#10 -- Mike and Will LinebackerFifth-year seniors and long-time starters Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, junior (redshirt-sophomore) Jarrett Grace, senior (redshirt-junior) Kendall Moore, junior preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt, junior (redshirt-sophomore) Anthony Rabasa, and incoming freshmen Michael Deeb.
The seven competitors above will man the Will and Mike linebacker positions in 2012. Not all from the group will be deemed capable of playing two positions by coordinator and position coach, Bob Diaco.
BCS Championship Level Starter? None, though it should be noted that Calabrese was one of Notre Dame's two or three best defenders in the game vs. Alabama last January.
Proven Depth: Year 3 of the Calabrese/Fox pairing at Will 'backer has produced, if nothing else, reliable two-deep depth at the position. Now the duo must venture into a fall Saturday without its crutch -- Mike linebacker and program legend Manti Te'o. Of the two, Fox has been cross-trained most, at least according to the coaching staff. But my guess is you'll see three players in two spots again, with Grace stepping in for Te'o and the trio in a heavy rotation at both positions.
Look for Calabrese and Fox (Fox at the Mike) to start vs. Temple, but for Grace to earn more snaps than at least one of the pair over the course of 12 games next fall.
Theoretical Depth: As a senior that's played extensively on special teams and as a backup in blowouts, Moore should be ready to contribute as a backup inside linebacker. If he's not, that's indicative of the senior's work ethic, because Diaco is among the nation's best at putting players in a position to succeed. (Moore was far better on special teams late last season than early, so a sense of urgency might have clicked in.) Head coach Brian Kelly often uses the term "running around" when asked about Moore -- per usual, I believe Kelly is choosing his words for a reason.
Asked about the position at the conclusion of the spring, Diaco offered the name 'Joe Schmidt' not Moore, in his overall analysis. Schmidt has a chance to win the No. 2 role in camp. (Look for the three-year preferred walk-on to earn a scholarship in 2014, if not sooner.) Regardless, both Moore and Schmidt will be special teams regulars.
Deeb is already a fan favorite and a potential three (or four?)-year starter inside, but barring injury, he should redshirt this season, unless of course he proves to valuable on the specialty units.
Rabasa moved back inside after spending 2012 at the boundary (Cat) position, that after a 2011 freshman-year evaluation inside. He's better suited outside, but the squad is stacked at both boundary and field (Dog). Again, special teams is the quickest route to the field for Rabasa, who can move for his size (6'3" 243").
After two years of praise by his head coach, coordinator, position coach, and Manti Te'o, Jarrett Grace sits atop the Notre Dame fan's all-time list of expectations. He defines "Theoretical Depth." (I'll add Grace has impressed me in nearly every scrimmage I've seen since August 2011 as well.)
Final Analysis: Notre Dame's 2012 Mike and Will linebacker trio of Te'o, Fox, and Calabrese combined for the following: 225 tackles including 9.5 for lost yardage, 2.5 sacks, 13 passes defended, 7 interceptions, 6 QB hurries, 2 fumble recoveries and 1 forced fumble.
The 2013 trio of Fox, Calabrese, and Grace will likely produce just as many tackles, and maybe as many tackles for loss, but the pass defense stats have little to no chance of recurrence. Of those 20 plays on the ball (7 picks, 13 PD), Te'o produced 18.
Neither Fox nor Calabrese has recorded an interception and the pair both has just three career passes defended to their credit -- this in a combined 35 starts.
Cast in leadership roles as long-time starters, the pair must elevate its game. As important, Grace needs to be nearly as advertised. Only then can the inside 'backers play at a BCS Championship level.
Notre Dame's staff is comfortable with its inside linebacker unit, but I have a hunch opposing passing games will be as well.
#11 -- Boundary CornerbackSenior and likely team captain Bennett Jackson, junior (redshirt-sophomore) Jalen Brown, and a pair of incoming freshmen, Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw.
BCS Championship Level Starter? He didn't play to that level vs. Alabama, but a healthy Bennett Jackson is a top-notch college cornerback for Bob Diaco's scheme. Fast, aggressive, and obviously tough (see below), Jackson was the back seven's No. 2 playmaker behind Manti Te'o last fall en route to 12-0.
Proven Depth: Two competitors to start at field cornerback, Keivarae Russell and Lo Wood, are capable of moving to the boundary. In effect, one of that pair is a potential No. 1 backup to Jackson, and the likely player to start should he go down.
Brown's time has come to prove himself as a reliable backup to Jackson, who after playing all of 2012 with an injured shoulder, missed the spring with surgery. He could use a series or two off per game.
Theoretical Depth: Butler and Kinlaw are slotted at boundary because there's more room for initial evaluation and practice reps as the field cornerback spot likely has four competitors: three upperclassmen and incoming freshman Cole Luke. In reality, Butler and Kinlaw will cross-train until the staff finds a fit, and both will likely make their initial debuts -- especially if its in 2013 -- on special teams.
Final Analysis: The gulf between Jackson and Brown is wide, but its of course true that either Russell or Wood would move to the boundary should Jackson be lost for a full game or lengthy period.
After the loss of offensive triggerman Everett Golson, Notre Dame has little margin for error in 2013, and Jackson's presence is essential for the defense to return to an elite level. Without him, the defensive secondary would survive, but it needs his confident, playmaking presence.
Notre Dame's cornerback position is on solid ground following 2013 with only Jackson exhausting his eligibility. A move or two by a competitor from field to boundary in 2014 will likely be part of the process. The Irish are at present one top-tier backup away from being "set" at the two-deep in 2013 -- the emergence of Brown (or Luke) would be invaluable to the overall health of the position.