The Replacements

Notre Dame lost eight players to the NFL Draft over the weekend and another five starters/key contributors as priority free agents. The collection populated seven of the team's nine position groups. Which of those units will be better, regardless?

Thirteen former Notre Dame starters or part-time starters officially began their professional football careers over Mother's Day weekend, each was a full-time or part-time starter over the last four seasons: Zack Martin (OT), Stephon Tuitt (DE), Troy Niklas (TE), Louis Nix (NG), Chris Watt (OG), Prince Shembo (OLB), T.J. Jones (WR), Bennett Jackson (CB), Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese (ILBs), Tommy Rees (QB), George Atkinson (RB), and Kona Schwenke (NG/DE).

How will each be replaced and which among the eight position groups affected might be better in 2014 (or '15) despite the loss of NFL talent?

We rank them from most to least likely in their efforts to improve upon 2013 performance:

(Note: The ninth position group, safety, did not lose a player to the NFL Draft, free agency, or graduation.)

#1 -- Running Back

There aren't many ex-collegians that rip off 148-yard days vs. the likes of Oklahoma that are months later deemed "expendable" but that's the case for George Atkinson, who was told he'd return fighting for third-string duties in 2014.

Senior Cam McDaniel and the dynamic second-year pair of Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant have the position on lock down for the coming season, enough that a fourth option, Amir Carlisle, performed almost exclusively in the slot during spring ball (Carlisle is the emergency No. 4 runner).

Final Verdict: Better in 2014 than last fall. Better still in 2015, when both Folston and Bryant return (as could Carlisle for a 5th season).

#2 -- Quarterback

Tommy Rees started 31 games over four seasons but it's a good bet Notre Dame's next 31 starts at the position will offer greater production and eventually, consistency.

Senior Everett Golson and redshirt-freshman Malik Zaire offering the program's most promising 1-2 punch since Ron Powlus and Jarious Jackson in the mid-1990s.

Final Verdict: Better in 2014 than last fall. Far better in 2015 -- if not, there will be a reckoning on quarterback development in South Bend.

#3 -- Cornerback

Bennett Jackson was a top-tier collegiate cornerback in 2012, but he suffered through inconsistent outings last fall, due partly to a nagging ankle injury and off-season shoulder surgery. His courageous effort was not lost on his teammates or coaches, but Jackson was victimized at times for it.

Junior Keivarae Russell, sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler, 5th-year transfer Cody Riggs, and incoming freshman Nick Watkins offer a quintet of intriguing options for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's new scheme.

Final Verdict: Better in 2014 than last fall, with 2015 pending Russell's status (senior in South Bend or NFL-bound).

#4 -- Wide Receiver

TJ Jones concluded his college career as a polished, go-to, No. 1 receiver that impacted every game necessary last fall. His production and week-to-week efforts are unlikely to be topped by an individual receiver this fall. However…

DaVaris Daniels, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, and Amir Carlisle, as a unit, should all improve enough to make the position -- in congress with a strong-armed, dual-threat quarterback -- better this fall. Add to that youngsters Justin Brent, Corey Holmes, and 2013 Scout Team Player of the Year Torii Hunter, Jr., and the future at the position is off the charts in South Bend.

Final Verdict: It might not be a smooth operation from the outset, but the 2014 receivers, and the 2014 passing game, will be far better than their 2013 predecessors. 2015 will be better than 2014, regardless of the decision made by Daniels regarding a 5th year vs. his NFL prospects.

#5 -- Linebacker

Notre Dame's linebacking corps struggled early, and at times throughout 2013. With a scheme change, and the expected surge of sophomore standout Jaylon Smith, this group could be better than the more experienced 2013 unit that was slow afoot (Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace) in matchups vs. Michigan and Oklahoma (both losses).

Calabrese though fared well vs. Michigan and throughout the season as a run-stuffer while Fox was a top 5-6 Notre Dame player during the season's second half -- one of its most improved after a rough start.

Final Verdict: Call it a (hopeful) wash. Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt are nice building blocks for 2014, but only a fan wearing blue and gold colored glasses expects this unit to shine throughout the upcoming season. There'll doubtless be issues (attrition, poor matchups, depth) when October and November begin to take their annual toll.

#6 -- Offensive Line

Position coach Harry Hiestand is tasked with replacing one of the program's best offensive lineman of all time in Zack Martin, plus his left-side line mate for the last three seasons, the undervalued Chris Watt.

But no one is panicking in South Bend, not with six players that started multiple games in 2013 on hand (Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Christian Lombard, Steven Elmer, Conor Hanratty, and Matt Hegarty) plus a seventh player projected to earn a starting spot above two from that group this fall (Mike McGlinchey). You could argue No. 8, Hunter Bivin, is the most talented "No. 8" OL at the program since the 2000 squad rode its offensive line to a BCS berth.

Final Verdict: In a one-year vacuum, I'd prefer to have Martin and Watt, plus last year's complimentary pieces, than the promising group of 2014. The 2013 offensive line was the team's best unit and there wasn't a close second. But the current group is deeper, more versatile, and has promise. It could conclude the season as the team's best position group again, but that's more likely for 2015 than next fall. There are few worries along the 2014 offensive front, but Martin and Watt leave a void.

#7 -- Tight End

The loss of second round pick Troy Niklas was unexpected and likely avoidable, but that's water under the bridge. In senior Ben Koyack, Notre Dame has a former Scout.com five-star tight end leading it's five player group next fall.. Among that quintet are two true freshmen, Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, and two redshirt freshmen, Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman -- one or both of the latter pair must continue to improve from early August through season's end.

Final Verdict: I can't imagine Koyack and a pair of redshirt-freshmen being more productive than the Niklas/Koyack pairing of 2013, but it's worth noting that last year's tandem was in reality, Niklas + a sub par player until Koyack began his rapid ascent in late September (dating back to the Oklahoma loss in which he excelled as a run blocker). Notre Dame will likely use fewer two tight end sets (more three receiver sets with one TE and an RB) in 2014, mitigating the need for an improved tight end position. Treading water would be great, but expect a drop-off in production in terms of receiving totals and run blocking.

The 2015 unit has promise and by 2016, the tight end unit will likely return to past glory.

#8 -- Defensive Line

No Louis Nix, no Stephon Tuitt (hey, it's like September 2013 all over again!)

Painful reality -- I mean, jokes aside -- the loss of Nix, Tuitt and Kona Schwenke up front will be felt not only by a drop-off along the first unit, but throughout the defensive line's youth-filled ranks.

If this unit's not worse than last fall, Notre Dame is headed for a Top 10 finish.

Final Verdict: While there's no chance the 2014 front approaches the standout line play of 2012, it's notable that last fall's group disappointed in September losses to Michigan and Oklahoma, and again to conclude the season at Stanford, though attrition was a root cause in the season finale.

Can the 2014 defensive front perform better than their 2013 predecessors?

It's a different scheme with a different approach and responsibilities, but bottom-line goals include a rush defense that ranks better than the 2013 D that placed No. 70 and a front that can put pressure on opposing passers -- another unforeseen drop-off from 2012 to 2013.

Let's put it this way: How would the 2014 defensive line rank with a fifth-year Louis Nix, a senior year Stephon Tuitt, and a fifth-year Kona Schwenke (the Football Forum can provide the reason Schwenke lost his fifth season through no fault of his own) starting alongside junior Sheldon Day?


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