NCF Nation: Braxston Cave

Notre Dame season preview

August, 15, 2013
Today we're looking at Notre Dame, which looks to build off its best season in more than two decades.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Coach: Brian Kelly (199-68-2 overall, 28-11 at Notre Dame)

2012 record: 12-1

Key losses: RB Theo Riddick, RB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, C Braxston Cave, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Manti Te'o, S Zeke Motta

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/John BazemoreBrian Kelly's Irish should once again be in the hunt for a BCS bowl game.
Key returnees: QB Tommy Rees, WR TJ Jones, WR DaVaris Daniels, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, NG Louis Nix III, LB Dan Fox, LB Prince Shembo, CB Bennett Jackson

Newcomer to watch: RB Greg Bryant. The Delray Beach, Fla., native was ESPN's No. 2 running back prospect for the Class of 2013 and walks into a crowded but opportune situation. Bryant, an Oklahoma de-commit, is one of six backs vying for extensive playing time after the Irish said goodbye to their top-two rushers from a year ago. Coach Brian Kelly has already gone on record as saying that his young running backs are guys who will help the Irish win some games this fall, and Bryant may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

Biggest games in 2013: Sept. 7 at Michigan, Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State (in Arlington, Texas), Oct. 19 vs. USC, Nov. 30 at Stanford

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The most pressing question may be how Notre Dame adjusts on the fly after learning after the spring that it would be without quarterback Everett Golson for at least the fall (academic misconduct). Luckily for the Irish, senior Tommy Rees and his 18 starts are back, though he will need some new playmakers to emerge around him after the Irish lost their top two running backs and first-round pick Tyler Eifert at tight end. Six men are vying for carries in the backfield, while TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels anchor the receiving corps.

Forecast: Kelly made it clear that 2012 was in the past by taking his team to Camp Shiloh in Marion, Ind., for the first week of fall camp. No social media or television and, more specifically, no more talk about the Alabama game, Manti Te'o or the other headlines that followed the program during a wild offseason. In helping to get that message across, Kelly has the perfect quarterback in Rees, who has overcome negative headlines of his own and, last year, overcame losing his starting job. He went on to save the Irish in three of their first six games last season and proved to be as valuable as anyone on the roster. Never will that be more evident than this season, as he steps up again in Golson's absence. A stronger Rees took control of the offense during the offseason, and better decision-making should pay dividends for the Irish this fall.

They finished second nationally in scoring defense last season and return eight starters from that unit, including potential 2014 first-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. They are also much deeper, with a plethora of linebackers and defensive backs ready to spare the starters at a moment's notice, a far cry from last season, when the team broke in three new starters in the secondary -- with all three having been on the offensive side of the ball earlier in their careers.

Kelly returns all of his assistants after a renaissance 2012 campaign that saw the team notch a perfect regular season before meeting Alabama in the BCS National Championship. He brought in ESPN's No. 4 recruiting class for 2013. And he brings back more than enough talent to prove that last season was not a one-year wonder, and that the Irish are, in fact, here to stay. Another BCS bowl game -- despite the late loss of its starting quarterback -- should be well within reach for Notre Dame in 2013.
The NFL does not wait for everyone, and so what was an otherwise 10 a.m. ET call out of Baltimore turned into an early-morning wake-up for the latest former Notre Dame player to take his talents to the next level.

Toma will join fellow Irish player Kapron Lewis-Moore with the Ravens. The often-overlooked 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver is now the 13th former Irish player who will get a shot at the NFL in one form or another.

The official Notre Dame football page has a nice graphic of most of the players here.

To recap:
Notre Dame returns to the practice field Wednesday morning after a week off for the Easter holiday. Five sessions are in the bag and 10 remain, including the April 20 Blue-Gold spring game.

Like every team every season, the Irish are welcoming new faces in several new places. Among the biggest for the program heading into the 2013 season are at running back, center and Mike linebacker.

Here is a look at how those battles are shaping up as spring practice No. 6 takes place today.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Atkinson III
Matt Cashore/US PresswireIrish coaches have talked up George Atkinson III in the chase for playing time at running back.
This is, frankly, a blanket term for a backfield that will likely feature more than one person at a time throughout much of the coming season. But the Irish did lose their top two rushers in Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and with (at least) a strong left side of the offensive line returning, it will be interesting to see how the unit shakes out. Rising junior George Atkinson III has the most experience among returners, and head coach Brian Kelly and position coach Tony Alford have been high on him so far this spring, praising his weight training (he's up seven pounds, to 217) and ability to catch the ball in the slot. Can Atkinson be the typical 20-carries-per-game, between-the-tackles back? Will it matter? USC transfer Amir Carlisle also drew plenty of praise in the same role this spring before the rising redshirt sophomore suffered a broken collarbone March 23. Rising junior Cam McDaniel and rising redshirt freshman William Mahone are back there as well, and the program will welcome in talented prospects Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston this summer, at least one of whom may be primed to make an immediate impact.

From Brett Perotta of the ESPN Stats & Information blog, citing seven signees in college football who will make an immediate impact in 2013:
RB Greg Bryant, Notre Dame

Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick are gone, leaving a vacancy in the backfield and over 300 carries to go around. Bryant is the first top-10 running back the Irish have signed since James Aldridge in 2006. Notre Dame posted a respectable 4.9 yards per carry as a team last season and will return three starters on the offensive line. With returning dual-threat quarterback Everett Golson, Bryant should have plenty of room to work.
So much of how Notre Dame's offensive line shakes out will depend on this position battle. With fifth-year seniors Zack Martin and Chris Watt back manning the left side of the line, and with redshirt junior Christian Lombard seemingly back for Year 2 as the starting right tackle, the Irish need to identify Braxston Cave's successor in the middle. Redshirt sophomore Nick Martin, Zack's younger brother, was running with the first team during the start of the first spring practice, March 20, and figures to have the inside track there right now. Nick Martin served as something of a utility man on the second-team line throughout last season. Redshirt sophomore Matt Hegarty, cleared following a November mini-stroke that threatened his football career, should give Martin a push here as well. Right guard is the other open position battle, and if Kelly or position coach Harry Hiestand deem tackle sophomore Ronnie Stanley or early enrollee Steve Elmer ready, there is always the chance that Lombard could slide to right guard.

Jarrett Grace was talked about a lot last spring by the coaching staff but, frankly, just was not needed so much in 2012. Not with Manti Te'o having the kind of season he had, recording seven interceptions en route to a Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign that saw him rarely leave the field. Now that position is vacant following three consecutive 100-tackle seasons, and Grace, a redshirt sophomore, has the inside track to take over inside. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox, recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, is capable of playing both inside positions, and fellow fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese has resumed his role as the Will linebacker after splitting duties there with Fox the past two seasons. No one should expect anything resembling Te'o's All-America-type run from the position so soon, but with starters, and depth, returning at every other linebacker spot, the Mike is the position to keep an eye on during the offseason.
After the NFL and the Manti Te'o questions came football talk, bringing some good and bad news to a 22-day-old Notre Dame offseason that has felt much longer.

Starting cornerback Bennett Jackson had surgery to repair a labrum tear. Starting inside linebacker Dan Fox had a similar operation. Both are expected to be limited to non-contact portions of spring practice, which starts March 20.

Safety Austin Collinsworth is expected to be ready this spring after missing the 2012 season because of separate shoulder and back surgeries. Brian Kelly also sounded optimistic about the playing future of center Matt Hegarty, who was shut down for the season following a Nov. 8 mini-stroke, while cornerback Lo Wood continues to recover from an Achllies tear suffered in fall camp.

Constant leg problems, meanwhile, may force offensive tackle Tate Nichols to take a medical redshirt.

Kelly pegged Hegarty, Nick Martin and Mark Harrell as players in the mix to replace Braxston Cave at center. Kelly said Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace are the front-runners to replace Te'o at the MIKE linebacker spot, with Kendall Moore and potential incoming freshmen having a chance to be included as well.

The mentioning of Fox and Calabrese means both will likely be back for a fifth season in 2013, though Kelly said the official process needs to still take place.

"We're going to sit down when we get back, as we always have from recruiting, once we finish up our numbers in recruiting, then we start to talk about our fifth-year guys," Kelly said. "But they'll all, as we have in the past, they'll continue to train because they're in school anyway. And then we'll let them know our decisions as we talk to the university, relative to granting that additional year."

Kelly also said he is hoping the NCAA's ruling on safety Jamoris Slaughter's appeal for a sixth year will come before national signing day. Kelly said Slaughter is still in school.
MIAMI -- Notre Dame senior running back Theo Riddick sat on his locker, head down.

The tears continued to roll down his cheeks. Occasionally he would wipe some away with a Gatorade towel. However, Riddick could not erase the memories, or the hurt, from Monday's 42-14 loss to Alabama in the Discover BCS National Championship.

"All I can say," Riddick said, with his eyes staring at the ground, "is we have a great future in front of us."

The future does look much better around South Bend these days. As disappointing as Notre Dame's throttling was, the Irish went from unranked in the preseason to a No. 1 ranking, 12-0 regular season and first berth in the BCS title game.

"It doesn't matter what happened tonight, because I'll remember the guys in this locker room as a brotherhood," said senior center Mike Golic Jr., who also fought back tears.

"Hopefully this is a springboard for the players coming back. I heard (senior) Braxston Cave say if the pain you're feeling right now is not enough to motivate you in the offseason, then you might not have a pulse."

The program's pulse was getting weaker and weaker at the end of the Charlie Weis era.

That all changed with the arrival of coach Brian Kelly.

For Brett McMurphy's full column, click here.

Te'o, Smith sweep Butkus honors

December, 3, 2012
One down, what seems like dozens more to go.

Manti Te'o won the collegiate Butkus Award on Monday, becoming recognized as the nation's best linebacker. What's more, Notre Dame Class of 2013 commitment Jaylon Smith (Fort Wayne, Ind./Bishop Luers) won the prep Butkus Award, making it a clean sweep for the Irish.

Both players received phone calls from Dick Butkus himself, according to the official release.

The winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy will be announced at 7 p.m. ET Monday night, and Te'o is a finalist for that award, too, as it is given to the nation's best defensive player. His coach, Brian Kelly, is the keynote speaker at the event in Charlotte, N.C.

Heisman Trophy finalists will be announced Monday during the 6 p.m. ET "SportsCenter" as well, so more travel plans could be on the way for Te'o this week.

Meanwhile, Braxston Cave was named as one of six finalists Monday for the Rimington Award, given to the nation's top center. He is joined by Louisville's Mario Benavides, Clemson's Dalton Freeman, USC's Khaled Holmes, Alabama's Barrett Jones and Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch.

The winner will be announced Thursday during the "ESPNU Red Carpet Show," preceding the "ESPN Home Depot College Football Awards Show."

Growing up keeps Golson on his feet

November, 1, 2012
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Everett Golson lines up behind center now and recognizes what is in front of him. He verbalizes that with his offensive linemen. And, as evidence by his breakout performance in Saturday's win at Oklahoma, the unit then usually runs much more machine-like.

It wasn't always this way for Golson, who has just six starts and seven games under his belt for 8-0 Notre Dame. Just ask some of the offensive linemen who have been tasked with helping along the new quarterback.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Everett Golson
Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIREEverett Golson passed for 177 yards and rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown against Oklahoma.
"Before we may have had to stop practice -- 'Coach, what should we be in here?' " left tackle Zack Martin said of communication breakdowns. "He'd have to look at it and be like, 'Oh.'

"Now he sees it and gets into it without anything happening."

Nothing happening means the ball is in the hands of Golson, standing upright. He can turn and give it to one of three talented running backs, he can pretend to do that -- as he did perfectly in setting up the game-changing 50-yard strike Saturday to Chris Brown -- or he can take off and run on his own, as he did 10 times for 66 yards. (He was sacked one other time, finishing with 64 rushing yards on the night.)

The Irish offense goes as Golson does, even if the numbers don't necessarily reflect that. Quarterbacks from the other five FBS unbeatens have each attempted more passes than Golson's 160, have thrown for more yards than the redshirt freshman's 1,145, and have fired more touchdown passes than his four.

"The passing game still needs to improve," head coach Brian Kelly said. "We had where we consider four, maybe five opportunities that we left out there in terms of throwing the ball. So we want to see a higher passing efficiency in that respect.

"What we need now is to put together a string of games back-to-back. I think those are the two things that we're going to ask from Everett in terms of his progress."

Golson was yanked in Notre Dame's second and fourth games and knocked out of its sixth with a concussion that forced him to miss the seventh. In between -- and especially this past Saturday -- he has shown the ability to complete the picture for the Irish as it relates to legitimate national title contention.

"Just being really smart with the ball -- getting rid of it when you need to get rid of it," center Braxston Cave said, referring to what he saw Saturday out of Golson. "He made some crucial, really great throws, getting us in the right checks, right protections. To me I'd say he definitely played his best game."

In the days after the win over the Sooners, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand approached Kelly about the communication gap Golson has bridged with the guys in charge of protecting him.

Whereas Golson's nearly 300-yard output Week 2 against Purdue was marred by five sacks, a late fumble and ensuing benching, his 177-yard passing game this past weekend featured just one sack and no turnovers as Notre Dame won its biggest game in at least 10 years.

Behind the scenes, beyond the box score, Golson has grown up, which in turn has helped him stay up.

"Night and day," Cave said of the communication. "Night and day."

Video: Notre Dame's Braxston Cave

October, 20, 2012

Matt Fortuna talks with fifth-year senior center Braxston Cave about the Irish's 17-14 win over BYU on Saturday.

It's game day at Notre Dame Stadium

October, 20, 2012
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Greetings from Notre Dame Stadium, where quarterback play is again the subject surrounding the No. 5 Irish.

Tommy Rees will start today after Everett Golson suffered a concussion late in last week's win against Stanford. Golson is out on the field fully dressed and taking reps, but he's been getting the snaps from Mike Golic Jr. Rees has been getting the snaps from Braxston Cave while Andrew Hendrix lined up behind Matt Hegarty.

Beautiful day here, a far cry from last week's showers, and it will be interesting to see how the Irish offense fares against a BYU defense that ranks fifth nationally in overall defense, and seventh in scoring defense. The Cougars are No. 13 in sacks and in tackles for loss, too, so we'll see if the lack of mobility without Golson under center proves to be an issue.

On the other side, look for Notre Dame to have a field day defensively. BYU's offense is, to put it kindly, not very good, and the Cougars will have a lot of trouble establishing any kind of ground game against this Irish front.

Does another low-scoring slugfest await us? Probably not, though there won't exactly be tons of fireworks, either.

As always, I'll be tweeting the action throughout, so be sure to follow there. Any developments or breaking news will be here in the blog, and we will have complete postgame coverage, too.

Should be another fun one. Enjoy.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The picks against Michigan, the late arrival to a pre-Miami meeting -- such lapses have much bigger consequences now for Everett Golson than they did before he came to Notre Dame.

The rookie quarterback can no longer atone with a simple flick of the wrist or by directing a few good plays. Penance comes in the form of practicing better and communicating more with his teammates before putting out the finished product on Saturday.

"I think the small failures and not playing as well as he can play and the mistakes he made has really made him think," said Hugh T. Wallace, Golson's mentor and former assistant principal at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High. "It came just so easy to him in high school: All he had to do was snap the ball, and if he made a mistake it didn't matter. If they got two penalties it didn't matter, because they scored from anywhere."

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhEverett Golson flashed his running skills against Miami, but could see tougher going against Stanford.
Golson quelled plenty of fears in last Saturday's victory over Miami, completing 17 of 22 passes and rushing for 51 yards in the best game of his young career. The fate of the Irish's undefeated season likely comes down to whether he can continue that success this weekend against an unforgiving Stanford defense.

Golson carried the ball six times against the Hurricanes, flashing speed in a way he hadn't before, but the task will be much tougher against a Cardinal defense that ranks fourth in the nation in tackles for loss (8.6 per game). The unit knocked starter Tommy Rees out of the teams' meeting last season.

"Certainly we're not going to run him 25-30 times up inside, he's not built that way," coach Brian Kelly said of Golson. "But they'd better be aware of him. If they overplay the run, he can get out on the perimeter and he can attack their secondary, and I know they don't want that to happen."

Golson's trajectory has been uneasy through five games -- strong performances in games 1, 3 and 5 sandwiching a pair of yankings against Purdue and Michigan. The first benching was disappointing to the redshirt freshman because he had played fairly well in a tied game; the second because his parents were watching him play inside Notre Dame Stadium for the first time.

Kelly called the days before the Miami game Golson's best week of practice, and the coach's stating and re-stating of Golson as his starter has helped with his growth.

"I don't think Kelly put him through 'You're trying out for the job,' " Wallace said. "I think that probably reassured Everett. He's amazingly competitive and confident at what he can do and very private in what he puts out about what he thinks about all of it, too."

Golson was not made available to the media again this week, but teammates have said he has become more vocal over the past month, particularly with the offensive linemen, whom he often joins in position meetings to ensure he is on the same page.

"He's just vocally trusting himself that he's making the right calls," center Braxston Cave said. "And with Everett, he's kind of getting that swagger back. When you watch his high school film he's all over the field making plays and [has] all the confidence in the world, and I think he's getting that back."

Notre Dame weekend rewind: Week 1

September, 3, 2012
Here's one last look at what was a successful opening weekend for the Irish:

The good: Each line received a game ball for its efforts Saturday, and deservedly so. Yes, there is plenty of talent in the Irish's backfield, but that talent doesn't get the chance to do what it did to Navy without the push up front. Remember, Navy was supposed to have the strong ground game. Notre Dame's 292 rushing yards -- and the Midshipmen's 149 -- were a testament to the strong play from both of Notre Dame's lines.

The bad: It wouldn't be a Notre Dame game without a red zone turnover, right? Everett Golson's first career gaffe came midway through the second quarter, when he was picked off by Parrish Gaines at the Navy 4. Fortunately for Golson, he and his teammates did more than enough to make up for it in a 40-point win.

Biggest surprise: Tackle Ronnie Stanley saw some playing time in the second half, a rarity for a freshman offensive lineman. Of course, Jordan Prestwood's departure and Tate Nichols' injury left the Irish thin there. Brian Kelly said Sunday that the decision was made before the trip that Stanley would play if the opportunity arose.

Best quote: In what is probably the most accurate way to describe 303-pound teammate Stephon Tuitt, who returned a fumble 77 yards for a score, Braxston Cave told reporters: "He's a freak."

Next up: And you thought Notre Dame once had quarterback conundrums? The Irish return to the United States to kick off their home schedule against rival Purdue, which has three capable signal-callers and is coming off a 48-6 rout of Eastern Kentucky.
Notre Dame placed 20 players on Phil Steele's preseason all-independent team, including 13 on the first team.

BYU was a close second with 18. Army and Navy each had seven.

The usual suspects (Cierre Wood, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert) make the first team, as does Notre Dame's entire starting defensive line, even without transfer Aaron Lynch. There are some leaps of faith here, but that's to be expected when picking 52 total players from a pool of just four schools, as many players are unproven. Bennett Jackson and Christian Lombard will likely be first-year starters, and who knows if Davonte Neal will even get the chance to return punts during his first year with the Irish.

Here are all of the Notre Dame players on Steele's preseason all-independent team:


100 Days Countdown: Notre Dame

May, 22, 2012
As part of the "College Football Live" 100 Days 'Til Kickoff countdown, here's a look at Notre Dame's top 10 players.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Manti Te'o
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesManti Te'o could be the best inside linebacker in all of college football.
1. Manti Te'o: The senior passed up NFL millions and returns as perhaps the top inside linebacker in the nation. He will look to build off consecutive 120-plus-tackle campaigns and anchor a front seven primed to take the next step under third-year coordinator Bob Diaco.

2. Tyler Eifert: Like Te'o, Eifert deferred NFL dollars and dreams to return for one more year. And, like Te'o, Eifert may just be the nation's best player at his position. But the tight end will resemble more of a receiver this season, moving all over the field and serving as the No. 1 target for whoever ends up throwing the ball for Notre Dame.

3. Cierre Wood: Coming off a 1,000-yard season in which he lost snaps to Jonas Gray late in the campaign, Wood returns as the Irish's No. 1 running back. Depth in the backfield may keep carries down again, but Wood figures to have another strong season with a proven line blocking for him.

4. Jamoris Slaughter: He probably won't be a first-round draft pick the way Harrison Smith was, but the fifth-year senior is a versatile playmaker who can move up and play linebacker while serving as the voice for a young secondary.

5. Stephon Tuitt: He didn't put up the big numbers of fellow class member Aaron Lynch, but he may be even better. Tuitt has shown the versatility to play end and nose guard, and he will only get better after bursting onto the scene as a freshman.

6. Zack Martin: Want to know what helps with the quarterback transition the most? A proven offensive line. At left tackle, Martin keys that group as he enters his senior year with 26 straight starts under his belt (two at right tackle).

7. Theo Riddick: You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who stood out more this spring. The running back/slot receiver is a playmaker when he gets the ball in his hands. If he can stay healthy and succeed as a punt returner, he will find his name much higher on this list a few months from now.

8. Braxston Cave: Another veteran piece on this line, Cave stars in the middle and is an important locker room voice. Limited this spring after a foot injury sidelined him late last season, Cave is back for a fifth year, his third in a row as the starting center.

9. Louis Nix: A subpar spring forced Nix behind Kona Schwenke on the depth chart, but the nose guard is an invaluable cog in the middle for the Irish's young line. A strong preseason camp -- and a capable replacement in Schwenke -- should only make Nix better in his second year of game action. (He redshirted his freshman year.)

10. George Atkinson III: Atkinson returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns as a freshman. Now, he's hoping that playmaking ability translates on the offensive side of the ball. He netted 178 yards of offense in the spring game but coughed it up twice, and he'll have to ease the staff's concerns since Wood and Riddick are ahead of him.

Roster breakdown: Offense

March, 28, 2012
With Notre Dame a week into spring practice, the fifth-year players officially returning and the 2012 recruiting class finalized (we think), let's break down the Irish's complete roster, position-by-position, as it gears up for Year 3 under Brian Kelly.

We'll start with the offense today and delve into the defense tomorrow, with special teams coming Friday.


The players: Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, Gunner Kiel

The incoming: None

The breakdown: Experience is the only real way to rank these guys, as Rees has 16 starts, Hendrix has played in five games, Golson has sat a year learning the offense and Kiel arrived on campus just two months ago. Nonetheless, that likely won't matter as Kelly goes to a square-one approach, opening the playbook from the beginning to allow for a fair chance for everyone. The decision -- which will likely be up in the air deep into the summer -- may prove to be Kelly's biggest so far with the Irish.


[+] EnlargeCierre Wood
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireCierre Wood is still the clear favorite in Notre Dame's backfield, but the Irish have other running backs ready to vie for playing time.
The players: Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam Roberson, Tyler Plantz

The Incoming: Will Mahone, KeiVarae Russell

The breakdown: Wood is the clear No. 1, as he was heading into last season as well. Riddick broke off a pair of huge runs toward the end of Saturday's scrimmage, and Kelly wanted both him and Atkinson to see more time back there as Wood rested with a minor quad injury. (Kelly said Wood did go in the rodeo drill earlier.) Both Riddick and Atkinson are capable of playing in the slot, and may end up seeing more time catching balls this season than taking handoffs, though Tony Alford will coach both regardless.

Carlisle, the USC transfer, is eligible to play in 2012 but out for the spring with a broken ankle. Where he fits in will be interesting, as carries may be hard to come by if Atkinson really progresses this spring in the backfield. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Carlisle was featured on kickoffs last season with the Trojans, and there, or on the punt return team, may prove to be the fastest way on the field for him.


The players: John Goodman, T.J. Jones, Robby Toma, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith, Luke Massa, Eric Lee, Nick Fitzpatrick, Ryan Liebscher

The incoming: Justin Ferguson, Davonte Neal

The breakdown: Goodman has talked about making the most of this last chance, and the coaching staff would not have invited him back for a fifth year had it not believed in him. Whether he can be a top target is up in the air, but he should bring some stability and leadership to a group loaded with youth. Jones has been solid through two years and Kelly has said he is on the cusp of breaking out. Toma has done everything asked of him and then some in the slot when replacing the oft-injured Riddick, and he may have the position to himself this year.

Daniels has the complete package physically, but he has yet to take a snap after redshirting last season. He was seen running with the 2s to start spring, but that could easily change with a strong showing. Smith, too, ran with 2s to open spring, but he must stay healthy first. Ferguson has the tools to compete for playing time upon arrival, but that could likely depend on how the incumbents step up in front of him. Neal is pegged as an athlete, but Kelly said there are no plans right now to play him at corner upon his arrival. He could possibly be a playmaker at receiver or on special teams.


The players: Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, Alex Welch, Ben Koyack, Jake Golic, Arturo Martinez

The incoming: None

The breakdown: We all know what Eifert can do, which is why he almost entered the draft this year. Niklas is the big question mark. And by big, we mean it literally. A switch from linebacker -- where he started one game last fall as a freshman -- to tight end for the 6-7, 252-pounder has many excited to see what the offense can do with a potential two tight end set. Everyone saw what the New England Patriots did last year with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

It would be foolish to expect that much so soon -- both without Tom Brady as the Irish's quarterback and without Niklas having played the position since high school. How quick Niklas can master the playbook and blocking could go a long way in seeing some of these sets come to fruition. The move does leave some to wonder what this means for Welch and Koyack, but the duo is young and, according to tight ends coach Scott Booker, up for the challenge.


The players: Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic, Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, Bruce Heggie, Jordan Prestwood, Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, Brad Carrico, Matt Tansey, Dennis Mahoney

The incoming: Mark Harrell, Ronnie Stanley

The breakdown: Cave will not be playing much, if at all, this spring as he recovers after injuring his foot last season. Golic, who started in his place, is the center with Cave out, but it would not be surprising to see Golic move to right guard upon Cave's return. Right now Lombard is manning the right guard spot, with Nichols at right tackle. How the second unit gets shuffled upon Cave's return to the starting unit remains to be seen, but to open spring, it consisted of Heggie, Prestwood, Hegarty, Hanratty and Martin.

Gray has what it takes to bounce back

November, 21, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The third quarter was less than five minutes old when attention began to shift from the field to the home sideline, Notre Dame players making their way toward the equipment trunk to offer whatever they could to the teammate sitting on top of it, the player unlikely to join them on the field ever again, certainly not in this final home game of the season.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, relegated to crutches after suffering a season-ending right knee injury four weeks earlier, stayed to his right, as if to make sure the running back wouldn't spend a second alone.

Braxston Cave, out for the year after suffering a left foot injury two weeks earlier, emerged from the player's left, hugging the senior as he limped off the field under his own power.

[+] EnlargeJonas Gray
Matt Cashore/US PresswireJonas Gray collected one touchdown and 76 all-purpose yards before leaving Saturday's game with an injury.
Michael Floyd would say afterward that he was heartbroken. Manti Te'o would call it the hardest thing to watch.

Jonas Gray, the man they were all trying to pick up? He was doing a much better job than any of them, picking up everyone around him instead.

He told his mother, Jeri, not to worry, insisting he'd be OK. His right knee immobilized in the locker room after a 16-14 win over Boston College, Gray told his teammates to stay strong. He thanked them for his four years at Notre Dame, told them how special the experience was and explained how lucky he felt to be able to share it with them.

"That's the kind of guy he is," captain Harrison Smith said. "He's not gonna dwell on the bad things. He's gonna try to somehow spin it to be good."

Gray spun a season-opening, goal-line fumble into becoming an eventual starter, finishing with 791 yards and 6.9 yards per carry this season.

He took on coach Brian Kelly's challenge to overcome that Week 1 gaffe and didn't let it define him, carrying the ball 39 more times in 2011 than he did in the three previous years combined, all the while rushing for 12 touchdowns -- 12 more than he had entering this season.

Kelly, sans MRI result Sunday, made the presumption that Gray's injury would cost him 2011 and who knows just how much beyond, all for a senior who had been playing his way into an NFL future during this last go-round.

Just four days earlier, Kelly sang a much different tune about Gray's renaissance senior campaign.

"I can't remember in my 21 years coaching a guy that has made that significant of an impact on a football team," Kelly said Wednesday. "I've had some senior linemen step up and be great role guys, but he's an actual playmaker for us. All the credit. I mean, he's the guy who decided to do this. We said, 'Listen, you gotta do this.' He could've chose not to do it. He's a great story."

That great story was supposed to reach its climax Saturday, the senior walking through the home tunnel for the final time, rushing for a 26-yard score on the game's opening drive, Notre Dame's only touchdown of the day.

But 11 carries, two catches and 76 total yards later, that great story came crashing down in the form of a 3-yard reception gone wrong, putting everything Gray had said this season to the test.

"The one thing I'm gonna remember is how I was humbled through my first couple seasons, and how that has an impact on how I am now," he had said Tuesday. "That makes me work even harder every time I have the opportunity, because I was humbled so early on in my career. So that's what I'm gonna remember about this place. And this university is great. The people are great. And being surrounded around great people who all have the same attitude I have, which is having a selfish motivation, but at the same time being great teammates."

Gray could say he was humble and tout his teammates when all was going well. But what about when his career flashed before his eyes, when everything he worked for was taken right from under him so close to the finish line?

"I don't feel bad at all, because he's had a good year," his mother said after the game. "He's overcome some adversity, and so for him to even get this far, I don't feel bad for him at all. It's unfortunate that this situation happened, but it's football and he knows that. And just like before, he'll bounce back."

Gray himself wasn't available for interviews Saturday. He probably wasn't needed. Everyone else did the speaking for him.

Because afterward, his teammates said, Jonas Gray looked at them in the locker room following the Senior Day win he couldn't finish and told them how lucky he was just to be a part of it.