Position-by-Position Preview of Notre Dame's 2014 Roster
Notre Dame football players have been making their way back to campus over the past few days, with summer workouts set to begin soon.
We have focused much of our attention on recruiting in recent weeks, and we’ll continue to do so throughout the summer. But for now, let’s go position by position and preview the Irish squad.
No position on the Notre Dame roster will likely draw as much attention as quarterback.
Before, during and immediately after spring practice, Irish head coach Brian Kelly refrained from naming a starting quarterback. Both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire saw plenty of action in the Blue-Gold Game. While Zaire had the more impressive day, Golson looked sharp in other spring practices open to the media.
Kelly made it clear following the spring game that he prefers to use one quarterback.
“I would like to have one quarterback because they both can run the offense,” Kelly said. “So this is not about having one offense for one quarterback and another offense for the other...I’ve been doing it long enough that I would hope that I can figure it out come time to play Rice.”
Regardless of which quarterback ends up taking the first snap against the Owls in Week 1, the Irish appear to be in a good position. Golson quarterbacked Notre Dame to the national title game in 2012 as a redshirt freshman, before his suspension. Zaire redshirted in 2013. So while widespread game experience may be missing, the talent is still evident. As our own Adam Kramer wrote last week, “Kelly can rest easy, knowing he has the most impressive depth at the most important position in the country.”
That depth extends deeper down the depth chart, as well, with 4-star signee DeShone Kizer set to join the program this month.
In the initial weeks after the Blue-Gold Game, we tabbed the running backs as winners from spring ball.
The three-pronged attack of senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston drew praise from coaches and teammates alike throughout the spring months.
“I thought you saw it today, that all three facets—running the football with some toughness, getting on the perimeter, pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield—I thought they hit all three facets of what we’ve really worked hard on this spring,” Kelly said after the Blue-Gold Game.
It is tough to say in what order and how often the backs will play in 2014, but the position is well set. Plus, as we have discussed before, the addition of a mobile quarterback—whether that is Golson or Zaire—should help the running backs.
It is officially official: DaVaris Daniels has been readmitted to Notre Dame, as expected.
That is a huge boost for the Irish receiving corps. Daniels is Notre Dame’s leading returning receiver, and the rising senior only trailed TJ Jones in most receiving categories in 2013. Daniels, who has 80 career receptions for 1,235 yards, is the only player on Notre Dame’s roster with more than 17 career receptions.
Beyond Daniels, the position is high on talent and upside, as well as inexperience. Sophomores Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and Torii Hunter Jr. should factor into the mix, along with juniors Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise, senior Amir Carlisle and possibly true freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes.
One of the major keys to the unit will be consistency, something Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock discussed multiple times in the spring.
Following the Blue-Gold Game, Kelly did say there was consistency “across the board” among the wide receivers and that “I think we answered some questions there.”
Still, the inexperienced pass-catchers—and Daniels, for that matter—will be expected to be steadier in 2014.
Senior Ben Koyack headlines the tight ends, as he looks to follow the footsteps of recent Irish tight ends.
Ten of Koyack’s 14 career receptions came in 2013, and all 10 came during the final eight games of the campaign. That progression continued in March and April, according to Denbrock.
“Ben Koyack, I think, has had a really nice spring,” Denbrock said leading up to the Blue-Gold game. “He’s continued to grow his game. I think towards the end of last year you saw the development that he’s really taken that next step. He’s continued that this spring.”
Behind Koyack, sophomores Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman will be jockeying for playing time. Smythe, in particular, earned Kelly’s praise after the spring game, and the Irish may still look to use two tight end sets in 2014.
There is good depth behind those top three tight ends, with 4-star signees Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar on the way.
Harry Hiestand’s unit has been solid in recent years, and this group will look to continue that in 2014.
Notre Dame, however, must replace left tackle Zack Martin and left guard Chris Watt. For now, four starting spots appear to be locked in between junior Ronnie Stanley, sophomore Steve Elmer, senior Nick Martin and graduate student Christian Lombard. The remaining question is whether Mike McGlinchey starts at right tackle, or whether Elmer mans that spot and either Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty or a freshman handles left guard.
However it ends up, the line will be fairly experienced in 2014. Stanley, Martin and Lombard were regular starters last season, and Elmer, Hegarty and Hanratty have starting experience too.
Notre Dame’s depth is maybe the most impressive aspect of the offensive line. Sophomores John Montelus, Hunter Bivin and Colin McGovern and junior Mark Harrell have been through the system, and four more highly-regarded freshmen (Alex Bars, Jimmy Byrne, Sam Mustipher and Quenton Nelson) are on the way.
There are sizable question marks on the defensive line. Notre Dame must replace Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.
Media members saw plenty of four-man fronts throughout the spring in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme, and the typical structure featured Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara as the ends and juniors Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day playing inside. Other contributors expected to log some playing time are Justin Utupo, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Anthony Rabasa and Isaac Rochell.
It will be especially interesting to see which incoming freshmen earn immediate playing time. Andrew Trumbetti enrolled early, and seven other defensive linemen (according to 247Sports’ positions) will join the mix.
The top defensive lineman figures to be Day, who could be in line for a breakout junior season. After appearing in all 13 games as a true freshman, Day logged eight starts and played in 11 games total last season, while battling an ankle injury.
Everyone seeing the highlights of Aaron Donald right now? Think @S_NDbound_Day91 !— Michael Bertsch (@NDsidBertschy) May 9, 2014
Linebacker is one of the most fascinating positions on the entire roster.
Sophomore Jaylon Smith is the unquestioned face of the group—and maybe even the face of the defense. After a strong freshman campaign at the “Dog” linebacker position in former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s scheme, Smith has moved inside to the “Will” linebacker spot.
The other starting spots have more uncertainty, due in large part to injuries. Jarrett Grace had a second surgery on his right leg, which he broke against Arizona State in October. His availability for 2014 is still up in the air, as JJ Stankevitz writes for CSNChicago.com.
Joe Schmidt had a breakthrough spring and should see steady action this season. Ben Councell (torn left ACL) is also on the road back from injury and could possibly help at outside and inside linebacker, as Pete Sampson writes for Irish Illustrated.
Of the three incoming linebackers, Nyles Morgan brings the biggest pedigree. Morgan was rated the No. 3 inside linebacker and the No. 53 player overall in the class of 2014. Kelly discussed on national signing day how important the mental aspect is in determining if true freshmen can contribute immediately, but did laud Morgan’s natural ability.
“His skill set, it's pretty easy to see,” Kelly said. “That's what a 'Mike' linebacker looks like.”
By all accounts, rising junior KeiVarae Russell had a great spring and will be slotted as the top corner.
Sophomore Cole Luke lined up opposite Russell during the spring, and senior Matthias Farley made the switch from safety to cornerback and appeared as a nickelback.
The unit will get a boost when it adds Florida transfer Cody Riggs and incoming freshman Nick Watkins in the coming weeks.
According to the coaching staff, cornerback play will be important in setting the tone for the entire defense.
“You’ve got to win out there on that perimeter. You’ve got to win,” VanGorder said bluntly in late March.
“The new system that we’re under right now is just something that we want to challenge all routes,” defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks added in early April. “We want to be on attack mode.
“And the whole philosophy is that we don’t want the offense to dictate how we play defense. So everything that we do—it doesn’t mean that we’re all pressed 80 snaps a game—but we’re aggressive, we’re competing, we’re physical and that whole mindset of challenge every route.”
Between Russell, Luke, Farley, Riggs, Watkins and sophomore Devin Butler, the Irish appear to be well set to do just that.
Safety is another intriguing position on the Notre Dame squad. The Irish did not lose any safeties from last year’s team, but they also do not have completely unquestioned starters—at least yet.
Austin Collinsworth, Max Redfield, Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate all started games at some point in 2013, and Nicky Baratti played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2012.
Collinsworth and Redfield were the regular first-team safeties during the spring, and Kelly said Redfield emerged during the back half of the 15 practices.
Just how much Redfield continues to improve could go a long way in solidifying the safety spot. Redfield was ranked as the No. 3 safety in the country and the No. 30 player overall in the class of 2013.
Senior Kyle Brindza figures to handle both kicking and punting duties again in 2014. Though he did not have an outstanding showing in the Blue-Gold Game, Brindza’s track record is solid. He is supremely confident and has high hopes for the upcoming season.
Depth, though, could be an issue at the kicker and punter spots after Nick Tausch and Alex Wulfeck graduated. But Notre Dame will add incoming freshman Tyler Newsome when summer workouts begin.
“We loved the pop that he had as a kicker, but we were most intrigued by his punting, and that's an area that he's going to continue to work on and continue to develop,” Kelly said of Newsome on national signing day.
Scott Daly returns as the long snapper and Hunter Smith is slated to handle the holding duties.
Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.