#8 Starting (No. 3) Wide ReceiverAssuming Michael Floyd's re-instatement (which is akin to assuming the sun will rise tomorrow), there are two starting receiver spots on lockdown: Floyd and junior Theo Riddick, who played all of last season in the slot but finished 2011 spring on the outside.
We were told by a reliable source that T.J. Jones' move to the slot was not merely experimental (read: permanent), which means Jones would likely round-out the starting trio with junior Robby Toma serving as his (ideal) backup in the valuable slot role.
But should Riddick return to the slot, the outside receiver role opposite Floyd would come down to a heated battle between Jones and senior John Goodman, with wild-card candidate Daniel Smith or freshman DaVaris Daniels possessing the talent, if not knowledge of their craft, to compete as well.
Predicted Winner: Floyd, Riddick, and Jones, with Jones remaining in the slot where he offered his best game of 2010 (5 receptions, 53 yards, TD vs. Navy). Jones had 10 receptions in less than two games (Navy and part of Tulsa before succumbing to injury) as a slot target.
#9 Punt ReturnFrom Game 4 vs. Stanford on September 25 through Game 13 vs. Miami on December 31, Notre Dame punt returners churned out a grand total of 17 yards. They also called for a staggering 23 fair catches (and a lost fumble).
For those wondering, I asked Brian Kelly if returners were instructed to be conservative in their approach. (They were not.)
I'll go out on a limb and predict a new punt returner for 2011.
Predicted Winner: Theo Riddick. The junior possesses the best feet on the squad and ff he can consistently catch punts, the job is his to lose. Others included incumbent John Goodman and challengers such as senior Dan McCarthy, sophomores Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson (less likely), freshmen DaVaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, and personal dark horse candidate, junior Robby Toma.
#10 Backup (#2) Nose GuardIf in good health, senior Sean Cwynar is the starter (we'll start with that premise until proven otherwise during camp). Redshirt-freshman Louis Nix is the fan favorite and most intriguing backup option. He's also likely the best nose guard on the roster in terms of future production. But senior Hafis Williams took part in 244 key snaps last fall and his spring assimilation to full-time nose guard was both successful (per defensive line coach Mike Elston) and welcomed (per Williams), who enjoyed the role of locking down a small space rather than worrying about outside shoulders, containment of a scrambling quarterback, etc.
The team will need all three, and the position is one of the few that should seem ample playing time for a trio of competitors throughout the season.
Predicted Winner: Hafis Williams (Cwynar the starter), but Louis Nix will be the most important member of the crew, because if he continues to develop, his contribution of 20-25-30 snaps per game could turn a good rush defense into a great unit.
#11 Kick ReturnersThe Notre Dame kick return team has been stagnant since Vontez Duff's junior season of 2002, never averaging more than 21.7 yards per return over the course of a season and scoring just one touchdown (a 96-yarder by Armando Allen in a Sheraton Hawaii Bowl laugher vs. Hawaii, Christmas Eve 2008.)
But since the aforementioned season of excellence from Duff, between 50 and 80 college programs have annually produced better kick return units than have the Irish. Last fall, freshman Bennett Jackson provided a minor mid-season spark, producing the year's best return (43 yards) on his first career effort – the opening kickoff in Week Five at Boston College.
Jackson would appear to be a frontrunner for the role again, working in tandem with classmate Austin Collinsworth (his "decision-maker" and lead blocker). Incoming freshmen candidates include Matthias Farley, George Atkinson and DaVaris Daniels.
Predicted Winner: Atkinson, with Jackson again starring in kick coverage (he was the team's Special Teams Player of the Year last fall) and working as a backup cornerback. Limiting Jackson's duties in the return game will allow him to grow as a second unit defender. Look for Collinsworth to again serve as the second return man (in tandem with Atkinson) and for Farley to receive early-season action as well.
#12 Backup (#3) Inside LinebackerBarring injury, Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese will again begin camp and the season as starters; there's at least a trio of combatants looking to earn two-deep roles, with one – the No. 3 LB – likely to earn consistent field time in the rotation, especially in relief for Calabrese.
Junior Dan Fox leads the pack but Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year Kendall Moore showed spring flashes – and quickness to the ball – as well. Former starting competitor Anthony McDonald is expected to be ready for the season after tearing his pectoral muscle at the spring session's outset. McDonald's development has been delayed by a torn ACL, a concussion, and a hyper extended knee, as well.
Senior David Posluszny could also creep into the race while sophomore Justin Utupo and incoming freshman Jarrett Grace provides depth. (OLB/Cat linebacker recruit Anthony Rabasa could also debut inside.)
Predicted Winner: Dan Fox. The versatile junior is underrated by Irish fandom and will earn the early role over the equally talented Moore. Fox's ability to cover the short zones and flats will allow him a few extra snaps in relief of Calabrese who, like most developing athletes, is much more effective with a series or two on the sideline per contest.
#13 Backup (#3) Running BackCierre Wood is the starter and senior Jonas Gray has a huge leg up as his expected backup and power option. Freshmen George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel will vie for the #3 role, likely beginning with Practice #1 through Tuesday prior to the South Florida game.
Predicted Winner: In keeping with maddening, pure speculation that surrounds incoming and unseen freshmen talents, I'll remain on the Atkinson Bandwagon – one I embraced last February. Both should play in 2011 and both should also find homes on the Irish specialty units.
#14 Kick-off specialistLou Groza finalist David Ruffer booted 11 touchbacks last fall, nearly quadrupling the program's total of the previous three seasons…combined. January enrollee Kyle Brindza was recruited for his booming kicks and his efforts echoed through Loftus Center Practice Complex in the spring. The Irish can't lose here.
Predicted Winner: Brindza. Look for Ruffer to kick-off a bit during the season as well to keep in rhythm, but more than half of 120 FBS schools produced as many or (far) more touchbacks than did Ruffer and the Irish last season. (Oklahoma State and Groza winner Dan Bailey led the nation with 55…fifty-five??
#15 PunterIncumbent Ben Turk has been inconsistent over his first two seasons: the highs have been impressive; the lows costly and infuriating. Enter early enrollee Brindza, who by the way is a kick-off/field goal/punting threat that will at least push Turk should he produce a third consecutive mid-season swoon.
Predicted Winner: Turk. There's a reason he unseated veteran Eric Maust as a true freshman in 2009 and Maust was deemed expendable for 2010. But accountability just found the punter's role as well, courtesy the intriguing Brindza.
Next in our camp preview series: For those wondering about the all-important nickel back position battle: that's not a competition, starting cornerback Robert Blanton will move inside in nickel packages where he wreaked havoc in 2010. The rest of the nickel defense, as well as other key packages, will be included in our forthcoming Suggestions for the Staff column – which I'm sure they collectively await with bated breath.