Defensive LineThe team's best unit from its 12-1 run last fall returns nearly intact for 2013, replacing only 5th-year senior and four-year versatile starter, Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Projected Starters and Key Reserves through nine practices: Senior Louis Nix (NG), junior Stephon Tuitt (DE), sophomore Sheldon Day (DE); top reserves -- senior Kona Schwenke (NG) and junior Tony Springmann (DE/DT)
Key Storyline: Hernia surgery for Stephon Tuitt -- It was disclosed the Hendricks Award finalist and second-team A.P. All-America as a true sophomore last fall played the second half of the season with a sports hernia. He had pre-spring surgery to address the condition and has just begun contact work in spring ball. Now 322 pounds, Tuitt's summer will include heavy cardio work to drop unnecessary weight/add good weight in preparation for four months in the trenches.
Change in the pecking order? None, though junior-to-be Chase Hounshell, out for 2012 after shoulder surgery, was expected to join the six-man game day rotation at defensive end. Hounshell will miss the 2013 season as well due to a third shoulder surgery, his career logically in question.
In his stead at present is senior Justin Utupo, up 23 pounds to 281 in an effort to be a more complete player on the nose. Redshirt-freshman Jarron Jones (6'5" 299) is next in line, at least until the freshmen hit campus this summer.
Quote to Note: "I know as Louis Nix's coach what I'm going to get from him on Saturday. He prepares himself in practice to get ready for Saturday. I've been a coach 14 years now, 13 years in Division One. He's one of the most ferocious competitors -- I mean, just watch the Alabama game. He was competing on every single play. He's a competitive young man that's trying to win the game."
-- Defensive line coach Mike Elston on the team's best player
Offensive LineThe 10-player scholarship crew shows a two-deep spring depth chart of: Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley at left tackle; Chris Watt and Bruce Heggie left guard; Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty center; Conor Hanratty and Mark Harrell right guard, and Christian Lombard plus early enrollee Steven Elmer at right tackle.
Harrell also works as a third center with Lombard a second right guard option.
Projected Starters and Key Reserves through nine practices: Returning left tackle Zack Martin ranks as No. 1 or No. 2 among the team's collegiate talents entering his fifth season at the program. Longtime left-side mate Chris Watt among the team's top 10. On the opposite side of the line is senior returnee Christian Lombard at right tackle, the trio starting an aggregate 78 games for head coach Brian Kelly.
Expected new starters are the junior pair of Nick Martin (center) and Conor Hanratty (RG), with classmate Matt Hegarty back battling Martin at center after December heart surgery.
Key Storylines: The incredible return of Hegarty following heart surgery. By August, the former four-star Scout.com tackle prospect should be at full strength and ready to battle fellow tackle convert Nick Martin for the starting job.
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has been a bit hamstrung this spring, operating for most of the session with just nine healthy scholarship players, at times eight. Sophomore backup left tackle Ronnie Stanley is recovering from elbow surgery and won't be involved in full contact this spring.
Change in the pecking order? Status quo as described by Kelly in late January when he noted Martin's move to the pivot. A quartet of incoming freshmen could push for varsity roles in both backup guard spots and at one tackle position. None of the five freshmen (Elmer included) is expected to burn a redshirt season unless injuries strike the first unit and its key versatile backups.
Quote to Note: "The adjustments we're making fundamentally are way less than we were doing at this time last year. They have a better understanding of it, and a better availability to do it, so we should be able to tie those pieces together a little bit better I think. I know, then at this point last year."
-- Hiestand on his offensive front compared to one year ago, a time when three players also returned including eventual third-team All-America center, Braxston Cave
Click here for Part I and a look at offense's skill position groups.