Senior CB #24 Josh AtkinsonSnaps from scrimmage will be tough to come by for Atkinson, a corner in 2011-12 but a wide receiver last season. His best chance to a contribute will be on special teams where he'll receive a look as both a returner and, notably, on kick coverage, a spot in which he showed promise as a true freshman. (Final season of eligibility.)
Realistic Ceiling: Special Teams standout
If things go poorly: See 2013
Junior S #29 Nicky BarattiBad breaks have plagued Baratti since his impact freshman season of 2012, one highlighted by a goal-line interception against Michigan and crucial one-on-one open-field stop of standout punt returner Robert Woods at USC. Two surgeries (both on his left shoulder) and a third shoulder injury (to his right in the 2014 Blue Gold Game) have kept him from consistent competitive action. He'll wear a harness for the 2014 season and play through the pain as he attempts to crack the rotation in Notre Dame's five-man safety crew. Baratti can play both strong and free safety, making him a valuable commodity entering camp. Now his shoulder(s) have to cooperate. (Eligible through 2016.)
Realistic Ceiling: Becomes a key contributor in a heavily-rotated backfield.
If things go poorly: Surgery #3
Sophomore T #70 Hunter BivinListed as a member of the two-deep as a true freshman last season but the goal from the outset was to preserve a season of eligibility down the road. Can play both tackle and guard (6'5" 291 listing in the spring) and will likely work as a backup to junior starter Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. Bivin is our "No. 8" offensive linemen entering camp with the seven in front of him challenging for starting roles. Each member of that 7-man crew will likely play regularly with Bivin the Next Man In -- look for the talented redshirt-freshman to make his field debut vs. Rice. (Eligible through 2017.)
Realistic Ceiling: Earns playing time as the team's top reserve tackle
If things go poorly: Is passed by one of two talented freshmen tackle prospects
Freshman WR #11 Justin BrentBrent's enrollment in January affords him a chance at rotation time this season, but the true test will be early in camp: How much was he able to absorb from a spring session and can that carry over to the first two weeks of training camp where he'll have a legitimate shot to crack the wide receiver unit's top seven (equivalent to a spot on the varsity game week roster)?
Brent's college-ready frame (almost 6'2" and already 205) and preternatural athleticism suggests he could make plays from the outset if he can bring the film room to the practice field, and thus to Saturday's. The nuances of the position will likely be a challenge for the former Indiana prep star that played running back at Speedway High School.
Could be a special teams star a la James Onwualu, 2013.
Realistic Ceiling: Weekly contributor, playmaker, No. 3-4 outside WR, ST star
If things go poorly: Burns a season of eligibility and all he has to show for it is one tackle against Rice and a few innocuous receptions.
Senior K #27 Kyle BrindzaHe might not be the most consistent kicker in the nation, but there's no better player in the clutch, and there's no likely a more versatile specialist heading into 2014. Brindza, who'll again also kickoff and punt for the Irish, has yet to miss a pressure kick (fourth quarter or overtime), holds the program record for most field goals made (23) and attempted (31), marks he set as a sophomore in 2012, and last season drilled 20 of 26 overall offerings despite missing his first two against Temple. Thereafter, the nation's most confident athlete nailed 20 of his final 24, one miss an impossible 55-yarder at Pittsburgh. (It was literally, "impossible," not to mention ill-conceived from the sidelines as no NFL kicker has succeeded at that distance in Heinz Field history.)
Notre Dame will play up to nine games "Close and Late" this season -- Brindza could make an argument as Team MVP if he continues his performance under pressure. (Enters his final season of eligibility.)
Realistic Ceiling: The best kicker in the nation -- with quality, consistent punting. Boots fourth-quarter kicks to win multiple contests.
If things go poorly: There's a reason the program's kickers in the mid-90s sported shirts that read: "Notre Dame Kickers: We Hate You Too."
Junior WR #2 Chris BrownIt's time for head coach Brian Kelly's self-proclaimed "third-round steal" from the 2012 recruiting class to step up and make good on his immense potential. Brown disappeared from the Irish offense in the season's final two months before securing a career-best five receptions in the Pinstripe Bowl, and according to teammate and daily combatant Keivarae Russell, the man they call "Breezy" is ready to separate himself from the talented pack:
"He worked on his routes religiously starting at the end of last year," said Russell. "He's selling different routes…that's the biggest thing. He looks like a different player."
Brown will doubtless begin training camp lined up with the first unit -- it'd be best-case scenario for Notre Dame's offense if the downfield threat can stay there throughout the fall. (Eligible through 2015.)
Realistic Ceiling: Emerges as the team's No. 2 pass-catcher and scores 7+ touchdowns, taking the top off opposing secondaries for three months.
If things go poorly: Stands and watches Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, and Torii Hunter, Jr., by mid-October.
Senior CB #21 Jalen BrownLike his classmate Atkinson, it could be a tough road to ho for Brown as a member of the game day defense. But Notre Dame's kick coverage unit was a public embarrassment last season, and a senior that can run and hit such as Brown should make it his mission in 2014 to eradicate that team weakness. As a true freshman in 2011, Brown was lauded by former All-American Michael Floyd for his press-coverage ability -- new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder relies heavily on that skill, but Brown did not appear to standout in that regard during the spring.
Realistic Ceiling: Stellar special teams play and a little time from scrimmage as a man-to-man cover option.
If things go poorly: 2013.
Sophomore RB #1 Greg BryantMaybe you've heard of him? The team's most talked about player not named Everett Golson last spring, Bryant enters camp as running back #1C alongside classmate Tarean Folston and senior Cam McDaniel. To become #1A, Bryant will have to prove his worth in pass protection, protect the football throughout August, and catch everything that touches his hands, because we've seen first-hand what he can do as a true running back.
At some point this season, Bryant will emerge as the go-to-guy -- he then has to retain that mythical title, because his fellow RBs won't stop coming, either. (Eligible through 2017.)
Realistic Ceiling: Team MVP-level contributions
If things go poorly: No. 3 running back, not "1C" or "2A/B"
Sophomore CB #12 Devin ButlerResembles a 16-year-old point guard when interviewed out of pads, but the 181-pound Butler earned his spot on Notre Dame's dime defense by mid-season largely because of his aggressive attitude on special teams. Butler will be a far better player (and perhaps a starter) in 2015 than this fall, but he's the program's most promising "No. 4" cornerback entering camp since Jamoris Slaughter was a redshirt-freshman entering 2009.
Shoulder surgery kept him from competing during the spring but if fully recovered, look for Butler to again win a role on Notre Dame's (myriad) sub packages -- can he ascend to "No. 3" CB status by season's end? He'll have to start well, because our projected "No 5", true freshman Nick Watkins, impressed during the summer.
Realistic Ceiling: No. 3 CB and proves to be an invaluable member on every sub package and the ST run teams.
If things go poorly: No. 5 CB (behind Fr. Nick Watkins)