Junior CB #6 Keivarae RussellTold reporters Monday his goal is to be the type of cover man that follows the opponent's best receiver: left side, right side, slot, you name it…but that he's "not there yet." Russell's playmaking potential will serve as a barometer for the 2014 defense's overall impact. A candidate to wear the "C" on his jersey, Russell is the best overall player among a remarkably deep cornerback pool in South Bend.
Senior MLB #38 Joe SchmidtAdded five pounds to his frame (six-feet, 235) in an effort to aid his undersized frame for the long haul as defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's middle man in the Irish defense. Schmidt entered camp light years ahead of his competitors inside, and while there's no chance he'll relinquish the starting role for the season-opener against Rice, it would be a great sign for the season-long health of the Irish defense, not to mention the health of Schmidt, if his understudies show well and earn spot duty.
Realistic Ceiling: 13-game starter on an Orange Bowl team.
Other side of the coin: He wears down as the lone ranger at MLB and the Irish rush defense ranks as the worst of the Kelly era.
Junior S #22 Elijah ShumateThe definitive No. 2 strong safety behind 5th-year senior and defensive backfield driver Austin Collinsworth, Shumate's eligibility clock is ticking -- he has just two seasons left to make good on his immense athletic potential. He's unlikely to be supplanted as the No. 2 man this fall but it's likewise crucial he at least challenge Collinsworth for meaningful snaps as the season progresses. Shumate entered spring ball 2013 as the media's potential breakout player, but that never came to fruition. Notre Dame's 2014 defense might need him to make good on that promise this fall -- he was light years away from such status at any point last year, missing games due to both injury (USC, Air Force, Navy) and suspension (Stanford).
Realistic Ceiling: Part-time starting strong safety; Most Improved Player award at the season-end Echoes Awards Ceremony.
Other side of the coin: 2013, redux. It can be argued Shumate had a bigger impact as a nickel defender in September of his rookie season 2012 than at any point since.
Sophomore WLB #9 Jaylon SmithRanks among the team's top three players; among the top three the squad can least afford to lose to injury; and as a definitive leader and potential captain. He's potentially college football's breakout star as a true sophomore this fall and could be the nation's best defensive player should he remain in South Bend for four years. As Smith goes, so goes the Irish defense in 2014.
Realistic Ceiling: First-team All-American, Team MVP, Orange Bowl MVP.
Other side of the coin: Inside (weak side) linebacker proves to be an intermittent challenge vs. power rushing attacks and the talented second-year player wears down in November.
Sophomore TE #80 Durham SmytheWas the clear-cut No. 2 tight end exiting spring ball and has a stranglehold on that status with classmate and competitor Mike Heuerman sidelined for the duration of training camp, recovering from hernia surgery.
Smythe will play often against Rice, his performance against the Owls and thereafter vs. Michigan and Purdue will likely set the stage for the offense's plan of attack thereafter (a bye follows the date with the Boilers): Will Smythe impress enough to force head coach Brian Kelly to continue with his preferred "12 package" (two tight ends)? Or is this the year of the third receiver in South Bend?
Realistic Ceiling: Quality blocking on the perimeter, a pair of touchdowns, ample playing time, and 8-10 meaningful receptions.
Other side of the coin: Ben Koyack-type contributions circa 2011 and 2012.