Offensive LineThe addition of incoming freshmen Ronnie Stanley (OT) and Mark Harrell (C) will give head coach Brian Kelly and new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand 14 scholarship athletes for fall camp, the program's highest total since pre-season camp 2009.
Given Strength: The left side. Senior left tackle Zack Martin and senior left guard Chris Watt are experienced, aggressive, talented, and in good health. 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave possesses all but the latter, still rehabbing from foot surgery in November.
Emerging Competitors: Junior guard/tackle Christian Lombard; junior right tackle Tate Nichols, and a pair of redshirt-freshmen: Conor Hanratty (primarily a guard) and Nick Martin (both guard and tackle) appear to have made the biggest strides since last season and during the spring. Left tackle Jordan Prestwood might have locked down the No. 2 left tackle role, but eight other linemen will likely log more minutes than the Florida State transfer who happens to back up the line's best player in (Zack) Martin.
Unanswered Questions: Will either the RG or RT position feature a legitimate job share as will other positions throughout the depth chart? Will Notre Dame finally feature more than six (as in 2011) or seven (2010) offensive linemen in competitive game situations? Doing so would be the first such occurrence of the Kelly era. Will Cave be fully healed and in game shape to begin camp? To kick-off the season in Dublin?
Can Martin take the next step from program's best, to among the nation's best and well-rounded offensive tackles? Can one of the redshirt-freshmen (Hanratty, N. Martin, Prestwood) beat out the presumed starters and redshirt-sophomores (Lombard and Nichols)? Who is the future starting center with both Cave and fellow 5th-year Mike Golic, Jr. moving on after season's end?
Look Out For: Tate Nichols – Yet to play a down entering his junior season (redshirt, then injury), Nichols has the size, power, aggression, and attitude to excel over the next three seasons. His admitted area of emphasis at present is pass-protection – should he prove reliable in that vein, the Irish and Hiestand will have a 6'8" 320-plus pound athlete grading road over the right side through 2014.
Unsolicited Advice: Notre Dame needs to develop its 2013 center before next spring. Live snaps, even after a game's decision has been secured, are necessary for redshirt-freshman Matt Hegarty if he is indeed the heir apparent at the position. The same holds true for Prestwood who might have to replace senior offensive tackle Zack Martin at season's end. (Martin has two years of eligibility remaining but could forgo his 5th for the NFL Draft next spring.)
Defensive LineTwo competitors have been limited or withheld from contact this spring: sophomore Chase Hounshell and redshirt-freshman Tony Springmann. The squad will welcome interior prospect Jarron Jones in the summer.
Given Strength: Defensive end depth – The trio of sophomores Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, plus 5th-year senior and three-year starter Kapron Lewis-Moore could form one of the best rotations in the nation. If the latter is healthy and the sophomore pair progresses as planned, the position will house three of the team's 10 best players in 2012.
Emerging Competitor: Kona Schwenke – Lauded by position coach Mike Elston as the unit's most improved player this spring, Schwenke has taken his share of first team nose guard reps over incumbent starter Louis Nix. Regardless of his starting/backup status, Schwenke appears in line to be one of the top five regular rotation members next fall on a defensive line that expects to go six, if not seven deep. Like the aforementioned Tuitt, the 6'4" 285-pound junior is one of the few members of the line who works at both nose guard and defensive end.
Unanswered Questions: Can Lynch and Tuitt not only avoid a sophomore slump, but take a major leap from impressive freshmen to legitimate college starters and stalwarts in just their second seasons? Will Lewis-Moore regain his quickness off the snap after tearing his ACL in late October 2011? Can Louis Nix practice as hard as he plays, thus earning the staff's trust entering his junior season? Can the defensive line possibly live up to its hype? (Top tier teams USC and Stanford both had success at scrimmage, so too did the supposedly overmatched offensive front of Florida State, grinding out a first down to seal victory in last year's Champs Sports Bowl.)
The bulk of the team's depth resides among redshirt-freshmen, sophomores, and a true freshman early enrollee – will that ‘depth on paper' translate to the field in September battles vs. Michigan State and Michigan?
Look Out For: Stephon Tuitt. Lynch was the freshman phenom of 2011 – if he can stay healthy and continue to improve, the versatile, massive Tuitt could take the reigns as a sophomore playmaker up front.
Unsolicited Advice: A preponderance of four-man fronts (a combination of Lynch, Tuitt, Lewis-Moore, Nix/Schwenke, and OLBs Ishaq Williams and Prince Shembo) might benefit the team more than a three-down base. The lineup would remove the vexing Dog linebacker position from the equation, allowing the Irish defense to play with four down linemen, Manti Te'o and another inside ‘backer, plus five defensive backs – with Jamoris Slaughter playing a hybrid LB/S/nickel role – to better combat the horizontal offensive attacks that await in 2012.