Offensive LinemenJunior Tate Nichols has yet to hit the field due to a redshirt freshman season (2010) and subsequent knee and shoulder injuries last fall, the latter of which required surgery in September.
Sophomores Brad Carrico, Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, and Jordan Prestwood were withheld from action last season. (Prestwood was also ineligible due to NCAA transfer rules after leaving Florida State over the summer.) Martin is in competition for the starting right guard spot with 5th-year senior Mike Golic, Jr.
LT Zack Martin: One of the two best Irish linemen in at least 20 of the 26 games he's played, Martin's best was likely a gem at Purdue last season in which the Irish running attack churned out 287 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries. I credited Martin with the key block on runs of 18, 15, 16, and 55 yards, as well as the offensive line's athletic highlight of the season: Martin throwing the lead block vs. Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen on a bubble screen to Michael Floyd -- the boundary wide receiver -- that resulted in 11 yards. Consider the athleticism needed for a 304-pound left tackle to lead block on a pass 15 yards to his left vs. a lightning-quick, 5'9" cornerback in space.
LG Chris Watt: At his best last season vs. South Florida (I had him for 12 quality blocks on running plays alone), Purdue, and Boston College, Watt's best effort as a first-year starter was likely the home destruction of Air Force, including a highlight reel downfield block over the left side in which he secured his defender nearly 10 yards downfield while taking out another would-be-tackler with a one arm shot to the torso.
Watt finished with notations for seven key blocks that resulted in gains of 10 yards or more for Irish runners in my final game review.
C Braxston Cave: An argument can be made for his first as a starter, the 2010 season-opening victory over Purdue during which Cave excelled as a second-level blocker in space, cutting down numerous Boilermakers defenders, but it was his toughness in last year's 15-12 ugly win at Pittsburgh that serves as his most impressive outing to date. Cave executed key blocks in four 3rd-and-short yardage conversions by the offense, offered a backside seal to spring Jonas Gray on a 79-yard touchdown run, and provided a pulling block to open a path for Cierre Wood on a key 18-yard gain later in the half.
Cave also teamed with Martin and Watt, as well as the Irish tight end tandem, to give Tommy Rees room on the game-clinching 1-yard sneak to conclude the contest.
C/G Mike Golic, Jr.: Threw a key block to spring QB Andrew Hendrix for a 78-yard sprint last season vs. Air Force but Golic's best effort to date was a relief role at Wake Forest. With starter and classmate Braxston Cave lost to a foot injury, Golic stepped in and fared well vs. lightning-quick Demon Deacons nose guard Nikita Whitlock. (Whitlock's 14 tackles for loss last season bested everyone on the Irish defense.) Golic helped the Irish running game amass 118 yards on 21 second half carries and the game-winning touchdown after trailing 17-10 at the half. More important, he and the Irish front allowed Notre Dame's offense to run out the clock: 11 rushes, 5:24 off the clock to conclude the contest without a pass attempt.
RT Christian Lombard: Played in all 13 games last season, though that's skewed a bit as Lombard appeared each week as one of Ben Turk's trio of blockers on the punt team (as well as holding down a spot on the field goal unit). Lombard's best moment from scrimmage was likely springing Cierre Wood for a 23-yard gain on a bounce outside behind a solid block over the right side.
G/C Bruce Heggie: Made his first career appearance from scrimmage as a center in the Air Force contest last October.
Defensive LinemenRedshirt freshman nose guard Tony Springmann, January enrollee Sheldon Day, and current summer student Jarron Jones will make their debuts this fall.
DE/DT Kapron Lewis-Moore: Lewis-Moore's three-year Irish career has included several notable games of impact but its most impressive that the reliable end was at his best when Notre Dame needed him most: Facing the nation's top left tackle last fall, USC's Ryan Kalil, Lewis-Moore was one of two Irish defenders to rise to the occasion against the Trojans, finishing with six tackles in less than three quarters. In back-to-back second quarter plays with the Irish down 14-0, Lewis-Moore stopped Trojans runners Curtis McNeal and Marc Tyler for no gain -- on 3rd and 4th and 1, respectively -- to halt a Trojans march at the Irish 36-yard line.
(Honorable Mention…and Underrated: Lewis-Moore registered 7 tackles including 1.5 for loss with a half-sack and QB hurry in last year's opener vs. South Florida. All of his tackles resulted in two yards or fewer, three forced Bulls punts or field goal attempts, as did his QB hurry.)
DE/DT/NG Stephon Tuitt: Posted his career-best tackles total vs. USC (7) which is, at the very least, a positive sign for his future prospects. But Tuitt's biggest impact game was likely two weeks later during a second-half comeback win at Wake Forest when he finished with four stops including two tackles for no gain and two more for lost yardage, including his first career quarterback sack, one that helped push the Demon Deacons from the shadow of the Irish goal out of field goal range (a 42-yard miss ensued two plays later).
Tuitt also recorded seven stops vs. Navy, the week between the USC and Wake Forest contests.
NG Louis Nix: Though he stood out in a blowout win over Navy (six tackles, four at or near the line of scrimmage) and in season-ending defeats to both Stanford (1.5 tackles-for-loss) and Florida State as well, Nix's best game to date was his first, the season-opener last year vs. South Florida. In his first collegiate action, Nix anchored an Irish defense that held the run-first USF to 3.0 yards per carry and an 0-4 effort on third-down conversion runs. In each the Bulls needed just two yards or fewer. Nix finished with six tackles including one for loss, two others for no gain, and a fourth for just two yards to force a punt.
DE/NG Kona Schwenke: Likely the second game of his IRish career when, vs. favored Utah on Senior Day in South Bend, Schwenke recorded a QB hurry and two tackles, both career highs. In his debut contest one week earlier, a wild affair vs. visiting, high-scoring Tulsa, Schwenke recovered a G.J. Kinne fumble to set up the Irish offense at the Golden Hurricane's 47-yard line with just over three minutes remaining in the first half.
Schwenke played sparingly last fall, failing to record a tackle in three contests during what was intended to be a redshirt sophomore season.
DE/DT Chase Hounshell The easiest selection of the lot: all of Hounshell's four stops as a true freshman last fall occurred in his debut gave vs. Air Force, a 56-33 Week Five victory. Two of the stops limited Falcons runners to just two yards.
DE Tyler Stockton: The senior recorded his only career stop at Boston College, a sack of quarterback Mike Marscovetra for a four-yard loss. Stockton appeared in six of the first eight games of the Brian Kelly era, but none since.
On Tap: The best games played by each Irish linebacker and defensive back.