Notre Dame Football: 6 Backups Critical to the Irish's Success in 2014
With fall camp around the corner, Notre Dame football position battles are set to be won and lost.
Starters will be named, and the depth charts will be penciled in.
And while the starters and the decisions behind those choices will deservedly garner plenty of attention, let’s focus here on the indispensable backups—the lifeblood of a great and deep team—who are vital to Notre Dame’s success in 2014.
In some cases, it’s unclear if a player here will, in fact, be a backup when the season kicks off. There are some assumptions that certain players will begin the season as second-stringers.
If the starting quarterback is the most important player on Notre Dame’s squad, then you can argue the backup signal-caller is almost (but not exactly) as crucial.
Now, Irish head coach Brian Kelly hasn’t announced whether Everett Golson or Malik Zaire will be under center to take the first snap against Rice in 47 days. For my money, I still expect Golson to be the starter, but, for our purposes here, the differentiation doesn’t matter much.
The backup quarterback has to be on call, and the second-stringer is one big hit or ankle tweak away from stepping into the starting role.
Remember when Andrew Hendrix replaced Tommy Rees in the second half against USC last season? Or how about when Rees started against Miami and BYU in 2012 or helped close against Purdue, Michigan and Stanford?
Multiple quarterbacks have started for Kelly in three of his four seasons in South Bend, Indiana. There’s a decent-sized chance that will be the case again in 2014 due to either performance or injury.
TE Durham Smythe
Coming off a redshirt season, second-year tight end Durham Smythe wouldn’t appear to be one of the key second-string cogs at first glance.
But combine Notre Dame’s recent proclivity to use two-tight end sets with Smythe’s potential impact as a red-zone target, and Smythe could play an important role in 2014.
Kelly had high praise for Smythe following the Blue-Gold Game in April.
“I really thought that Durham Smythe had a really good spring,” Kelly said after the spring game. “He's an in‑line blocker. I think he's accomplished in the sense that the game comes pretty easy to him and as an in‑line blocker from a technique standpoint; he picks up things very well. Got good hands, body awareness and he's got good size.
“I really think he's going to be a key contributor for us in the fall.”
At 6’4.5”, Smythe is tied as the second-tallest returning pass-catcher on Notre Dame’s roster behind 6’5” Ben Koyack. His stature could pay off inside the red zone.
OL Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty
There’s still a starting spot to be determined along the offensive line, and it’s still possible Conor Hanratty or Matt Hegarty could be named the starter at left guard with sophomore Steve Elmer transitioning to right tackle.
But we’ll make the assumption here that redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey wins the top right tackle position and Elmer holds down left guard. That means Hanratty and Hegarty become hugely valuable and capable backups.
In 2013, Hanratty played in each of the final six games, starting four (at both left and right guard). Hegarty, meanwhile, stepped in as the starting center against Stanford and Rutgers after Nick Martin’s knee injury.
Heading into 2014, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand is blessed with depth and versatility (if not elite, proven starters), highlighted by both Hanratty and Hegarty.
DL Isaac Rochell
From Louis Nix to Sheldon Day to Kona Schwenke, Notre Dame dealt with injuries along the defensive line throughout the 2013 campaign. That’s not to mention the likes of Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell, both of whom missed the entire season.
A healthier group returns ready for 2014, but the backups will again be on call. Sophomore Isaac Rochell will be one of the key reserves. The McDonough, Georgia, product played in each of the first 11 games last season, tallying 10 tackles.
Rochell—along with Springmann and Hounshell, among others—will be counted on to perform steadily behind what appears to be an inexperienced starting group. The standard four-man, first-team group in spring practices consisted of Day, Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams.
Jones, Okwara and Williams each have one career start to their names.
It’s difficult to nail down this position to one or even two important reserve safeties. The Irish have four safeties—Austin Collinsworth, Max Redfield, Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate—who started games in 2013, and Nicky Baratti appeared in all 13 games as a backup as a true freshman in 2012.
The majority of the first-team reps open to the media during the spring went to Collinsworth and Redfield, so we’ll insert that duo on the starting defense for right now. Behind them, Hardy, Shumate and Baratti profile as important backups. Between sub packages and injuries, all three could find themselves logging crucial snaps in 2014.
In 2013, Notre Dame allowed just 25 passing plays of 20 yards or more, tied for the fourth fewest in the nation, per CFBStats.com. Reliable reserve safeties who can step right in to break up the deep ball or wrap up the ball-carrier for a limited gain are invaluable to a strong defense.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.