Every spring story-lines emerge and new players step into roles they previously hadn’t held for colleges all around the country. Such is the nature of the beast in college football with teams replacing a quarter of their roster every year. Those spring story-lines usually develop into the reasons behind either surprising or disappointing seasons in the fall.
Notre Dame will be replacing a lot of talented starters this year – Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert, Braxston Cave, and Theo Riddick just to name a few. How quickly they find replacements and build depth throughout the roster will determine if the Irish are BCS bound again in 2013 or if their New Year’s will be open.
Today we are going to take a look at seven different intriguing players the Irish coaching staff will be looking to replace some of those starters and build enough depth to continue to close the gap between the Notre Dame program and the Alabamas of the college football landscape.
Before spring camp started, Prosise looked like he was locked in the log jam at safety where the Irish have a lot of bodies and have 5-star recruit Max Redfield reporting in the summer. Brian Kelly let us all know that Prosise would cross train at wide receiver when he kicked off spring football and then told us all that he would be working primarily on offense after Davonte Neal’s transfer and Amir Carlisle’s injury.
With Prosise working primarily at wide receiver where the Irish have limited options for the slot receiver position right now, he went from likely special teams contributor to a potential breakout candidate for 2013. Last season Matthias Farley made the reverse switch from wide receiver to safety and ended up being forced into the starting lineup after Jamoris Slaughter was lost for the season.
That move turned out to work out pretty well for Notre Dame.
Can the move of Prosise to wide receiver yield similar results on the offensive side of the ball? It’ll be a little while before we know the answer to that question. Prosise lining up in the slot does pose some interesting possibilities for the Notre Dame offense, but the rising sophomore has a lot to learn in a relatively short period of time. He played a little bit of receiver in high school, but even on the prep level he was primarily a defender.
Prosise did show in high school that he can make plays with the football in his hands even though mos of his time was spent on defense. As a senior he scored seven touchdowns on returns – 5 on kickoffs, 1 on an interception, and another on a fumble return. In order for Prosise to make an impact this fall as a receiver he’ll need those skills to make plays in the open field. There is no guarantee that Prosise’s switch to offense will be fruitful as Farley’s move to defense was last year, but none the less, Prosise has now become easily one of the most intriguing players on the Irish roster this spring.
There isn’t a more high profile player that Notre Dame will be forced to replace in 2013 than Manti Te’o and the man tasked with doing just that is junior linebacker Jarrett Grace. Limited almost exclusively to special teams duties during his first two seasons in South Bend, Grace will be asked to fill in for a player who took home almost every major award imaginable last year other than the Heisman Trophy and left Notre Dame has the most decorated defensive player in school history.
Not too much top ask out of kid who has all of 12 career tackles, huh?
So far in camp Brian Kelly has given the junior out of Ohio some rave reviews.
“Jarrett Grace has obviously done an incredible job or I wouldn’t feel that good about it,” Kelly said last week when asked why he was excited about the inside linebacker position. “He’s a really, really good football player. Is he going to have seven interceptions? I’m not going in that direction,” Kelly joked in reference to Te’o’s seven picks in 2012. “In terms of runs fits, side line to sideline, communication; he’s shown himself to be a really good player for us.”
For the sake of the Notre Dame defense, hopefully Kelly is not just serving up some sound bits here. Replacing Te’o is a daunting task considering the impact the Hawaiian native made last season. Bob Diaco won’t be asking Grace to replace all of Manti’s production, but if he can step in and play just solid football, the defense will be in fine shape given the talent the Irish have upfront and in the secondary.
It is inevitable that Grace will be compared to Te’o all season long and that might be the toughest part of the job for him. Grace will need to play his game and focus on making all of the plays he can and not focusing on making the plays Te’o made last year. That sounds a lot easier said than done, but it’s never easy following in the footsteps of a legend. Grace is about to find that out and how he responds will be a big factor in whether or not the Irish defense continues where he left off in the regular season or looks more like the unit we saw in Miami.
Brian Kelly has said all spring that the key to finding the starting five on the offensive line for 2013 will be identifying the center and that is true. Harry Hiestand needs to figure out who is starting center will be for the rest of the chips to fall into place along the offensive front. The one guy outside of the center position that I will have my eye on during the Blue Gold game however, will be Ronnie Stanley.
If Stanley, a rising sophomore, shows that he is capable of manning the right tackle position, Hiestand will have the luxury of sliding Christian Lombard inside to right guard where he might be a more natural fit and to me that could be the key to fielding the best offensive line possible in 2013.
Lombard played well at right tackle in 2012, but many feel he is best suited for the guard position. Notre Dame didn’t have much depth at tackle last season though and Lombard was tasked to man the right end of the line. Sliding Lombard inside would be a huge boost to the interior of the line – something that Notre Dame is in need of this year.
George Atkinson looks to be on his way to securing the top spot at half back heading into fall camp, but to this point in his career he hasn’t shown the ability to be a between the tackles runner. Having more depth and experience on the interior line would help open up running lanes for the speedy back to exploit. All of that, of course, hinges on someone emerging at right tackle though.
Speaking of the center position, Hegarty might be the most intriguing player on the Irish roster this spring given his recovery from the heart condition that caused him to suffer a stroke last fall. Such an injury is scary for anyone to go through let alone a college kid. Hegarty has made a remarkable recovery though and has been on the field all spring challenging for the starting center position left vacated by the graduation of Braxston Cave.
It is going to be interesting to see how much playing time Hegarty gets in the spring game and in practice as the spring unfolds. Brian Kelly has said that the New Mexico native won’t be limited, but given the nature of his injury it’s hard to imagine the Notre Dame coaching staff not being at least a little cautious with him.
Lost in his injury this fall is the fact that Hegarty came to Notre Dame as a heralded recruit with offers from almost every major program in the country. In short, this is a very talented kid who has the potential to be a top of the line starter when fully heathy.
If Hegarty is able to make up for lost time in the weight room between now and the summer, he will have a chance to earn the nod at center as he battles with Nick Martin and Mark Harrell for the position. Regardless of whether or not Hegarty ends up seriously challenging for the spot though, he will be a very interesting player to watch given what he has overcome.
Shumate came to Notre Dame as a prep safety before moving to corner in fall camp last year and playing a lot at the nickel position throughout the 2012 season. Early on Shumate looked great before looking a little more like a freshman as the season progressed. He showed enough last year though that Notre Dame fans should be pretty excited about the New Jersey native’s potential moving forward.
Despite a lot of bodies at the safety position, Notre Dame moved Shumate back to safety this spring. That right there ought to tell you what the Irish coaches think of his ability and give an indication of their plans for him. Would they move him back to safety where the have a lot of other options unless they really liked his chances for locking down the starting strong safety position that Zeke Motta manned for most of the past two seasons? Probably not.
Shumate has the size – 6’0″, 213 lbs – for the position and has the edge in experience over the other candidates for the job. Not much has been said about the rising sophomore so far this spring, but he is another player I’ll have my eye on in the Blue Gold game specifically to see how he holds up against the run.
As a nickel corner last year Shumate wasn’t asked to defend the run nearly as much as he will be as a potential starting safety. If he holds up well against the run though you have to feel good about the range and coverage skills of the Irish safeties in 2013.
There was once a time when a 4-star defensive line recruit would have been forced into action as a freshman whether or not he was ready for the field. Thanks to some great recruiting along the defensive front over the last few years, that was not the case with Jarron Jones in 2012.
Jones was a 4-star recruit with an impressive offer list, but spent his freshman season in South Bend getting bigger and stronger and learning the Irish defense. A year later Notre Dame has another crop of highly rated incoming freshmen along the defensive line headlined by Eddie Vanderdoes and Isaac Rochell reporting in the summer and suddenly everyone forgets about the last year’s headline recruit on the defensive line.
It would be a mistake to forget about the sophomore New York native though. Jones is a key cog along the defensive line for Notre Dame this year. Last year the Irish starting defensive line could hang with pretty much any other defensive line in the country. The problem for Notre Dame was there was a considerable drop-off when those starters weren’t on the field.
Sheldon Day has the inside track to start opposite Stephon Tuitt with Kapron Lewis-Moore out of eligibility, but Jones will be at the very least a key reserve for Notre Dame. Aside from pushing Day for that starting position, Notre Dame needs Jones to step up in his sophomore year to provide depth so that they can rotate in more players along the defensive line 2013.
One thing that we learned in 2012 was that Notre Dame’s starting 22 are really good. The difference between Notre Dame just making it to another BCS game in 2013 and actually being competitive in it will be getting the next 22 up to speed so that there isn’t as much of a drop-off when those starters aren’t in the game. Jones is just one of the players in that next 22 that we should be keeping an eye on.
Everyone knows that Notre Dame is replacing their all-time leading receiver at tight end this year with Tyler Eifert about to cash in on an outstanding college career by being selected in the first round of this month’s NFL Draft. Everyone also knows that former outside linebacker turned tight end Troy Niklas is the odds on favorite to replace Eifert as the #1 tight end on the Irish depth chart too. No one knows what to expect out of the #2 tight end on the depth chart at this point though.
Enter Ben Koyack.
Two years ago Koyack came to Notre Dame as an Under Armor All-American and one of the more heralded tight end recruits in the country while Niklas was considered to be an outside linebacker, defensive end, or possible offensive tackle. Fast forward two years and Niklas is poised to be the starting tight end at a school that has had its last three, soon to be four, starting tight ends drafted in the second round, or in the likely case of Eifert higher, in the NFL Draft.
Koyack has had a bit of a rough start to his collegiate career. Problems in the blocking department and inconsistency in the hands department have made it tough for Koyack to stay on the field and so far he has just 4 catches for 44 yards in his career. Notre Dame uses a lot of two tight end sets though so there will be a chance for plenty of playing time for Koyack if the junior is able to seize the opportunity. If he’s not able to, oft-injured senior Alex Welch or one of the incoming freshmen will be more than happy to.
Koyack’s got the tools, but just hasn’t put it all together yet. There is no guarantee that he will be able to, but he still has a lot of time left to do just that. With Mike Heuerman already on campus and Durham Smythe reporting to campus in the summer though, Koyack could get passed on the depth chart if he is unable to make strides both in the blocking and receiving department. He’s got the skill-set as a receiver to be a weapon in this offense and now is the time for him to step up and command some playing time.