#18 -- Kick ReturnerRunning backs George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, and Tarean Folston; defensive backs Austin Collinsworth and Max Redfield, wide receiver C.J. Prosise.
BCS Championship Level Starter? George Atkinson was among the nation's best as a true freshman, but his production took a dramatic dip last fall, and Notre Dame ranked 93rd of 120 teams in return yardage (19.30). Assuming head coach Brian Kelly puts his best players on special teams as promised in the spring, Atkinson or whomever secures the role should have more quality blocking than that offered by a host of freshmen and sophomores last fall.
Proven Depth: Atkinson's classmate Cam McDaniel stepped into the role last season in Norman, Oklahoma and delivered season's most important return: a 19-yarder to the 27-yard line to open the second half, but it was on a kickoff that should have been held inside the Irish 12-yard line with the hosts desperately searching for momentum after failing to hit pay dirt in the first half.
McDaniel's savvy split of two defenders on the play and the 15 extra yards gained as a result was an example of a winning football player making a winning play for his team. He doesn't have Atkinson's crease-to-the-house potential, but quality yards are the new normal in an era that has de-emphasized the kick return -- opponents kicking just 60 yards from the goal line per new collegiate rules.
Theoretical Depth: It exists in every class, from freshmen such as Max Redfield and Tarean Folston to sophomore C.J. Prosise, to a trio of juniors in Atkinson, Carlisle, and McDaniel, to senior Austin Collinsworth.
Final Analysis: If Atkinson secures the lead running back role, I don't think he'll serve as the team's chief kick returner. I'm fine with that, because he frankly lacked the innate desire to get the most out of every return last season. He's a threat to go the distance, but his only return of relevance last season came in the regular season finale at USC (39 yards to set up a game-sealing field goal later in the drive.)
If Notre Dame averages six more yards a return they'll likely rank in or near the nation's top 10.Yards will be a at a premium over the season's first half, and whomever provides the best, consistent field position should be the choice over a player that might take it to the house once over a 12-game slate.
But as always, the abilities of 10 players to hold their blocks for an extra half-second will prove the difference in most returns, regardless of Kelly's return man of choice.
#19 -- CenterA pair of juniors (redshirt-sophomores) Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty, sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Mark Harrell, and one of two incoming freshmen, Hunter Bivin or John Montelus.
BCS Championship Level Starter? No. Whether its Nick Martin, the post-spring leader in the clubhouse, or Matt Hegarty, the presumed heir apparent prior to heart surgery last November, whomever anchors the pivot for second-year offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will be a rookie, not only as a collegiate starter, but to the position in competitive game action.
Proven Depth: None. Both Martin and Hegarty are converted high school tackles, the latter in the role since his early days on campus in 2011, Martin post-season 2012 after serving as the No. 6 offensive lineman (top backup to the starting five) at both tackle and guard last season. They're backed by a third former high school tackle (and tight end), Mark Harrell, who began his career at center last year on Notre Dame's scout team. Harrell also serves as a backup guard option.
Theoretical Depth: Incoming freshman Hunter Bivin was pegged by Kelly as a potential center on National Signing Day. Other analysts feel four-star guard prospect John Montelus could receive his initial evaluation in the middle.
Regardless, the program doesn't have a true center in its ranks. Everything written about the position between now and September 1 is theoretical.
Final Analysis: The Brian Kelly-era Irish enjoyed 35 starts from Braxston Cave at center (the only 35 of his career), and four more from Cave's graduated classmate, Mike Golic, Jr. A new era dawns with either Martin or Hegarty at its outset, both have three seasons of eligibility remaining and thus ample time to prove their respective wares vs. top competition.
Said Hiestand of Martin, a player deemed "undersized" by media in the spring:
"I wouldn't say that. He'll probably play the season between 290 and 300 in there. I think you can play center and not be massive. Its not as important as your quickness off the ball, your ability to deliver the ball, your understanding of leverage and using that to your advantage. Nick isn't as heavy (as former starter Braxston Cave), but he's taller and longer, and actually has a bigger body. He doesn't have the strength Braxston had but he's got a little bit more range and he's got longer arms. That helps him.
"His technique is something he has to constantly work on to improve. It's critical for him, but it is for everyone. If Braxston didn't have technique, he was on the ground and his guy was in the backfield. It doesn't matter as much as constantly trying to get better at it. Its no more important for him than anyone else."
The 2013 squad's least-proven position from scrimmage has ample potential, not to mention eligibility, on hand.