With spring practice wrapped up in South Bend and three and a half months until Notre Dame begins its 2015 preparations in earnest, here’s a look at where the Irish depth chart stands heading into the summer:
1. Everett Golson (Graduate student)
1A. Malik Zaire (Junior)
There wasn’t any resolution here coming out of spring practice. Coaches like what both quarterbacks can do but want both Golson and Zaire to focus on their weaknesses this summer — for Golson, that means improving his pocket presence and ball security; for Zaire, that means refining his throwing mechanics and decision-making. If Golson is still with Notre Dame (graduating in May grants him the ability to play immediately elsewhere as a one-year transfer) come August, and he can prove to coaches he’s past his turnover issues, he could very well be the guy Sept. 5 against Texas (with Zaire still serving a role in the offense). But there’s still plenty of time between now and then.
1. Tarean Folston (Junior)
2. C.J. Prosise (Senior)
2A. Greg Bryant (Junior)
There arguably was no more impressive player during spring practice than Prosise, who cross-trained at running back and led Notre Dame in carries during the Blue-Gold Game. If he continues on his trajectory, he very well could steal carries away from Bryant and, to a lesser extent, Folston this fall.
1. Will Fuller (Junior)
2. Corey Holmes (Sophomore)
1. Chris Brown (Senior)
1A. Corey Robinson (Junior)
2. Justin Brent (Sophomore)
1. Amir Carlisle (Graduate student)
2. Torii Hunter Jr. (Junior)
2A. C.J. Prosise (Senior)
Fuller reminded everyone of his explosive skillset in the Blue-Gold Game when he burned Nick Watkins for a 68-yard touchdown. Brent reeled in a 29-yard score and looked solid in his final showing after receiving some strong challenges from his coaches this spring. Hunter navigated a grueling schedule between football and baseball and would be an option to back up Fuller at X, especially with Prosise still in the slot mix.
1. Durham Smythe (Junior)
2. Tyler Luatua (Sophomore)
Smythe exits the spring as the clear No. 1 tight end, though the bruising Luatua could allow Notre Dame to run some two tight end sets — he’d be an especially valuable asset if Zaire winds up being the starter this fall. Smythe is a smooth pass-catcher whose blocking skills remain a work in progress, though they’re at the point where Notre Dame should feel comfortable with him on the field. There’s still some question as to who the third-string tight end here will be, whether that’s sophomore Nic Weishar, incoming freshman Alize Jones or fifth-year candidate Chase Hounshell.
1. Ronnie Stanley (Senior)
2. Hunter Bivin (Junior)
Stanley is squarely in the debate to be Notre Dame’s best player this fall, and he’s added leadership duties to his résumé since the Music City Bowl and his decision to pass on the NFL Draft. Bivin is someone coach Brian Kelly said still needs to grow, though if something were to happen to Stanley, don’t be surprised if Alex Bars — who’s battling Quenton Nelson at left guard — was the first tackle off the bench.
1. Quenton Nelson (Sophomore)
1A. Alex Bars (Sophomore)
Nelson probably has the inside track here, though don’t expect this competition to be settled until sometime in August. Nelson is a physical player — “he just mauls people,” center Nick Martin quipped — while coaches like Bars’ technique. Both these sophomores profile as strong offensive linemen down the road, even if only one of them can start come September. If Bars doesn't win the job, he would probably become the first guard off the bench in addition to being the first-choice reserve tackle.
1. Nick Martin (Graduate student)
2. Sam Mustipher (Sophomore)
While Kelly didn’t seem to happy about losing incumbent center Matt Hegarty as a graduate transfer, the coaching staff wanted to move a fully healthy Martin back to the position at which he started 11 games in 2013. Thus, Hegarty — who went through a pretty serious health scare in 2012 — wasn’t guaranteed his starting job back, and is now reportedly poking around championship-contending programs like Florida State and Oregon. Martin, though, is a solid anchor in the middle of what looks to be a strong Irish offensive line.
1. Steve Elmer (Junior)
2. John Montelus (Junior)
Elmer came to Notre Dame as a tackle, then was moved to guard, then was moved back to tackle and then to guard again all in the span of about a year and a half. He’s entrenched at right guard now and should continue to grow there — he’s already come a long way from moving like a “newborn deer” at times, in the words of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.
1. Mike McGlinchey (Junior)
2. Mark Harrell (Senior)
McGlinchey only has one start to his name, but the 6-foot-8, 310-pound Philadelphia native is an outstanding athlete who’s been groomed for two years for this role. He started the Music City Bowl — in which Notre Dame rushed for 263 yards against LSU — and said that game helped remove whatever doubt he had about his ability to succeed at the college level.
1. Isaac Rochell (Junior)
2. Grant Blankenship (Sophomore)
1. Romeo Okwara (Senior)
1A. Andrew Trumbetti (Sophomore)
2. Jhonny Williams (Sophomore)
There isn’t a pass rusher in this group who projects as a double-digit sack guy, but coaches think Rochell can be effective pressuring the quarterback and the Okwara/Trumbetti combo should do well in the sack and quarterback hurry department. Williams redshirted last year and still needs to gain strength, but we’ve heard plenty about his electric pass-rushing potential — we’ll see if that emerges this year or later down the road.
1. Sheldon Day (Senior)
2. Jay Hayes (Sophomore)
Convincing Day to pass on the NFL Draft was a major recruiting victory for Kelly & Co. in the winter, as the captain and best defensive linemen the team had in 2014 will be back for one more year in South Bend. Behind him is Hayes, the boisterous up-and-coming sophomore whose redshirt was torched with only three games remaining last fall — but coaches feel Hayes can be good enough to turn pro after his senior season (he could after his junior year, too, though they won't say that), so preserving that fifth year wasn’t much of a concern.
1. Jarron Jones (Senior)
2. Jerry Tillery (Freshman)
Jones will re-take his interior perch when he’s fully recovered from a Lisfranc injury in his foot — the same injury former Irish center Braxston Cave suffered in 2011 and returned from to start all 13 games in 2012. But Kelly took every opportunity to praise Tillery during spring practice, and his defensive coaches lauded the Louisiana native’s ability to use his hands, play with leverage and never make the same mistake twice. Whereas Notre Dame’s interior defensive line depth was weak last year, the guys behind Day and Jones look much better heading into 2015.
Sam (outside) linebacker
1. James Onwualu (Junior)
2. Greer Martini (Sophomore)
The plan here is to use Onwualu against more passing-oriented offenses and Martini against powerful, run-focused attacks. But the plan, too, is to use Jaylon Smith here in an effort to keep opposing offenses from keying on him and easily taking him out of plays. While Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder made it clear Onwualu had a strong spring, if Notre Dame wants to get its three best linebackers on the field at the same time, it’ll mean sliding Smith over to Sam.
Will (inside) linebacker
1. Jaylon Smith (Junior)
2. Te’Von Coney (Freshman)
2A. Joe Schmidt (Graduate student)
When Smith slides over to Sam, expect Schmidt — who will cross-train at Will when he’s fully recovered from his ankle injury — to move a spot over and play here instead of Coney, an early-enrolling freshman. Schmidt is a smart, physical player who won team MVP last year and will have an important place in the defense even with a loaded depth chart as his natural position.
Mike (middle) linebacker
1. Joe Schmidt (Graduate student)
1A. Jarrett Grace (Graduate student)
1B. Nyles Morgan (Sophomore)
Here’s where Notre Dame’s strong linebacking depth really shows itself. VanGorder and Mike Elston are blessed with three legitimate starters at Mike, between Schmidt, Grace — who was a starting middle linebacker before his devastating knee injury in October 2013 — and Morgan, who held his own after being thrown into a tough spot following Schmidt’s injury last year. All three of these players will have a role in Notre Dame’s defense this fall. Maybe Kelly should’ve said he’d take this unit over any other team in the country rather than his quarterback group.
1. Cole Luke (Junior)
2. Nick Watkins (Sophomore)
1. KeiVarae Russell (Senior)
2. Devin Butler (Junior)
Notre Dame may not have better top-end depth on its roster than it does here, with Luke emerging as a rock-solid player last year and Russell returning 26 starts and plenty of potential as a physical, man-to-man corner. Watkins made good strides during spring practice and looks like the first cornerback off the bench, and three freshman cornerbacks — Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Ashton White — will fill out the back of the depth chart when they get to campus this summer.
1. Max Redfield (Junior)
2. Avery Sebastian (Graduate student)
2A. Matthias Farley (Graduate student)
1. Elijah Shumate (Senior)
2. Drue Tranquill (Sophomore)
Coaches praised the improvements made by Redfield and Shumate — who were among the more glaring weak links of the defense last year — during spring practice, but we’ll still have to see if those pay off when the games start counting this fall. Sebastian comes to Notre Dame from Cal and can provide good depth at either strong or free safety and free up Farley to stick in the nickel role he thrived in last year. But the onus is on Redfield and Shumate to shore up the back end of the defense because if they can, VanGorder’s group will have a pretty good chance to succeed.
1. Justin Yoon (Freshman)
1. Tyler Newsome (Sophomore)
Newsome served as Notre Dame’s placekicker through spring practice, but Kelly said Yoon will take over those duties when he arrives this summer.
As for the kick/punt returners, those are usually decided in August but expect Carlisle and/or Bryant to return kicks and Bryant and/or Fuller to field punts.