His defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, acknowledged that the number of defender contributing on the field could easily reach 20, considering the team's goal line and various defensive packages.
Special Teams coach Mike Elston continues to sort through myriad coverage and return candidates as well as employing more than one kicker while offensive coordinator Charley Molnar is tasked with preparing multiple quarterbacks, tight ends, and a comfortable minimum of six contributing receivers entering a contest.
I'm convinced a turnaround season awaits Irish fans. And I have a feeling the following competitors will serve as the 60 prominent players to pickup the program over the next four months.
Offense – Names to KnowKelly's breakneck pace alone elicits an all-hands-on-deck mentality, but the following will rise above the rest through the course of the season.
Quarterbacks (2): Dayne Crist is the key to the Irish season. His surgically repaired knee was deemed a non-issue by his head coach, but its unrealistic to think a spread quarterback – occasionally asked to tuck and run and continually asked to extend plays – will make it through the season taking every snap. Nate Montana will be asked to secure a lead or two and possibly follow in his father's footsteps – snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Running Backs (4): Allen will win the job and I'd set him as a 2-1 favorite to lead the team in rushing. Redshirt-sophomore Cierre Wood will emerge as a fan favorite and a much needed 40-yard threat while junior Jonas Gray needs to maintain ball security and blitz pickup responsibility in order to showcase his blend of speed, power...and skills in the screen game. Senior combo back Robert Hughes fills in the gaps as an additional pass catcher and inside draw runner while attempting to build on his improvement last season in the short-yardage role.
Wide Receivers (7): If you don't already know Michael Floyd, you're probably on the wrong fan site. The junior future record-breaker will be joined by senior Duval Kamara – the team's best down field blocker; freshman TJ Jones – who'll be a star two years from now; converted tailback Theo Riddick – who'll thrive in open space but struggle with the routine in his first season as a pass catcher.
Junior John Goodman is a sure bet for double-digit grabs, a touchdown or two, a few rushes from scrimmage and a serious contender for punt return duties. Sophomore Shaquelle Evans is the X factor, possessing an impressive blend of size, speed and quickness while also showcasing shaky hands throughout the dozens of practices I've seen over the last 12 months. Receiver No. 7 won't remain in that role for the duration, just on September 4, but Robby Toma's quickness will get him on the field and into a slot receiver role on multiple occasions this season.
Tight Ends (4): Kyle Rudolph is the best at his position in the nation. Senior backup Mike Ragone shined in the spring; then found his way into the coach's doghouse thanks to the wrong kind of herbal supplement. The Irish need him to evolve into a reliable option after years of injury and a 2009 case of the dropsies. Redshirt-sophomore Tyler Eifert is one reason the Irish won't need more than seven wide receivers this fall – look for Eifert to stress the seams this September. Senior Bobby Burger is more fullback than tight end – regardless of his designation, he's the best lead blocker on the roster and will be a short-yardage and goal line mainstay.
Offensive Line (10): Like the wide receiver position, the offensive line will steady to the point that playing time becomes Saturday-merit based. Chris Stewart (LG), and Trevor Robinson (RG) will maintain a stranglehold on their jobs, with Robinson occasionally lending a hand at right tackle. Redshirt-freshman left tackle Zack Martin won the job in the spring – he'll keep it but senior Matt Romine will make at least one start in his stead.
Both 5th year senior Dan Wenger and redshirt-junior Braxston Cave will see ample playing time – I still think Cave will wrest the starting spot from the veteran at some point. Right Tackle will be less settled with both Taylor Dever and Andrew Nuss seeing significant September time. Redshirt-sophomores Chris Watt and Alex Bullard won't be kept off the field in Year 2.
Defense – Members of the MultipleA heavy D-Line rotation, linebackers battling on the edge and an all-in situation in the secondary. As Kelly noted earlier in the week "We'll be multiple."
Defensive Line (7): Eight will see action, but Irish fans will become familiar with the starting trio of Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ian Williams – the latter is set for his best season after three years of intermittently solid play. Johnson and Lewis-Moore will determine whether the defense is merely improved or worthy of BCS consideration.
Senior Emeka Nwankwo was the toast of the spring and should see time as the chief backup for Ethan Johnson at the "5-technique" spot. Redshirt-junior Sean Cwynar is the most accomplished (and a player trusted by IrishEyes) but he'll serve in an undersized nose guard role this season, spelling the battle-tested Williams inside.
Cywnar's classmate Hafis Williams was a spring hero in 2009 (which should serve as a warning to fans expecting multiple breakouts from the stars of April 2010); it's time for him to earn a consistent spot in the rotation. A third nose guard will be necessary – look for redshirt-sophomore Tyler Stockton to prove reliable in limited action.
Outside Linebacker (4): Starter Darius Fleming and backup Steve Filer will both produce their best seasons, but Irish hopes may rest on the first consistent effort of fiery senior Brian Smith, who's finally in the role for which he was recruited. Senior Kerry Neal should lend a pass-rushing punch.
Inside Linebacker (5): Manti Te'o is the constant – Notre Dame needs him to be great one year ahead of schedule. His running mate inside will come from a quartet of untested competitors: Anthony McDonald, Carlo Calabrese, David Posluszny and Steve Paskorz. Expect McDonald to secure the job, but Calabrese to find a run-stopping role at some point. Both Poz and Paz will be heavily involved in special teams.
Safety (4): Senior Harrison Smith, juniors Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy and sophomore Zeke Motta will all contribute – heavily. Each will star in nickel and/or dime coverage packages and on special teams.
Cornerback (4): 5th year senior Darrin Walls, senior Gary Gray, junior Robert Blanton and freshman Lo Wood. Simply read the safety section above. An injury at cornerback – now a position that needs three starters – would do more damage to the defense than a fallen safety.
Phase ThreeBrian Kelly nailed it in April – you can add wins for your program with a renewed focus on special teams.
Long Snapper (1): Sophomore Jordan Cowart. Hopefully that's the last time you'll read his name through a January Bowl.
Short Snapper (1): Center Braxston Cave, whether he wins the starting role from scrimmage or not.
Kickers (2): Sophomore Nick Tausch will win the placekicking job while senior walk-on David Ruffer will handle kick-offs...and fill in for Tausch in a pinch, a role in which he excelled last November.
Punter (1): Sophomore Ben Turk. He'll be much better than last season, the question is – can he harness his performance over the final two weeks of '09 for a 12-game slate?
Return Options (0 new): All mentioned above. Look for Riddick, Allen, Goodman and Harrison Smith to return at least one punt this season with Riddick, Allen and Wood handling the bulk of the team's kick returns.
The Short-changedEach of the following will play and could prove my mid-August projection wrong by season's end.
- Junior defensive end/nose guard Brandon Newman – I liked what I saw from Newman in limited viewings during the spring. He'll play, but the column above focuses on consistent contributions. Its time for the junior with one game played to prove everyone wrong.
- Junior guard Mike Golic, Jr. – It's a numbers game and I can't see more than 10 linemen earning a regular role. Injuries and Golic's own improvement could certainly change this perceived status as the odd man out.
- Freshman wide receiver Austin Collinsworth – Field time as a pass catcher or fifth safety is certainly possible, as is a role on the coverage units.
- Junior wide receiver Deion Walker – I loved the kid's potential last fall but haven't seen consistency since. It's not important that I notice him, but wide receivers coach Tony Alford and Brian Kelly must. The 8th (or lower) receiver role is unacceptable considering his third-year/former 4-star status.
- Redshirt-freshman tight end Jake Golic – I have a feeling the youngest Golic will prove this prediction wrong and find a role on special teams this fall (he might not have been far away as a true freshman last August).
- Senior tackle Lane Clelland – Quicker-than-average feet will likely help him secure one of the protector roles for the Irish punt team (three blockers line up between the front wall and the punter).
- Senior kicker/punter Brandon Walker – His career is supposed to be over (back injury), so who am I to count him out in August?
I think the remainder of the freshmen class could be a year away...though running back Cameron Roberson's skill set seems fitting for special teams action.