"On this team, the leaders are the hardest workers and they're showing by example to the younger guys how things are done. The younger guys have done a great job of learning and going with the flow." -- Manti Te'o prior to the 2012 season.
Te'o left the program not only one step (okay, maybe a few) from the top of the college football world, and not only as the most decorated single-season defender in NCAA history, but doubtless as one of Notre Dame's greatest leaders in its 125-plus seasons of football.
His captaincy and unique leadership qualities will not be replaced, nor will the day-to-day practice and game day greatness of Tyler Eifert, or the sage, calming locker room voice of 2012's fourth captain, grizzled 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore.
But along with returning captain Zack Martin (entering his fourth season as the starting left tackle) head coach Brian Kelly's fourth-edition Irish have myriad options from which to choose -- er, vote upon -- as team leaders for 2013.
Our top candidates for captaincy are as follows, with Martin an obvious lock to become one of just 13 two-time team captains in the program's modern era (1964-present).
Senior Quarterback Tommy ReesI felt Rees could be named team captain before starting quarterback Everett Golson was expelled. Unless Kelly (or Notre Dame) has a rule about formerly suspended players earning the honor, Rees appears the offense's best bet. The three-year contributor has been respected for his approach throughout his career, but it was a moment at the 2010 Sun Bowl that offered an initial hint Rees was already captain material.
Shortly after senior walk-on David Ruffer missed a meaningless field goal in the third quarter (the Irish led 30-3 at the time), Ruffer came to the sideline with a slight limp and certain sense of failure -- it was the first miss of his college career after an incredible 23 straight. One Irish player came over to offer encouragement to Ruffer following his first-ever failure: freshman Tommy Rees.
Final Verdict: If he's not among the captains there's an unwritten rule precluding him. Rees is my top choice (alongside Martin).
Senior Cornerback Bennett JacksonThe lone senior contributor on the back line is a respected voice and presence in the locker room and on the practice field, but its the game day (and game week) toughness he displayed in 2012 that will help him secure a captaincy call in 2013: Jackson played all of last season in need of shoulder surgery. More important, he played well, ranking among the team's top 10 players at season's end.
Final Verdict: I was shocked when Jamoris Slaughter wasn't among the captains last fall, but the 2012 squad had nearly a half-dozen prime candidates. Jackson is a lock to be one of two -- if not the only -- captain on the defensive side of scrimmage in 2013.
Senior Wide Receiver T.J. JonesJones' three-year starting career has included program firsts: a start and touchdown in his first career game), moments of troubling body language (read: pouting openly when passes went awry), and last season, consistent, 13-game contributions at the highest level.
The Irish legacy emerged last spring as a team leader in every practice. Said Jones following a sloppy 2013 Blue Gold Game: "My focus is helping everyone on the offense and the team mature. I think we're a young team, we lost a lot of older guys last year who played. And especially at receiver, we're really young. The freshmen that are coming in, the freshmen that have early enrolled, they're going to have to play. So, I feel that my role is to help them mature, to help them understand the offense to know how to work hard and push themselves on their own, rather than needing to be pushed."
Final Verdict: If the Irish ultimately choose three on the offensive side of scrimmage, Jones will fill out said trio.
Senior Nose Guard Louis NixSome players lead through inspiration, some through quiet confidence, some by example. And others like to lead with tough love.
To wit: "I love my guys, and I'm not the guy on the sideline that says 'Let's go team!'" said Nix about his form of motivation to date. "(I'll say) 'Suck that (stuff) up, and let's beat their (butts).' That's the type of guy that I am. I'm not the nice one. I'm the one that says a lot of negative stuff just to get in somebody's head to make them say, 'I don't suck.'
"(For instance) I tell him, you suck, (Jarrett) Grace, and he comes out and proves me wrong. And that's what I like. And he knows I do that to better him, and he does the same to me. Actually, he says 'Come on, brother.' He's that kind of guy. I think it works on both ends."
Nix is the best player on the team and one of the three most respected by the coaching staff. It's not far-fetched that the fun-loving senior will be named captain by his peers.
Final Verdict: 90 percent of locker room speeches fall on deaf ears or are forgotten after the first mistake. Conversely, self-improvement and outstanding effort regardless of the circumstances are true hallmarks of a great football player. Nix has become the poster-child for both. I'm from the "captains should always be seen and occasionally heard" camp -- I'll take Nix as my No. 4 any day.
Others Considered- 5th-year offensive guard Chris Watt -- Sit down with Watt in an informal setting rather than a large media gathering and you'll see the player his teammates and staff encounter every day. He already leads by example in his aggressive approach and as a three-year starter, Watt joining Martin as an offensive captain would not be a major surprise.
- 5th-year senior linebacker Dan Fox -- A pads-free spring removed him slightly from the proceedings but Fox has emerged from a man without a position (2009-10) to likely three-year starter. He's been lauded by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for his daily approach and habits for the better part of two seasons.
- Senior linebacker Danny Spond -- Nearly forced to retire due to a migraine condition last September, Spond is the consummate teammate and among the back seven's most versatile competitors….
- 5th-year senior linebacker Carlo Calabrese -- In a subordinate role to close friend and fellow inside 'backer Manti Te'o throughout the pair's careers in South Bend, Calabrese will likely emerge as a leader for his position group alongside classmate Dan Fox
- 5th-year senior defensive lineman Tyler Stockton -- Complete lack of field time aside, there is no more well-liked player and trusted voice than Stockton's. His presence as a fifth-year invitee after two seasons on the scout team speaks volumes.