22 Pickup

Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted the development of his second units as a focal point of the final week of training camp. We take a look at the experience and potential of Notre Dame's next 22 men in...

Tommy Rees, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood, Sean Cwynar, Robert Hughes, Duval Kamara, Brian Smith, Matt Romine, and Robby Toma.

Of the nine listed above, only Eifert started a September contest for the 2010 Irish (and that was in tandem with tight end Kyle Rudolph). Each started multiple games thereafter, and with the exception of Romine, each earned starts and served as crucial contributors during the team's 4-0 season finish.

If Brian Kelly proved anything in his first season, its that his troops will be prepared to answer the bell as the Next Man In when the moment arises.

Irish fans have been inundated with off-season stories regarding the team's improved depth, the staff's continuous emphasis on player development, and the aforementioned Next Man In philosophy that became the crucial storyline of Brian Kelly's first season in South Bend.

Why then, did Kelly offer the following as a team weakness during his media day Q&A?

"As I said, our weaknesses are in depth. I'll put my 22 against anybody else," Kelly noted of his 22 offensive and defensive starters. "But the game's not played with 22. You (must) have other guys ready to go. We think we have some areas we need to address that give us more depth. But we're confident in our 22 against anybody in the country.

"Now that's not going to be good enough," he continued. "You've got to develop the next level of players...That's why I can't be complete in everything of my evaluation of our football team because we're still trying to develop that next group that's going to have to play for us."

Who are those next 22?

I'm glad you asked.

2nd Unit Offensive Linemen

Starters from left to right include Zack Martin, Andrew Nuss or Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson, and Taylor Dever.

  • Left Tackle Nick Martin: A true freshman who served as a backup guard as recently as August 7. Sophomore left tackle Tate Nichols dislocated his knee in camp's first week and is doubtful for the season opener. Nichols did not play as a true freshman last season.
  • Left Guard (Nuss or Watt): Neither has started a collegiate contest though both saw ample rotation time last season, ranking seventh and eight in total snaps among offensive linemen; Nuss played extensively in a backup role during 2009 as well.
  • Center Mike Golic: Took part in 25 snaps last fall, not all as a center.
  • Right Guard Conor Hanratty: A true freshman who has impressed early
  • Right Tackle Christian Lombard: Withheld from action as a true freshman last year.

Total Starts: None

Skill Position Backups

Starters include TE Tyler Eifert, WR Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, and likely T.J. Jones, RB Cierre Wood, and either Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees at quarterback.

  • Tight End Mike Ragone: The 5th-year senior has missed most of camp with a quadriceps injury but has started nine times and played in 35 games since 2007. Two of his backups have never played a college down, the other, junior Jake Golic, has 11 snaps to his credit in his collegiate career.
  • Running Back Jonas Gray: Gray started one game as a sophomore in 2009 (at Purdue) but finished fourth among four running backs with 20 carries (40 snaps) last fall.
  • Wide Receiver John Goodman: The most experienced second line player continues to push Jones for a starting role. Goodman has started four games over the last two seasons and played a whopping 254 snaps last season.
  • Wide Receiver Robby Toma: Emerged late last season, starting twice, and earning 161 snaps.
  • Wide Receiver To Be Determined: Among five candidates, only senior Deion Walker has participated in a college game, though he did not appear in a contest last season.
  • Quarterback – Rees or Crist: The Irish are in an enviable position nationally regarding their backup quarterback.

Total Starts: 29

Defensive Line

A trio of seniors rules the roost: left end Ethan Johnson, nose guard Sean Cwynar, and right end Kapron Lewis-Moore.

  • Left End Aaron Lynch: Freshman enrolled in January 2011 and starred in the spring game.
  • Nose Guard Louis Nix: Was withheld from action as a true freshman last year. Presumed third-string nose guard Hafis Williams played well late last season, earning 244 snaps as a backup defensive end/nose guard.
  • Right End Kona Schwenke or Stephon Tuitt: Schwenke emerged in late-October 2010 as a true freshman and earned 33 snaps. Tuitt is a true freshman.

Total Starts: None

Linebackers

Senior Darius Fleming (Cat) and sophomore Prince Shembo (Dog) should start outside while junior Manti Te'o (Mike) and classmate Carlo Calabrese (Will) man the interior.

  • Will Linebacker Dan Fox: The junior is pushing Calabrese as the Irish enter the final five practice sessions before determining a Week One depth chart. Fox played 55 snaps in 2010.
  • Mike Linebacker Kendall Moore or Anthony McDonald: A battle between a redshirt-freshman and senior, respectively. McDonald has not started but participated in 70 snaps last year.
  • Cat linebacker Steve Filer or Ishaq Williams: Williams enrolled in January while Filer played sparingly last season (38 snaps) but has played in 36 career games as a special teams stalwart.
  • Dog linebacker Danny Spond: Just 10 scrimmage snaps as a true freshman in 2010 but played in seven games as a special teams competitor.

Total Starts: None

Secondary

The cornerback spots are locked down with Gary Gray and Robert Blanton as multiple season starters. Team captain Harrison Smith is the strong safety while the free safety role will be split by senior Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta.

  • Free Safety (Slaughter or Motta): The pair combined to start 13 games last season and the position ranks with quarterback as the most reliable among all backup roles.
  • Strong Safety Danny McCarthy: Has battled injuries since arriving on campus. McCarthy played just 22 snaps as a junior last fall.
  • Field Cornerback Lo Wood: 22 snaps as a true freshman last year. Wood enrolled in January 2010.
  • Boundary Cornerback Bennett Jackson: Switched from wide receiver to cornerback in the off-season and is the reigning Special Teams Player of the Year.

Total Starts: Slaughter (5) or Motta (8).

Special Teams

Notre Dame enjoys unique depth with two record-setting place-kickers among its ranks. 5th-year senior David Ruffer should handle field goals while junior Ben Turk is the likely punter. Both started every game last fall. Walk-on holder Ryan Kavanagh returns for his senior season while junior long-snapper Jordan Cowart will handle short-snapping duties for the first time.

  • Place-kicker Nick Tausch: Has connected on 15 of 18 career attempts, though was just 1-1 last season.
  • Kick-off Specialist Kyle Brindza or Tausch: A January enrollee, Brindza is the message board fans' choice.
  • Punter Kyle Brindza: Ditto, though Kelly noted last week that Turk was the unit's most impressive player in camp (among all specialists).
  • Long-snapper Ryan Kavanagh and short-snapper Braxston Cave: Both saw action last season, Cave for the final four contests.

Total Starts: Technically 9, but Tausch is likely the most experienced, and certainly the most successful, backup kicker in the nation due to his standout freshman campaign of 2009 (14-17 field goals including a then-record 14 straight and 27-30 on PAT). Tausch has also kicked off 43 times over the last two years.

Rank ‘Em

It's conceivable we've all overvalued the team's backup defensive linemen – a unit full of inexperienced 18 and 19-year-old college neophytes. It's also possible they're as advertised, and I've undervalued them by a full two spots, below.

  1. Quarterback: It's likely neither of the team's 2011 starting options will become a program legend, but there are two solid players and two intriguing backups among the ranks. Few schools can boast such depth.
  2. Tight End: Ragone and two of the nation's best recruits over the last two seasons is a nice start.
  3. Defensive Line: It's impressive in theory, but three of the top five backups have never played a down.
  4. Specialists: Have more than five teams in collegiate history had a backup kicker that connected on 14 straight field goals? Has any? The Irish have five specialists on scholarship and walk-on holder/long-snapper Ryan Kavanagh is invaluable.
  5. Linebacker: Much more impressive outside, but as long as Te'o remains upright, Notre Dame's backup inside ‘backers can hold down the fort in a pinch or possibly in extended game action.
  6. Defensive Backfield: The Irish are set at safety; cornerback remains a mystery with three of four backups never backpedaling in a college contest.
  7. Wide Receivers: Goodman (or Jones) is a solid No. 4 and Toma is undervalued as a No. 5, but No's. 6-9 have no experience/impact to their credit.
  8. Offensive Line: Of the unit, only Watt/Nuss has extensive game action though Golic has earned the staff's trust and Lombard is a future star. Too many freshmen and redshirt freshmen populate the back end of the team's 14 eligible offensive line competitors.
  9. Running Back: No backup runner has scored a college touchdown; two of the three are true freshmen.

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