Chris Stewart, Guard
2009 Review: Improved more than any Irish offensive lineman over the course of the season. A vastly improved blocker in space compared to his uneven junior season of 2008.
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: Solid. A new coach and staff can light a fire under veteran players and Stewart's frame and athleticism at his size suggests he could develop into a solid professional player. Graduated last May and was co-winner of the team's Rockne Student-Athlete award so he'll have no issue with 5th-year clearance from the University.
Likelihood he'll return: High. Stewart would need another strong college season to makes waves in the NFL draft; he's a graduated, top-tier, committed student who's likely realistic about his current pro prospects. Stewart mentioned in passing last week that the next coach would (obviously) have some impact on his decision to apply for a 5th season.
Darrin Walls, Cornerback
2009 Review: Greeted with exuberance and open arms by Irish nation upon his return before slowly falling out of favor, along with the bulk of his position mates, over the course of the season. Walls' best game was likely in his home state against Pittsburgh, a loss during which he'll be remembered for not physically matching up with star sophomore WR Jonathan Baldwin (despite solid coverage on four of Baldwin's five big receptions).
Of note, Walls' position coach, Corwin Brown, was a bit tempered in his August review of Walls – a fact that only recently occurred to me after I had initially brushed it off as coach-speak.
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: Enormous. In 2007, Walls ranked as Notre Dame's best sophomore CB since Vontez Duff in 2001. After sitting out 2008 due to personal reasons, Walls never approached his previous level of play as a true senior last year.
Likelihood he'll return: Highest among the listed 11
Dan Wenger, G/C
Returning depth at his position: Senior Andrew Nuss; juniors Trevor Robinson, Braxston Cave, and Mike Golic, Jr., freshman Alex Bullard and Chris Watt. Possibly fellow 5th-year senior candidate Chris Stewart.
2009 Review: Lost his starting job late in spring practice to guard and classmate Eric Olsen. Olsen solidified the Irish offensive line and won the team's Guardian of the Year Award, presented annually to the team's top offensive lineman. The senior received plaudits from position coach Frank Verducci as well as Charlie Weis for his attitude (and on field improvement at a new position) in the wake of his benching and in his daily approach. Wenger saw action in 11 of 12 games and earned a start in Week Nine vs. Navy due to RG Trevor Robinson's ankle injury. Unfortunately, Wenger's signature moment in '09 was a crucial chop block penalty on Notre Dame's final drive in a 27-22 loss at Pittsburgh.
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: Likely. Wenger has often been a step late in space and lacked finishing skills as a blocker but few 5th-year seniors return to a new coaching staff without 100 percent commitment to improving their craft.
Likelihood he'll return: Strong. Wenger spoke briefly with Kelly when the media descended on the new head coach and certainly appeared interested in a chance to speak with Kelly regarding his future. Wenger is on pace to graduate with a Sociology degree in the spring and would need an extra season to continue his football career and earn a shot at an NFL camp in 2011.
Bobby Burger, TE/FB
2009 Review: Began the season as a key move tight end and top-notch lead blocker (at fullback) in the team's offset-I formations. Injured his neck in a cheap shot near the pile vs. Washington and was not as consistently physical over the season's second half.
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: Burger was the best lead-blocking fullback (over a four-game stretch) at the school since at least the 2002 (Tom Lopienski). Assuming his neck injury is not serious, Burger would offer a key, though somewhat limited service in terms of overall playing time to Brian Kelly's spread attack.
Likelihood of return: Strong. Burger was a freshman defensive end at Dayton in 2006 (did not play). He played 12 games for the Flyers in 2007 and sat out 2008 while a student and team walk-on at Notre Dame. Burger absolutely loves football and is honored to wear the gold helmet. If healthy he'll absolutely apply for a fifth-season. The team needs players of his ilk during the transition.
Barry Gallup, Special Teams/WR
Returning depth at his position: Gallup's returning role would likely be on the Irish coverage and return teams. Six wide receivers: senior Duval Kamara; juniors Michael Floyd, John Goodman, and Deion Walker, and sophomores Shaquelle Evans and Roby Toma would all have an advantage over Gallup entering spring practice.
2009/Career Review: Posted the longest kick return of the season (52 yards at Michigan) which also represents the third-longest of the five-year Weis era. Gallup played sparingly from scrimmage over his career but served as a member of the Irish coverage units in 2008
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: Limited though he a receiver that can get open and catch the football can contribute to Kelly's spread offense. Gallup's major contribution would again be on special teams.
Likelihood of return: Moderate. There'd be a much better chance without a coaching change though a 23-player incoming freshman class would allow (technically) for five open spots on the roster for 5th-year scholarships. Multiple walk-ons could also challenge for 1-2 scholarships next season.
Leonard Gordon, Special Teams/DB
Returning depth at his position: Notre Dame has four (possibly five) returning cornerback prospects and four returning safeties. Gordon could be in a situation that pits his ability as a special teams participant vs. that of teammate Barry Gallup depending on the new staff's philosophy and needs on the unit. Gordon made 137 special teams appearances in 2009.
2009 Review: Recorded seven tackles including two vs. Michigan, BC, and WSU. Gordon was also one of a trio of kick coverage specialists that allowed a crease to Michigan KR Daryl Stonum resulting in a 94-yard kick return touchdown.
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: Gordon would likely remain a coverage specialist and could prove valuable as a leader on that unit after 331 career appearances in that role.
Likelihood of return: Like Gallup and Paddy Mullen (below), Gordon's caught in a numbers game, though the bulk of his overall experience could be a deciding factor. The Irish are deeper at WR (Gallup's position) than either the CB or Safety spot.
Paddy Mullen, Interior Defensive Line
Returning depth at his position: Senior Ian Williams and Emeka Nwankwo; juniors Ethan Johnson, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams, and Brandon Newman (as well as DE Kapron Lewis-Moore); untested sophomore Tyler Stockton.
2009 Review: A member of Notre Dame's goal line defense. Mullen returned to the team in August after sitting out Spring Practice 2009 due to academic reasons. Has played just over 24 minutes with 66 special teams appearances over the last two seasons. The converted tight end recorded his first career sack vs. Washington State in Game Nine.
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: A 5th-year senior defensive tackle/nose tackle used as a niche player in short-yardage situations might not improve on paper, but he can certainly plug a few holes vs. opposing power backs along the way.
Likelihood of return: We're approaching the guessing range but I'd say under 50% as he'll have to qualify for a grad school program after sitting out the spring semester (2008) due academic reasons. Mullen will likewise be forced to prove to the new regime that an extra scholarship should be used on an eighth interior defensive lineman. If Notre Dame signs 20-23 high school seniors this February there's a chance Mullen's presence would be welcomed by Kelly and Co.
Eric Maust, Punter
Returning depth at his position: Scholarship sophomore Ben Turk
2009 Review: Earned a scholarship in August; won the kicking job in early September; lost it in early October; won it back in early November; lost it two weeks later and spent the final two weeks watching Ben Turk's best performances of the season.
Chance of meaningful improvement in 2010: High. Maust was much better in 2007 and 2008 than last season.
Likelihood of return: Not far-fetched, but he'd have to earn a scholarship again in August as he'll likely continue his baseball career for the Irish this spring. Maust's situation is also dependent on Kelly's desire to employ two scholarship punters.
Note: Senior kicker Ryan Burkhart and senior defensive end Kallen Wade are not expected to apply for a 5th-year of eligibility in 2010. Burkhart will graduate with a degree in management-consulting and psychology; and Wade with a double-major in psychology and computer applications.