#1 -- Junior CB Keivarae RussellBy any reasonable measure, one of Notre Dame's five best players entering the 2014 season, Russell was a no-doubt starter at right cornerback in a new scheme that appeared to ideally suit his athletic talents, one heavy on man-to-man press coverage by its cornerbacks. Russell noted as recently as August 4 following Notre Dame's opening practice of fall camp that he hoped to be named among the team's captains, a rarity as a true junior at the program:
"If they put that C on my chest I'll be honored, but I'm going to figure out a (leadership) role for me, regardless. Whether it's being that vocal guy, whether it's being enthusiastic, trying to get everybody going. That's me. I'm not going to change or get down if I'm not a captain, I really don't care. I'm a junior, I have a chance to be a captain next year if that happens. If it happens it happens. If it doesn't, let's still win games."
Russell aspired not only to serve as a shut-down cornerback on the right side, but to emerge as a defender that could be assigned to the opposing team's top receiver, regardless of where the foe aligned on the football field.
Silver Lining for Irish fans: Cornerback ranks as the team's deepest position group and was featured as Irisheyes.com's No. 1 ranked unit entering fall camp. 5th-year senior transfer Cody Riggs won the left cornerback job opposite Russell per Kelly. Russell's spot will be taken by either his technical backup, sophomore Devin Butler, or Riggs' top competitor and spring session starter, Cole Luke. The latter is the logical candidate, as Butler missed spring practice with shoulder surgery and Luke was a regular nickel and dime defender throughout the 2013 season. (Butler emerged as a dime package corner by mid-October.)
In addition to the sophomore pair of Butler and Luke, senior Josh Atkinson ranks among the team's most improved players since last season, regularly showing well in fall camp. Four-star freshman prospect Nick Watkins also impressed Kelly early with his man-to-man coverage chops.
Loss would be tough to overcome against -- Every viable passing attack. Russell was a potential All-American with 26 career starts in 26 games played under his belt.
#2 Senior WR DaVaris DanielsNotre Dame operated throughout winter conditioning and the spring semester without Daniels, suspended last December for an academic issue. (A cynic would point out that the offense also operated without his services against both Michigan State and Oklahoma last season, despite his presence on the field.)
Daniels, who redshirted in 2011 and had thus two seasons of eligibility remaining, ranked as the team's returning leader in receptions, receiving yards, total yards from scrimmage, touchdowns scored (rushing or receiving), and first downs accrued over the course of his two seasons.
Said Kelly of the enigmatic Daniels prior to his reinstatement to the program in May:
"I don't ever take for granted that issues of maturity are behind any of our guys. I mean, it's going to be a work-in-progress for him. There's no question that Double D, he's a smart kid, that he knows that -- he's on the clock now, you know?
"He's got to walk the line, he's got to do things the right way. It's not just Notre Dame; it's his career, it's everything now. So I think he knows that all eyes are on him."
Silver Lining for Irish Fans: Notre Dame's wide receivers while young, possesses immense and disparate talents. Junior Chris Brown emerged, per Kelly, as the team's only definitive starter (including Daniels) after the first seven days of training camp while the sophomore tandem of Corey Robinson and Will Fuller both started three games as true freshmen last season. Robinson possesses elite ball skills while Fuller rivals Brown as the team's fastest football player between the lines.
The slot tandem of senior Amir Carlisle and junior C.J. Prosise remains a potential strength. Early enrollee Justin Brent, a four-star prospect per Scout.com last fall, moves up from No. 7 to No. 6 in the pecking order while his fellow freshman four-star Corey Holmes thus goes from likely redshirt to potential contributor. Redshirt-freshman Torii Hunter, Jr. will miss the remainder of camp and likely at least the season's first trio of contests with a severe groin injury.
Loss would be difficult to overcome against -- Michigan on September 6.. A youth-filled receiving corps will improve drastically as the season progresses. Daniels' presence would be huge under the lights in this prime time rivalry game.
#3 DE Ishaq WilliamsProjected as the starting strong side defensive end after two seasons of extensive playing time backing up Prince Shembo (now with the Atlanta Falcons) as an outside linebacker, Williams was confirmed as the team's SDE starter by Kelly in a press conference Wednesday afternoon.
"Solid. He's been solid. Right now, he's our starting strong side end. He's had a good camp and he deserves a starting role right now."
Williams' career to date has been more about promise not fulfilled than production. A five-star prospect at DE in 2011 per Scout.com, Williams has just six tackles for loss in three seasons, the last two of which he played regularly.
The loss of Williams is exacerbated by the dearth of depth on the 2014 defensive line. The unit returns just two players that have started a game and the entire allotment of 15 competitors (freshmen and otherwise), have registered a combined five sacks. Among the remaining 14, eight are true freshman.
Notre Dame will be able to survive without Ishaq Williams the football player in theory. But a 6'5" 270-pound veteran would have been invaluable in terms of taking a fair share of defensive snaps over a 12-game span.
Loss would be difficult to overcome against -- The impact of Williams' absence in what is expected to be a heavy defensive line rotation would percolate between the season's fifth contest (Stanford) through season's end. Attrition will doubtless be an issue for the inexperienced, unproven defensive line but Notre Dame can likely survive a September that includes a Week Four bye and no true road games prior to knocking heads with the physical Cardinal on October 4 in South Bend.
The Irish play four home games and two neutral site contests before traveling to their first road game of the season at defending national champion Florida State.
Silver Lining for Irish Fans: Williams had yet to distinguish himself entering his final season. His immediate backup, sophomore Isaac Rochell, played briefly as a true freshman last fall but was referred to as "a beast" by his head coach Wednesday afternoon. Said Kelly of his freshmen forces:
"In year's past, I probably would be (concerned about playing multiple true freshmen), but then my eyes tell me something different when I watch them. They have an edge to them. (Linebacker) Nyles Morgan and Jonathan Bonner and Jhonny Williams, and (Andrew) Trumbetti, and Kolin Hill. I watch these guys play. (Sophomore) Isaac Rochell is a beast. These guys are physical football players. They have an edge to them. (Daniel) Cage is a load. I go against them every day. I know when you have holes. I've been around long enough. I know when you look and go, 'Whoah, that's not very good.'
"Now they're young. We might cut a gap loose. We may be in the wrong gap. But it's not because we're not rip-and-roaring up the field. It'll be fun, but they're going to cause a few moments of coach (Brian) VanGorder throwing his hat on the ground. I'm sure of that. The thing is it's a physical group. It's a physical group."
#4 LB Kendall MooreMoore was not expected to see the field from scrimmage this fall. He had not cracked the two-deep in any practice viewing available to the media, was not listed by Kelly as a potential impact player or two-deep participant, and was likewise not referenced as such in spring conversations with the defensive coaching staff.
A Notre Dame graduate in his fifth season at the program, Moore was a regular member of Notre Dame's special teams in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He would have doubtless filled a similar role in 2014.
Silver Lining for ND Fans: This wouldn't be an (on-the-field) story if only Kendall Moore were involved. Myriad linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks await to fill his role covering kickoffs and punts as do linebackers and tight ends in his usual alignment as a blocker on kickoff returns.
Click here to read the initial report from Irisheyes.com and discuss the events at our Premium Football Forum.