#16 -- Offensive Guard5th-year senior Chris Watt, senior (redshirt-junior) Bruce Heggie, junior (redshirt-sophomore) Conor Hanratty, sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Mark Harrell, and incoming freshmen John Montelus and Colin McGovern
BCS Championship Level Starter? Yes, Chris Watt is one of the more undervalued veteran guards in the nation and ranked as the No. 2 overall OL in Irisheyes.com film reviews in both 2011 and 2012.
Proven Depth: None. Aside from Watt, no guard prospect on the roster has participated in a collegiate snap with a contest even remotely in doubt.
Theoretical Depth: Hanratty qualified for the varsity as a true freshman though he was never going to play barring a rash of injuries. This will be his third season assimilated to the top level of practice under the staff and his second under OL coach Harry Hiestand who said of the redshirt-sophomore, "He really plays hard. You really enjoy the passion that he puts into it. I think that's what I like best about him right now, he gives everything he's got on every snap."
Heggie's presence is that of a valuable practice player -- a senior who can play in an emergency/pinch or one who can fill a reserve role when a contest has been decided. Should Watt or Hanratty go down, it would be the redshirt-freshman Harrell who'll get the call first. Harrell enters his second season in the program, moving from high school tight end/tackle to second unit guard/third-team center.
Montelus had a shot to play early (as a No. 2) but off-season shoulder surgery likely put him behind the eight-ball entering camp. McGovern is also likely slated for a redshirt year, still recovering from a torn PCL suffered at the conclusion of his high school career.
Final Analysis: Watt will be good, possibly very good or at a national level. Hanratty is a battler that will do some things better than did his predecessor Mike Golic, Jr., but might not be as adept as a pulling guard as Golic became midway through 2013. After the starting pair its all rookies, as Heggie's only experience is in a pair of blowouts over the last two seasons. Montelus' injury status takes away my presumed No. 3 guard option because a true freshman interior lineman is likely to struggle when unable to lift weights for the bulk of his off-season.
Its Harrell or senior right tackle Christian Lombard as the first guard in pending injury, but a move by Lombard would weaken right tackle as presently constructed.
Hanratty (eligible through 2015), Harrell (2016), Montelus, McGovern, and potentially Hunter Bivin (previewed later with the centers) give the Irish a nice base inside for the future.
#17 -- Nickel DefenderSenior cornerback Lo Wood, sophomore cornerback Keivarae Russell, senior safety Austin Collinsworth, sophomore safety Nicky Baratti, incoming freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety classmate, Max Redfield
BCS Championship Level Starter? Not yet.
Proven Depth: With the exception of Baratti, none of the players listed above played for Notre Dame last season. But if Baratti poses a true challenge to presumed field safety starter Elijah Shumate, he won't see much time as the nickel defender. (Shumate is said to have stopped working the position to concentrate on field safety full time; Baratti would likely do the same pending August's performance.)
Collinsworth played in the dime package as a sophomore safety/linebacker in 2011 but did not shine in space. Wood has not played a true nickel role to my recollection (Russell has not) and Jackson struggled in that capacity, albeit a limited showing vs. Florida State in December 2011.
Theoretical Depth: The odd-man out at field cornerback (either Wood or Russell) could get a look, but I'm of the belief both will be part of a three-man perimeter rotation with Bennett Jackson, who's locked down the boundary cornerback spot. Jackson would seem the best candidate of the three for the nickel (slot coverage duties), but I don't think you'll see any of the trio as the position's first option.
Baratti and last year's nickel Shumate would likewise seem a default pick, but both will be needed to fill the duties at field safety -- don't expect either sophomore to win the role definitively enough to push the other from the rotation. Collinsworth is well behind Farley as a boundary safety entering August and could be deemed capable of handling both that backup role and the nickel, but I think the position will go to, for the second straight season, a true freshman, with either safety Max Redfield or linebacker Jaylon Smith earning the nod in August.
Final Analysis: Smith has been my choice since digesting his film last fall, or to be accurate, since Danny Spond emerged as a top-notch Dog/Drop linebacker last October. Smith's 225-pound frame, athleticism and coverage skills would be invaluable at the position, and at present, he's unlikely to be able to secure the edge as well as does Spond as a base outside linebacker. Notre Dame has emerging junior Ben Councell behind Spond, and a full-time nickel role would satisfy the need to get a player with Smith's remarkable athleticism on the field to best help the defense.
Look for Smith to earn the role in August or September, and for Redfield to fill a dime package role (six defensive backs) as the season progresses.
Why No. 17 overall with such obvious potential from the group? No one projected to play the position above has filled or succeeded in the role at Notre Dame, and I'm in full-fledged theory mode with the final analysis.