Mid-March Mailbag

Notre Dame resumes spring practice Wednesday morning after a 13-day hiatus, but the majority of our mailbag submissions this week skip ahead to the fall season -- both 2014 and beyond.

#1 -- Question from Mark in D.C.: I see 15 fifth-year prospects for 2015. First of all, WOW, and secondly, could you assess the likelihood that each returns considering ND wants 23-25 recruits?

Couple of things, 23-25 is too high for this cycle, because a lot of these guys (approximately 6-8) will return as starters, near starters, or veteran depth at crucial line positions.

I've likewise learned that speculating on the return of fifth years, especially prior to the season, is an exercise in futility. Still, 15 is a huge number and the staff can retain a limited total to land the likely target of 18 pledges for the 2015 class.

Notre Dame technically has room for 21 recruits in 2015, but that assumes NO fifth-year returnees. Our projected number (18) can be reached through natural annual attrition such as medicals, transfer, and unforeseen leaps to the NFL, etc. Rarely does Notre Dame worry about going over its 85 scholarship allotment and it's likely to work out that way again next February, regardless of how we view things today.

It's too early to do this, but hey, it's March and ND is on a 13-day break...

Locked and Loaded -- if in good health

Quarterback Everett Golson, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, center Nick Martin, inside linebacker Jarrett Grace, and defensive lineman Tony Springmann.

Golson and Daniels are no-brainers unless the repeat past transgressions or choose to leave for the NFL with on season of eligibility remaining. The likelihood that Golson, a 6'0" (or shorter) quarterback does not return for a fifth season is slim. (Remember, Seattle's Russell Wilson, the name most point to as a "short" QB star, played his fifth season as a Wisconsin transfer.)

The league is trending in a way that it less hinders short quarterbacks, but that doesn't mean they should leave school with eligibility remaining.

Grace was a sure-fire three-year starter prior to his October 5 broken leg

If Daniels has a legitimately great season, he would likely jump to the pros. If he's merely very good, expect head coach Brian Kelly to point to a national championship opportunity in 2015 as incentive to stay (Daniels would likely be a semester, perhaps almost two, away from earning his degree at season's end.)

In good health, there there's no likely scenario in which Martin, the starting center but not yet a major pro prospect, would not return for a fifth season. The same holds true for Springmann on the opposite side of scrimmage.

Springmann has been slower to recover than has Martin making his status for 2014 and beyond less clear. Likewise Jarrett Grace, who might not round into form until well into the 2014 season. If Grace can contribute in any way -- and there's no reason to think he won't be able to by 2015 -- he'll be asked back. He's a revered teammate.

All things considered (pro potential, injury situation, academic standings), Martin is the No. 1 lock to return from the quintet, but I expect at least four if not five back in 2015.

Likely, but…

Center Matt Hegarty and guard Conor Hanratty

Hegarty is likely the team's backup center, and one that can lend a hand at guard. Hanratty will begin 2014 as either the No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 guard. He can also shift to help at center. Both started in November, both are valuable commodities for a team intent on making a championship run.

Letting either go, even as backups, would be ludicrous regardless of the program's recent recruiting surge along the offensive front.

Assuming Martin, Hegarty, and Hanratty return for fifth years, that sets up head coach Brian Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand with (3) fifth-year players, (2) seniors (Ronnie Stanley and Mark Harrell), (5) juniors (Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey, Colin McGovern, John Montelus, Hunter Bivin), and (4) sophomores (Sam Mustipher, Jimmy Byrne, Alex Bars, Quenton Nelson). Add to that at least two, if not three incoming freshmen and a front wall that fielded six healthy bodies last spring will have 16-17 competitors.

Injuries are inevitable on the offensive front, and 17 becomes 15 in a flash. 15 is the minimum target number with which a top program operates. Remember, someone (or some players) from that group will have his Irish career cut short for medical reasons, or transfer, or the inability to compete at the highest level.

Hegarty and Hanratty have already proved they can help. It's of course crucial both cement No. 2 (or starting) roles at season's end.

Time to shine

Cornerback Matthias Farley, slot/running back Amir Carlisle, defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, linebacker Ben Councell, linebacker Joe Schmidt.

One if not more from this quartet will likely be caught up in a numbers crunch.

For Farley, he must prove himself as the No. 4 cornerback for 2014 to be considered a need player for 2015.

For Hounshell, it's a matter of staying healthy and contributing after three shoulder surgeries and two years away from the game. For Carlisle, it's carving a niche in '14 with a three-headed backfield (Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant, and Cam McDaniel) that returns two for 2015.

Councell had surged prior to injury

And for Councell, its recovering from a torn ACL last November and securing his spot as a trusted, physical backup to Jaylon Smith.

Schmidt took a giant step forward in his team standing with key relief efforts and special teams play in 2013. He can't afford a half-step back this fall.

In most cycles, each member of the quartet above would be a lock (in good health) to return. 2015 might be different.

Hounshell has the inherent advantage of playing a position of great need for both 2014 and 2015.

Ground to make up

Safety Eilar Hardy.

He played first half scrimmage snaps at Michigan -- then was suspended for a violation of team rules at Purdue one week later.

He started against Pittsburgh and Brigham Young in November -- then was suspended for a violation of team rules at Stanford two weeks later.

Hardy made 24 tackles in a five-game stretch (USC, Air Force, Navy, Pittsburgh, Brigham Young).

2014 would be a great time to stop violating team rules.

Hardy went from third-string in the spring to starter last fall

Time for a favorable first impression

Cornerback Jalen Brown and rush linebacker/defensive end Anthony Rabasa.

Neither has carved his niche yet, with Brown also operating behind the 8-ball (entering spring 2014) after a suspension for violating team rules the morning of the Pinstripe Bowl.

Rabasa will have a chance to show his pass-rushing acumen off the edge in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense, and to be blunt, has a much better chance as a niche player than does Brown, who has to beat out two from the Matthias Farley, Devin Butler, (freshman) Nick Watkins trio be considered as the fifth cornerback in 2014.

Hurting Rabasa's chances: three intriguing freshmen prospects at the rush position. He'll have to create obvious distance.

#2 -- Question from Mark in Norman, Oklahoma

Tim, with (James) Onwualu moving to defense, do you see more of a chance for (Justin) Brent to contribute early? Could you had to rank the wideouts for JUST 2014?

Ranking them for 2014 is much easier than for 2015, so I'll take you up on your offer:

1. DaVaris Daniels -- Talk about a wide range on the results spectrum. Daniels could finish the season among Notre Dame's top three players or he could again disappoint in effort, consistency, and attention to detail, in which case, he'll be benched mid-season and the staff will go young.

Expect the former.

2. Will Fuller -- Lost in the early season emergence of Corey Robinson and the December conversation regarding Torii Hunter is the fact that Fuller took the biggest steps among all young targets in terms of being a complete receiver last fall. He can both work underneath and get deep better than the rest of this list (below) at least as we enter mid-March. Can play both in the slot and on the perimeter.

3. Chris Brown -- It will be interesting to see his stretch-the-field talents with Everett Golson under center. A true junior, Brown needs to become more than a three-route receiver (go, post, hitch) to stay a cut above the sophomore class.

Brown struggled early in 2013 but reemerged vs. Rutgers

4. Corey Robinson -- Not a one-trick pony, but Robinson was far better roaming outside the hashes than between the numbers last season. Unlike Fuller, Robinson doesn't yet appear to be a slot option, limiting his total snaps by comparison.

5. C.J. Prosise -- My dark horse at present (could rank as high as No. 3 if he impresses as expected). Has a leg up on Torii Hunter/Justin Brent (below) because he's already assimilated to Saturday's game speed. Now he needs to learn his relatively new craft. Prosise can do some damage after the catch.

6. Torii Hunter, Jr. -- Love him for 2015 after assimilating this fall. The good news for Hunter: nothing is given in the slot this spring, summer, or fall.

7. Justin Brent -- Similar to Hunter, will be far more productive and consistent in Year 2. Someone from the list above will be displaced in the (regular) rotation by Brent by the conclusion of 2015.

8. Will Mahone -- Not a true receiver, but he'll be good after the catch if used correctly. Mahone's August reps likely depend on the development of Prosise and Hunter.

9. Corey Holmes -- Will start his first training camp behind his classmate Brent as a result of the latter's early enrollment. Then again, the same seemed true for tight end Durham Smythe vs. early enrollee classmate Mike Heuerman last season and the tables have turned after an injury-plagued fall for Heuerman.

Note: Our next mailbag includes questions regarding special teams, team captains/leadership for 2014, and notable position switches, both in the Kelly era and prior years -- and perhaps for future seasons.

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