Click here for Part I and a look at the team's strengths at present.
In Part I, Irisheyes.com offered a six-pack of known quantities, or team strengths on which Notre Dame fans can hang their collective hats as the Irish exit spring ball 2012.
Below is a look at five more positions and/or players I believe, or if not me, the coaching staff, headed for solid seasons entering Brian Kelly's third year at the helm.
Poised to Produce…but Questions RemainThe quartet below, in some cases, recognizes the development of upperclassmen of late under the current coaching staff, and opines these will follow suit.
- Senior Zeke Motta is primed for a solid season – Fans and media often talk about "breakout" seasons, and Irish followers could point to Jonas Gray, Shane Walton, and Frank Stams as examples of the latter in their final seasons in South Bend. I won't go that far regarding Motta after the spring, but I'm confident the Notre Dame secondary and new safeties coach Bob Elliott has a solid, confident, winning football player to join standout Jamoris Slaughter at the position.
- Theo Riddick will be heavily involved in the offense – There's no change (nor is it close) at the top: Cierre Wood will be the team's lead runner, but Riddick might take the honors for most touches from scrimmage, catching upwards of 35 passes in the flat and on short crosses, and another 20 more mid-range and beyond. Couple that with at least 100 carries and a potential return to punt return duties and the cat-quick senior will have ample opportunity to make plays in his final season.
- Cat Tandem – Moving Prince Shembo from primarily a pass-rushing role to one that involves heavy coverage responsibilities – to the wide field, no less – was ill-advised last fall. Shembo's move to Cat seems a better fit as he'll have less ground to cover as the boundary side linebacker with greater responsibility (or at least more opportunity) holding the edge vs. the run.
In tandem with Shembo will be sophomore Ishaq Williams, who studied the Cat role last year but played sparingly behind since-graduated Darius Fleming. Williams will challenge Shembo for the starting role but like the Will linebacker position last fall, both will play ample snaps, including roles as four-man front defensive ends when the Irish defense switches to nickel and dime packages.
- Will Tandem – I believe the position as a whole performed better in 2010 (Carlo Calabrese pre-Navy; then Brian Smith for the injured Calabrese thereafter) compared to 2011 (Dan Fox and Calabrese in relative tandem, with Fox the starter). But I think Irish fans who heavily pan the Fox/Calabrese tandem are missing the point. The staff can get enough from Fox's relative athleticism and toughness, and Calabrese's nose for stopping the run in the box, to win at a BCS level. It might only be true because Manti Te'o plays next to them, and a stout defensive front plays in front of them, but it's true nonetheless. Key to the 2012 season: better use of situational substitutions – that is, removing both from the field – vs. teams that can put five athletes on the field a la Florida State.
- Tausch and Turk in Tandem – After a horrendous two-game start to his junior season, Ben Turk rebounded to average better than 40 yards per punt. Long viewed (by two staffs) as a top tier punter, Turk appeared to put his admitted nervousness on Saturdays behind him by mid-season last fall.
Nick Tausch, who did not kick last season and thus has two seasons of eligibility remaining, hit 15 of 18 field goal attempts including a record 14 straight as a true freshman in 2009. The Irish kicking game – at least in terms of its two specialists – should be fine in 2012. Of course, if you've watched football at any point in your life, you know "predictability" and "kickers and punters" rarely have anything in common.
Note: Next in the series, Part III and a look at players and positions with no equity entering the season, including a few I believe will thus become pleasant surprises in 2012. (Unfortunately for Irish fans, Part III is a bit larger than the previous editions.)