Backup Brigade

Who are Notre Dame's best players for 2013 yet to start a game? We have them broken down by category.

Ranking backups for a program that preaches positional rotations across its units can be a difficult task. Consider assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's comments on his "backup" defensive linemen this spring.

"Because of how we set our participation on defense, there's not a starter, and then if you're not a starter, you're not going to participate. Louis (Nix) for example, was a starter but Louis participated (roughly) about half the game. I'm sure Louis wants to participate more than half the game. So it isn't just about being a starter.

"So as we lay out those spots, the (work volume) edges sharpen on every single person in that group. Let's say there's 7 to 8 functional guys that can go in and participate. What do you want your participation plan to look like? And we detail for them on a day-to-day basis: 'Hey, you can play four plays in a row hard. Once you get to play 5, you can't play 5 as well, and whip your individual matchup, so you're going to have to come out until you're ready to go back in.'

"If you don't want to (come out), get yourself ready to play hard on play 5 and 6...So each player is constantly working on what extent they're going to participate."

Got that? Since the criteria could get a little hazy regarding backup vs. starters in South Bend, I've narrowed it down to one truth: to make our list of top backups, the player must enter 2013 with no collegiate starts.

Thus, 2012 "backups" Troy Niklas (7), Daniel Smith (4), Chris Brown (4), George Atkinson (3), Ben Koyack (2) and Kona Schwenke (2) are exempt, each notching the number of career starts denoted above.

Rather than a clunky No. 1-through-whatever ranking, I've broken it down by four categories:

New Era Irish

Each listed in the category is likely to play an essential role for the 2013 Irish, and most will either start in 2013 or play regularly enough that they'll be considered starters by the masses, not just the coaching staff. (The number in parenthesis denotes seasons of eligibility remaining):

Sophomore Defensive End Sheldon Day (3): Locked in as the defensive line's only new starter, Day's proverbial ceiling by the end of 2013 is as one of the team's top 10 football players…and his realistic basement isn't much lower.

Junior Running Back Amir Carlisle (3): It's officially time to stop hyping a player entering his third season whose best moments came against a 3-10 Colorado team while playing for USC. Reality aside -- now that Everett Golson is gone for the semester, Carlisle might be the team's most important skill position player for 2013.

Junior Boundary (Cat) Linebacker Ishaq Williams (2): Five stars…Six-feet-five-inches…255 pounds…and just 6.5 career big plays entering 2013 (3.5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 QB Hurry, 1 PD). Williams will officially backup Prince Shembo at the boundary linebacker position, but if he progresses as the staff anticipates, he'll be a de facto No. 12 starter -- Cat, nickel linebacker, dime package DE, etc. It's not yet now or never, but its time for the light to go on in Ishaq-ville.

Junior Mike Linebacker Jarrett Grace (3): The Amir Carlisle of the defense. Few junior backups have had garnered as much newspaper and internet copy as the affable Grace, who for two seasons as Manti Te'o's apprentice, was hyped as the next big thing by everyone from his head coach to Te'o himself. Now its time to prove it between the lines -- the hunch here is he will, but not without growing pains as a relative rookie.

Sophomore Field Safety Elijah Shumate (3): A high school linebacker, Shumate was the team's chief nickel defender (if you don't count Ishaq Williams) last fall. After an impressive start, he predictably struggled when targeted by top offenses, as man-to-man coverage for a rookie vs. collegiate slot receivers is no picnic. Exited Spring 2013 as the team's No. 1 field safety but will be challenged in camp. Regardless, Shumate will find a role because he can run and absolutely lay the wood as a hitter.

Junior Center Nick Martin (3): Exited the spring as the lead candidate at center after serving as the No. 1 backup guard and tackle last season. Martin will battle classmate Matt Hegarty who lost significant pre-spring time to successful heart surgery.

Junior Right Guard Conor Hanratty (3): Like Martin, ranks as a starter entering August camp by default. Like Martin, we'll know more about Hanratty as the team boards a bus ride home from Ann Arbor in early September.

Finding the Next Farley?

At this time last summer, no Irish fans posited Matthias Farley would play a crucial role in Notre Dame's undefeated fall of 2012. But as with any great cast, the understudies are often as important as the leading men, and each from the group listed below will enter August camp as a backup player with each -- like Farley in 2012 -- able to emerge as a focal point/starter by season's end.

Junior Defensive Lineman Tony Springmann (3): Was the team's No. 4 defensive end last season and will be the first end off the bench in 2013. His importance to the unit has elevated since the off-season defection of five-star freshman Eddie Vanderdoes, who we expected to fill in as a quality No. 4 DE from the outset.

Senior Tight End Alex Welch (2): Few remember that Welch, not Troy Niklas, was the team's No. 2 tight end when the former was felled by a torn ACL last August. Like Niklas and fellow tight end Ben Koyack, Welch will play plenty -- if the Cincinnati senior can regain his physical form, he could play the most of the lot.

Senior Cornerback Lo Wood (2): Like Welch, was lost to injury last August after starring throughout camp. Like Welch, Wood saw a younger player -- Keivarae Russell -- step in and shine in his stead. Like Welch, Wood is embroiled in a battle for playing time, likely a touch behind the incumbent starter entering August. And like Welch, Wood will be a major part of a three-man rotation at his position, regardless.

Slot Receiver C.J. Prosise (4): From Scout team linebacker in September 2012 to potentially starting slot receiver in 2013. Recruiting athletes has always been prudent at Notre Dame, especially when the head coach knows what he's doing. The "(4)" after his name is perhaps his greatest asset at present.

Field Safety Nicky Baratti (3): Time lost in the off-season and spring to shoulder surgery really hampered his chance at the early-season starting job. But Baratti will play, and the field safety battle will wage through November.

Note: Part II will highlight players in two more categories: Next Man In, and Freshmen Forces... Top Stories