The only criteria to be considered for the list below?
No previous career starts
-- A chance to start THIS season and not only because of a rash of injuries (more than one) at a given position as was the case for a handful of starters last fall.
1. Junior TE Durham Smythe -- Cheating to list him first? He's admittedly the odds-on favorite to start, but Smythe's ancillary issue this spring, summer, and through fall camp is to prove his place on the field is more valuable to the offense, in more situations, than is a fourth talented, veteran wide receiver.
2. Sophomore OG Quenton Nelson** -- We're splitting hairs between Nelson and Alex Bars (below). Nelson appears to be the first guard off the bench; Bars the first tackle. Nelson has two returning guard starters against which he can realistically contend (both left and right), though he's the decided underdog at both. Bars has one tackle spot (the right side, as Ronnie Stanley is unimpeachable on the left).
Bars however has a better chance of unseating one-game starter Mike McGlinchey (projected starting right tackle) than does Nelson when pitted vs. 17-game starter Steve Elmer on the right side, or a fifth-year senior, either Nick Martin or Matt Hegarty on the left.
My guess is that Nelson is closer than Bars for 2015, but that a starting job only comes open due to injury.
**(Editors note: this story was written before Matt Hegarty announced his intention to transfer.)
3. Junior RB Greg Bryant -- Classmate Tarean Folston is unlikely to relinquish his starting role, but its best for Notre Dame's offense if Bryant matures into Running Back 1B to Folston's 1A -- a lethal 1-2 punch with the best-case-scenario being a relative job share next fall.
4. Sophomore OT Alex Bars -- See Quenton Nelson.
5. Junior WR/Slot Torii Hunter, Jr. -- The task for Hunter is simple: make enough plays in practice and early-season 2015 in game that it's impossible for head coach Brian Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock, and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford not to give you a chance to start. (Will Fuller is the only returning full-season starter among a deep wide receivers unit.)
6. Sophomore CB Nick Watkins -- The picture crystallizes a bit if/when senior All-America candidate KeiVarae Russell returns from suspension. Crystal clear, in fact -- in that instance, Watkins won't start.
But until then, the sophomore cover man will wage a one-on-one battle vs. junior Devin Butler opposite standout Cole Luke this spring. If Watkins can inch ahead of or pull even with Butler, he has a chance to step in due to injury above him.
7. Sophomore NT Daniel Cage -- The reality for Cage is that he's not one injury away, because should projected starter (currently injured senior Jarron Jones) not make it back at full strength, or miss time due to a new injury in 2015, junior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell would likely start on the nose.
He might anyway.
8. Sophomore DE/DT Jay Hayes -- Versatility gives him the edge in a potential starting assignment ahead of Jhonny Williams and Jonathan Bonner (below). Hayes might be better suited at DE but for 2015, with Jarron Jones on the mend, he'll likely work inside this spring. Hayes is ahead of both Williams and Bonner in the pre-spring pecking order, but where does he rank against Grant Blankenship (below) as a defensive end?
-- Jhonny Williams (Defensive End/Rush End): Like Hayes above, Williams could fill multiple roles as a sophomore. He's likely grown into a
-- Jonathan Bonner (Defensive Tackle): Sheldon Day's backup has (unfortunately) had the opportunity to start seven games over the past two seasons. Should Bonner win that role as No. 2 at Day's "three-technique DT" he'd likely still have to fight off alignment tweaks that would shift Isaac Rochell inside, etc.
-- Grant Blankenship (Defensive End): Is he the No. 4 DE for 2015 as he was for 2014? Ample, game-ready competition has emerged at the position as opposed to August camp last fall, so improvement is a must from the true sophomore. The Irish are deep but young and unproven up front.
-- Justin Brent (Wide Receiver): No shortage of mouths to feed at wide receiver for 2015, so Brent has a tall task ahead. A spot in the rotation is Job 1.
-- Kolin Hill (Rush End): No reason for the Irish to begin a game in the Dime package, Hill's likely occupation again this season.
-- Nicky Baratti (Safety): He'd have likely already earned his first start if not for multiple significant shoulder injuries and three surgeries. Baratti has to knock off the rust (a pair of brief appearances since the BCS Championship game), then endure contact and collisions to his repaired shoulders.
-- DeShone Kizer (Quarterback): Pending Everett Golson's 2015 destination, of course.
YOUNG, NOT INEXPERIENCED
Returning players that have started for Notre Dame include:
-- *KeiVarae Russell (26)
-- Jaylon Smith (26)
-- Ronnie Stanley (26)
-- Nick Martin (24)
-- Matthias Farley (23)
-- Everett Golson (23)
-- Sheldon Day (19)
-- Steve Elmer (17)
-- Will Fuller (16)
-- Chris Brown (14)
-- Elijah Shumate (14)
-- Matt Hegarty (13)
-- Cole Luke (13)
-- Romeo Okwara (13)
-- Isaac Rochell (13)
-- Tarean Folston (12)
-- Jarron Jones (12)
-- James Onwualu (12)
-- Max Redfield (11)
-- Amir Carlisle (10)
-- Joe Schmidt (8)
-- C.J. Prosise (6)
-- Corey Robinson (5)
-- Nyles Morgan (4)
-- Jarrett Grace (3)
-- Drue Tranquill (3)
-- Devin Butler (2)
-- Greer Martini (2)
-- Malik Zaire, Andrew Trumbetti, Mike McGlinchey, Tyler Luatua, Jacob Matuska and *Ishaq Williams each have one career start.
*Russell is projected to rejoin the team in June. Williams' future is less certain, but he remains focused on that goal after serving a season suspension with Russell last fall.
Observations: Odd to see sophomore Nyles Morgan with one more career start to his credit than fifth-year senior Jarrett Grace. The same is true of redshirt-junior C.J. Prosise vs. junior Corey Robinson.
-- 5th-year senior Matthias Farley has started at four positions: OLB (Navy, 2012), SS (2012), FS (2013), and Nickel/Sam linebacker (2014)
-- Russell and Smith have never played in a game (26 apiece) without starting. Stanley appeared in two as a backup to Zack Martin in 2012 while Golson entered in relief twice (2012 for Tommy Rees; 2014 for Zaire).
-- Farley and Okwara lead the Irish with 39 total games played to date (39 consecutive since the start of the 2012 season). They're followed by Chris Brown (38), Nick Martin (37), Ishaq Williams (37), Elijah Shumate (36), Sheldon Day (35), and Matt Hegarty (34) to round out the 30-plus club. Amir Carlisle has played in 33 career contests including eight with USC in 2011.
-- California 5th-year senior transfer Avery Sebastian started six games at safety for the Bears from 2011-2014, playing in 33. He'll join the program in late June.