Vacancies

Tuesday's list examines the vacated starting spots for Notre Dame entering spring ball and compares each to last year's pre-spring situation.

Notre Dame

Click here for our first three lists

And here for Part II

Quarterback, right guard, right tackle, No. 2 tight end, "W" wide receiver, dog linebacker, cat linebacker, and field cornerback -- each was a position under heavy competition for head coach Brian Kelly's Irish one year ago today.

Notre Dame's 12-1 season helped solidify a starter at nearly all of the above, but a new set of spring battles awaits.

Below is a look at each, and an off-the-cuff judgement if the position is in better or worse shape in terms of program depth this spring than last.

1. Center: Exit 5th-year senior and three-year starter Braxston Cave, enter two players with no meaningful playing time at the position, both of whom made the transition from high school tackle to college center in the last two seasons. Junior Matt Hegarty and center Mark Harrell -- and likely senior career backup Bruce Heggie -- are the principle competitors with others sure to be evaluated along the way.

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Its not close. Notre Dame's center position goes from certain strength to assumed weakness with the graduation of Cave and his backup and classmate, Mike Golic, Jr.

2. Mike (Middle) Linebacker: Manti Te'o had a stranglehold on the position for three-plus seasons, playing the position at its highest collegiate level in several seasons last year. Junior Jarrett Grace is the assumed heir with competition to come from senior Kendall Moore. (Expected 5th-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are likely to remain alongside the Mike -- a tandem for year #3 at the Will.)

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Come on…

3. Starting and No. 2 tight end: A de facto starter in Notre Dame's offense (referred to as their "12 personnel") last spring's tussle was among Troy Niklas, Alex Welch, and Ben Koyack. Add to that mix semester enrollee Mike Heuerman for 2013.

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: The starting tight end (Niklas, Welch, Koyack) won't approach graduated senior Tyler Eifert's impact on the offense, but the backup will be advanced by one year in his progression and, in reality, will likely be manned by the two veterans that lose out to the eventual starter. It appears to be Niklas leading the pack at present, especially with Welch seven months removed from an ACL tear when the spring session commences.
Final Verdict: No. 2 tight end compares favorably entering spring 2013. The starter? No...

4. Field Safety: Senior leader and three-season regular Zeke Motta is gone but a slew of talented underclassmen are in position to battle for a role expertly manned by Motta in 2012 and Harrison Smith in 2010-11. A March and April Battle Royale awaits from sophomores Nicky Baratti, C.J. Prosise, and (we assume) Elijah Shumate, as well as returning senior Austin Collinsworth, and potentially junior Eilar Hardy, though Hardy appeared to backup boundary safety Matthias Farley in a practice viewing late last season.

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Its unlikely Notre Dame will receive better safety play than Motta provided during the 2012 regular season, but there's plenty of talent available with more coming to campus in the summer. Final verdict: far worse entering the spring, but in good hands as the calendar year progresses…

5. Defensive End: Last year's spring session included Aaron Lynch ahead of 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore, who then put forth the best season of his career after Lynch's transfer south. Lewis-Moore will be replaced by his immediate backup, Sheldon Day, perhaps the team's best sophomore entering 2013.

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Since Day was third string last spring, this isn't close a calendar year later. And though the 19-year-old Day won't be as good as was the 22-year-old Lewis-Moore was last season, he might have a better career. Starting defensive end isn't a spot of concern entering spring ball -- its Day's potential backups (Chase Hounshell, Jarron Jones) that must emerge as key pieces by the end of the semester and over the summer.

6. "W" Wide Receiver: 5th-year senior John Goodman had his best season as well, with three touchdowns and a handful of helpful catches that greatly aided Notre Dame's run to 12-0. Senior Daniel Smith, junior DaVaris Daniels and sophomores Chris Brown and/or Justin Ferguson are all in line to compete for the starting spot with Daniels the leader in the clubhouse.

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Markedly better entering spring 2013 and far more enticing for the fall as well.

7. Right Guard: 5th-year senior Mike Golic, Jr., won the job and after some early struggles, performed quite well, especially in the running game and on the move. He beat out then redshirt-freshman Nick Martin, who returns to compete with classmate Conor Hanratty and potentially right guard Christian Lombard (Martin could work at right tackle).

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Similar to spring 2012 with a better than 50/50 chance to be an improved position in 2013.

8. Punter: Last year's punter was unchallenged -- four-year starter Ben Turk, and the senior enjoyed what was by far his most consistent season in 2012. This spring's only certain scholarship punter is Kyle Brindza, a junior who told Irisheyes.com in December he's had very little time to work on his punting since the start of the 2012 season.

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Yeesh…either potential 5th-year senior Nick Tausch will return to challenge Brindza (Tausch is a kicker/part-time practice punter, too) or Brian Kelly knows of a cannon-legged walk-on ready to join the fray. Final Verdict: worse. Brindza had a dead leg last November as the field-goal kicker and kickoff specialist. Now he adds punting to his workload.

9. Running Back: The position featured a returning 1,000-yard rusher and a classmate that beat him out, with lead candidate for 2013, George Atkinson, the definitive No. 3 'back entering and exiting both the spring and the fall. Atkinson is now the assumed lead dog with classmate Cam McDaniel and two players who sat out 2012 as his competitors.

Off-the-cuff comparison to spring 2012: Again, its not close at present, but the running back position is about opportunity, and Notre Dame is well-stocked both for spring practice and especially the fall when a pair of talented freshmen join the unit. Far worse for the spring vs. to be determined in August.

Tomorrow's List: Ranking each position's depth -- both proven and waiting-to-be-developed -- entering spring ball.


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