Spring Forward: Proving Ground

Wide receiver John Goodman and seven additional seniors look to take the next crucial step in their collective development entering their fourth seasons at the program.

At present, the Notre Dame program has 84 scholarship players. It will lose a minimum of 13 (seven seniors highlighted in Part I, plus the six assumed 5th-year returnees for 2011). The Irish will also gain a player following 2011 when former safety recruit Chris Badger returns from his religious mission in Ecuador.

That's 72 players with eligibility for 2012. Since head coach Brian Kelly and his staff will certainly bring in more than 13 freshmen in next year's recruiting haul, a large number of seniors will play their final seasons in South Bend this fall, despite the luxury an extra year of eligibility remaining.

Below is a look at six players who will need to put forth solid efforts over the next nine months to challenge for a fifth scholarship season.

Note: For a review of the remaining seniors – those nearly certain to receive a 5th-year invitation if in good academic standing next winter, click here.

But first, a second look at a competitor who'd be a no-brainer 5th-year selection if not for the dearth of scholarships available in 2012.

John Goodman – Continued

Is there a player closer to either a starting spot or being lost in the shuffle than the Fort Wayne senior target?

Goodman showed promise as a sophomore and first-time contributor in 2009, earning a start vs. USC and appearing in nine games. He played in all 13 last year with three starts in a four-game span (BC, Pittsburgh, Navy), but his 15 receptions totaled just 146 yards – the highlight a 30-yard sideline catch-and-run vs. Miami in the Sun Bowl.

If off-season momentum holds any value, that catch vs. the 'Canes was crucial – Goodman had previously failed to record a reception during Notre Dame's triumphant November, and the Irish had previously finished 2-3 in contests in which Goodman was a chief member of the rotation.

Goodman will likely have two seasons to complete his development – but 2011 must serve as a vast improvement from 2009-10 to ensure a spot in 2012.

Brandon Newman and Deion Walker – 13 DNP-CD

Neither appeared in a game as freshmen…nor as juniors. Both received four recruiting stars from Scout.com in February 2008. Newman is listed as a backup nose guard though he appeared to cross-train at defensive end last spring and in our early-season practice viewings last fall.

Walker contributed to five games as a sophomore in 2009, most notably as the team's first receiver off the bench vs. Washington and USC. He logged 10:19 of playing time (not including one special teams appearance) and his only career catch came courtesy of Dayne Crist, a 15-yard comeback route in the third quarter vs. Nevada in the '09 opener.

Newman has appeared in one game: the San Antonio special in October 2009 vs. Washington State, though his highlight to date was likely a tipped pass and two QB "hurries" (there were no sacks allowed) in the 2010 spring game.

The pair of senior competitors must learn to do just that – compete – in order to carve a niche as seniors for Brian Kelly's second Irish squad.

David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald

An influx of linebacker talent in the classes below them has put the 2008 inside LB pair in a precarious position on the 2011 spring depth chart. McDonald exited spring 2010 as the No. 1 candidate to start alongside Manti Te'o, but untested redshirt-freshman Carlo Calabrese pulled into a relative tie for the job in fall camp, and a hyper extended knee suffered by McDonald in late-August sealed the starting sport for the thumper, Calabrese.

Calabrese quickly won over the team's fan base and defensive staff with consistent power against the run before suffering a hamstring injury in a sloppy effort at Navy. He's the assumed starter entering spring ball though competition will be intense (more on that in a linebacker feature later this week).

McDonald has appeared in 23 games over the last two seasons, mostly on special teams, and he has yet to threaten the starting lineup in-season.

Posluszny has battled injuries over his career (shoulder, concussion, and last fall, a hamstring strain suffered in August camp). He's played in 16 career games but has earned precious little time from scrimmage to date.

McDonald's chances of unseating Calabrese – and holding off other sure-to-be-evaluated prospects at the WILL linebacker spot next to Te'o, appear much greater at present than Posluszny's.

But defensive special teams are built upon linebackers that can run, break down, and tackle...Poz should find a role on coach Mike Elston's specialty units in 2011.

Value up front – Mike Golic, Jr. and Lane Clelland

Top offensive and defensive lines are built first on veteran talent, then veteran depth. Rare is dominant rushing game or rush defense that features a host of underclassmen among its chief combatants.

That football truth bodes well for both Golic and Clelland as they compete for a two-deep role in 2011 and beyond.

After playing in five games as a sophomore, including time as an emergency tight end (wearing #96 to denote his status as an eligible receiver), Clelland appeared in the season-opener last season and in every game from Pittsburgh (Game Six) through the season finale.

Golic played in every game with the exception of the season opener last season after appearing in just three games in 2009. He's (officially...this will change) the only veteran backup at both guard spots and center along the Irish O-Line entering spring 2011. If he continues to improve and more important, prove versatile, Golic could earn a "sixth lineman" designation, one Chris Watt rode to ample playing time inside as a redshirt-freshman last fall.

Both Clelland and Golic serve as special teams starters along the unit's lines while Clelland also worked with Andrew Nuss and Bobby Burger among the trio of punt protectors in the team's modern, spread-punt formation.

Snakebitten – Dan McCarthy

His brother, Kyle, the team's best defensive player as a 5th-year senior in 2009, was a late-bloomer too. K-Mac redshirted as a freshman in 2005 and earned just 4:27 of playing time from scrimmage while serving in a key special teams role in 2006.

But due largely to an August hamstring strain and later, a shoulder injury, Dan failed to take the next step as a redshirt-junior that Kyle took in his third season – a key backup role with legitimate playing time from scrimmage is generally key to a prospective 5th-year player's development process.

The younger McCarthy enters a 2011 spring competition at safety vs. three veterans, all of whom played extensively last fall. At present, most would be inclined to write-off McCarthy as no more than a two-deep competitor as he's yet to show he can compete at a BCS level. But Brian Kelly's teams are built on the middle portion of the depth chart. Most contending teams have starters that can play – the best teams, the deepest teams, a team that espouses to constant competition and a Next Man In, philosophy, finds its strength throughout the roster.

Dan McCarthy is one of the most talented, yet completely unproven upperclassmen on the 2011 Irish squad. With a dose of good health for the next nine months, McCarthy could be a name no Irish fan forgets when previewing the starting competitors at this time next year – spring 2012.

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