Part I of our series examining Notre Dame's dual-focused bowl preparation reviewed key players in position to help the Irish win its forthcoming contest, but also get a head start on relevant depth chart competition for the spring.
Part II below looks at the team's untested backups who could step to the fore in December – most cannot play in the bowl game, but all can make an impact heading into the off-season.
The Manti IssueIf true junior linebacker and Butkus Award finalist Manti Te'o returns for his senior season in South Bend, the defense's inside linebacker unit will serve as a veteran strength. The defense will have its heart, soul, best run-stuffer, best screen defender, and best overall player in tow. Te'o will be the team's best overall player and likely one of two captains next fall.
If he forgoes his senior season to declare for the NFL Draft…
Regardless, Te'o won't need much work in December, and should have as little as possible to aid the recovery of what seems to be a chronic ankle problem. His 2013 successor is likely already on campus, and the bowl practices offer redshirt-freshman Kendall Moore and true freshman Jarrett Grace a chance at head-to-head competition.
Moore was a special teams starter and garbage-time sub for Te'o (the latter never left the field when healthy or with the game in doubt, at least not for the presence of another inside ‘backer). Grace was withheld from action but continually noted as a bright spot by the staff (at the end of August, during the Bye Week, and at season's end).
Te'o's health makes this a moot point. Snaps are available to the reserves – Grace should be among them.
Safety ConcernsChuck Martin's group returns two of its three crucial combatants, but the loss of Harrison Smith – like the departure of uber-athlete David Bruton before him – won't be fully appreciated until September's live bullets begin to strike the Irish secondary.
Jamoris Slaughter is a 5th-year lock and two-year starter Zeke Motta will be a true senior next fall. Slaughter's oft-injured classmate Dan McCarthy is unlikely to return while 2010 freshman Chris Badger is still officially expected back from his two-year mission to Ecuador in time for summer camp.
December practice should open the door for safety and dime package linebacker Austin Collinsworth to get a look at a true safety position. He, the Slaughter/Motta starting duo, injured freshman Eilar Hardy (ACL tear in August) and Badger comprise the safety depth chart for August 2012. Throw in untested athlete Matthias Farley (a Scout Team safety to our knowledge this fall) and the tested depth at the position is non-existent.
Collinsworth is an athlete thought capable of many positions – including slot receiver. December would be an ideal time to cement his future in a true free or strong safety role as he, Badger, Hardy, Farley, and incoming freshmen are all one play away from a starting role next fall.
Frosh vs. the 5thIn our estimation, center Mike Golic and wide receiver John Goodman are the only seniors on the fifth-year fence – both are certain to apply, both could return to backup roles in positions of need.
But Notre Dame has five freshmen offensive linemen and an injured sophomore, Tate Nichols, who've never played a down champing at the competitive bit. One or two among that group, along with redshirt-freshman Christian Lombard, will likely start a game and/or as the season-long "sixth man" on Ed Warinner's offensive front next fall.
The same is true for freshman wideout DaVaris Daniels and oft-injured, rarely used sophomore Daniel Smith, who seemed to fall out of favor with Kelly after missing the spring and most of August camp with leg injuries. One or both must play a key role in the passing game next year whether Goodman returns or not. December's practice sessions will serve as a first indicator to that end.
Riddick's RoleCan Theo Riddick thrive as a wide receiver?
He can cut up linebackers in man coverage underneath. He can make most defenders miss in space. And on occasion, he completes a full-fledged pass route for a key catch.
But does doubt remain he's a better running back than receiver? Or at least hybrid player that often touches the ball in space and in the backfield rather than trying to run under a pass downfield?
Let's find out through the off-season, beginning with Bowl Practice #1.
A Novel ConceptNotre Dame hasn't gained a punt return yard since Week Four when it gained one (the earth moved for me, too).
It's well-documented that horrendous blocking up front – and of late, the complete of effort to that end with the defense on the field – has contributed heavily to the problem. But there's no reason a player returning for 2012, one that has yet to contribute to the late-place national punt return ranking of 0.3 yards per game, shouldn't field every punt in the upcoming Bowl Game.