Team Preview: Defending Champs Coming off a huge 14-0 championship season, Notre Dame will be hard pressed to duplicate the success they enjoyed last season with one of the most loaded rosters in memory. Even with all that talent, the team had to scrape by with last minute victories against Michigan, USC and the thrilling last second victory over LSU. Losing keystones like Golson at QB, Atkinson and Carlisle at HB and Ishaq Williams at MLB leave huge holes all over the roster, not even mentioning the other 16 seniors that departed, leaving a whopping 2 returning starters on Offense, and 4 on Defense. ND has recruited well and looks to reload, but this is looking like a possible rebuilding year in South Bend. Biggest spring position battle There are openings everywhere, but our offense relies on a successful running game, and our top to rushers of the past 3 seasons both just left. There are 5 capable backs, but none of them are quite the all around all worlders that we just lost. SR Will Mahone is a power back that comes in highest OVR, and should be able to pound for the tough yards, but won't be running past anybody. JR Tyler Hayden brings the explosive speed, but is tiny at 5-8 175. There are also intriguing prospects in Mike Caldwell & JJ Bowling that bring solid size and speed, but lack some of the desired HB skills. Between them all there is plenty of talent, but we'll have to piece them together in certain roles to be effective. Possible breakout seasons This has to go to SR QB Gunner Kiel. The former 5 star QB has patiently awaited his turn to run the offense, and after a brief thought of jumping to the NFL despite his limited playing time, he came back for his shot to lead the team. At 6-4 215 he has great size, solid speed and pinpoint accuracy. He also has a bevy of dangerous receivers, so we may be able to open the passing game a little more this season. If every goes just right... This is an incredibly young, but talented team again. If the teams gels, all the guys that waited their turns could blow up and pick up right where the team left off. It will be a battle to get through the B1G, but if Kiel takes off and the running game is steady this team will be very dangerous and win double digits again. The DL should remain stout against the run and the young DB's play well enough to limit big passing plays. A title is a reach, but possible if everything goes just right. If every goes wrong... The defense takes a big step back without Ishaq Williams patrolling the middle and wreaking havoc everywhere. The young secondary and linebackers get blown up and teams move the ball through the air all over this team, which was a problem even with veterans last season. No running back emerges to carry the load, and the deep backfield becomes more of a hindrance than a strength. If these things happen, it's entirely possible this team loses a couple of games. My guess... It will be impossible for this team to live up to the success of the just departed seniors, and there too many holes to plug for the team to be quite that strong initially. If we have a great spring training it's possible some stars will emerge, but there isn't as much depth on this team as we just enjoyed, with way too many young guys being counted on for significant minutes. We should finish around 10-2 and in a dogfight for the B1G. Offense ND will stick with the tried and true Pro Playbook based off Stanford. As usual, grinding out yards on the ground mixed with medium to long passes will be our style. Quarterback We have 4 solid quarterbacks on the roster, but it's Kiel's turn to shine. The RS SR is stud that should be a more polished passer than Golson was, albeit a little less of a running threat, which ND doesn't expect out of our QB's much anyway. Behind him is physical freak RS Soph Kevin Anderson. At 6-5 he has 91 acc/spd, so it is tempting to have a package for him, but I've never been good at that part of the game. We'll see if we can maximize him somehow though. Running Back Stacked depth chart with 5 very good backs. All are capable of playing anywhere, but not sure any are every down backs. We have good situational guys though, a pounder, a speedster, and a few tweeners with enough speed and catching ability to be threats all over. Should be a productive unit for us. Fullback Blah, I hate this position. We are pretty weak here, but rely on them in our power game so are hoping one of them steps up and can open up some holes in the run game. Wide Receiver We are pretty deep at WR, with SR Davonte Neal leading the group. He is small, but as fast as anybody in the country. He should do some great things this season. Fellow seniors Peters and Davis bring the size at 6-5 and 6-3, and are reliable targets. Looking forward to getting them more involved. All around it's a solid group and if we need to spread it out there won't be any weak links. Tight End After having top flight TE's every season, we are in trouble here this year. We missed out on our top 3 recruiting targets, which still baffles me. It will be up to a couple of solid but underwhelming guys. They will have to be good blockers and check down receivers, and not a focal point of the offense as Eifert and Koyack have been the past 4 seasons. Offensive Line 5 new starters here could spell huge trouble. Last year's line was incredibly deep and experienced, every lineman was 1st or 2nd team All-American and near the top of the awards lists. This year, we're going to need them to grow up fast. Hopefully they all progress quickly and do the job. All are capable, but it's a lot to ask 5 new starters to play as well as the last group did. Defense ND uses the 3-4 and have been very successful with it. After giving up only about 600 yards rushing all of last season but a boatload of passing yards, we're looking at a probable similar trend this season. The DL remains intact, with both DE's back. DT Jarron Jones takes over and shouldn't have any drop off there. Unfortunately, 3 of 4 DB's are new, in what was already a porous pass D. 3 out of 4 LB's also left, leaving us young and not nearly as talented there. This will be the most vulnerable the D has been in my 5 seasons. Ends Day and Grigsby return to anchor the edges. Day had 10 sacks, Grigs only 2. They are solid and the key with them is stopping the run and eating up blockers. We have some exciting young talent behind them that we will be rotating in to get some reps. They are faster and better pass rushers, but weaker against the run. Tackles We have great depth here, and big 6-6 315 Jarron Jones will take over and more than hold his own clogging up the middle. 3 young guys are behind him and will jump in when needed. Linebackers This is the group that took by far the biggest hit with departures. 3 new starters are going to need to make up for some huge losses, unfortunately none of them are quite as good as the guys they replace. JR Travis Clemens is the sole returner, and he's a good one. Behind him though, lots of questions. Looking like freshmen phenom Justin Jean will head up the middle, with help from veteran Will Jefferson. As much as our 3-4 relies on LB's, this is my biggest concern for our D. Corners Senior Ryan Ross returns after giving the pros a look. The stud CB had 6 int's last year and will lead our DB's. RS JR had 4 picks as the nickel back last year and should move into a starting role more than ably. Beyond them, it's true freshmen Dan Smith and Matt Rogers coming in as nickel and dime backs, as the other returning guys just aren't that great. Hopeful that our lack of experienced depth doesn't come back to bite us, but we will be good at the top. Safeties Two new safeties replace two guys that had started for a few seasons. What they lack in experience, they make up for in size and athleticism. JR Antonio Flynn is 6-5, fast and good in coverage at FS. Freddie Griffin is 6-4 and fast at SS. It should be hard to get over the top of them, but we'll have to see how they acclimate. There is some depth behind them, but all very young. Special Teams ND went heavy on kickers, recruiting both a kicker and punter this year. Both are around 90 KPW, so we like how they project long term for us. Should be very solid and ensure we aren't held back by weak kickers the next 4 years.