With spring practice now behind us, we will rate the units according to a four tier rating system: BCS Game Caliber, New Year’s Day Bowl Caliber, Bowl Game Caliber, Stay Home.
While last year the secondary started out in the “Stay Home” category, the program has progressed so that none of the nine units (OL, TE, WR, RB, QB, DL, LB, CB, S) is in the “Stay Home category.”
We will also rank the units from bottom to top:
Notre Dame’s Bowl Game Caliber Units
There are three Bowl Game Caliber units – (9)Running Back, (8) Safety, (7) Wide Receiver
(9) RUNNING BACK
Running Backs-First, this is the configuration we WANT for Notre Dame in future years for SOME of the units.
- Two graduating players who are invited to the combine (Wood/Riddick)
- A vetean third stringer (Atkinson)
- A player returning from injured list (Carlisle)
- A successful reserve/emergency player (McDaniel)
- A rising redshirt frosh (Mahone)
- Two stud recruits (Bryant and Folston)
The anomalous statistic for this group is that we have three players returning who have rushed for 50 yards or more against a BCS conference foe. McDaniel did it against Miami, Amir Carlisle did it against Colorado when he was a frosh at USC in 2011. Atkinson did it against Miami.
George Atkinson. Atkinson has made a leap forward this Spring. He forsook track, at which he had been successful, to focus on weight training and football. He got bigger and much stronger increasing his reps on benching 225 lbs from 5 to 19. That may not be a one year record at Notre Dame but it would at least contend. It clearly indicates that Atkinson is putting in the work to be the starter.
Atkinson was the third stringer last year behind two blooded veterans. Sometimes, a player steps up when he becomes the lead dog, and the view, and the accountability, and the opportunity changes. For perspective, in 2011, Atkinson showed little as a runner. In 2012, he showed swivel in addition to his speed and had some productivity. While there is no assurance until September, all data suggests that his arc of improvement will continue. He certainly is showing improved elusiveness in the glimpses we have from practice. He is now swivel-hipped, despite suggestions to the contrary when he was a freshman. He needs special drills all Summer to work on lowering his pad level.
Amir Carlisle. Kelly has always spoken glowingly of him., particularly this Spring. But the collarbone injury raises the question that must be asked: Is Amir injury prone? He’s a will of the wisp type with speed and elusiveness, and could play the slot or alternate with Atkinson or both. Kelly indicated that he’s heading for the slot, but he might get the dual role that Riddick filled in 2012. Carlisle is speedy and elusive. If he’s healthy he will play and be impactful.
Will Mahone was mentioned both by Kelly and by fellow players while he was on the prep/scout team as a frosh, preserving a year of eligibility. The word was that he had good vision and the ability to run to daylight. He’s not small. He was listed at 205 as a High School Senior and is now listed at 214, nice bulk on a 5’10” frame.
Cam McDaniel. A solid backup player, who was worth his scholarship. A willing worker, who took the bit in his brief trial at cornerback. And will give it a shot on slot if called upon. He is an outstanding insurance policy.
And, apparently, we have two freshman coming in: Greg Bryant and Taurean Folston were superstars in high school and highly rated recruits.
But there are people ahead of them, and, at Notre Dame, there are subtleties at the running back and slot positions that are a challenge. These include blocking and blitz assignments, audible pickup and receiving roles. Both Bryant and Folston have experience in the passing game, so they have a leg up there. Often, it takes half a season for a running back to be useful.
Their productivity? It will be somewhere between zero and the new freshman standard, Gurshall at Georgia. Last year, after losing recidivist Isaiah Crowell, Mark Richt turned to his vaunted freshman tandemn of Todd Gurley and former Notre Dame target Keith Marshall. (They were both 20 pounds heavier than Bryant and Folston.) Gurshall combined for over 300 carries for over 2200 yards and 25 touchdowns. Whew!
Look for the vets to carry the load early, but by mid-October and the USC game, we may have a serious and effective cadre at running back.
In 2012, great coaching, a great senior year by Zeke Motta, and a stellar, emergency performance by precocious Matthias Farley,
allowed the Irish to dodge the double barrage of bullets of injuries to Austin Collinsworth and Jamoris Slaughter. Nicky Baratti was the only effective substitute, with 8 tackles and an interception. Farley, superb in run support and still a journeyman in pass coverage, has one spot locked down. The other starting spot and the reserves and potential nickels and dimes remain in dispute.
Savvy Austin Collinsworth is healthy once again, though the injury yet nags a bit. He had seven tackles in 2010 and 18 in 2011.
The eyebrow-raiser at safety was Elijah Shumate’s move from cornerback to contend at safety. Shumate was effective as the third cornerback as a frosh. His coverage and ball skills are already more advanced than Farley. In high school Shumate’s strong suit was as a tackler, a big hitter, and he’s climbed Longo’s ladder to a solid 213 lbs. He is the clubhouse leader for a starting position at the end of Spring.
There is a limitation in this position, as set forth by Bob Diaco. The limiting constraint on the ability of the defense to do a lot of different things, in the Notre Dame system, is the sophistication of the safeties. So, without Motta, there is still some work to be done here before this unit reaches its peak.
But wait, there’s more! Nicky Baratti was no gimme as a frosh. He is slowed by injury this Spring, but look for Baratti to contend fiercely when August arrives. Eilar Hardy started fast as a frosh before his injury. He re-acclimated this Spring and was mentioned by Farley as one of Spring’s surprises. Kelly mentioned Hardy’s improvement in his last Spring press conference. John Turner,thought to be soft in high school, was deemed one of the hardest hitters on the team as a frosh.He was inconspicuous, however, in the Spring. And Chris Badger remains on scholarship.
But wait, there’s MORE! Just one more. Max Redfield, rangy, athletic enough to be a hoop stud, will arrive in June. Max is more heralded than Shumate was in high school. If he can merely match Shumate’s frosh productivity, then safety begins to migrate from a liability to an asset, a solid asset. August will be interesting at safety.
Keep this in mind. When we’re having the safety discussion in the summer of 2015, the depth chart will be populated by Farley, Shumate, Redfield, Baratti, Turner, Hardy and Badger.
Now, are you okay with the shift of C.J. Prosise from safety to Wider Receiver?????
(7) OFFENSIVE LINE
Matt James, Brad Carrico, Jordan Prestwod, Tate Nichols.
They are all absent, for one reason or another, from the 2013 OL Depth Chart.
Further, the close games in 2012 held back the potential development of depth. Despite the superb Zach Martin/Chris Watt tandem on the left side, the Offensive Line remains an area under construction.
Kelly announced that he wanted to settle center first with Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, and Mark Harrell as the candidates. It quickly evolved into a Martin/Hegarty match race. And Martin has moved ahead by several lengths.
The next drama was the right side. For now, Conor Hanratty is the starting guard, flanked by Christian Lombard.
But the staff is intrigued by the potential of Ronnie Stanley and apparently will give him an August audition for right tackle. Ronnie, whose weight development was slowed by his playing hoop for Gorman’s state championship team, has now added useful weight to 318 pounds. Despite a very solid Spring by Hanratty, there still may be room for a change in August. It boils down to this: Which is the better right side combo? Hanratty, RG, Lombard RT OR Lombard RG, Stanley RT. Keep an eye on this in August.
With Harrell acceptable as a backup center and now cross-trained at guard, the group of Martin, Hegarty, Hanratty Harrell and Stanley to fill just two open slots leaves the Irish with some potential depth.
The OL anchor is the left side. Martin and Watt are nearly inseparable off and on the field. They protect Golson’s left, or blind side, and provide the preferred strong side running option, especially when Troy Niklas is shoulder to shoulder with Martin.
The Frosh. this is the tallest ,thickest OL class ND has ever recruited. Steve Elmer was already at 317 when Spring Practice started. Kelly said that Elmer has already exceeded expectations. Sure, Colin McGovern had knee surgery and will probably “red-shirt”. But John Montelus, Elmer and Bivin could contend for starting roles in Spring, 2014.
This is a big year for Harry Hiestand, as he in his second of what will likely be many years in South Bend. Harry has to manage the 2013 starting OL, blending in two new starters. Hiestand must also build depth for injury insurance more than for substitution. The 2012 Irish OL whistled past the injury graveyard in 2012, but you rarely get an injury free two-fer on the OL.
With the potential 2014 offensive line recruiting haul, there should be enough bodies to develop true depth. Heistand might just be close to establishing an OL pipeline for 2014 and beyond, all contingent on the foundational development of the five frosh with the prospect of a pipeline, which, once established, will be nearly self-sustaining.
New Starters, and we’ll have two, are usually good for a false start or two in their first few games. Getting out of Ann Arbor with a win in the season’s second game is pretty important. After that, the OL will have time to hit its stride. Hiestand’s continuity means a lot.