Notre Dame Football: Projecting the Irish's Starting Lineup

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterJune 11, 2014

Notre Dame Football: Projecting the Irish's Starting Lineup

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Don't look now, but we're 79 days away from the start of Notre Dame's season. With summer school in session and freshmen reporting to campus within the next week, football season will be here before we know it.

    (Or so we hope.)

    With Brian Kelly and the Irish coaching staff able to continue work with their teams this summer thanks to some NCAA rule changes, the battle for starting jobs won't wait until August to get started.

    So let's take a temporary break from recruiting madness to project the starting 11 on both sides of the ball when Notre Dame takes on Rice on August 30. 

Quarterback: Everett Golson

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    While it's probably true that Malik Zaire has looked better than even Coach Kelly hoped, there's still little chance that anything other than a injury will keep Everett Golson out of the starting lineup.

    Finally ready to return to the field for the first time since running for his life against Alabama, Golson is the unquestioned leader of the Irish offense. Bigger, stronger and hopefully wiser after an academic indiscretion cost him the 2013 season, the Irish should have one of the country's premier playmakers behind center if Golson plays up to his potential.

    The Irish will be put on Golson's shoulders in 2014, with the team in dire need of an elite quarterback. Golson looked on track to provide that after an impressive redshirt freshman season. We'll see if he can shake the rust off and be the engine of the Irish offense. 

Running Back: Tarean Folston

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Sure, Cam McDaniel is a senior and Greg Bryant stole the spring headlines, but Tarean Folston is the team's most complete back.

    After taking over down the stretch last season, Folston will spend the summer separating himself from the pack as he prepares for a monster sophomore season. For all the talk that Bryant inspired this spring, Irish fans might be overlooking one of the best young backs they've had on campus since Julius Jones.

    Showing an ability to catch the ball out of the backfield in the spring game while already displaying a knack for making big plays on the ground, Folston will share carries with both Bryant and McDaniel, but he has what it takes to be the No. 1 back Irish fans have coveted. 

Wide Receivers: DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson & Amir Carlisle

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Now that DaVaris Daniels is back on campus after being exiled for academic issues in the spring, he can get back to the business of becoming an elite receiver.

    The tools are there. He's got the size, speed and skills necessary to play on Sundays. But he's yet to perform with the consistency that Brian Kelly demands, and even his steady improvement in 2013 left a ton of big plays on the table.

    Daniels will be a senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining. If he plays up to the standard the Irish staff expects from him, he can leave his fifth year on the table and exit for the NFL with his degree in hand.

    Corey Robinson's ascent to the starting lineup gives the Irish a human mismatch on the outside. While he didn't get the collegiate growth spurt that turned his father David into a seven-footer, Robinson will play bigger (and probably already is) than the 6'4.5" that he's listed at on the spring roster.

    At his best, Robinson gives the Irish a receiver with velcro hands and an ability to beat any cornerback for a jump ball. But if he's to become a dominant offensive weapon for the Irish this season, it'll be be his ability to do more than just be a situational receiver.

    Carlisle started last season as the Irish's top running back, but a move to the slot should have him feeling more at home. After a late-game fumble against Purdue cost Carlisle carries and diminished his role in the offense, he spent the spring finding a new position, with the running back rotation set with Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel.

    Carlisle has the speed and agility to give a defense problems in space. He could also finally give Brian Kelly the slot receiver he's been searching for since arriving in South Bend. While C.J. Prosise shared reps at inside receiver this spring, Carlisle's ability as both a runner and receiver should unlock a few pages in Kelly's spread playbook.

Tight End: Ben Koyack

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    Peter Morrison/Associated Press

    It's Ben Koyack or bust at tight end, at least early in the season. While the senior is the beneficiary of Troy Niklas leaving Notre Dame after three seasons, he's now going to have to teach four freshmen (two redshirt, two true) how to play a position that's been held to the highest standard.

    There's every reason to believe Koyack can finally become a dangerous weapon during his final season in South Bend. Gifted with great size and athleticism, Koyack has the ability to be an attached blocker as well as a trusted receiver. 

    A big season could also thrust Koyack into an impressive string of Irish tight ends, joining Niklas, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano as Irish tight ends taken early in the NFL draft.

Offensive Line

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    JOE RAYMOND/Associated Press

    Here's how Harry Hiestand's offensive line will likely line up against Rice.

    • LT: Ronnie Stanley 
    • LG: Steve Elmer
    • C: Nick Martin
    • RG: Christian Lombard
    • RT: Mike McGlinchey 

    After playing musical chairs for most of spring, it appears that the Irish have set their depth chart. While Notre Dame will undoubtedly miss first-rounder Zack Martin and third-round pick Chris Watt, the offensive line will look bigger, stronger and more athletic than any other that's lined up in the past 15 years. 

    At left tackle, Stanley appears to have locked down the starting job. His transition from the right side was smooth this spring. While Elmer looks like a tackle, he'll stay inside at left guard, hoping to establish the type of chemistry with Stanley that Watt and Martin had for three seasons. 

    Nick Martin is back and healthy after knee surgery. He and Lombard are the unquestioned leaders of the group, with Lombard healthy after a wrist injury ended his spring early. The fifth-year veteran will stay inside at guard, making way for McGlinchey. The young tackle has the raw tools and ability to be a good one at right guard, but he is worth keeping an eye on. 

Defensive End: Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    On the edges of Brian VanGorder's defensive line will be senior Ishaq Williams and junior Romeo Okwara. While both Williams and Okwara have the pedigree to be frontline players, neither has shown that ability yet. It's a big reason why the pass rush is considered one of the largest question marks on the Irish defense. 

    In Williams, Notre Dame has a veteran player who looks the part of an early NFL draft pick. But his on-field production has been minimal in his three seasons since being one of the top defensive end prospects in the country. 

    Williams hasn't played that position exclusively until this year, instead struggling to find reps at the "Cat" linebacker position, backing up Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo. But at 6'5.5", 271 pounds, Williams has a rare blend of size and speed that should allow him to thrive, and perhaps a new system and a fresh start with VanGorder is just what the doctor ordered. 

    If projecting Williams' ascent is difficult, so is Okwara's. On paper, the 6'4", 258-pounder looks like the prototype defensive end for a 4-3 system, but Okwara has spent the past two seasons as a utility outside linebacker, making special teams appearances and mostly serving in a reserve role. 

    Okwara made the position switch this spring as well, the first time in his career he's put a hand on the ground and played defensive line. If defensive line coach Mike Elston can get Okwara to make up for lost time, he's the type of pure athlete who should wreak some havoc off the edgethough he'll need to learn the ABCs of his job first. 

    For as little starting experience as Williams and Okwara have, the other options at this position are even greener, making this one of the true question marks on the roster.  

Defensive Tackle: Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones

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    It turns out the search for Louis Nix's successor won't be filled by just one man. As the Irish defense prepares to base out of the 4-3, Nix's nose guard job will phase out, with the combination of Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones playing on the interior of the defensive line. 

    On paper, these two should be more than adequate replacements. Day is the team's most experienced front-seven defender, a contributor as a freshman defensive end in 2012 before sliding into Kapron Lewis-Moore's starting spot in 2013. While a nagging high-ankle injury suffered against Purdue robbed Day of his explosiveness, he's the team's best defensive lineman and could have a breakout season playing a position more suited to his 6'2", 290-pound frame. 

    Jones worked his way onto the field at nose guard after Nix was shutdown with a knee injury late last season. After struggling to play defensive end in Bob Diaco's system, the shift inside to tackle suited him well, and Jones played admirably at the end of the season. 

    That momentum carried into spring football, where Jones will have the chance to do more than hold down the point of attack. At 6'5.5", 310 pounds, Jones is a gigantic man on the interior of the defensive line. He's also shown himself to be productive, even if he hasn't always known what he's been doing. 

    Building that knowledge base over the summer and fall camp can only help Jones continue to develop. If he's capable of grasping the concepts and staying healthy, Jones and Day could be a formidable duo. 

Linebacker: Jaylon Smith

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Projecting a big season from Jaylon Smith isn't difficult. After racking up impressive stats from an outside linebacker position that's best been known for minimal statistical production in Kelly's first three seasons, Smith will move from the edge of the defense to the middle of the action this year. 

    Smith will likely start the season as the team's "Will" linebacker, a shift to the inside that will have him playing a centralized role in VanGorder's defense. With Smith's blazing speed, impressive athleticism and great instincts, it's a recipe for a breakout year where 100 tackles is a very real possibility.

    Pigeonholing Smith to just one spot doesn't make much sense. In a system that's going to be built around various sub-packages, Smith will likely have the ability to blitz off the edge and move around the formation, keeping his location a mystery for opposing offenses. 

    The Irish coaching staff is putting a lot on Smith's shoulders, using the spring as a heavy course load for its prized defensive pupil. But expect that to pay off this fall. 

Linebacker: Joe Schmidt

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    The story of the spring was the ascent of Joe Schmidt. The former walk-on is now one of the Irish's most trusted linebackers, a 2-star recruit who paid his own way to Notre Dame playing next to the highest-ranked defensive prospect the Irish have ever signed. 

    How Schmidt fits into the Irish scheme will be interesting. A lack of prototype size won't necessarily allow him to thrive against power-running teams like Stanford. But Schmidt has great athleticism, can drop and cover and chase plays sideline to sideline, as his defensive acumen helped him move to the top of the depth chart. 

    Part of Schmidt's rise is a product of opportunity. Jarrett Grace continues to rehab a severe leg injury. Veterans Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese depart. And a wave of young linebackers headlined by Nyles Morgan won't be on campus until next week. 

    But Schmidt did enough this spring to cement his place in the starting lineup. He'll be a key contributor in 2014. 

Safeties: Austin Collinsworth and Max Redfield

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    The move of Matthias Farley to cornerback essentially solidified the starting safety position. And in Austin Collinsworth and Max Redfield, the Irish coaching staff has two very different players taking on key roles in the defense. 

    In Collinsworth, the Irish have an athlete who's somewhat limited, but has a solid understanding of the game. In Redfield, they've got an elite talent who's still trying to get up to speed. Both players' weaknesses can be fatal as a defense's last line of defense. 

    Kelly all but gave Redfield this starting job when he forced him into the starting lineup against Rutgers and kept him there all through spring. Redfield repaid that trust throughout the team's 15 practices and spent most of the Blue-Gold Game watching on the sideline, the ultimate compliment reserved for the team's best players. 

    Collinsworth is a fifth-year player who played better as the season wore on last year. He still can be victimized in the open field, but if the Irish are looking for a field general who's capable of getting the team lined up and reading the opposing offenses, Collinsworth is the best bet. 

    Elijah Shumate is a talented player who had an underwhelming sophomore season after moving back to safety. He'll likely fight for time if he can stay healthy and fully grasp the new concepts. But for now, it's Collinsworth and Redfield, an unlikely pairing that will hopefully serve as the last line of defense. 

Cornerbacks: Cole Luke, KeiVarae Russell and Cody Riggs

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    VanGorder's defense needs cornerbacks who can cover. And in Cole Luke, Cody Riggs and KeiVarae Russell, the Irish have three starting-caliber players who can do it. 

    Expect Notre Dame to spend most of its time with three cornerbacks on the field. In Luke and Russell, the team has outside cornerbacks. In Riggs, it has a slot specialist who has started as both a corner and safety at Florida. 

    Russell is the team's most experienced defender. Coming off a big performance in the Pinstripe Bowl, many expect Russell to take a leap forward and become a dominant college player. He'll need to clean up some of the mistakes he made against Michigan last year, but Russell continues to improve and his leadership and confidence is infectious. 

    From a skills perspective, Luke is the closest thing the Irish have to a technician. After an impressive freshman season playing a key reserve role, Luke will be asked to play a ton of man coverage, a challenge that should bring out the best in the sophomore cornerback. 

    Riggs has played the most football of anybody on the roster, though he did it in the SEC. After sliding inside to safety for the Gators after an injury, Riggs wanted the chance to finish his eligibility at Notre Dame...and also play cornerback. 

    Kelly and VanGorder picture Riggs as the perfect slot defender, a necessity as Notre Dame faces more and more spread teams. Teamed with Russell and Luke, not to mention key reserves Farley and Devin Butler, and the cornerback position is one of the deepest on the Irish roster.