A breakdown of returning junior starters can be found here.
Returning Junior BackupsA look at current status and realistic goals for each junior reserve this spring and into the fall.
Running Back Amir Carlisle: The likely object of Irish fans' attention this spring, the versatile Carlisle appears ready to compete for the vacated RB/Slot role after the graduation of do-everything senior Theo Riddick. Carlisle offered the following to Irisheyes.com in January regarding his recovery from a March 2012 broken ankle:
At the start of December, I got a lot of reps," said Carlisle. "Then I got transitioned over to scout team for the second part (of bowl preparations). I got a lot of reps -- its the most I've run since last season so its been real good…just being back on the field gave my ankle a little bit more range of motion that I needed. I'll be ready 100 percent for spring ball."
He added he was healthy enough to play in the BCS Championship if it were an option.
Running Back Cam McDaniel: A fan favorite because of his running style and consistent success vs. both Navy and Miami last season, there are two pertinent points of note regarding the natural spread formation runner, the first two speak to his detractors, the third much more relevant:
- His best effort was against Navy, 30 points after the game had been decided…
- His next best effort was vs. Miami's backups, long after their starters quit…
- On Oklahoma's most important kick coverage moment of the Sooner's season, McDaniel split three defenders to gain seven extra yards and allow his offense decent field position, re-seizing momentum for his team on what proved to be the game-winning drive.
Whether it be in spurts or far more often than we've seen to date, McDaniel will make an impact. The road toward proving he can continue to run with fury and passion in more than spot duty, and against the best of the best for 13 weeks, begins this spring.
Defensive Lineman Tony Springmann: Far and away the most accomplished of the group to date, Springmann was the team's fifth defensive linemen (second off the bench) last season, his first as a competitor. Initially a nose guard (2011), Springmann played both DE and NG in the team's shifting front last season. He'll need to hold off redshirt-freshman Jarron Jones this spring or outplay Kona Schwenke to ascend to No. 4 DL status behind assumed starters Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Sheldon Day. Springmann's versatility gives him a leg up on both backups this spring.
Middle Linebacker Jarrett Grace: The heir apparent to Notre Dame's best defensive player in two decades, Grace has received nothing but rave reviews, both from former starter Manti Te'o and the Irish staff. Step one is plugging his gap; step two improving daily in pass fits; and three, and by September, commanding the huddle and communicating checks between the back and front lines.
Cat Linebacker Ishaq Williams: He played nickel linebacker, and nickel defensive end. He rotated at the Cat throughout the season, playing extensively in the upset win over Oklahoma in Norman, and faring well in both coverage and off the edge. He made a major impact late vs. Pittsburgh, and early vs. Navy.
But along the way, Williams fell victim to inconsistency, both setting the edge and in outright effort getting to the quarterback. My end-season observation of Williams vs. starter Prince Shembo stands: Shembo plays with a fury; Williams plays football for Notre Dame.
When Williams begins to harness his skills and meet the passion of those around him, the sky's the limit. Until then...
Center Nick Martin: Played guard and tackle in 2012 and will debut as a competitor at center this spring. The starting job is there to be won, with snap accuracy (a problem last season), power at the point (a strength of the position last year) and communication key to a position battle sure to rage through August.
Center Matt Hegarty: Had a procedure on his heart in January but will reportedly be ready for spring ball. If all goes well, his biggest challenge might be the ongoing two-season conversion from high school tackle to college center. He and Martin will battle with redshirt-freshman Mark Harrell for the job.
Guard Conor Hanratty: In-line to earn a starting spot at right guard after two seasons on varsity in practice but very little game action, and non in competitive contests. Hanratty would bring more raw power and aggression than former right guard Mike Golic, Jr., but the latter excelled on the move and was undervalued in the running game. The position has yet to show consistent pass protection under Kelly dating back through 2010 and Trevor Robinson. Hanratty can change that reality over the next three seasons.
Defensive Lineman Chase Hounshell: Sat out last season after September shoulder surgery. Hounshell played as true freshman in 2011, mostly against Air Force against whom he collected each of his four career stops. Expected to battle for a backup role at DE, and if he can make the competition close (with either Springmann or Jones), the Irish could go seven-deep for the first time in the Kelly era among the three interior (DE/NG/DE) line positions.
Cornerback Jalen Brown: Intermittent playing time lessened as the 2012 season -- his first as a competitor -- progressed. Brown missed too many tackles in space for a zone-heavy defensive scheme, with the additional issue being he's better suited for press coverage, per Kelly and former wide receiver Michael Floyd. If Brown can improve as a two-deep zone cornerback, the No. 4 CB spot is there for the taking.
Cornerback Josh Atkinson: Like Brown, played less as the season progressed, though Atkinson has burned two seasons of eligibility and is the only true junior on this list. His speed should translate to improved special teams play, perhaps his quickest path to the field as the team's cornerback depth continues to improve. Atkinson was better in late 2011 in kick coverage than at any point last season.
Dog Linebacker Ben Councell: Backed up Danny Spond, a player who rarely came off the field in the season's final 10 weeks. Councell showed well in extended action vs. Wake Forest, and his size/speed ratio (6'5" 240) suggests he'll make an impact over the next three seasons, either at Dog or potentially inside where the Irish lack depth.
Cat Linebacker Anthony Rabasa: Carved his niche as an edge rusher after a 2011 season spent at inside 'backer, now Rabasa has to force the staff to consider him for rotation duty behind Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams. Fully engaged on the bench in every game, Rabasa has the attitude to excel if not immediate opportunity. His fourth and fifth seasons will likely include far more playing time than his third.
Safety Eilar Hardy: Battling for a backup spot at the deepest position on the roster. Hardy has some experience as the Star (nickel) in practice and will likely be part of that competition this spring as well. The quickest way to his college debut is special teams, a likelihood by August when he'll be 24 months removed from ACL surgery. Spring 2013 is nonetheless huge for the former four-star prospect who's yet to play a college down heading into his third season.
Note: Next in our Improvement Files series, the team's true sophomores, each of whom played as freshman last season.