Notre Dame Football: Rising Juniors Who Will Step Up Next Season

James ToljCorrespondent IIDecember 11, 2011

Notre Dame Football: Rising Juniors Who Will Step Up Next Season

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    Notre Dame has a number of its starters leaving the team at season's end. Either their eligibility is up, or the players will attempt to play football at the next level.

    That means that a very different team will be taking the field next season. The departures of players like Michael Floyd and Ethan Johnson leave giant holes to be filled. Who will fill them?

    This list takes a peek at the team's rising juniors. Fans will get an idea of some of the players who will see the field in the stead of those who departed.

    So, how important will the junior class next year be?

Bennett Jackson/Lo Wood CB

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    Neither Bennett Jackson nor Lo Wood got a lot of experience this year, and unfortunately for them, both players have a good chance of being thrust into starting cornerback roles for the Irish next season.

    With the team's current starters at cornerback leaving, Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, it is assured that new players will have to fill the position.

    Austin Collinsworth, who is likely to stay behind Zeke Motta and Jamoiris Slaughter on the depth chart at safety (unless Slaughter doesn't return for a fifth year), could also play cornerback in nickle packages.

    Fans shouldn't expect either Wood or Jackson to be shutdown cornerbacks in their first year as starters, but they will have an understanding of Bob Diaco's defensive schemes.

    Wood is the more prototypical cornerback. He's quick, under 6'0" and played the position throughout his high school career.

    Jackson, on the other hand, is taller (6'0"), and he played wide receiver at Raritan High School (and in his first year with the Irish). But Jackson has shown his agility and speed when returning kicks for Notre Dame last season. Hopefully, Jackson can use his impressive acceleration and good hands to break on passes for interceptions. 

    And if Jackson and Wood don't perform well, there are some rising sophomores and highly-touted recruits coming to Notre Dame that could end up taking their jobs.

Kona Schwenke DE

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    Kona Schwenke didn't receive much attention this year due to the excitement from Aaron Lynch's and Stephon Tuitt's first seasons with the Irish, but Schwenke will be an important piece of the rotation at defensive end next season.

    Schwenke grew tremendously in his first year with the team. He came in at just 215 pounds, but now, the Hawaii product sits at a staggering 285 pounds. His physique gives him the ability to play either the defensive end spot or a 4-3 tackle if needed.

    Beyond his versatility, the kid can play football. He just hasn't gotten much of a chance this season. Schwenke has only seen action in three games this year, but don't be fooled by why.

    Brian Kelly knows how important Schwenke will be to the defensive line in the future, and he was hesitant to play Schwenke and forfeit the possibility of a fifth year. With Tuitt and Lynch playing expanded minutes, there was no reason for Schwenke to waste a year playing limited downs, but injuries to Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore made it a little more difficult to keep Schwenke off the field.

    Fans should be ecstatic about a player of Schwenke's talent playing behind Lynch and Tuitt (and possibly Lewis-Moore).

Daniel Smith WR

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    Michael Floyd's departure leaves the Irish receiving core in an interesting position. 

    If John Goodman doesn't return to the team next season (or Deion Walker, who has only one catch in his career), then the Irish's three most experienced receivers—Theo Riddick, T.J. Jones and Robby Toma—would all be under 6'0" (and Goodman isn't likely to become a featured receiver even if he does stay).

    There is an abundance of young, talented wide receivers on the roster, but Young needs to be underscored. Luke Massa and Daniel Smith are the only scholarship rising junior wideouts on the team.  

    Two rising sophomores, DaVaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, are the only other scholarship receivers currently on the roster.

    Luckily for Notre Dame, Brian Kelly has already nabbed some impressive prospects for the 2012 recruiting class. Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson and Deontay Greenberry have all verbally committed to the Irish. But unless one of the three's skills are refined enough to play at the college level (which could be the case), each player will be tagged with a red shirt and have to wait to see the field.

    Farley impressed the coaching staff immediately, and Daniels has the type of big play ability that is hard to keep off the field, but Massa and Smith, both 6'4", will probably be the players who contribute most to the receiver rotation (I expect each of the four players to see the field). 

    Massa was a quarterback in high school and switched to wide receiver last season, so one can assume that Smith's route running is more precise. While Massa will play a role in the offense next season because of his height and athleticism, Smith is potentially a starter.

    Smith isn't a Floyd-like talent, but at 6'4", his height can be an asset, and while Smith doesn't have 4.4 speed, he does have great hands and jumps to meet the ball on deep routes. 

    A valid and recent comparison for Smith could be Robby Paris. Paris was a valuable possession receiver for the Irish, and he was often called upon to move the chains. If Smith came in and played that role, Irish fans should be contented.

    The Irish offense is losing one of the best players in Notre Dame's storied football history, but spreading the ball around might not be so bad for the team. When Floyd was shutdown, the team had a hard time moving the ball (think Pittsburgh or USC).

    A less predictable passing game would make it harder for teams to game plan, and shutting one receiver down wouldn't be detrimental to the offense. That isn't saying the Irish will be better off without Floyd, but the coaching staff and Irish quarterbacks will be less inclined to focus on one receiver (although if Tyler Eifert returns, he will be the go-to-guy in the offense).

    Smith will have to look over his shoulder because of the rising sophomores and incoming freshmen, but he could be a major part of the Irish passing attack next season.

Kendall Moore/ Danny Spond ILB/OLB

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    With the Irish definitely losing Darius Fleming and possibly Manti Te'o to the NFL, Notre Dame will need some other linebackers to shine next season.

    Kendall Moore and Danny Spond could very well sneak into the starting lineups next season beside inside linebacker Dan Fox and Prince Shembo on the outside.

    Fans have seen glimpses of Moore's potential, as he came in late in games and landed a couple of devastating hits on the opposition. Moore's ability to plug holes, challenge blockers and punish whoever is holding the ball should be vaunted.

    Moore's biggest competition will be rising senior Carlo Calabrese, and Calabrese has the edge by far when it comes to experience. However, don't be surprised if you see Moore's name atop the two deep next season (but Calabrese is just one of many challengers). 

    Spond was already in contention with Shembo for an outside linebacker spot this season, but a hamstring injury took him off the field until late in the year.

    Spond committed to the Irish with the possibility of playing quarterback (it was his primary position in high school), but it's a testimony to his athleticism that he was shuffled to outside linebacker because of a crucial combination of speed and strength.

    Like Moore, Spond will have to hold off a number of players to secure his position.

    One is Troy Niklas, who started in Shembo's absence and played well. Ben Councell, a budding young talent and the high school standout, Ishaq Williams, who many observers expect will start next season are two others. And then there are a number of incoming freshman who are projected to be linebackers as well.

    Even if Spond and Moore don't get the starting spots due to an excess of competition, fans will hear their names being called early and often.

Christian Lombard OL

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    Christian Lombard will begin next season vying for the starting job at right tackle. Lombard currently backs up fifth-year starter Taylor Dever, but he shouldn't necessarily be inked in for the right tackle spot.

    With only two spots on the offensive line predicted to be up for grabs (if Braxton Cave remains with the Irish at center, then right guard and right tackle will be open), the competition for the starting right tackle spot will be intense.

    But at 6'5" and 301 pounds, Lombard is a behemoth with unlimited potential. He is the exact size as Dever, and after getting a chance to watch a great offensive line from the sidelines this season, he should be ready to contribute.

    Lombard will have enough competition to deal with next season,  but he should be considered the front-runner for right tackle. And when he gets on the field, expect good things out of the soon-to-be third year player.