Below is our first look of the 2011 season at relevant trends regarding Notre Dame players, position groups, and all things Irish.
Camp Report: Stock UpAdmittedly, the Week Two Stock Watch is much more important, but the group below received plaudits from the staff throughout August camp.
Darius Fleming: Irisheyes.com jumped the gun last August when it pegged Fleming as the defense's next breakout star; Fleming was inconsistent for two months then played well late as Notre Dame saved its season in November. His defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly have both mentioned the 6'2" 255-pound Cat linebacker as a potential national standout for his final season.
Though sack totals have little to do with that forecast, Fleming has the pass-rushing skills and the opportunity in the defensive structure to be the first double-digit sack-master for the Irish since defensive end Victor Abiamiri recorded 10.5 in 2006.
Manti Te'o: Evolved from potential playmaker to force-in-the-making during a Week Three second half battle at East Lansing last season. Since, Kelly has willingly reference Te'o as the team's top defender, while wisely deferring his national status. Te'o is fully recovered from a Sun Bowl knee injury and as a 20-year old true junior, prepared to challenge for the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker.
With two seasons remaining, Te'o's apparent (relative) weaknesses: the occasional missed tackle in space and inconsistent man-to-man pass coverage, should both be eradicated – the sooner the better considering the athletes the Irish defense will face in September.
Prince Shembo: Apparently won the Dog linebacker competition handily over classmate Danny Spond, who, as a former safety, possessed a clear edge in his pass fits entering camp. Shembo should combine with Fleming to form the best edge rush tandem by outside linebackers at the program since Scott Kowalkowski and Devon McDonald in 1990.
Louis Nix: Appears ready to assume a part-time role as a rock in the middle of Diaco's base 3-4 looks. The affable Nix consistently cracked pads of the linemen opposite him in our practice viewings and Kelly has spoken highly of his dedication as a redshirt-freshman, noting that likely starter Sean Cwynar's ancillary value is that, "He makes it so Louis Nix doesn't have to play the whole game."
Look for Cywnar to start, but for Nix to occupy most of the 3-4 looks, while the former will be joined by classmate Ethan Johnson shifting inside when the defensive front line moves to a 4-3 alignment.
Ethan Johnson: Introspective in interviews; respected throughout the locker room, and demanding of his position mates, Johnson has emerged as a leader off the field and a well-rounded force on the left edge of the defense. Kelly referred to him as "our best pass-rusher" and a player who'll benefit greatly from the occasional respite provided by talented freshman Aaron Lynch.
Ben Turk: After two weeks of training camp, Kelly noted that the formerly inconsistent junior punter ranked as the squad's most improved special teams player. Special teams coordinator Mike Elston echoed Turk's ascent, but September will serve as the true proving ground.
Stock Up...Relatively SpeakingTemperate enthusiasm with a nod toward future success…
DaVaris Daniels: Has battled sophomore Daniel Smith for the sixth wide receiver role, one considered part of the game-day rotation by position coach Tony Alford. Daniels' mix of size, speed, quickness, and body control makes him a down field threat, but as with most freshman targets, the intricacies of precise routes and knack for finding a passing window will be a continuous first-year challenge.
Cam McDaniel: Received the official "O'Malley Seal of Approval" in August. Look for the elusive, compact, hard-charging true freshman to emerge as a change-of-pace-headache for opponents this year. His familiarity with the spread scheme should aid his early-season efforts for playing time.
Troy Niklas: One of two handfuls of freshmen that will likely contribute this fall, the physically powerful but quick-footed Niklas has forged a role on the Irish kick teams while learning the ropes at Dog linebacker.
Camp Report: Stock DownA few questions remain with seven practices awaiting the Irish before the season kicks off.
The nickel defense – It's hard to imagine any current defensive back duplicating Robert Blanton, one of the keys to the 2010 defense, in a slot cornerback/nickel role this fall.
Now the starting field cornerback, Blanton could remain in that role for the team's nickel package, though the ancillary result would be the weakening of the field corner spot, one that would inevitably suffer in comparison to last year's solid starter, Darrin Walls.
Safety Jamoris Slaughter could earn first crack at the challenging slot role in September, with Blanton maintaining his spot on the perimeter. A former cornerback, Slaughter could conversely shift outside in nickel sets (allowing Blanton to operate over the slot), though sophomore cornerback Lo Wood's emergence as the backup field corner will impact the package as well.
Don't expect staff verification of either tact as it represents a tactical advantage entering the season opener. (Of note: The 2010 nickel package didn't formulate until Week Three, either.)
The No. 6 wide receiver – The team uses seven pass catchers as part of the varsity practice rotation, and wide receivers coach Tony Alford has noted the need for six each Saturday. As recently as August 17, Alford named every reserve wide receiver as a possible No. 6 option – I doubt it's because of the unit's embarrassment of riches.
If the first five of Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, Tai-ler Jones, John Goodman, and Robby Toma remain in good health, it won't matter: the Irish never rotated six receivers in a competitive game last season.
September Power Package – 5th-year senior Mike Ragone will likely finish his college career with fewer than 20 receptions, but he was instrumental in the team's power running game last November and in the Sun Bowl. Ragone was sidelined, at least intermittently, for the third time in his last four August camps, this time with a quadriceps injury.
Untested redshirt-freshman Alex Welch is a better receiver than Ragone; so too, from all accounts, is freshman Ben Koyack, but Ragone is a 23-year-old man in the power game. The Irish need him on a part-time basis for the next 12 weeks.
A third nose guard – Asked if the nose guard position could enjoy a healthy three-man rotation this fall, position coach Mike Elston noted, "We could…but we won't have to."
That doesn't bode well for competitors behind Sean Cwynar and Louis Nix.
Backup Mike (Middle) Linebacker – Senior Anthony McDonald appeared to have the upper-hand on redshirt-freshman Kendall Moore, though that observation was gleaned from 20 minutes at the conclusion of last Friday's scrimmage. Regardless, Manti Te'o's backup is nearly guaranteed the fewest snaps among all second-team defenders. Notre Dame needs Te'o on the field in 99 percent of its competitive situations in 2011, which equates to limited opportunity for the winner of this backup battle.
Backup left tackle – Massive redshirt-freshman left tackle Tate Nichols reached fan favorite status after a practice video showed him dominate during the team's "Rodeo" drill. Nichols dislocated his knee cap shortly thereafter and will have it immobilized for two weeks.
Kelly offered that a solid month would pass before Nichols could be back ready to compete on game day, and though modern medicine works wonders on football players – especially those performing along the line of scrimmage – Nichols shouldn't be counted on to block an opposing defensive end over the challenging opening month.
Left guard competitor Andrew Nuss would likely shift back to tackle should the Irish lose starter Zack Martin.