Note: Players below will be seniors when the Irish take the field next September. They are therefore no longer referred to as juniors (their technical grade for another semester) in this column.
As well, 10 potential 5th years seniors (Bobby Burger, Ryan Burkhart, Barry Gallup, Leonard Gordon, Paddy Mullen, Eric Maust, Chris Stewart, Kallen Wade, Darrin Walls, and Dan Wenger) were reviewed in a separate column Pleading for a 5th.
Returning Starters and Key Contributors
- RB Armando Allen: Enters spring ball as the team's No. 1 back…quickest through the hole of the team's runners and should continue to thrive as a receiver under Kelly…adept at blitz pickup…largest drawback as a college runner is the inability to break off long runs and/or make the final defender miss in space.
- RB Robert Hughes: At his best as a solo-back so the expected spread offense could play to his strength…ran through more arm tackles this season than at any point in his career…showed better hands (actually great hands) in practice but dropped a couple of easy swing passes out of the backfield this year.
- WR Duval Kamara: Should begin camp as No. 2-3 wide receiver…the team's best downfield blocker might regain lost quickness with time off from his August knee scope…inconsistent hands but a load to tackle once he's squared up after the catch…saw almost no action on fade routes this season after being featured in that role in '07 and early '08.
- TE Mike Ragone: Became more involved in the passing game as the season progressed but had too many drops…straight-line speed appears to have returned after his second knee surgery in four years but lateral quickness has not…should be at his healthiest in two full seasons entering spring ball…still ranks as a better blocker than Rudolph, though Ragone had a few slip-ups in that regard in November.
- CB Gary Gray: Emerged as the team's best CB last year, unfortunately that could also be by default…plays much bigger and more physically than his listed wait…both Gray and junior-to-be Robert Blanton seem better suited (potentially great) as Cover 2 cornerbacks with help behind them…played the ball in the air better than both Blanton and Darrin Walls this season.
- LB/S Harrison Smith: Certainly seems more effective playing close to the line…outstanding athlete that was oddly lost at FS last season…new scheme could work wonders though he'll need to improve concentration level and, with the rest of the defense, fundamentals as a tackler…if player development truly is Kelly's strength, we'll see two top-notch seasons for the redshirt senior-to-be.
- LB Brian Smith: No player needs a change of scheme more than Smith…plays with passion and occasional fury and has a penchant for big plays (and excellent timing on blitzes at times) but was too easily blocked. ND needs Smith to have a breakout senior season, similar to Brandon Hoyte in 2005.
- NT Ian Williams: Possibly the most important piece in next year's defensive scheme as an experienced, senior starter…Williams and junior-to-be Ethan Johnson should be much-improved with another year of strength-training and developing depth behind them...a lock to start whether Kelly employs a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.
- DE Kerry Neal: Would likely be music to his ears if the new regime decides to move to a 3-4 look…had trouble holding the edge as a down lineman last year and was undisciplined on misdirection plays to his side…coming into his own as a pass rusher but next year is his final season after debuting as a freshman in '07.
Second chance to make a first impression
- LT Matt Romine: Enters camp as the No. 1 LT option but will have to prove himself to the new regime…has fared better in pass protection than as a run blocker in limited time and could be an invaluable first-year starter if Kelly (as expected) installs a version of the spread…two seasons of eligibility remaining.
- RT Taylor Dever: Enters camp as the No. 1 RT option…saw time late at the at the goal line for the Irish but has had limited playing time, toiling behind four-year starter Sam Young…Dever also will have two years under Kelly.
- RG Andrew Nuss: Emerged in August, disappeared in October, and returned in November but struggled a bit in relief of RG Trevor Robinson…will challenge for a starting role, especially if the line is shuffled to employ the team's five "best" offensive linemen rather than stick to their current position slottings.
- K Brandon Walker: Did not play last season after losing his job to freshman Nicholas Tausch…hit 13 of his last 17 field goals in 2008 after missing six of his first seven…open competition among Walker, Tausch, and walk-on David Ruffer is expected in the spring.
- DT Emeka Nwankwo Played 12 minutes in 2008 and 0 last season…Nwankwo likely did cartwheels when a coaching change was announced (no reflection on Weis, but no college athlete wants to play zero minutes as a true junior)...two seasons of eligibility remaining.
- Steve Paskorz: Could serve as a blocking fullback in short-yardage or possibly move back to linebacker as the new staff experiments with untapped talent...Paskorz will likely have to earn field time as part of the Irish special teams next season...two seasons of eligibility remaining.