On the surface, Notre Dame is replacing four of its backups for 2013. Of the four players lost to injury and transfer, only Neal was a potential starter next fall.
But in terms of potential impact for 2013, I'd begin with Kiel, because its highly unlikely starting quarterback Everett Golson will play through the season unscathed under center. Kiel's projected ascent to the No. 2 role would have yielded opportunity for a player purported to have prodigious talent.
Following Kiel is Neal, a guaranteed two-deep competitor for the slot receiver role, a potential starter there, and the team's returning punt returner. Thereafter, the No. 2 right tackle Nichols, and finally Ferguson, who would have been fighting for a spot in the game day receivers' rotation (likely six players deep), but also would have had an inside track to return as a starter on special teams.
Beyond 2013, Neal is likely the biggest loss, though for an admittedly speculative reason: I never felt Kiel would remain with the program beyond the 2013 campaign. (His best chance to start would be injury or regression from Golson.)
Ferguson is a player who could have developed, though there's a glut of young at his position. Nichols' knee had been ravaged by injury (he had 2011 shoulder surgery as well), and liklely would have been passed by younger talent as a result had he returned for a fifth season in 2014.
Below is a look at the myriad Irish players who could benefit from opportunity in the quartet's absence.
Quarterback: A minus B = HendrixFor 2013, the obvious beneficiary of Kiel's departure is senior Tommy Rees. The backup quarterback job is likely his, just as it was entering 2012, 2011, and 2010.
In those seasons, Rees started two, twelve, and four games, respectively. More important, he impacted six, including the final five (2010), all thirteen (2011), and six intermittently (2013) by his play -- either producing positive results or in a handful of cases, playing poorly.
That's not a bad gig for a supposed career backup.
But Rees exhausts his eligibility at season's end. His classmate Andrew Hendrix, does not. His return for a fifth season goes from unlikely and unnecessary with Kiel on board (why bring back a fourth string quarterback for a 5th season?) to essential, as the 2014 cupboard shows only Golson and 2013 early enrollee Malik Zaire without Hendrix in tow.
Look for Hendrix to get a fifth, and also serve as the No. 3 varsity quarterback this fall.
The aforementioned Zaire benefits from Kiel's absence immensely this spring, as competitive reps are now his. Rees doesn't need extra work, and Zaire can go head-to-head with Hendrix in the pecking order.
Zaire also receives a touch more time with the varsity in August camp and early-season 2013, though its likely he'll work as the scout team quarterback for the bulk of next fall.
As for Golson? He'd have won the job without question, but now the second-year starter can breathe easily after inevitable mistakes -- Rees isn't breathing down his neck as would have the highly touted Kiel.
Final Thought: Kiel's transfer could have a major impact on 2013, but only if Golson is injured for an extended period.
No. 2 Tackle -- Youth will be servedIn good health, Nichols would have won the No. 2 right tackle role, which would have meant fewer reps for early enrollee Steven Elmer, fewer still for incoming freshmen joining in June, and likely less playing time in the fall for sophomore Ronnie Stanley, the presumed No. 2 left tackle.
In summation: As always, Kelly will attempt to preserve eligibility for his freshmen linemen, Elmer included. Stanley has an outside chance to start: if the incumbent at right tackle Lombard is indeed deemed a better fit at right guard, Stanley is the obvious choice to start in his stead at right tackle.
Should Lombard move to guard, two true freshmen will likely see varsity reps in practice, if not playing time at tackle, next fall.
(The loss of Nichols also results in a possible backup tackle role for whomever is beaten out at center, as the leaders for that role, juniors/redshirt-sophomores Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty, entered college as tackle prospects.)
The offensive line's evolution, both for 2013 and the future, is underway.
All in with Ferguson outIncluding the transfer of Neal, the realistic ceiling for Ferguson in terms of playing time next fall was fifth in the unit's pecking order: T. J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels will be 1A and 1B; Chris Brown, Daniel Smith, and it appears surging redshirt-freshman safety-turned-receiver C.J. Prosise will continuously compete for 3/4/5.
Ferguson thus could have battled freshman early enrollee James Onwualu, plus incoming freshman Will Fuller for the coveted sixth game day role. (Early enrollee Corey Robinson and injured incoming freshman Torii Hunter, Jr., would be in the mix vs. Ferguson as well.)
With Ferguson gone, Onwualu and Robinson receive more spring reps, the former with a decent chance to crack the rotation. Apparently already ahead of Ferguson overall, Prosise is more impacted by Neal's absence (more on that in Part II), but there's no reason Prosise can't find time on the perimeter rather than the slot as six months of staff evaluation ensue.
Should injuries hit the position, senior career backup and former quarterback Luke Massa is now closer to the field and/or varsity as a player well-versed in the offense. Without Ferguson, and as one of seven rather than nine receivers remaining this spring, Massa's reps are now a bit more regular, just a calendar year removed from ACL surgery.
Final Thought: The main beneficiary in Ferguson's absence is Onwualu, who'll have more of a leg up on Fuller when his classmate arrives in late June.
Note: Part II will examine the myriad possibilities for the slot receiver -- or better put, the team's fifth skill position starter's role -- following Neal's transfer.