Just 15 of Notre Dame's regular contributors to the team's offense, defense, and special teams in 2011 (including walk-ons) exhausted their eligibility at season's end.
At least 35 of the team's regular contributors return for the 2012 season with each detailed at the link above.
Below is a look at the lesser-known competitors expected to battle for starting and backup roles during the spring, summer, and August camp. Our first group features a quartet of competitors that saw meaningful action as rookies last season, but will have to fight returning vets for more playing time in 2012.:
- Defensive Lineman Chase Hounshell – An unintentional omission from the list of rotation members in 2011, the true freshman Hounshell debuted in Week Six vs. Air Force and lent valuable backup snaps during the ensuing contests played without starting defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, and when Stephon Tuitt was lost subsequently to illness. Hounshell enters spring ball as one of three main backups along the defensive front.
- Running Back Cam McDaniel – Listed with eight games played beginning with a Week Five trip to Purdue and each week thereafter with the exception of the Navy contest…Logged three carries in mop-up duty and enters the spring in a battle for the No. 3 running back role with classmate George Atkinson behind seniors Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick. Incoming freshmen prospects Will Mahone and Keivarae Russell bring more competition, especially Russell who could challenge McDaniel for a change-of-pace role next season.
- Inside Linebacker Kendall Moore – Moore likely should have been included in Part I as he was a valuable special teams contributor in 2011. A redshirt-freshman last fall, Moore remains on the outside looking in as Manti Te'o's backup in the middle and enters spring ball in what should be a tight race with true current freshman Jarrett Grace for a spot on the two-deep. Moore posted 10 tackles including a career-best four vs. Maryland last November.
- Offensive Tackle Christian Lombard – Played far less than most observers anticipated as starting tackles Zack Martin and Taylor Dever remained in good health throughout the 13-game season. The redshirt-freshmen played in 13 games nonetheless thanks to duties on special teams including his role as one of the trio of punt protectors in front of Ben Turk. Lombard is expected to challenge for the starting right tackle role in spring ball, getting competition from classmate Tate Nichols at the outset.
Versatility and Veterans Back in the Fold?Most will continue to add depth in 2012 but Irisheyes.com sees one surprise starter and another key reserve among the seven veterans listed below:
- Wide Receiver Daniel Smith – Burned his second season of eligibility with a "starting" special teams appearance on kick coverage vs. Navy in Game 8 (also appeared briefly vs. USF in the opener). The South Bend native first appeared as a true freshman in 2010 vs. Tulsa in Game 9 and one week later, recovered a fumble on kickoff coverage to set up an Irish touchdown vs. Utah.
Smith appeared to fall out of favor with the staff after missing the spring with a nagging hamstring injury and then most of August camp with an undisclosed leg injury. It's not known if Smith aggravated his pre-existing leg injury in the aforementioned appearance vs. Navy, but he did not appear in a game thereafter. The wide receiver position has few competitors in the spring – it's time for the 6'4" 215-pound Smith to step to the fore.
- Wide Receiver Luke Massa – Played in eight of the team's final nine games as a kick return blocker and punt team blocker. The former quarterback worked last year with the wide receivers and has a chance to turn heads this spring operating from the depleted (x players) wide receiver group – one that will welcome at least three new faces next fall, each of whom will provide competition to the still-developing Massa. The 6'4" 220-pound athlete is eligible through the 2015.
- Center Bruce Heggie – Made his field debut about three years ahead of schedule – at least according to recruiting pundits – but the converted defensive lineman will have a battle on his hands for the third-string center role. Should potential 5th-year senior Mike Golic move on, Heggie will likely compete with 2011 freshman Matt Hegarty for spring snaps at center.
- Kicker Nick Tausch – Did not see the field in 2011 thereby preserving a season of eligibility. Enters 2012 as a senior with two more years of field time available, though that will be determined by his status: starter or reserve? Tausch should enter spring ball on even ground with current freshman Kyle Brindza in competition for the field goal kicking role (Brindza should keep the kickoff specialist's duties). Of course, Tausch has hit 15 of 18 career attempts including a then-record 14 straight as a true freshman in 2009 – Brindza has yet to attempt a collegiate kick. The smart money is on Tausch.
- Defensive Lineman Kona Schwenke – Burned his second season of eligibility with a nonsensical backup appearance in the first half at Purdue. The appearance seemed unnecessary as freshman Chase Hounshell (above) debuted one game later, suggesting he was likely ready for spot duty if needed in a four-touchdown blowout of the Boilers. Schwenke bulked up considerably since enrolling (60-plus pounds) and is still adjusting to the weight, the move likely for a role as backup nose guard or defensive tackle in 4-3 fronts. He made field appearances vs. Wake Forest and Maryland in November.
- Nose Guard Tyler Stockton – Did not play in 2011 and hasn't played since suffering a shoulder injury (one that required December surgery) in October 2010. Missed the 2011 spring session with a sprained PCL, his absence noted with frustration by his head coach: "Stockton has a bit of a PCL inflammation," Kelly noted in early April 2011. "It shouldn't be something that holds him out very much longer because he's a D-lineman, he doesn't need (a functioning) PCL, really."
Stockton will be a senior in 2012 with two seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Tight End Jake Golic – Did not play in 2011 after breaking his arm in August, then suffering a back injury that required surgery (similar to that endured by Tyler Eifert following the 2009 season). Enters the 2012 campaign as a senior with two years of eligibility remaining though his medical status has put the season in doubt.
ObservationsAmong the players in the two categories above, the players most likely to earn starting roles for all or part of 2012 are, in order: Christian Lombard (RT), Nick Tausch (K), and Cam McDaniel (punt return). For those wondering about the latter…why not? You've seen the alternatives.
Moore and Hounshell are backups at stacked positions, though Moore should get his chance in 2013 when Manti Te'o moves onto the NFL. Opportunity knocks for South Bend Clay's Daniel Smith – just as it did last spring. Notre Dame enters spring ball with three receivers who've caught a pass: T.J. Jones, Robby Toma, and Theo Riddick, and the latter is expected to move to running back. A potential fourth, hopeful 5th-year senior John Goodman, has not distinguished himself as a starter though his knowledge of the offense, not to mention the craft, likely far exceeds Smith's.
Massa has likely evolved from QB prospect to Big Skill profile player – a competitor that will play anywhere he's needed over the next two, possibly three seasons. (For you longtime Irish ‘backers, the versatile former QB and 1988 national champion Steve Belles forged an Irish career to which Massa should aspire).
2012 is an important season for Schwenke to at least make a dent in what will be an extremely deep defensive line rotation (a goal line defense role might be worth exploring).
Note: The conclusion of our Developing Depth series will look at spring ball competitors yet to play a down for the Irish, including a pair of early enrollees on the defensive side of scrimmage.