Developing Depth: Defensive Rookies

Our series breaking down Notre Dame's depth entering Spring Ball 2012 turns its focus to 18 spring roster players who've yet to play a down for Brian Kelly's Irish.

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. Below is Part I of our examination of 35 of the team's key returnees for 2012:

Part I

Our Part II follow-up column offered a look at lesser-known competitors expected to battle for starting and backup roles during the spring, summer, and August camp including a quartet of that saw meaningful action as rookies last season, but will have to fight returning vets for more playing time in 2012:

Part II

Our next sections examine the rookies: two sophomores, two early enrollees, and 14 freshmen withheld from action last season.

First-Timers – Defense

None of the players listed below has played a collegiate down. Only sophomores Tate Nichols and Cameron Roberson, and early enrollees Tee Shepard and Sheldon Day were not true freshmen last fall:

  1. Cornerback Jalen Brown – Earned the praise of head coach Brian Kelly for his season's scout team effort vs. team MVP Michael Floyd...Is expected to challenge for the boundary corner role in the spring with Bennett Jackson the only veteran returning at the position…

  2. Outside Linebacker Ben Councell – 6'4" 242-pound prospect enters the spring session with a manageable competition: current sophomore Danny Spond has the coverage skills necessary while Spond's classmate Prince Shembo can hold the edge vs. the run, but the latter could move to CAT to challenge freshman Ishaq Williams while the former has distinguished himself more on special teams than from scrimmage. Whether or not he presses his way onto the two-deep defense, the rangy Councell is likely to join the specialty coverage units as a starter.

  3. Defensive Lineman Sheldon Day – An influx of defensive line talent should afford the 5-star prospect from Indianapolis the luxury of a redshirt-season. Not since 2003 true freshman Trevor Laws has such a prospect entered a two-deep depth chart at Notre Dame in which he wasn't clearly needed over the course of a 13-game season. Should Day press his way into action, current freshman Chase Hounshell and/or sophomore Kona Schwenke appear to the be his initial veteran competitors for interior snaps. One of two early enrollees (along with CB Tee Shepard), Day's extra semester and summer month in the strength and conditioning program will prove invaluable entering the 2013 season (if not sooner).

  4. Inside Linebacker Jarrett Grace – The rookie defensive player most often referenced by head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco when pressed by the media. Grace showed athleticism (coverage skills) in our brief scrimmage viewings last season and enters spring ball in what should be an intriguing head-to-head battle with Kendall Moore at the middle linebacker spot. Neither will unseat Manti Te'o, but the future of the position will need quality snaps in some capacity when games remain in doubt next season.

  5. Safety Eilar Hardy – Tore his ACL in August camp and missed his first season of on field practices. Should be ready for summer conditioning but a mid-March's spring practice start date would be approximately eight months after his injury – it's doubtful he'll be at full speed until August camp. A two-deep safety position is there for the taking.

  6. Inside Linebacker Anthony Rabasa – Lost in the (fans') shuffle a bit as a true freshman due to late-September shoulder surgery that shelved him for the rest of the season. The 6'3" 240-pound Rabasa is expected to compete with starter Dan Fox and rotation regular Carlo Calabrese for Will Linebacker snaps this spring, though the former defensive end could conceivably get a look at the CAT linebacker spot should competition be needed.

  7. Cornerback Tee Shepard – Enter his first semester of college ready to compete against a quartet of cornerbacks with no combined starts to their credit. Shepard is expected to debut at the field cornerback position this spring though a realistic goal should be to work his way into the top three players at the position by the end of August camp, as he'll have a lot on his plate in his first collegiate practices in the coming months. While the Irish were rugged on the corners last season with two solid tacklers, Shepard's purported ability to turn, run, and cover could add a much-needed dimension to the Irish secondary in the coming seasons. At 172 pounds, Shepard's second official campus meeting should be with Irish Strength & Conditioning coach Paul Longo.

  8. Nose Guard Tony Springmann – Red-shirted in 2011 as he assimilated to the new position of nose guard as a true freshman. Said Springmann of the move inside from defensive end: "It's a whole different game. Technique, hands, feet, everything. It's completely different." The Fort Wayne product enters spring ball as the No. 3 NG behind Louis Nix and expected 5th-year senior returnee, Sean Cwynar.

    Note: Next, the conclusion of our Developing Depth series with a look at 10 offensive players looking to hit the field for the first time...including two current sophomores. Top Stories