The first job that could be open is at running back. Ryan Grant should be the incumbent, but Grant didn't have an impressive season last year rushing for just 510 yards and 3.6 yards per carry. He rushed for 1,085 yards and 4.2 yards per carry in 2002 so his numbers dropped quite a bit.
Much of that could be attributed to the inexperience of the offensive line, but some wonder if Grant has the speed, vision and lateral movement to be an effective starter.
Freshman Travis Thomas has been making a name for himself already. We've heard from many people that Thomas has been a very pleasant surprise and should become an elite back. His time to make a move is now because two very impressive running backs are enrolling in the fall in Darius Walker and Justin Hoskins.
The starter probably won't be known until fall, but this should be an interesting race in the spring. Both Grant and Thomas should be highly motivated to earn the starting job this spring. We believe both freshman will also make a strong push for the right to start in the fall.
We also expect some competition at the fullback position. Josh Schmidt and Rashon Powers-Neal are likely the two that will be competing for the job. Schmidt looks to be the most consistent fullback on the roster. Freshman Ashley McConnell and sophomore Nate Schiccatano will also be pushing for some playing time.
Regardless, the starter will have to be much more effective in the lead-blocking role, and one would hope the fullback can give the Irish something out of the backfield in the passing game. Schmidt appears to want it the most so far. The dark horse here is McConnell. He could push for some playing time.
Another job should be open as the third receiver if not two jobs at wide receiver this spring. Rhema McKnight has proven he deserves to start and has become a very productive receiver. Maurice Stovall has starting experience, but he was inconsistent last season catching the football.
Stovall, Jeff Samardzija, Chase Anastasio, Matt Shelton and Carlyle Holiday will be competing for the two open spots at wide receiver. This should be an interesting race because we expect all five of these players to see the field at wide receiver in 2004. How much each player plays will likely be decided this spring. We expect Stovall to make a move this spring to secure his spot. Our dark horse is Anastasio. We think he might make a move this spring when others are more obvious choices.
Offensive line will likely only have one position open. The real question is where is everyone going to play? In the end, we believe Ryan Harris will play left tackle, Bob Morton will play left guard, John Sullivan will start at center, Dan Stevenson will play right guard and Mark LeVoir will be tried at right tackle. If LeVoir can't cut it at right tackle, we expect some jumbling to take place.
The idea is to get your five best on the field. The problem is this staff doesn't have a true right tackle at this point. Hopefully they can find one in the spring. This unit will be important to watch this spring. They will play a very large role in how effective the 2004 offense can be. Brian Mattes could be a dark horse at right tackle, and Jamie Ryan impressed us in his limited playing time last year.
Tight End should also be an interesting competition in the spring. Anthony Fasano was distancing himself from the pack at tight end before suffering a back injury. We don't know if he'll even practice this spring, we are going to guess no.
That leaves a number of players competing for time. Billy Palmer and Jared Clark are in their final years of eligibility. Marcus Freeman hasn't seen much playing time yet. John Carlson is a freshman many are excited about. And, the move of Jerome Collins will add some athleticism to the position.
Palmer is the best blocker out of the bunch. Freeman has to make a move this spring or he'll likely be looking at a position change. Carlson needs winter conditioning to get stronger, but he's got the kind of athleticism needed.
The dark horse could be Collins. Collins is more athletic than any of those mentioned, was a wide receiver in high school, and really wants to play tight end. If Collins can block, this might be the best thing to happen to he and Notre Dame if Fasano struggles to come back.
It's a long shot that any player can jump opposite sides of the ball and learn everything they need to know in one off-season. Yet, Collins has wanted this since the day he stepped on campus. He's getting his wish. Hopefully he'll make the most of it.
Another important job that will be open is the role of kick returner. Both Vontez Duff and Julius Jones have departed so the Irish will be searching for the next great return man. Rhema McKnight, Matt Shelton and Dwight Ellick have the most experience, but we could see Ambrose Wooden, Chase Anastasio and even incoming freshman Justin Hoskins getting a look. Hoskins has many of the same traits as Julius Jones so we expect him to get a long look in the return game.
A lot of jobs are available this spring. Not all will be decided in the spring, however. The Irish return a lot of experience on offense. Could this be the year we finally see an effective and maybe even explosive offense?