While the official process for approving 5th year seniors has not yet been completed, it is clear who will be back and who won’t be among those eligible for one more season for Notre Dame and the 2012 Irish will feature a mix of high end starters and quality backups with this year’s crop of 5th year seniors.
The lone surprise in the group is Dan McCarthy. McCarthy came to Notre Dame as a more highly touted recruit than his brother Kyle – a former captain and standout safety for the Irish – but has seen injuries derail his career up to this point limiting him primarily to special teams action the last three seasons.
Had Notre Dame experienced a little more success down the stretch in recruiting, it’s very likely that there wouldn’t have been room for McCarthy, but with the available scholarship the presence of a 5th year senior in an inexperienced defensive backfield that loses the leadership of Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, and Gary Gray should be a welcomed sign. It would be a major surprise for McCarthy to come out of nowhere to challenge for Smtih’s vacant starting spot, but at a minimum, he will provide some solid depth and much needed leadership.
Joining McCarthy in the defensive backfield will be the much more experienced Jamoris Slaughter – another safety the Irish coaching staff will be depending on to play a much larger role on defense than McCarthy in 2012. Slaughter has been in and out of the starting lineup throughout his career while battling through an array of minor, nagging injuries. In the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl, however, Slaughter seemingly had his breakout performance playing a hybrid safety/linebacker position.
Slaughter found a niche in the Champs Bowl against the Seminoles recording two sacks in the contest – two more than he had in his entire career. Whether or not he will be able to replicate that kind of success without the element of surprise by opposing offenses remains to be seen. What we do know for sure, however, is that when healthy, Slaughter is a hard hitting safety whose game should translate nicely over to Harrison Smith’s vacated starting strong safety position. Keeping Slaughter healthy and in the lineup will be paramount to keeping Notre Dame’s green secondary from being a liability in 2012.
Sticking on the defensive side of the ball, Notre Dame lucks out a bit with the return of Kapron Lewis-Moore. Had Lewis-Moore not suffered a season ending injury in 2011, he may have tested the NFL waters in next month’s draft. With his return, Notre Dame will now boast one of its deepest and most talented defensive lines since the early 90′s. KLM has been a mainstay in the starting lineup for the Irish over the last three seasons, but in his absence last year, freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt really came into their own and could end up locking down the starting defensive end positions this season.
Having Lewis-Moore back is a major luxury that few Irish defenses have had in the past. With him, Lynch, and Tuitt providing three high end quality starters and a mix of younger players such as Chase Hounshell and Kona Schwenke providing depth, Bob Diaco will be able to keep rotating his defensive linemen this season without sacrificing production.
Over on the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame will return two offensive line who saw time in the starting lineup a season ago. Braxston Cave has been a regular now at center for three seasons for the Irish and will provide senior leadership in a deep and talented group of offensive linemen. Cave has been on the cusp of becoming an elite lineman for a couple seasons now, but just hasn’t quite reached that status yet. Learning a new blocking scheme might complicate reaching that goal for Cave in 2012, but at the very least Cave gives Notre Dame a good, if not great anchor for the center of the offensive line.
Having Cave’s leadership will go a long way in helping some of the younger linemen pick up new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s blocking schemes. Remember, Cave has played under multiple offensive line coaches while at Notre Dame and his experience in learning new systems should help out the underclassmen as they try to grasp the new system.
Also back on the offensive line will be Mike Golic, Jr. After three seasons of roaming the sidelines in search of quality playing time, Golic was thrust into the starting lineup when Cave went down to injury last season. Despite very limited experience, Golic played admirably and was solid will filling in. At times Golic was over matched, but that is to be expected of a player seeing his first real action.
Having Golic back is another luxury the Irish haven’t had in recent years. While Golic might not be an elite lineman, he is more than steady and gives the Irish staff a capable backup at guard and center so that they do not have to throw an underclassmen into the mix too early should the Irish suffer an injury up front. If you watch any of the Notre Dame Athletic Department videos on YouTube, you also know that Golic is a great team leader and has a genuine love for Notre Dame making his return in 2012 a welcomed sign.
Lastly, John Goodman will be back for a 5th season in South Bend as well. Known more for his punt returning struggles than his receiving to this point in his career, Goodman will have one final chance to show that the promise he showed on Halloween night in 2009 was not a fluke and that he can be a big play receiver for this offense.
With the departure of Michael Floyd to the NFL, Notre Dame will be in desperate need of a big bodied receiver to step up this spring and fall. Goodman will get first crack at that role. With just 28 career catches for 315 and a single touchdown though, he will have to really elevate his game to crack the starting lineup and fullfil the potential that had many comparing him to Jeff Samardzija coming out of high school.
One player who won’t be back that many felt might be at one point or another is Sean Cwynar. While Cwynar provided more than just quality depth -he was at times a difference maker – he decided against coming back for a 5th season and will instead pursue his professional career. Others such as Brandon Newman, Deion Walker, Hafis Williams, Lane Clelland, Anthony McDonald, and David Posluszny will not be back in South Bend next year but are free to transfer to another school and play their final year of eligibility without sitting out a year.