Separation, with minimal anxiety

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly noted during his team's 13-day hiatus for spring break that not many vacationers departed campus set in roles as leading men. But the remainder of spring practice has helped unearth nearly two handfuls as the annual Blue Game approaches.

Below is a position-by-position look at players that have separated themselves from the pack, either by virtue of an outstanding spring or a mere dearth of competition in the given unit.

Quarterback Everett Golson: Among the players on this list, Golson is the most likely to receive a battle to the bitter end -- which, to be prudent for the health of the Irish offense, would wage through about the second week of August camp. Redshirt-freshman Malik Zaire has impressed, but its difficult to imagine Kelly turning over his offense to a rookie -- again -- with a healthy Golson in the fold.

Zaire will have to be light years better than Golson this summer and in August for there to be a change under center against Rice on August 31.

Tight end Ben Koyack: The senior has a pair of worthy challengers in Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman, and their time will come. But Scout.com's No. 1 ranked tight end from the 2011 class has the hands, size, experience, strength at the point of attack, and functional game speed/quickness (that is, he's moves well in space AND he knows what he's doing) to easily out-class the redshirt-freshmen tandem.

Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley: It's probably "left tackle" Ronnie Stanley, but the only true certainty on Notre Dame's talented, but ever-changing offensive line is that Stanley will serve as one of its bookends.

In good health, Nick Martin will start at center, but the senior leader and potential captain has a question mark affixed to his late-spring status. Stanley does not.

Guard is the program's most competitive position in terms of talent and total.


Sophomore Jaylon Smith will be an every down player

Outside Linebacker Jaylon Smith: It's not close, nor would it be at about 118 college programs. Smith is the best player at his position, whether it be sam linebacker or as a sub package player. And he could prove to be the best player among all positions for the 2014 Irish.

Cornerback Keivarae Russell: Russell is far and away the team's best cornerback and -- from listening to the coaching staff and Russell himself -- apparently one of the most underrated players in the nation.

Safety Austin Collinsworth: The fifth-year senior's status is akin to that of Jones and Schmidt rather than Smith and Russell. In other words, challengers haven't stepped to the fore. But Collinsworth is trusted by every pertinent member of the Irish coaching staff and if you have to place money on 10 players that will be among the team's offensive and defensive collection of 22 to begin 2014, Collinsworth's name should appear around No. 8 on your list.

Sophomore Max Redfield has been the clear-cut No. 1 alongside Collinsworth in each media viewing, but the summer months will prove crucial for the exceptional talent as competitors such as Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate, and Eilar Hardy continue to press.


Junior Sheldon Day stands above the D-Line's fray

Defensive Line -- Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones: There's little doubt Jones is the starting nose tackle and there's little doubt Day is the line's runaway best player.

And therein lies the difference.

While Day has separated himself from the pack through consistency and impact, Jones has done so through both positive and negative measures: A.) He's vastly improved, but B.) There's no one capable of beating him out.

And now you see the problem.

Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt: Like the aforementioned Jones on the defensive front, Schmidt deserves his spot in the middle of the Irish defense. Like the affable nose tackle, depth, or lack thereof, remains paramount to that end. It will be an issue at both nose tackle and inside linebacker is an issue for the 2014 Irish.

Nickel *Matthias Farley: Secondary coach Kerry Cooks offered Farley was the best nickel the team has had since before the 2012 season (which indicates Jamoris Slaughter circa 2011). Farley though can't be included on this list of sure-fire starters with expected fifth-year transfer *Cody Riggs -- a nickel position and cornerback/safety starter for the University of Florida over each of the last three seasons -- ready to compete from Day One this summer.

Riggs' imminent presence likewise knocked spring starter Cole Luke from this list at the other corner.

Kicker/Punter Kyle Brindza: Manti Te'o had no chance of losing his job entering 2012. Ditto Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd in 2011 (and Floyd in 2009-10), Tyler Eifert in 2011-12, and Zack Martin in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

That's Brindza's status this fall, as a kicker, punter, and kick-off specialist. He'll be among the nation's best.


Sophomore Tarean Folston

Running Back -- None: And at present, that's a good thing. In Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant, Notre Dame has three players that could rank among the team's top 20 contributors at season's end.

Wide Receiver -- None: That reality was more enticing at the spring's outset than at its conclusion, but it's difficult to ascertain true separation among junior Chris Brown and sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller. Each will play, none from the trio appears to be a full length ahead of the remaining pair.

In the slot, C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle will both play -- and both battle through the end of camp for a Day One starting spot.

Notre Dame's best wide receiver, suspended senior DaVaris Daniels, isn't officially part of the Irish program this spring.

Those that remain…

Offensive linemen Christian Lombard, Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty, and Mike McGlinchey will doubtless start football games for Notre Dame next fall. Likely too will defensive ends Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara, cornerback Cole Luke, the trio of running backs and each receiver listed above, plus a handful of additional competitors.

But ample work remains ahead for each.


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