smythe, Mike Heuerman
Why They're Ranked Here: Senior Ben Koyack vaulted into an intriguing position atop Notre Dame's depth chart once classmate Troy Niklas bolted for the NFL. Koyack himself presents an interesting draft possibility, and coaches praised the tight end during the spring.
It's more uncertain behind Koyack. Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman didn't play as true freshmen, but they'll have ample opportunities to contribute, especially if the Irish still deploy two-tight end sets.
In the meantime, Koyack's ability is enough to land this unit safely near the middle of our power rankings.
5. Wide Receiver
Top Player: DaVaris Daniels
Question Marks: Will Fuller, Amir Carlisle, Corey Robinson
Why They're Ranked Here: A group that is high on talent and depth but low on experience, the receiving corps got a big boost when Daniels was readmitted to Notre Dame.
But that only starts a string of more questions about the unit. For the first time in his career, Daniels figures to be the No. 1 wide receiver on the depth chart. Sophomores Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter Jr. will have been through the system now for more than a year, and Amir Carlisle and C.J. Prosise have been battling it out in the slot.
If these rankings were based on talent and depth alone, the wide receivers could be even higher.
4. Offensive Line
Top Players: Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Christian Lombard
Question Marks: Mike McGlinchey, Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty
Why They're Ranked Here: Year after year, it seems Notre Dame trots out a strong, stable offensive line. This year figures to be no different even though offensive line coach Harry Hiestand must replace Zack Martin and Chris Watt.
Graduate student Christian Lombard (20), junior Ronnie Stanley (13), senior Nick Martin (11), sophomore Steve Elmer (four) and seniors Conor Hanratty (four) and Matt Hegarty (two) have combined to make 54 career starts.
The only remaining question appears to be who joins Lombard, Stanley, Martin and Elmer as the fifth starter when the Irish square off with Rice on Aug. 30. Notre Dame could start redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey at right tackle and keep Elmer at left guard—as was the setup in the spring—or bump Elmer to right tackle and insert Hegarty, Hanratty or a true freshman at left guard.
For now, the offensive line is a solid unit without a proven stud like Martin, and it slots at No. 4 in our power rankings.
3. Defensive Back
Top Player: KeiVarae Russell
Question Marks: Max Redfield, Cole Luke
Why They're Ranked Here: Taken as a whole, this might be the deepest stable of talent at any one position on Notre Dame's roster.
At safety, Max Redfield, Austin Collinsworth, Eilar Hardy, Nicky Baratti and Elijah Shumate all bring starting experience. At cornerback, the Irish added Cody Riggs and Nick Watkins and shifted Matthias Farley from safety, bringing three new pieces to a group that only lost one part—Bennett Jackson—from last year's core.
The keys in the secondary will be how quickly Redfield and Cole Luke can make the jump from sparingly used freshmen to relied-upon starters. Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder praised Redfield at the end of spring practice, and Luke looked smooth starting across from Russell.
Their growth could propel this unit.
Top Players: Everett Golson, Malik Zaire
Question Marks: Everett Golson, Malik Zaire
Why They're Ranked Here: Kelly has yet to officially name a starting quarterback, but that doesn't stop the unit from ascending all the way to No. 2 in our rankings.
As we analyzed at the end of May, Kelly is angling for a new style of quarterback play and is looking for more dynamism outside the pocket.
He now has the right pieces for the job.
Both Golson and Zaire have flashed their dual-threat ability, and their combined talent pushes the unit near the top of our rankings. Our own Adam Kramer recently wrote, "Kelly can rest easy knowing he has the most impressive depth at the most important position in the country."
Still, we haven't seen Zaire in game action, and Golson hasn't taken a real snap since the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. Thus, another offensive position group edges out the quarterbacks for the top spot.
1. Running Back
Top Players: Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel
Question Marks: Greg Bryant
Why They're Ranked Here: The only reason we'll call Greg Bryant a question mark is because we've yet to truly see him in game action except for three carries and 14 yards in three games last season. The question is more of how high his ceiling is.
The only real question here is how the playing time shakes out.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.