Notre Dame Football: A Two-Year Snapshot at the Rebuilt Irish Roster
When Notre Dame clinched a spot in the BCS title game after finishing the 2012 regular season with a victory at USC, athletic director Jack Swarbrick admitted that he had always thought that the Irish were still a year away.
That year came and went, with the 2013 Irish falling well short of the athletic director's lofty goals. Notre Dame has won 21 games over the past two seasons. Respectable numbers, but far short from putting the Irish near the apex of college football.
The nucleus that had Swarbrick so confident is now gone, with the headliners of the 2012 team, Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert, already in the NFL and key starters like Zack Martin, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt likely to go in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
The departure of two key classes has put the burden on Brian Kelly to reload his roster. And the Irish coaching staff has done just that, restocking the roster with 46 new additions in the 2013-14 signing classes.
Let's take a look at the two-year snapshot of Notre Dame's reloaded roster.
Hunter Bivin (2013)
Steve Elmer (2013)
John Montelus (2013)
Mike McGlinchey (2013)
Colin McGovern (2013)
Alex Bars (2014)
Jimmy Byrne (2014)
Sam Mustipher (2014)
Quenton Nelson (2014)
Depth along the offensive line was a huge problem at the end of 2012 and carried into the 2013 season as well.
With injuries to Chris Watt, Christian Lombard and Nick Martin, Harry Hiestand was forced to play four first-time starters along with Zack Martin to close the regular season.
But the nine-man haul over the past two recruiting classes should solve any depth issues.
Replacing Martin and Watt won't be easy, but the options the Irish will have both on the inside and at tackle should make for an interesting spring practice as well as the most competitive two-deep in the past decade.
Who plays left tackle will likely be the biggest question.
There's a belief by some inside the program that Mike McGlinchey is athletic enough to play there, giving the 6'7.5", 290-pound tackle the first shot at Zack Martin's job. But Steve Elmer could play outside as well, and freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson look like future starters as well.
The battle on the inside looks no easier, with Nick Martin and Christian Lombard returning healthy for spring. But both Matt Hegarty and Conor Hanratty took advantage of their opportunities this season. Rising sophomores Hunter Bivin and John Montelus will look to fight for playing time as well.
Malik Zaire (2013)
Deshone Kizer (2014)
Both Zaire and Kizer look like perfect fits for Brian Kelly's offense, with the Irish head coach saying as much last week.
While Kelly said he expects Zaire to compete for the starting job this spring, both will likely be watching Golson the next two seasons and then battling with Blake Barnett come 2016.
After taking a scattershot approach to the position by signing a diverse group of quarterbacks that included Luke Massa and Gunner Kiel, Kelly seems to have decided on a dual-threat profile, embodied by Golson, Zaire and Kizer.
That should only help the Irish offense moving forward.
Greg Bryant (2013)
Tarean Folston (2013)
Most Irish fans were surprised that it was Folston that burst out of the gates in South Bend, taking control of the running back depth chart and the starting job as the year went on.
But Bryant's season seemed doomed from the start, with a nagging knee injury eventually ending his season after meniscus surgery.
This position looked like it could've added another difference-maker in running back Elijah Hood, but the North Carolina native decided to stay in his home state after giving an early pledge to the Irish.
Still, Bryant essentially counts as a member of this class with the medical redshirt, and the staff believes both backs are elite difference-makers.
The early departure of George Atkinson clears up some carries for both backs, but there's still plenty of competition with Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and Will Mahone battling this spring. That said, expect this position to be an area of interest in the 2015 cycle, with the Irish likely taking two running backs.
Mike Heuerman (2013)
Durham Smythe (2013)
Tyler Luatua (2014)
Nic Weishar (2014)
Notre Dame is likely to lose their third straight tight end to the NFL draft's first two rounds with Troy Niklas joining Tyler Eifert (1st round) and Kyle Rudolph (2nd round).
Niklas' departure, paired with Alex Welch deciding to play out his eligibility at Miami (OH) with Chuck Martin, has created unexpected opportunities for this group.
Neither Heuerman nor Smythe saw the field in 2013, though both received praise from Brian Kelly throughout the season. Neither looks to have the size to play as an attached tight end unless strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo works miracles this offseason. At 215 pounds, Nic Weishar doesn't seem close, either. That gives Tyler Luatua a chance to play early, joining Ben Koyack in two tight end sets.
There are a lot of question marks at "Tight End U," but the talent is certainly there.
That said, nobody looks like a ready-made option. All four tight ends have four seasons of eligibility remaining. Expect two of these four to play significant minutes, though who joins Koyack is still a question mark.
Don't be surprised if the Irish add two more tight ends in the next recruiting cycle as well.
William Fuller (2013)
Torii Hunter Jr. (2013)
James Onwualu (2013)
Corey Robinson (2013)
Justin Brent (2014)
Corey Holmes (2014)
Even after losing 2013 team MVP TJ Jones, the wide receiver position may be the strength of the roster. The Irish reloaded at the position over the past two recruiting cycles, a much needed addition of depth and athleticism.
The 2013 class was a big part of that.
In Fuller, the Irish added another deep threat, quickly passing Chris Brown for that role. In Robinson, the Irish added length and hands not on the roster. James Onwualu saw the field early as a special teams weapon and physical blocker, slowly developing as a pass-catcher as well.
The most talented of the group may just be Hunter, who sat out the season after a non-contact broken leg at the Army All-American Bowl ended his freshman season before it started.
Justin Brent and Corey Holmes add two more players that enhance the depth chart.
Brent looks more physically ready to perform, an early enrollee that's built like an upperclassman. Holmes is stick thin, but has sneaky good speed and played at one of the country's premier prep programs. It'll be tough for both of them to break through this depth chart, but they have the talent to do it.
Who ends up shining out of this group will be a great surprise.
You can make a reasonable argument for all six receivers. With DaVaris Daniels out of school for the spring semester, all but Holmes will be on campus taking reps this spring, giving new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock a chance to see his receivers compete and catch passes from Everett Golson.
Isaac Rochell (2013)
Eddie Vanderdoes (2013)
Grant Blankenship (2014)
Daniel Cage (2014)
Jay Hayes (2014)
Peter Mokwuah (2014)
Andrew Trumbetti (2014)
Jhonny Williams (2014)
The loss of Vanderdoes still stings, especially after seeing the freshman granted immediate eligibility after a questionable waiver process and play his way to freshman All-American honors.
But after landing (technically keeping) just Isaac Rochell in 2013, Notre Dame rebounded in a big way with the 2014 class.
Expect Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes and Peter Mokwuah to man the inside of the defensive line. Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner, Andrew Trumbetti and Jhonny Williams will stay on the edge.
Guessing who will be ready to take snaps next year is tough. But assuming that some in this group will play isn't, because the depth chart just isn't there.
In less than a month, we'll hear how Trumbetti is doing in his first camp.
The Irish staff expects Mokwuah to be able to contribute early. Rochell is primed to take a big step forward after playing limited minutes as a freshman, but the remaining members of the 2013-14 group will need to make their presence felt sooner rather than later.
Michael Deeb (2013)
Doug Randolph (2013)
Jaylon Smith (2013)
Jonathan Bonner (2014)
Kolin Hill (2014)
Greer Martini (2014)
Nyles Morgan (2014)
Nile Sykes (2014)
Reloading the linebacker position was paramount, especially with the Irish saying goodbye to starters Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Prince Shembo.
While the numbers in the 2013 class weren't overly impressive, Jaylon Smith already looks like a once-in-a-generation talent at outside linebacker.
The 2014 group may not have a singular star like Smith, but it's more impressive as a whole. Nyles Morgan doesn't have the elite athleticism that Smith possesses, but he's arguably just as important, considering the need he'll fill at inside linebacker.
The Irish also upgrade their athleticism across the board in this class, bringing in speed players like Kolin Hill and Nile Sykes to upgrade the linebacking corps' ability to play sideline to sideline and rush the passer.
Expect Smith to play at an All-American caliber level next season.
After that, who plays in this group is a crapshoot. Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph saved eligibility last season. Both are healthy and ready to compete this spring at positions that are wide open.
Morgan will likely be given a shot to start at inside linebacker, though the Irish staff will need to show patience. Beyond him, this group will most likely play complementary roles, assisting a pass rush that desperately hopes Brian VanGorder has some answers.
Devin Butler (2013)
Rashad Kinlaw (2013)
Cole Luke (2013)
Max Redfield (2013)
Drue Tranquill (2014)
Nick Watkins (2014)
The Irish look like they've found a starter for 2014 in Cole Luke, who played steady football during his freshman season.
Devin Butler also took reps at nickelback, pushing in front of veterans Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson to play key minutes.
Brian Kelly pushed Max Redfield into the starting lineup for the Pinstripe Bowl, wanting to take a closer look at his freshman safety. He seemingly passed the test, with Redfield having the first shot at a starting job heading into the spring.
The Irish staff believe Nick Watkins can play early for the Irish.
He's got cover skills and athleticism that is as good as anybody on the roster. While Drue Tranquill might be a developmental prospect, he upgrades the Irish size at safety, with the head coach glowing about his ability as an overall football player.
We'll get our first look at Rashad Kinlaw, an intriguing athlete that spent time as the scout team quarterback last year. If Kinlaw pans out, this entire two-year group will likely end up hitting the mark for the Irish.
That's impressive work reloading the secondary.