These are the questions of today for Irish fans. Below, and over the next few days, we'll examine the pressing questions for the 2015 football season, beginning with the guys that sit at the front of the plane all the way down through the rookies.
1. Who's on Board?
Four top tier talents may or may not be part of the 2015 fray: DaVaris Daniels, Everett Golson, Keivarae Russell, and Ronnie Stanley. A fifth potential contributor, Ishaq Williams, is likewise in limbo. With the exception of Williams, each of the above is arguably (Golson) or inarguably (Daniels, Russell, Stanley) better than his would-be replacement.
(And regarding Williams -- Any contributing defensive lineman is invaluable over the course of a college season. As I've noted often, the most important positions in the modern college game are, in order, defensive line, offensive line, quarterback, backup defensive line, and cornerback.)
Will three of the five grace the field for Notre Dame next September against Texas? Four from the quintet would be a home run -- er, grand slam, I suppose. Five? Let's just admit things have a tendency to break bad for this program and assume at least one from the handful won't return.
2. All the Way Back?
In this case, the spirit is willing, but the bodies are, at least at present, severely weakened. Two of the team's most important starters in 2014, fifth-year senior linebacker Joe Schmidt (ankle/foot) and senior nose tackle Jarron Jones (foot), exited the LP Stadium turf last month on crutches. Both are expected to be ready for contact next August, though not this spring.
How ready is ready? In Jones' case, lower body strength has been a staff-identified weakness in his game. It's unlikely to improve this offseason due to LisFranc surgery in November -- and 315-plus pounds of stress on said injury could be a concern going forward.
For Schmidt, a lost step is not an option. He has to return at full strength to be the player he was in 2014, if not by game one against Texas, certainly by the time the triple-option offense of Georgia Tech rolls into South Bend in late September.
Uncertainty regarding Schmidt's status affects the linebacker alignment greatly. (To be brief, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Jaylon Smith, and James Onwualu are all impacted by his absence this spring and perhaps beyond.) Jones is in more of a "plug and play" situation, that is: if he's in good health, he's the starting nose tackle. If not, No. 2 (at this point, Daniel Cage) becomes No. 1.
Add to the mix the improving but still-not-ready status of Jarrett Grace (leg) and it's clear Notre Dame's spring defense could look far different in August.
3. Who'll Step Up?
What do all of the above have in common? Their senior/grad season in South Bend was definitively the best of their already productive careers. Can two, perhaps three from a small sampling of final-year competitors perform similarly in 2015?
Safety Elijah Shumate, offensive linemen Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty, wide receiver Chris Brown, and defensive end Romeo Okwara all have ample room to grow enter their South Bend swan songs. Brown was markedly better in 2014 than he was prior, but one touchdown and just four receptions in excess of 30 yards suggests "par for the course" rather than playmaker.
Martin and Hegarty played their best games of the season in the bowl matchup against LSU. (Consider that sentence if typed last August.) Both played well enough to suggest a switch of Martin back to center seems unnecessary. But taken as a whole, their season grades were far south of exemplary.
Okwara peaked in September and reappeared against USC (not that it mattered) and LSU. Will he have to fight for a starting spot next season with the aforementioned Williams, plus sophomores Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship in the mix? (It's worth noting he'll turn 20, twenty! in June entering his final season.)
Shumate earned an A for effort in both of the final two outings as well, but there's a reason he was removed from his starting role -- in favor of either a freshman or one-armed man -- in mid-November.
For each, time will run out next January. Twelve months of improvement is paramount to the team's 2015 season success.
Next in the series: Notre Dame's true juniors, the class of 2013.