Eight former Notre Dame players who played significant roles in the Irish reaching the 2013 BCS Championship game are in Indianapolis this weekend for the NFL Combine. As their professional careers begin, however, Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame coaches are now tasked with finding replacements that will pick up where their predecessors left off.
Kelly and his staff have done a great job of restocking the Irish roster across all positions, but they don’t have the Irish quite to the level of Alabama where they just reload each year. This past recruiting class certainly was a major step towards that direction, but Notre Dame is another class or two at the level away from just plugging in the next blue chip player when one leaves.
With that said, here is how Notre Dame will likely replace the eight Golden Domers looking to impress NFL scouts this weekend.
Kapron Lewis-Moore > Sheldon Day
KLM has been a mainstay in the Irish defensive line rotation for the last four years which will make replacing his leadership and production a tough task. Luckily Notre Dame has some great talent on the defensive line for a change and should be able to do just that. Sheldon Day looked great out of the startitng blocks in 2012, but started to look like, well, a freshman as the season progressed. That is normal and that is why it’s rare to see a freshman have a huge impact on the defensive line.
We saw enough out of Day in 2012 though to know that once he goes through another off-season weight program with Paul Longo and another full spring and fall camp he could very well be a force to be reckoned with this season. Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix both made huge jumps from their freshman to sophomore years. KLM himself didn’t play as a true freshman and then started a year later. Expect the same type of progression out of Day in 2013.
Keep an eye on Day’s classmate Jarron Jones too. I think we will see a lot of Jones in 2013 as well after he red-shirted this season.
Tyler Efiert > Troy Niklas
You simply don’t just replace the all time leader in receptions by a tight end. That is one of the many daunting tasks facing Kelly and his staff this off-season though. Converted linebacker Troy Niklas had some nice moments in 2012 but will need a lot of work this spring and summer in order for the tight end position to continue to be as productive as it’s been at Notre Dame for the last eight seasons. Niklas is an extremely gifted athlete for a player his size and has the tools to be the next great tight end for the Irish, but he has some big shoes to fill.
With Niklas being the likely starter, Notre Dame will also need to find a second tight end to fill Niklas’s role from 2012. Oft injured Alex Welch should be back to full strength in 2013 and Ben Koyack will be entering a crucial year for his development. Freshman early enrollee Mike Heuerman could be in the mix as well since he is already on campus and comes in with a reputation for being a good blocker.
Theo Riddick & Cierre Wood > George Atkinson and Greg Bryant
Losing your two top running backs is rough no matter who you have to step in and fill the void. When you have very little proven depth returning at the position replacing that lost production is even tougher. That is why the running back rotation is going to be one of the most critical story lines for this spring and summer.
George Atkinson will get the first crack at being “the guy” at running back, but there are some concerns about his ability to be an every down back. He is certainly as home run threat – we saw plenty of evidence of that in 2012. Is the converted wide receiver ready to be an every down back that can pick up a 3rd and 1 when everyone knows you are going to run though? That we just don’t know yet.
Incoming freshman Greg Bryant might not win a starting job right off the bat, but by the end of the season I think we will see the frosh getting the most carries out of the Irish backfield and filling Theo Riddick’s role with Atkinson filling the role Cierre Wood played in ’12. Given the combo’s strengths, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two of them on the field together at the same time too given Atkinson’s receiving skills.
Manti Te’o > Jarrett Grace
If there is anyone on the roster who has bigger shoes to fill than Niklas, it’s Jarrett Grace. Manti Te’o won just about every award possible other than the Heisman Trophy this past season and leaves Notre Dame widely considered the best linebacker to ever wear the Blue and Gold. Replacing a legend like Te’o is a tall order for anyone, but given how little Grace has played thus far in his career it becomes an even greater challenge.
While Grace hasn’t seen the field much, Brian Kelly has consistently mentioned Grace over the last two seasons when asked about players who have stood out in practice that haven’t gotten on the field much. Grace was overshadowed in his recruiting class by some the 5-star talents of Ishaq Williams, Aaron Lynch, and Tuitt, but he was a pretty highly rated recruit in his own right. Grace probably won’t come close to the 7 interceptions Te’o had in 2012, but he should hold up well in the middle of the Irish defense with big #1 in front of him.
Jamoris Slaughter > Matthias Farley
This one is probably the easiest hole for the Irish coaching staff to fill since they already had to during the season when Slaughter injured his Achilles in the third game of the season. Farley stepped in and while he had his share of ups and downs, he did about as good of a job as anyone could have hoped for considering he spent his freshman season in 2011 on the scout team on the offensive side of the ball. Notre Dame has a lot of safeties on the roster for 2013 so competition will be fierce at both spots, but I think we saw enough out of Farley to be optimistic about his future. Farley was an unsung hero for Notre Dame in 2012 as one of three first time starters in the secondary.
Zeke Motta > Max Redfield
While Farley will most likely hold down his starting spot for 2013, the starting position next to him will be up for grabs with Zeke Motta’s departure. Motta was another one of the unsung heroes of the 2012 season for Notre Dame, but Notre Dame will have plenty of options to fill his starting postion.
Austin Collinsworth will be back from injury this season and should be ready for spring ball. Chris Badger will be in his second season back from his mission. Elijah Shumate could move back to safety after playing the nickel back position in 2012. CJ Prosise is headed back to safety as well after spending some time at linebacker early in 2012. Junior to be Eliar Hardy should finally be to 100% after his freshman year injury. Then there are 2012 freshmen Nicky Baratti and John Turner.
Despite all of those options at safety, I think the answer for filling Motta’s starting spot could fall into the hands of incoming freshman Max Redfield. Redfield, the highest rated defensive back to come to Notre Dame since UHND has been around (1997), could very well step right into a starting role in 2013 given his skill. Redfield might need to hit the weight room pretty hard this off-season for that to happen, but my bet is he starts from day one.
Braxston Cave > Nick Martin, Connor Hanratty
Braxston Cave has started at center for the last four seasons for Notre Dame and other than a few games at the end of 2011 when he was hurt, no one else has played much at the position for Notre Dame during the span. Matt Hegartty was a highly rated recruit and has a lot of talent, but he is in the midst of recovering from a stroke and heart surgery. He is hoping to make a full recovery and return to football for spring ball, but what can be expected of him, if anything, in 2013 is not known.
The best bet right now looks like juniors to be Connor Hanratty or Nick Martin. The two will battle it out for the starting spot throughout the spring and summer most likely. Another possibility here could be Chris Watt if Christian Lombard were to move back to guard from tackle. Watt could potentially play center if that were to give the Irish the best group of linemen on the field. That of course would mean a starting right tackle would need to emerge allowing Lombard to shift inside.
There are a lot of ifs involved here and how everything shakes out along the offensive line is going to be one of the more compelling story lines throughout spring and fall camps.