#1 -- Nose GuardCombatants include Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke, and Tony Springmann with options in reserve as detailed below:
BCS Championship Level Starter? Yes, Louis Nix ranked among the nation's best and last year, underrated. He's the program's top collegiate player entering 2012 and one of its top two pro prospects.
Proven Depth: Schwenke is better-suited as a backup than starter, but he's a high-level player as the former. Springmann is a defensive end that can move inside, especially when the line shifts to a four-man front. The pair gives Notre Dame A-level rotational depth and just short of that grade in a pinch (spot-start in Nix's stead). The pair would be tested sans Nix over the long haul.
Theoretical Depth: Defensive ends Sheldon Day and Stephon Tuitt can both play as three-technique defensive tackles in a four-man front. Both could probably hold the point at the nose in a pinch as well. No team looks better along its defensive interior than do the Irish in 2013. Should 6'3" 3-4-pound freshman Eddie Vanderdoes surprise and enroll this month, the five-star slated for defensive end duty could also help inside as needed.
A final theoretical note: Day might be one of the team's 10 best players, both exiting and entering 2013.
Final Analysis/Look Ahead: Barring injury, Notre Dame's nose guard position is the nation's best. Nix is a top-level, BCS-championship player, Schwenke is quality spot starter and reserve, and Springmann -- though better suited at end -- will make a few plays as a reserve inside and could battle over the long haul. Throw in the ability to shift to a 4-3 front and the problems both Day and Tuitt would present therein, and this is easily the program's No. 1 position unit entering August camp.
Unfortunately, the position is one of great concern for 2014.
#2 -- Defensive EndsStephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann, Justin Utupo, Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones, and freshmen Isaac Rochell, Jacob Matuska, and (until proven otherwise) Eddie Vanderdoes
BCS Championship Level Starters? Tuitt is an NFL-level starter when healthy; he was among the nation's best players, not just defensive ends, prior to suffering a sports hernia midway through 2012. Day is the next big thing according to every player and coach interviewed over the last eight months.
Proven Depth: Springmann can be counted on for quality snaps in a rotation as he was last fall as the No. 2 player off the bench (he ascends to No. 1 with Day starting).
Theoretical Depth: Ample, but admittedly shaky at best. I had Vanderdoes initially slated for two-deep depth chart (ahead of Utupo/Stockton/Jones) but his enrollment would rank as the biggest shock of the off-season at present. Vanderdoes' likely defection puts a dent in this category -- better than the alternative (impacting "proven" depth). You can't miss what you never had…
Stockton showed well as a fifth-year in the Blue Gold Game; wake me when he hits the field in the first half this season...Theoretically, the former four-star, 6'5" 299-pound Jones should be able to contribute at the back end of the rotation as a redshirt-freshman. In reality, and reading between the lines from every interview gleaned this spring, Jones remains a year away…The freshmen Rochell and Matuska are likely slated for redshirt duty unless starters go down.
Final Analysis/Look Ahead: Tuitt and Day will rank among the nation's best and Springmann will be a quality player in reserve, but its essential one of the Utuopo/Stockton/Jones trio emerge. Utupo seemed to have a hold (or was that a place-holder) on a backup spot at spring's conclusion, but I'll go out on a limb and give the edge to the former four-star Stockton by the time the bullets go live in September.
If Tuitt remains in school for his senior season, he and Day will be the nation's best tandem in 2014.
#3 -- Boundary ("Cat") LinebackerPrince Shembo, Ishaq Williams, Romeo Okwara, and Doug Randolph
BCS Championship Level Starter? Apparently not, as Shembo didn't play to that billing in the BCS Championship game last January. He was, however, a top-six or top-seven Notre Dame player per my film rankings prior to the clinic suffered at the hands of Alabama's awesome offensive front. Consider Shembo on the verge of this status entering his final season.
Proven Depth: Williams takes heat for not living up to his five-star billing to date, but as a backup outside linebacker, I thought he fared quite well. The defense lost physicality at the point when he replaced Shembo, but Williams' versatility aided the squad on third down, both in coverage and as a pass-rusher.
Theoretical Depth: Okwara has the tools to be a great, not good, outside linebacker in 2015. Can he arrive at that level in 2014? Can he make an impact this fall if both Shembo and Williams remain in good health? After Okwara, Randolph seems a natural for the boundary 'backer spot. A redshirt-season is advisable for the incoming freshman.
Final Analysis/Look Ahead: Three tremendous athletes, one proven football player, one five-star on the verge, and a future beast. I'll take it. This might have ranked as the best position group had Shembo fared better on the game's biggest stage and if Williams had a little more hard evidence in his favor. Notre Dame is set next year at the position as well.