With that in mind, below is a look at our Top 16 position battles for the Irish entering August camp.
#1 QuarterbackExpect head coach Brian Kelly to wait until no later than August 16 (Media Day following approximately 10-12 practices) before he names a starter in the two-horse race between senior Dayne Crist and sophomore Tommy Rees. With continuity a necessity under center, the only way the decision on a starter is delayed is if sophomore Andrew Hendrix or freshman Everett Golson work their way into serious contention between the first practice on August 6 and the mid-point of camp.
Predicted Winner: Crist, though no matter who wins the starting job, head coach Brian Kelly will employ, or be forced to adapt and therefore use, at least two starters for the sixth consecutive season (dating back to 2005 at Central Michigan).
#2 Dog LinebackerSophomore Prince Shembo possesses more explosion, playing time, and scrimmage success than his counterpart and classmate Danny Spond, who, at least upon limited viewings, appears better in short zone and flat coverage. Most Irish fans expect Shembo to win the role, and it makes sense as his pass-rushing acumen would be invaluable at the position – but a few mistakes in space can lead to, or equal touchdowns as the field side (drop) linebacker. The battle boils down to Spond's coverage ability and toughness vs. Shembo's explosion, potential, and prowess vs. the run.
Predicted Winner: Shembo, with Spond finishing fifth among all defensive subs in total snaps this fall. But Shembo is a Top 10 Irish defender and his presence on the field is crucial to an improved pass rush.
#3 Free SafetyA quick recap: Jamoris Slaughter won the starting job last fall but suffered a high ankle sprain and subsequent heel injury that lingered for the bulk of the season's first nine contests. Zeke Motta started in his stead and finished fourth among all defensive backs in total snaps on the season (Slaughter was sixth, with cornerback Robert Blanton fifth).
Now a senior, Slaughter was reportedly limited in the spring as well; he'll need to be full strength from Day One to beat out the junior Motta who improved as the season progressed…but the back line of the Irish defense shined. and was/is faster, with Slaughter close to full strength as he was last November and in the Sun Bowl.
Predicted Winner: Slaughter, with Motta playing regularly and winning the nickel linebacker role (to be discussed in Monday's column).
#4 Rotation Cornerback (#3 CB)It seems unlikely that converted wide receiver Bennett Jackson would press classmate Lo Wood for the No. 3 cornerback role after one spring and off-season at the position. In 2011, Notre Dame's No. 3 cornerback (Robert Blanton) received 483 snaps while its fourth, Wood, earned just 23 as a true freshman. The disparity won't be as glaring this fall, but a quality No. 3 cornerback is considered part of the "starting" rotation. The No. 4 is generally a true second-string player.
Predicted Winner: Wood – but will he be the nickel defender? (Also to be answered in Monday's column).
#5 Left GuardMost observers expected junior Chris Watt to win the role in the spring, but 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss appeared to take the reigns. Watt later suffered a foot injury and Nuss was the clear-cut starter exiting April. Nuss played mostly as a backup tackle for offensive line coach Ed Warinner last fall (51 snaps) while Watt was the team's first guard off the bench (117 snaps, 7th among all and 5th among returnees).
Predicted Winner: Watt, though this will be one of at least three offensive positions that will see two starters in 2011 (QB and WR highlight that predicted list).
#6 Rotation Defensive End (#4 DE)Seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore are the clear-cut starters; freshman Aaron Lynch is in line for the No. 3 DE role (a key member of the rotation and likely a player that will finish among the 15 in defensive snaps). That leaves sophomore Kona Schwenke and promising freshman monster Stephon Tuitt to vie for the No. 4 DE role – one that should be used extensively this fall in an effort to keep the front line fresh.
In 2010, backup defensive ends Emeka Nwankwo and Schwenke combined for just 102 snaps, though "swing" DL Hafis Williams (he played DE and NG) took part in a whopping 244 thanks to interior injuries, etc. According to defensive line coach Mike Elston, the Irish would prefer not to utilize a swing DL this season or in the future.
Predicted Winner: Schwenke as the No. 4 in September; Tuitt as the No. 4 following the team's Week Seven Bye. (Lynch will not be supplanted as the rotation's key sub.)
#7 Backup Tight End (#2 TE)5th-year senior Mike Ragone has two notable advantages over redshirt-freshman challenger Alex Welch: experience, and a proven niche as the team's second tight end in power offensive sets.
Welch is quicker out of the break, has far more reliable hands (even though he's yet to catch a collegiate pass) and can get down the seam and adjust to zone coverages on the move. Ragone can flat out fly, but that's an overrated commodity for a tight end as straight-line speed alone produces little in modern football.
If Ragone has harnessed that speed and improved his reads and route deception vs. zone coverages (as indicated by offensive coordinator Charley Molnar in the spring), he'll win the role. If not, he'll be the team's blocking tight end and Welch will usurp snaps throughout the season.
Predicted Winner: Ragone will take the field first in September and play in 13 games thanks to the necessary power sets…Welch will earn more total scrimmage snaps.
Note: Part II and a look at camp position battles #8 through #15 is forthcoming.