#4 -- Field ("Dog or Drop") LinebackerSenior Danny Spond, junior (redshirt-sophomore) Ben Councell, and incoming freshman Jaylon Smith serve as an impressive collection of skill talent.
BCS Championship Level Starter? Spond, like the bulk of his cohorts on the defense, didn't approach his regular season performance level vs. Alabama. But like the previously discussed Shembo, I believe Spond is on the verge -- one of the team's top 15 players and top five most versatile last fall, and a player that can be counted on again in 2013.
Proven Depth: None, but Councell challenged Spond for the starting role into August camp 2012 and was recently offered as the most improved player through spring ball 2013 by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Stronger than when he enrolled and blessed with a long frame a tick over 6'4" 248 pounds, Councell is three seasons deep in Notre Dame's strength and conditioning and ready to make an on-field impact.
Theoretical Depth: Incoming five-star Jaylon Smith is among the best freshman in the nation and the most athletic linebacker Notre Dame has signed, ever. He's the most versatile high school defender to pick South Bend as his college home since Parade Defensive Player of the Year Kory Minor, 1995. So yeah, there's depth behind Spond.
Final Analysis: You could reasonably argue this position is the most impressive in the program, but we're not certain of Smith's 2013 slotting, nor that Councell can play anywhere outside of the LaBar Practice Complex. Regardless, Irish fans should take note: the difference in the level of play and execution at field linebacker in 2012 and likely 2013, vs. what Notre Dame was forced to trot out there in 2010-11 (Diaco's first two seasons) is staggering.
Though Spond exhausts his eligibility this season, the field/drop 'backer position is in great hands for the foreseeable future.
#5 -- Tight EndNone of the 2013 quintet: Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack, Alex Welch, Mike Heuerman, and Durham Smythe, exhausts his eligibility this season.
BCS Championship Level Starter? Yep, he just graduated.
Proven Depth: Troy Niklas was a solid No. 2 tight end for a 12-0 team last fall. In terms of total playing time, the former linebacker was behind only Tyler Eifert, T.J. Jones, and Theo Riddick in terms of snaps from skill position players. At worst, Niklas will be a solid tight end in 2013 -- one with immense potential entering his second season at the position. All of 6'7" 260 pounds, Niklas appears ahead of former five-star Ben Koyack and former four-star Alex Welch, the latter recovering from an August 2011 ACL tear.
Head coach Brian Kelly dubbed Koyack a much more confident player in the spring, while Koyack noted his chief off-season focus for improvement was bettering his blocking in space. Blessed with tremendous hands, Koyack suffered concentration drops last season in a limited role.
Welch played sparingly in 2011 as a backup and hasn't caught a pass of confidence entering his senior season. Position coach Kerry Cooks offered Welch was ahead of NIklas prior to injury last August because he played more physical than either Niklas or Koyack.
There's not a 2013 All-America in this mix, but the position is stable at worst, with standout potential if each of the three reaches peak performance.
Theoretical Depth: January enrollee Mike Heuerman could likely play, and play well as a true freshman. Here's hoping he has a frustrating season on the sidelines and four outstanding seasons to follow. Ditto Durham Smythe, doubtless behind Heuerman in the pecking order as he prepares to hit campus in two weeks. Redshirt seasons are advisable for both as Notre Dame moves into its new era of tight ends after 2014 -- this entire collection can come back next season.
(My guess is Heuerman will make a cameo appearance early this fall.)
Final Analysis: If the choice is Eifert, plus one from this quintet as his backup, and a walk-on, or simply the quintet as a whole, I'd admittedly choose the former. But at Tight End U, greatness moves on to the next level, and the Niklas/Koyack/Welch trio can help the Irish offense win in 2013. It just won't be as awe-inspiring as it was with the record-setting Eifert.
(For Irish fans wondering if one of the trio can match Eifert's abilities in the passing game, either this year or in 2014, its not feasible.)
But the group as a whole could prove to be among the nation's best. Each of the "starting trio" has holes in his game; each has the ability to be a top-level collegiate tight end by the end of 2013.
As always, the position is in great hands in future seasons at Notre Dame.
#6 -- Offensive TacklesZack Martin, Christian Lombard, Ronnie Stanley, Steven Elmer, Mike McGlinchey
BCS Championship Level Starters? Martin is one of the three best, if not the best, tackles in the nation, not in terms of pro potential, but in what his squad can count on Saturdays this fall. He's the best Irish offensive lineman since center Jeff Faine (2000-2002) and one of the most athletic tackles I've seen on film. He has no weakness at this level of football.
Lombard enters his second season as a starter and is expected to produce the best season for a right tackle in the Kelly era, surpassing fifth-year Taylor Dever's strong showing in 2011. I rated Lombard close to departed center Braxston Cave as the team's No. 3 best OL last fall. Much is expected from Lombard in 2013 (and 2014 as a 5th-year) -- its time the former five-star rises to the occasion.
Proven Depth: None. Not sure how else I can state it...
Theoretical Depth: Stanley played briefly in 2012 before injuring his elbow (and thus likely preserving a season of eligibility), while Elmer enrolled early, and McGlinchey has a bright future -- starting around 2014-15. There's not much behind Martin and Lombard other than Stanley, a player that toiled through spring ball with a brace on his elbow while recovering from off-season surgery.
Incoming freshman Hunter Bivin (slated for center) and former four-star tackle prospect-turned center Matt Hegarty, could also play tackle should calamity strike their brethren. So too could projected starting center and Hegarty's junior classmate, Nick Martin.
At present, its Stanley or bust -- in this case, blowing a freshman's season of eligibility in a backup role.
Final Analysis: Why #6 with precious little depth on hand? Because if Notre Dame's starters stay healthy they'll likely be the best tackle tandem since 2005 (surpassing Mark LeVoir and Ryan Harris) and maybe the best since the top season of the Bob Davie era, when eventual first-round picks Mike Rosenthal and Luke Petitgout paved the way for all-time leading rusher Autry Denson throughout 1998.
Of course, if Martin succumbs to injury, the tackle position's stock plummets.
Looking ahead to 2014 and beyond, Martin will be a major loss (a four-year starter and likely four-time winner of the team's Guardian of the Year Award), but Notre Dame appears in good hands with Lombard retaining a fifth season of eligibility and Stanley likely available through 2016; Elmer/McGlinchey 2017 unless they're pressed into action this fall.
Next in the series: An oft-maligned position group I think will surprise in 2013…