A look at areas of improvement and realistic goals for each returning senior backup, both for the spring session and into next season.
Senior Quarterback Tommy Rees: A definitive backup entering spring ball for the first time since his early enrollment in 2010, Rees likely maxed out as a "closer" and spot starter last fall. Improvement relative to 2012 would include no interceptions (rather than one bad one) and similar contributions in contested matchups. Sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Gunner Kiel is expected to jump Rees as the team's No. 2, but that doesn't mean Kiel would be called upon in a fourth quarter pinch, especially on the road in September. Rees can retain that role with consistent play in practice and answering the bell when he's inevitably called upon next fall.
Senior Quarterback Andrew Hendrix: Its apparent Hendrix's best route to the field as a senior is a return of a "package" role, one that would utilize his speed and strength as a runner while maintaining a greater passing threat than would a Wildcat package. Hendrix could prove invaluable as a Scout Team competitor next fall prior to games vs. Michigan, Oklahoma, and Stanford, all teams with mobile quarterback threats.
Senior Wide Receiver Daniel Smith: Appeared in both his true freshman (2010) and sophomore seasons, but only as a member of the kick coverage unit. Smith emerged in 2012 due largely to his perimeter and in-line blocking ability, notably executing a crucial seal block inside to help spring Cierre Wood on his momentum-seizing 62-yard touchdown. Smith though caught just seven passes (targeted for 11) and none in excess of 11 yards; just two moved the chains. If the senior can add early-season mid-range receptions, and therefore establish himself as a viable receiving threat, teams will be less likely to focus on the run when Smith takes the field. His blocking prowess is absolutely essential to the downfield running game.
Senior Tight End Alex Welch: Missed last season after suffering a torn ACL in August camp. Welch caught just one pass in 2011, his first season as a competitor after redshirting as a 2010 freshman. An attainable goal if at full strength by August camp 2013 is to win the starting tight end role vacated by Tyler Eifert, though its more likely each of the team's three veterans at the position (Welch, plus juniors Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack) will all earn significant time.
Welch had established himself as the most well-rounded of the trio prior to injury -- he'll need to regain that form to compete six months from now, if not during the spring in non-contact drills.
Senior Nose Guard Kona Schwenke: Forced into action as a true freshman edge rusher (Game Nine) and then as a too-heavy nose guard in training (three games in 2011 when a sophomore redshirt appeared planned). Schwenke made his first major impact last season, spelling all-star nose guard Louis Nix often in the team's six-defensive linemen rotation. Expect more of the same in terms of playing time, but Schwenke could significantly improve vs. the run, better holding his gap and making the occasional play in the backfield as he did in Notre Dame's win at Oklahoma, perhaps his best overall contest.
Senior Safety Austin Collinsworth: Missed 2012 due to spring shoulder surgery and since had back surgery (discectomy) at season's end. The 2011 Special Teams Player of the Year was expected to serve as the team's fifth defensive back in 2012 prior to his spring game injury, a torn labrum. Head coach Brian Kelly offered in late January that the staff expected Collinsworth to be ready for spring ball, though the key to the senior's comeback season will be August camp, where he should compete in a wide open safety battle next to incumbent Matthias Farley.
Senior Cornerback Lo Wood: Like Collinsworth and Welch, missed 2012 due to a pre-season injury (torn Achilles in mid-August). From staff reports and a Media Day conversation with cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks, Wood had easily won the starting spot at field cornerback and had moved even with Bennett Jackson in terms of consistent practice play. For Wood, who is reportedly ready for spring ball, the only logical goal is to again win a starting spot, or force the defensive staff into a three-player rotation for the two starting corner spots. The nickel role is also there for the taking, either by the third corner, incumbent Elijah Shumate, or possibly freshman 'backer Jaylon Smith.
Senior Mike Linebacker Kendall Moore: An extremely effective special teams player for the kick return unit in 2011, Moore played poorly early last fall but improved late -- he'll need much more of the latter throughout spring ball, August camp, and the 2013 season to earn rotation work at middle linebacker. Should he evolve into a scrimmage contributor, or legitimabely challenge projected starter Jarrett Grace at any point, Moore could earn a fifth season of eligibility at a position in dire need of bodies for 2014.
Senior Offensive Lineman Bruce Heggie: Heggie has a chance to earn a true two-deep (backup) role at guard, thus finding his way onto the field in the occasional contest, and also preserving a season of eligibility for one of the team's incoming freshmen linemen, an ideal situation for every program. In terms of consistent weekly playing time, a spot as a blocker for the PAT and field goal units is well within the senior's reach.
Senior Wide Receiver Luke Massa: Tore his ACL in April 2012 but suited up for every game last season, officially as a backup holder but later seeing playing time at wide receiver in the team's Senior Day blowout win over Wake Forest. Massa will likely remain a Scout Team receiver, with the holder job his to lose after the graduation of punter/holder Ben Turk. As a former high school quarterback and viable runner, Massa lends a definitive trick play threat to the position. He's also worked as a blocker on the punt return unit (2011), and each spot on that unit should be open for competition after a third consecutive disappointing season.
Senior Special Teamer Justin Utupo: Like Moore, Utupo was instrumental in the team's kick return success of 2011. And like Moore, Utupo struggled in the role early last fall. Unlike Moore, he never rebounded, missing a notable key block vs. USC that would have sprung George Atkinson for a score. AFter serving a two-game suspension (along with Cierre Wood) for an undisclosed violation of team rules, Utupo needs to rededicate himself to the knockout blocks -- and failing that, effective blocking -- as a member of the return team.
Note: Senior offensive tackle Tate Nichols is expected to end his playing career and accept a medical scholarship to remain at the University. Nichols missed most of 2012 and all of the 2011 season due to a recurring knee injury, as well as shoulder surgery.
Of those listed above, only Rees and Smith, and Schwenke exhaust eligibility at season's end.
Next in our "Improvement Files" series, the junior class…