Competition through the ranks

Next step for Gray: consistency

Part II of our most intriguing spring position battles includes new blood at running back, the potential need for a nickel defender, and the defense's most important position.

In Part I, we previewed the five most intriguing position battles entering spring practice 2011. One day later, we have an addition at the top of that list following Michael Floyd's stunning suspension for repeated alcohol offenses.

(We'll examine the now vacant "W" receiver spot in greater detail following today's opening press conference.)

For a look at Part I, and position battles 1-5, click here.

#6 – Backup Tailback

2010 leading rusher Cierre Wood returns after becoming the first former red-shirted running back to lead a Notre Dame team in rushing since freshman eligibility was initiated in 1972.

Senior-to-be Jonas Gray has the inside track at the No. 2 tailback role while 2010 Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year Cameron Roberson enters the spring with four seasons of eligibility remaining and in heavy competition for significant playing time next fall. The battle here is likely between Gray and Roberson, though it's not completely out of the realm of possibility that one could take the reigns from Wood.

Official position switches/departures: Four-year contributors Armando Allen and Robert Hughes will graduate in May.
Rumored position switches: Slot receiver and former tailback Theo Riddick, at least in a part-time role.
Others to consider: None, including, in my opinion, any more than a sampling of Riddick in the backfield, assuming the trio Wood/Gray/Roberson remains in good health. Riddick as the offense's Wildcat Quarterback is of course a likely scenario and logical change-of-pace for the offense next fall.

Final thought: Can Gray play? He's shown spurts; he's shown flashes; he's displayed the occasional moment as a runner, both inside and outside the tackles, and as receiver out of the backfield. Enough to elicit hope from a forgiving fan base and a pair of coaching staffs. But entering his senior season, we have no idea if Jonas Gray can be a consistent BCS football player. We're about to find out.

#7 – Nickel Defender

The position acts as a "12th defensive starter" in the modern game, and senior-to-be Robert Blanton excelled in this spot last fall, first seeing action vs. Michigan State and then cementing the role vs. Stanford in Week Four. Blanton will join Gary Gray as a starting CB this fall, a move that leaves open the valuable nickel role, or at least the presence of a third cornerback on the field to better defend passing situations/attacks.

The logical assumption is that third cornerback Lo Wood will join the rotation. If Wood can prove competent at the "field" cornerback spot vacated by Darrin Walls, Blanton could return at the more challenging/diverse nickel defender position when called upon (passing/nickel package situations).

Other options as the nickel defender include Wood, who was highly thought of exiting spring 2010, safety Zeke Motta in a hybrid S/LB role for which he was slated just 11 months ago, or senior-to-be Jamoris Slaughter, should he not beat out Motta for a starting spot at safety.

Official position switches/departures: CB Darrin Walls to graduation (impact noted above). Bennett Jackson moved from WR to the defensive backfield (presumed to be cornerback rather than safety).
Rumored position switches: N/A
To consider: Zeke Motta could move back to his "BUCK" LB role, one he occupied prior to Jamoris Slaughter's season-altering ankle injury in last year's opener. From that moment, Motta became a starting safety for the bulk of the regular season, opening the full-time nickel role to third cornerback Robert Blanton.

Final thought: In an ideal world Wood will prove capable of playing the "field corner" spot for 40-50 percent of the defensive snaps, and Blanton can then shift inside (often aligned over the offense's slot receiver) to his disruptive nickel role. If not…the Irish defense has encountered its first major issue of the off-season, because the presence of three solid cornerbacks last season keyed Notre Dame's best pass defense since the 2002 season.

#8 – Punt Returner

Notre Dame's final 10 punt returns netted minus seven yards last season, and in only one of the final 10 contests did lead punt returner John Goodman gain positive yards (two on two returns in the Sun Bowl win over Miami).

Official position switches/departures: Senior Armando Allen will graduate. Allen returned two punts for 47 yards including a season-best 38-yard burst vs. Purdue.
Rumored position switches: It's safe to assume open auditions begin Wednesday, as they did last spring when nearly every running back, wide receiver and defensive back was evaluated as a potential punt return candidate.
To consider: To be blunt – someone else. Goodman elected to fair catch 23 punts from Week Four through season's end. In that span, he returned nine total punts for exactly one yard, and also lost fumble on a muffed punt/-10 yard loss vs. Tulsa. Regarding the fair catches, I asked head coach Brian Kelly twice (following six vs. BC and the Tulsa contest), if the conservative approach was a mandate from the coaching staff, or some form of strategy – the answer was a definitive "no."

Final thought: Goodman showed flashes of return potential in 2009 vs. Nevada and last season at Michigan State (3 returns for 27 yards including a 13-yard effort). Those glimpses of open field ability don't offset the numbers noted above. He's a key competitor in the team's receiving corps, but vast improvement is needed in the punt return game – a unit that ranked dead last among the 12 graded by Irish Eyes last December. (We'll have more on the team's return units early next week.)

#9 – Backup Defensive End

Seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore will start while hybrid DE/NG Hafis Williams will backup one or both. Of particular interest is the battle between sophomore Kona Schwenke, who showed flashes late last season, and top tier recruit Aaron Lynch, on campus and ready to compete in the coming weeks.

Official position switches/departures: Senior Emeka Nwankwo to graduation.
Rumored position switches: Redshirt freshman DE Justin Utupo to inside linebacker, though he was likely evaluated at multiple positions as a Scout Team defender last fall.
To consider: The addition of a handful of incoming freshmen defensive ends, including Early Enrollee Aaron Lynch, renders player movement to the position unnecessary. Williams' true value is that he can play both the end and nose guard position when called upon.

Final thought: The Irish struggled to find a sixth defensive linemen for their rotation last season (Nwankwo ascended to the role, though his playing time waned in favor of Schwenke, late). This spring, Williams, Schwenke, and Lynch head a trio of promising backups with a collection of youthful depth on the way for August camp. A 2010 pre-season question mark could evolve into a team strength by next September/October.

#10 – Nose Guard

Likely the most undervalued defender last season, if Sean Cwynar is close to full health (foot and back surgery in the off-season with the former a greater cause for concern), he'll win the job. If not, Irish fans better hope the rumors regarding redshirt-freshman Louis Nix's improvement prove accurate. The defense won't work without a rock in the middle and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco needs both Cwynar and Nix ready to roll next fall.

Official position switches/departures: Ian Williams to graduation. DE Hafis Williams played (backup) nose guard last November in his stead.
Rumored position switches: None – we'll assume never-used senior Brandon Newman and little-used junior Tyler Stockton will fight for snaps at nose guard again this spring.
To consider: Hafis Williams to challenge Nix in the spring should Cwynar struggle at less than full strength. Williams played well in relief of Cwynar here last November…its logical to assume they'll need him to shift inside again over the course of a 13-game season.

Final thought: Notre Dame will need three nose guards next season with Hafis Williams representing the hybrid third (he should see more time at DE). At 350 pounds-plus, Nix was nowhere near capable of competing at the collegiate level early last fall (according to the defensive staff, not this writer). It's therefore unlikely he can handle a full starter's load one year later as a first-year contributor (Cwynar broke down under those same circumstances late last season). The key to Notre Dame's season is the health of Sean Cwynar and the continued development of Louis Nix as an imposing, run-stuffing backup.

Other battles of note: Senior Michael Floyd was suspended indefinitely after I began this two-part series yesterday. The "W" receiver position is therefore among those with the most question marks at present.

Others to watch, and those that will be discussed on these pages over the next three weeks include:

  • Left Guard – Junior Chris Watt (three years remaining) has the inside track to replace departed Chris Stewart, though 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss could certainly provide competition inside. Nuss can play both guard and tackle, but OL coach Ed Warinner has a surplus of tackle talent available. Senior Mike Golic (two years remaining) will fight for a spot here as well as at center.
  • Backup CAT LinebackerDarius Fleming is the unquestioned starter and Prince Shembo would likely win the backup role, though Shembo is reportedly receiving evaluation inside (at WILL). January enrollee Ishaq Williams could fit the bill should Shembo remain inside.
  • Kick-off specialistDavid Ruffer was the best field goal kicker in the nation last year and he booted a solid 11 touchbacks (three times as many as the program's kickers posted over the last three seasons, combined. January enrollee Kyle Brindza is a kickoff specialist and already an Irish message board legend. It's different world for a rookie kicker inside the LaBar Practice Complex…and a much different world the House that Rockne Built.
  • Backup tight endTyler Eifert should again earn the starting nod, but potential 5th-year senior Mike Ragone and redshirt-freshman Alex Welch will wage a heated battle for April snaps as well. Junior Jake Golic is also in the mix, especially as an in-line blocker.

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