NCF Nation: Nick Martin

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth

Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson

Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson returns as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame after missing all of the past season due to issues related to academics.
Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 0.538 (pre-suspensions)

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)

Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.

High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.

Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)

Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.

They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe

Irish kick camp off at Culver

August, 4, 2014
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CULVER, Ind. -- Brian Kelly spending the day with the wide receivers was probably the biggest oddity emerging from Day 1 of Notre Dame fall camp. Everett Golson returned to run the first-team offense Monday, the defense's "D-Boys" chant went on without coordinator Bob Diaco and the punt returners could probably do a better job of fielding undefended kicks, first day of practice or not.

Oh, and a pair of horses looked on at the new artificial turf fields here at Culver Military Academy, where the Irish will practice the rest of the week before returning to campus Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Everett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson was running the first-team offense on Monday.
"It was good, it was fun for me," Kelly said after the two-hour padless session, the entirety of which was open to reporters. "Obviously you're in this business because you want to teach and being able to get in here and just give them a good base and foundation and some of the fundamentals, I think we've got really top notch athletes at that position. Just really spending a little more time with fundamentals on releases, transition, some of the things I think can really help them develop a solid foundation, they've got a great skill set."

Kelly said that his time with the receivers has not affected his ability to evaluate the quarterbacks, as the fifth-year Irish head coach subs in for offensive coordinator/outside receivers coach Mike Denbrock, who is out for the first several weeks of camp following an undisclosed operation.

Kelly said the program is happy to accommodate Denbrock however it can, as the staff is relaying video to him on an iPad. The date of Denbrock's return remains up in the air.

As for what else went down on Day 1 at Culver:

Michigan-Notre Dame writers roundtable

September, 3, 2013
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Michigan StadiumAP Photo/Tony DingCan anything top Michigan's 35-31 win in 2011, which was the first night game in the history of Michigan Stadium?

Under the lights ... and two of college football’s oldest rivals in one of their last scheduled meetings … and College GameDay. Does it get any better than this? Only when Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett, Dame reporter Matt Fortuna and Michigan reporter Chantel Jennings get together to talk about it. Today, they discuss a few topics surrounding the highly anticipated matchup.

1. Over the past few years, this rivalry has seen its fair share of big stars excel during this game -- Denard Robinson's 502 yards in 2010, Roy Roundtree's game-winning catch in 2011, Manti Teo's defensive performance in 2012. Which player could you see having a mega game on Saturday?

Bennett: How about Jeremy Gallon? The Michigan receiver had the huge 64-yard catch that set up Roundtree's game-winner in 2011. While he wasn't as active in last year's game, that's primarily because the Wolverines were busy throwing the ball to Notre Dame. Gallon has been more effective ever since Devin Gardner started running the show, and I could see him burning the Irish secondary for some big plays.

Jennings: The heroes this game has helped create have kind of come out of nowhere in some instances. So I’m going to pick a guy who has been flying under the radar statistically, who I think has the ability to show up in big games, and that’s Michigan tight end Devin Funchess. He had a fine freshman year and a better offseason. I think we could see him be a big difference maker on Saturday.

Fortuna: If I'm Notre Dame, I'm gearing up for Gardner, since Michigan quarterback play has essentially decided these contests in one form or another in each of the past four years. From the Irish side, though, I think wide receiver DaVaris Daniels could break out. He was Notre Dame's best offensive player in the national title game loss to Alabama, hauling in six catches for 115 yards. On Saturday against Temple, the redshirt sophomore had three catches for 69 yards, including a pair of 32-yard touchdown receptions on the Irish's first two drives.

2. Which mismatch between these two teams are you most intrigued to watch?

Bennett: On paper at least, it's the Michigan interior offensive line vs. Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III. Center Jack Miller and guards Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow are talented and played well together last week, but they have very little experience. Nix, meanwhile, is a 357-pound man-mountain who helped anchor a championship-level defense last season. He commands double teams, and it will be up to Michigan's young inside guys to keep him in check so Stephon Tuitt and others can't wreak even more havoc.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Lewan
Andrew Weber/US PresswireMichigan tackle Taylor Lewan will have his hands full with Notre Dame's talented defensive line.
Jennings: Left tackle Taylor Lewan on whomever or whatever Notre Dame tries to throw at him. He’s so crucial to Michigan’s offense, and I really don’t see him not dominating any matchup this season. Lewan came back for games like this and matchups like what he’ll have against Tuitt.

Fortuna: I'll say Notre Dame's offensive line against Michigan's defensive line. The Irish have three starters back from last season, along with a very talented center in Nick Martin. One of the reasons they were able to jump out to a 17-point lead in Ann Arbor two years ago was because of their ability to run up the middle, as the Irish averaged six yards per rush on the night. Notre Dame is now in its third straight year of starting Zack Martin and Chris Watt together on the left side, and it has started using pistol packages in 2013 to tailor to the strengths of some of its young backs in hopes of establishing a downhill run game. This is far from a "mismatch," but with Michigan returning just three starters from last season's front seven, and with the teams so evenly matched across the board, I'd say this is where Notre Dame probably has the biggest edge. Conversely, I can't wait to see Tuitt and Lewan go head-to-head. Both will be a lot richer eight months from now.

3. Is there any way this game could one-up the last time these two teams met in the Big House?

Bennett: It's possible that this could be an even better overall game than the one in 2011, just not as flashy. People remember the Michigan comeback and the crazy fourth quarter, but it was a pretty lopsided affair until then. That wild finish was made possible by major defensive breakdowns on both sides, and both teams are much more sound defensively now. I believe these are two legitimate top-15 teams, so we should expect a tight game. The atmosphere won't be quite as special because it won't be the first time under the lights at the Big House. But Notre Dame-Michigan usually finds a way to amaze us.

Jennings: I was on the sideline for the final minutes of that matchup two years ago, and to call the atmosphere electric would still be selling it short. I don’t know if the Wolverines have had a game as exciting since, so I’m going to go with no. I think it’ll be a great game and the fact that it’s the last in Michigan Stadium for the foreseeable future adds a lot. But as far as the plays themselves, jam packed into that short amount of time, I just don’t see that being topped.

Fortuna: I said no to this same question two years ago and was sadly mistaken, so I'll try not to be as definitive in my answer this time around. Whether it was Denard Robinson or Tate Forcier before him, magic seems to always happen in the late moments of this game. I'll just go ahead and make the bold prediction that if Notre Dame takes the lead with 30 seconds remaining this time, its secondary will hold up and secure an Irish win. Like I said, bold.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Matt Hegarty was about to put his pads on before a Nov. 8 practice when he forgot what he was going to say to fellow lineman Conor Hanratty. Perplexed, he wondered if he had gotten enough sleep the night before.

"It was just a really confusing day, honestly," Hegarty said. "You wake up, go to class, you write notes in your book just like you normally do, and then it kind of does a 180 on you."

The writing and speaking were temporarily halted, and breathing was uneasy. He approached Notre Dame head athletic trainer Rob Hunt. Stroke symptoms were detected, and Hegarty soon found himself in the hospital. Less than 24 hours later, doctors determined that Hegarty had two previously undetected holes in his heart -- adding up to roughly an inch in missing tissue -- which caused a ministroke that shelved any thoughts of contributing to a national title chase and set in motion a spring comeback and a chase at a starting job.

Six whirlwind months later, Hegarty's last hurdle to climb is the depth chart, where he chased Nick Martin this spring for a shot at the Irish's starting center job.

"It's a big event in your life," Hegarty said of the ministroke. "And as much as you try to not think about it, you want to push on and think about, 'What's the next step?' I've got to take care of this final. I've got to write this paper. I've got to go to this doctor and visit.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Matt Hegarty
Tommy Grealy/Icon SMICenter Matt Hegarty filled in for the injured Nick Martin on Saturday and the Irish O-line didn't miss a beat, rushing for 235 yards against BYU.
"It kind of creeps in a little bit on you. I think the best part is getting back to business and going out there doing practice, doing everything that I normally do and seeing that everything's back to normal. I don't have anything to worry about."

Hegarty met with an occupational speech therapist after the episode. On Dec. 14, Dr. Ronald Nelson went up his thigh with a catheter to patch the holes in Hegarty's heart. Not long after, Hunt, the trainer, had Hegarty using an elliptical machine until he could resume weight-lifting, which he was eventually cleared to do in February, a hurdle he considered among the most significant.

"You kind of find yourself in the weight room, and I was able to find myself," Hegarty said. "Get back in there, you're throwing weight around, you're like, 'All right, it's back to business.' I felt great, it's what I do. Back to normal."

The new normal for Hegarty contains a greater sense of appreciation, but doctors told him that the heart repair has also given him up to 20 percent more oxygen in his bloodstream.

"Matt likes to say, 'I am 20 percent better than before, but it was a heck of a way to get better,' " his father, Bryan, said.

Hegarty is off the Plavax and Coumadin he was initially prescribed, now just taking a baby aspirin until June and possibly in the future before he travels long distances.

With the initial scares and most difficult obstacles now shoved to the side, Bryan Hegarty has looked at the timing of the ordeal that his son faced as a blessing.

Yes, Hegarty had to be shut down for the stretch run of a season that ended in the Discover BCS National Championship, but the recovery process allowed for a return to spring ball and a seemingly clean slate, with a first-team spot open in the middle of the line for the Aztec, N.M., native.

"Very foreign," Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said of dealing with Hegarty's injury. "And I think that the scary thing is just the unknown. You understand elbow, you understand a knee, you understand an ankle, you understand shoulders -- you don't have much experience with a guy's heart and issues there.

"But when you're around him, you see his attitude about it and the smile on his face and the determination on his face. You kind of shake it off: 'Hey, let's go to work.' That's what you want, to be the best we can. The way he's handled it and his approach to things is just outstanding."

For Christmas, Bryan Hegarty gave Matt a copy of former NFL player and current ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi's book, "Never Give Up: My Stroke, My Recovery and My Return to the NFL," a memoir that helped fast-track Hegarty mentally.

His father said that it had initially taken the 6-foot-4.5, 291-pound third-year junior about a month to get over the fact that something like this could happen to him.

"When you're young, you're invincible. What's hard about this thing is it wasn't like an MCL tear, because you don't feel it," Bryan Hegarty said, referring to a prep injury Matt had suffered. "My wife used to be a therapist, so she has a good way of talking to Matt."

Back on the Loftus Sports Center practice field this spring, Hegarty's biggest concerns were dealing with Louis Nix and the rest of Notre Dame's relentless defensive line, a different but welcome dose of anxiety that is as sure a sign as any that the converted tackle's toughest battles are behind him.

"It takes two," head coach Brian Kelly said. "His family was involved. Really from a consensus standpoint, everybody was on the same page with this kind of serious condition. He had the best doctors. He had great followup. He took care of himself. I just think it was everybody pulling in the right direction to get him back on the field, where he feels very, very confident that he can go every single day and not have to worry about his health."
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.

RUNNING BACK
[+] 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.
CENTER
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.

MIKE LINEBACKER
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.
DAVIE, Fla. — Everett Golson was much more vocal Thursday than he was in fall camp, naturally. That was one of the first things that jumped out during the media's first viewing of Notre Dame practice since August.

Here are a few other notes and observations from Nova Southeastern University — the practice facility of the Miami Dolphins — as media members were allowed to watch the first 15 minutes, which consisted mostly of tempo drills. (Defense was on an opposite field, so the offense received most of the visitors' attention.)
  • DaVaris Daniels looks pretty much recovered from the broken left clavicle he suffered Nov. 10 at Boston College, as he was active throughout. Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin jumped on the redshirt freshman at one point, telling him if his running wasn't better on a particular route, then the Irish would have no chance.
  • Freshman quarterback Gunner Kiel, normally No. 1, was wearing a No. 10 jersey to play the role of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron on the scout team.
  • Head coach Brian Kelly alluded to depth concerns on the offensive line, and he wasn't kidding. The second-team offensive line consisted, from left to right, of Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty, Mark Harrell, Bruce Heggie and an unidentified walk-on wearing No. 76. (Hanratty and Harrell were both wearing No. 65, too.) Tate Nichols (knee) and Ronnie Stanley (elbow) have been out, as has Matt Hegarty for a non-football medical issue.

Nix, Martin coming back for family

December, 20, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Louis Nix wants to walk with his mother. Zack Martin wants to play with his brother.

In deciding to return to Notre Dame for one more season, both of the standout linemen chose family over finances, the nose guard seeking a senior day moment he never got at the prep level, while the left tackle relishes the chance to line up on the same unit with his kin.

"My brothers and sisters, they didn't really care," Nix said. "My dad, he knew the decision was up to me. Just my mom, she called me every day, like, 'I can't wait to walk on the field with you for Senior Day.' In high school, she didn't get to do it with me. She barely made it to any of my games. She didn't do the Senior Day with me in high school and she cried about it. So that was a big one for me."

An aunt in the crowd noticed the lonely Nix make the walk to midfield and alerted his mother, Stephanie Wingfield, who had another shift to tend to at the hospital cafeteria.

"I couldn't afford to let her take off, she couldn't afford to take off herself," Nix said. "She cried when that happened, she was kind of mad at me. I walked on the field by myself and people were like, 'Where's his parents?' She didn't like stuff like that. This will give her an opportunity to come up and do that for once."

Even if that means one more year of 10 people living inside their three-bedroom Jacksonville, Fla., home.

Nix has 13 siblings in all, and no one in his family had seen a college game of his before last year's Champs Sports Bowl contest in Orlando. A month before that, his father suffered a mild heart attack that had him hospitalized for two weeks.

"That'll make her happy," Nix said, referring to his mother's reaction to his decision. "We've been surviving so far. So we'll be OK, I guess."

Martin, meanwhile, is anxious to play alongside little brother Nick, a versatile redshirt freshman offensive lineman who figures to see plenty of time next year on the interior, if not start.

The redshirt junior said he had no idea what his plan would be following the regular-season finale at USC before opting to return, even before his paperwork from the NFL advisory committee returned.

"It means everything to me," Martin said of coming back. "I sat down, talked to my parents and thought about it. And to have the opportunity to come back wit Nick and finish out my career with Chris Watt and have the opportunity to play with [offensive line coach Harry] Hiestand again were really the big three things that went into that decision."

Roster breakdown: Offense

March, 28, 2012
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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.

QUARTERBACK

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.

RUNNING BACK

[+] 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.

WIDE RECEIVER

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.

TIGHT END

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.

OFFENSIVE LINE

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.

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