#7 -- Wide and Slot ReceiversSenior T.J. Jones, and junior (redshirt-sophomore) DaVaris Daniels are the headliners while Jones' classmate, Daniel Smith has emerged over the last nine months dating back to last October. True Chris Brown and redshirt-freshman C.J. Prosise are X-factors entering 2013 while senior Luke Massa provides practice depth. A quartet of freshmen Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, Torii Hunter, Jr., and Will Fuller, have a chance to play.
BCS Championship Level Starter? Neither T.J. Jones nor DaVaris Daniels made a difference when the BCS Championship game's outcome was in doubt, but the pair nonetheless ranks among Notre Dame's top five performers from January's loss to Alabama. Both came to play, and in the case of Daniels, plenty of one-on-one matchups were won. The pair is among the nation's more underrated duos heading into 2013.
Proven Depth: Smith is a presence and reliable blocker in the running game. For those uninspired by such a statement -- that's half of a receiver's duty at the college level.
Theoretical Depth: Abounds. Brown got a taste of action last season and added one of the season's crucial plays at Oklahoma -- a 50-yard post pattern that set up what proved to be the game-winning touchdown. He enters fall camp as the No. 4 receiver with room to grow, and with a disparate skill set from No. 3 Smith.
Prosise is among the most intriguing rookies in recent memory while two of the four incoming targets got a leg up, participating and in the case of Robinson, turning heads in spring ball. Fuller has the ball skills to compete and Hunter the overall game to find time in the slot, though (and apologies to the incoming freshman who often reads such proclamations about his recovery) I believe he should redshirt to fully recover from a broken femur suffered on January 1.
Of the five rookie backups (including Prosise), at least two will play, one likely a significant role. A third will likely be a varsity receiver during game weeks -- and each of the four will be central figures in 2014.
Final Analysis: From listening to chatter and analysis, both nationally and locals/subscribers in-the-know, it appears I'm a bit higher on this unit than most. Jones is a polished, four-year veteran starter and a far more confident player than the junior that entered 2012 following a down season in '11. Daniels has a second-round skill set and if he stays three more seasons in South Bend, is a player that could haul in another 180 receptions with 20+ touchdowns to his credit. Standing in his way? Consistent focus -- he can learn from the veteran Jones.
Brown and Prosise are key to the 2013 operation: one of the pair must be a legitimate weekly threat by the time Oklahoma rolls into South Bend, if not sooner. Both will be better in 2014 than '13, unfortunately for the Irish, the defense won't be. Smith needs to play to augment the running game. If he can develop any type of mid-range game (he was essentially a hitch-route receiver last year), it will greatly aid the offense.
Freshmen are wild-cards, not X-factors. The Brown, Davonte' Neal, Justin Ferguson trio caught a combined four passes last season, two occurred in the opener in Dublin. We have no idea how they'll perform with a trio of backup quarterbacks, nor do the coaches until camp begins. But Robinson can go get it, Fuller appears to possess the same crucial skill, and Onwualu has a collegiate-ready frame. Even if he fights his way onto the field, Hunter is realistically a year away weekly impact post-injury.
Jones and Daniels will do the heavy lifting -- but they need help. Looking ahead, the program is loaded with young, developable talent on the perimeter.
#8 Field CornerbackKeivarae Russell, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson, Cole Luke
BCS Championship Level Starter? Not yet. After a standout season, Russell was destroyed by the Crimson Tide last January.
Proven Depth: None. Wood hasn't played since 2011, and sparingly then. Atkinson's showed well at MSU last September but proved less-than-trustworthy since, including in the spring. Luke is 170 pounds and 18 years old.
Theoretical Depth: This is where it gets interesting. Just seven months removed from surgery to repair his ruptured Achilles, Wood exited spring ball as field cornerback 1B to the incumbent Russell -- a freshman All-America selection last season. The pair will play plenty, likely in a rotation, not necessarily with one as the true "nickel" defender, as a safety (or certain five-star freshman linebacker) could fill that role.
Both Russell and Wood can switch to the boundary as well, allowing both to play together at times while boundary starter Bennett Jackson takes an occasional rest -- a luxury not available to the starting corners last fall.
Atkinson enters his third season and likely as the set No. 3 CB behind Russell and Wood. Though he's unlikely to challenge either, the insurance option he presents is far more appealing than in 2012 when Notre Dame's No. 3 field cornerback did not exist.
Luke has the cover skills to see the field, but at 170 pounds, his speed and natural skills might be better suited for kick and punt coverage teams as he adds muscle. Had he been a 2012 rookie rather than '13, Luke might have started for the Irish.
Final Analysis: None of the quartet exhausts eligibility following the season with both Russell and Luke having multiple seasons remaining. The Russell/Wood pairing keeps the position healthy and competitive opposite Jackson, who appears to have the boundary spot locked up.
For the first off-season since 2009 when Robert Blanton, Darrin Walls, Gary Gray, Jamoris Slaughter, and Raeshon McNeil were all set to return for another season(s), the program's future at cornerback appears bright.
#9 -- Boundary SafetyMatthias Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Eilar Hardy, John Turner, Chris Badger
Proven Depth: None. Hardy, Turner, and Badger have yet to play a college down as junior, sophomore, sophomore, respectively. Collinsworth played as a dime package linebacker in 2011 then sat out 2012 with a torn labrum. He is, however, a dynamite special teams player, thus accustomed to the big stage on Saturdays.
Theoretical Depth: Debatable as well outside of Collinsworth. Hardy received ample second-string reps this spring with Collinsworth still often shelved by off-season back surgery, but the senior surged ahead of Hardy, a player whose career hit a major set-back in August 2011 when as a true freshman he tore his ACL. Two seasons later, its time Hardy find a way to contribute on special teams as his initial path to the playing field. Turner could just as easily be listed as a field safety as he'll doubtless fill out the depth chart at one of the spots pending the progress of those in front of him. Like Hardy, Turner needs to use his second season in the program to make noise on special teams.
Badger lends depth in his second season back after a two-year religious mission to Ecuador.
Incoming freshmen Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw could be evaluated at safety as well, though it appears cornerback will be the initial slotting for both.
Final Analysis: Why is this unit ahead of its field safety compatriots, a unit with a higher ceiling? Because Farley is closer to a sure thing, and to a lesser extent, the veteran presence of Collinsworth. It would be a major surprise if Farley isn't a much more polished player in 2013 than he was as a surprise rookie last fall, and it would be a major disappointment if Collinsworth isn't solid as his backup. (Look for the senior Collinsworth to challenge for a nickel and/or dime role as well).
In short: the field safeties could outperform the boundary competitors, but its highly unlikely if the boundary starter and chief backup aren't quality players this fall, and from the opening kickoff.
Farley is likely to be entrenched as the position's starter until 2015, Collinsworth is eligible through 2014. Hardy (2015) and Turner (2016) have time to develop as well. Coupled with the field safeties (all eligible through at least 2015), the program is set at safety and can thus afford to be picky in the current recruiting cycle, likely only landing a prospect if he's of the highest order (or extremely versatile).
Next in the series: Three more defensive positions, giving defensive coordinator Bob Diaco nine among the team's top 12 per our evaluations.