In less than two weeks the pads will be cracking again in South Bend and the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will be beginning spring practice. After ending the season on a dramatic high note there is plenty of optimism flowing as expectations for the future begin to raise. After a prolonged dark period, it appears things are finally headed in the right direction.
With spring practice comes new hope, a brand spanking new depth chart, and even new faces in the form of early enrollees. Today we'll examine 20 players that will be worth watching closely during workouts and pin a question to each that Irish fans would like answered sooner rather than later.
Rees stepped in admirably for the Irish down the stretch after Dayne Crist went down with a season-ending knee injury.
After throwing for over 300 yards in relief of Crist in the Tulsa game, he helped engineer a four-game winning streak to finish the season.
It appears he is in position to get the lion’s share of reps this spring, since Dayne will be rehabbing in hopes of being ready for summer sessions.
Brian Kelly’s vision for Notre Dame includes winning national championships. Is Tommy Rees capable of taking the Irish to those heights?
There’s a camp that argues, “Absolutely, he’s a winner! Look at how he finished the season!”
The other side of the coin says his clear physical limitations—in mobility and arm strength—will prevent him from being anything more than a great backup quarterback who could right the ship in emergency situations.
The Big Question: Can Tommy Rees distinguish himself enough that he wins the starting job during spring practice?
All 350 pounds of Big Lou are finally scheduled to be unleashed this spring. One of the largest human beings ever to suit up for the Irish, Louis Nix is the prototypical nose tackle for Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense.
Ian Williams had far and away his best season ever last year and his efforts deserve commendation, but with all due respect, his ceiling paled in comparison to the one Nix brings to the table.
Big Lou’s massive size adds an immovable presence that will demand a double team to the heart of Notre Dame’s defense—a defense that was at times dominant down the stretch with undersized backup Sean Cwynar manning the middle.
Nix is already a sort of cult legend around campus and in the fan base, and no one has ever seen him play a snap in practice. That changes this spring.
The Big Question: Will Big Lou be the unstoppable, disruptive force many have hoped he'll be?
Last year was a quiet season for Darius Fleming as he adjusted to yet another position change.
Many expected a breakout year since he was back at outside linebacker, the position he’d originally been recruiting to play before Hurricane Tenuta rolled into town.
He didn’t play poorly by any stretch, but it was nothing spectacular.
Part of what held him back was the time it took to get comfortable again at linebacker while learning his role and responsibility within Bob Diaco’s scheme.
Now that he has a year under his belt, there’s a good chance his enormous potential that’s appeared in flashes will bubble to the surface more consistently.
The Big Question: Will Darius Fleming show some indication that this will be the year where he breaks out?
Bennett Jackson was listed a receiver last fall, but he made his name as a special teams ace.
He starred on coverage units and paced the team in tackles while also chipping in as the team’s most consistent and productive kick returner.
Despite his blazing speed and physicality, Jackson couldn’t crack a crowded depth chart at wide receiver. This winter Brian Kelly decided those talents could be better utilized on the defensive side of the ball, so Jackson shifted to cornerback.
The lack of depth at the position means Jackson is already in the two-deep and in line for serious playing time.
The Big Question: Will Bennett Jackson’s transition to cornerback be successful and translate into much-needed depth?
Aaron Lynch is the type of gamebreaker along the defensive line that the Irish have simply lacked since Justin Tuck graduated.
When he chose to enroll early at Notre Dame this January, it ended one of the most bizarre recruitments in recent memory and meant he has a very real chance to make an immediate impact in the fall.
While it’s highly unlikely Lynch will beat out rising seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore for a starting position, there is no doubt he will log significant minutes in passing situations right away.
After Lynch dominated the competition in high school and at just about every all-star camp, fans are salivating at the prospect of finally seeing him in action wearing blue and gold.
The Big Question: Is Aaron Lynch’s pass-rushing ability as good as advertised?
Most Irish fans have already penciled Aaron Lynch’s name above Kona Schwenke on the depth chart, but Schwenke can’t be dismissed that quickly.
The undersized Hawaiian freshman earned playing time as the season rolled on and had flashes of serious potential. He’s a relentless pass rusher with a phenomenal motor.
With every new class of recruits comes “the next best thing” while the previous year’s great potential becomes old, stale news.
It’s natural that everyone pays more attention to the shiny new toy—in this case Lynch—but fans shouldn’t forget that just three short months ago Schwenke appeared to have the brightest future of the young defensive linemen.
The Big Question: Can Kona Schwenke hold off Aaron Lynch on the depth chart this spring?
There were plenty of murmurs about Andrew Hendrix last fall as he led the scout team every week.
Descriptors like “surprisingly athletic” and “cannon arm” were thrown around left and right, which created a buzz about how he may be ready to make a run at the starting job in the spring.
But then Dayne Crist got injured, Tommy Rees won four straight games in his place, and Notre Dame inked spread quarterback Everett Golson.
Suddenly the speculation about Hendrix making a run at the starting job turned into speculation as to whether he’d transfer.
Hendrix is a very raw talent, but he’s been digesting the offense for a little under a year now. With an arm a member of the staff calls “the liveliest he’s ever seen,” he’s not planning on simply conceding the position to anyone.
The Big Question: Will Hendrix make a legitimate run at playing time or file in behind the other three candidates for the starting position?
Last spring, Jamoris Slaughter won the starting position over Zeke Motta, but injuries hampered him the entire season. After three months of healing, he should be ready to go for the spring, and the competition will reopen thanks to Motta's progression and production during Slaughter’s absence.
Slaughter is a great athlete and an aggressive tackler capable of delivering bone-rattling hits in the secondary. If he can stay on the field, he'll be a huge asset; if he can't stay healthy, then it will on Motta to carry the load.
The Big Question: Can Slaughter stay healthy and reestablish himself as the starting strong safety alongside Harrison Smith?
The Irish receiving corps is chock full of players who were highly touted upon their arrival to campus. One upperclassman that hasn’t even come close to making a dent thus far is Deion Walker.
There was a lot of anticipation and hype surrounding Walker after prying him from the clutches in a recruiting battle.
His size and speed made him a perfect candidate to make an impact. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened.
Walker is now entering his senior season, and this spring is perhaps his final chance to make a case for playing time.
The Big Question: Can Walker break into the top five receivers, or is he doomed to be a bust?
Notre Dame’s highest-rated recruit joined fellow defensive playmaker Aaron Lynch and enrolled early this January.
While Lynch was the recipient of hype very early in the recruiting cycle, Ishaq was a late riser who earned his five-star status after a dominant performance at the US Army All-American Bowl.
Listed at an imposing 6’6”, 230 pounds, Williams will be slotted in behind Darius Fleming at the CAT linebacker position.
It’s unknown what sort of immediate impact he’ll have and how the staff will utilize him, but he’s a freakish athlete who will be hard to keep off the playing field.
The Big Question: What kind of role will Ishaq Williams play right away?
A detail that often gets left out of the defensive renaissance that took place over the last five games was just how good Sean Cwynar played filling in for the injured Ian Williams.
After a relatively non-descript first half of the season, Cwynar stepped his game up and was a rock in the middle of the Irish defensive line down the stretch.
Everyone is operating under the assumption that Louis Nix will step into the starting role as nose tackle.
Sean Cwynar doesn’t have the physical presence of Big Lou, but he’s proven he can be very effective against elite competition and won’t just hand the job over without a fight.
The Big Question: Can Sean Cwynar perform so well that he relegates Louis Nix to second string?
The graduation of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes has shot Jonas Gray up the depth chart and into the first backup slot at running back.
He is a hard runner with some burst that has shown flashes in the limited opportunities he’s received.
Last year, he supplied a 36-yard jaunt against Utah that kickstarted the Irish offense and changed the course of the game.
He also has a history of changing the game for the wrong reason as well, though. A key fumble in the second half against Michigan in 2009 shifted momentum to the Wolverines and ultimately led to an Irish loss.
Jonas is a physical specimen but has lacked the focus that’s necessary in every facet of the game at the highest level of college.
If he’s going to earn Brian Kelly’s trust, he must become more than just a strong runner; he must improve his pass protection and—perhaps most importantly—his ball security.
The Big Question: Has Jonas Gray gotten over his case of fumbilitis?
Trevor Robinson will be entering his fourth season as a starter for the Fighting Irish.
His first two seasons set him on a trajectory that pointed toward All-American status and a big payday in the NFL, but last year was a step backwards.
He never seemed particularly comfortable with the new spread blocking scheme, and that led to uncharacteristic mental and physical mistakes.
Now that he’ll be entering his second season in the spread, coaches are hoping the consistent mauler that was present his first two seasons reemerges.
He has enormous potential, and if he harnesses it, then it will go a long way in making Notre Dame’s offense hum.
The Big Question: Will Trevor Robinson reemerge as the best offensive lineman on the team?
One of the five early enrollees to get on campus for the spring semester, Golson is the prototypical spread quarterback. He’s a smart leader, a prolific passer, and lightning-quick when he takes off and runs.
There is some speculation that the combination of his skill set and familiarity and comfort with the spread offense will give him a legitimate opportunity to win the starting job.
As is the case with any shiny new toy, every fan wants to see him in action, and many are ready to hand him the keys to the Irish offense right away.
The Big Question: Will Golson be so good that Brian Kelly can’t keep him off the field?
The Irish lost one-time four-star running back commitment Justice Hayes and then whiffed on Savon Huggins late. Those misses in the recruiting cycle means the depth chart at running back is shockingly thin.
Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray saw action last season, but beyond them, there are only two running backs on the roster: Cameron Roberson and Cam McDaniel.
Roberson is a big back that was named Offensive Scout Team MVP at the awards banquet. He’s a physical runner with straight-line speed—there isn’t much dancing in his repertoire, just north-south punishment.
Kelly raved about him on National Signing Day last season and he’s earned plenty of praise throughout his first season even though he didn’t burn his redshirt.
There isn’t a long line in front of him for playing time, so if he can make some noise he could easily put himself in a position get some touches when the games matter.
The Big Question: Will Cameron Roberson play well enough to earn a role in the running back rotation this fall?
Danny McCarthy was the Gatorade State Player of the Year in Ohio his senior season and arrived on campus as a freshman with much higher expectations than his brother Kyle did when he signed with Notre Dame.
Kyle was an overachiever with great instincts who morphed into a consistent playmaker that anchored the secondary.
Danny was supposed to be Kyle 2.0 only with far more natural ability. That thought excited a lot of Irish fans and with the depth chart so thin at safety, many assumed he’d make a move to lock down one of the positions.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Danny has been unable to stay healthy since coming to Notre Dame and the result has been little to no significant playing time.
He sustained a major neck injury his senior year that sidelined him for six months and many argue he just hasn’t been the same since.
He is a rising redshirt junior and the lack of depth in the secondary means the team needs him to start being productive.
The Big Question: Can Danny McCarthy finally get healthy and contribute?
The Irish secondary is solid, but it’s also dangerously thin. The graduation of Darrin Walls, combined with EJ Banks’ transfer, means that the only backup cornerback on the team that isn’t new to the position is rising sophomore Lo Wood.
It’s essential that Wood proves to be a competent backup to starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. If he can evolve into a solid third corner and keep the drop-off from first- to second-string from getting too steep, it will be a huge coup for this season.
For the long term, he will be the most experienced corner on the roster in 2012, so it's crucial he steps up.
The Big Question: Can Lo Wood be a viable third cornerback?
One thing Notre Dame has not done in 20 years is trot out a kicker who could consistently register touchbacks. Apparently, that is about to change, though.
Kyle Brindza enrolled early this spring and according to his scouting reports, he allegedly has a Big Bertha for a leg. Tales of 50+ yard field goals and kickoffs splitting uprights were tacked to this kid, so the expectation level is very high.
He won’t have the pressure of trying to win the placekicking job, because Notre Dame happens to have two great ones on the roster ahead of him, but he will be expected to make an immediate impact on the field position battle.
The Big Question: Will Kyle Brindza provide an instant and significant upgrade as a kickoff specialist?
Steve Filer came to Notre Dame as a monster linebacker recruit from the Chicago area. He is a freakish athlete who is built like a house and runs like a deer.
Unfortunately, all the raw talent he brought to South Bend hasn’t translated into much production on the field in his first three years.
Nobody questions that Filer is a world-class athlete, but he’s not a “natural” football player. He’s been slow to pick up defensive schemes, which has led to indecision and hesitation.
It doesn’t matter how athletic someone is; if he is forced to think his way through plays, he’ll be caught on his heels and that athleticism won’t mean a thing.
Filer’s entering his final season of eligibility, and the DOG linebacker position is there for the taking. His last chance to make a mark and position himself for the NFL Draft has arrived.
The Big Question: Will things finally click for Steve Filer?
David Ruffer deservedly captured the hearts of the media and Irish faithful with his record-breaking performance as a walk-on last year. However, just one year earlier, Nick Tausch was the one setting those records during his freshman season.
Tausch connected on 14-of-17 field goals as a freshman and by all accounts was rock solid in all practices. Unfortunately for him, it just so happened the Ruffer was literally perfect.
These streaks come and go for kickers, though. Nick Setta banged home 15-of-17 field goals his sophomore year but dipped to 14-of-25 in his junior campaign.
If Ruffer slips up even a little, Tausch may be able to slide in and regain his old job. But if the new-school Rudy keeps up the torrid pace from last season and Tausch never has a chance, then it wouldn’t be surprising to see him transfer somewhere he can play.
The Big Question: Will Nick Tausch make a run at the starting job or ultimately transfer?