The signal-caller tops on our list too, though the winner of the assumed four-man QB derby won't be determined in mid-April.
Nor likely will any of the other eight position battles we'll feature over the next week, but the spring session's 15 practices culminating in the annual Blue Gold Game will provide head coach Brian Kelly and his staff plenty of off-season food for thought before the team reconvenes in full next August.
In addition to QB, included in our forthcoming competition previews are the following: field cornerback (and to a lesser extent, boundary as well), Dog linebacker, the third and fourth wide receivers, Cat linebacker, right tackle, right guard, and place-kicker.
Why not punt returner? We'll of course touch on the two-year debacle in our previews, but the focus is the spring, and August camp will determine who wins the starting punt returner role next fall.
Next summer's training camp will allow incoming freshmen to compete for the job, but more important, spring practice in South Bend often includes undesirable weather conditions. As a result, the team often moves indoors and the low ceilings of the Loftus Center don't allow for realistic competition in the return game.
In Kelly's first two seasons, Notre Dame decided to forgo the return game in its entirety during the Blue Gold Scrimmage, a practice that will likely continue in 2012 in an effort to avoid unnecessary injuries at the conclusion of spring ball.
(All players' class designations are referenced in terms of 2012, not last season).
Spring Position Competition #1 – Field CornerbackThe exodus of graduates Gary Gray (boundary) and Robert Blanton (field) leaves a gaping hole on the perimeter of Notre Dame's secondary. The pair combined to play 96 collegiate contests with 59 starts. Considering Blanton's playing time as a "non-starter" in 2010, the realistic number of starts is closer to 70 between the tandem.
The pair's backups last fall were sophomores Bennett Jackson (boundary) and Lo Wood (field), with Jackson earning a significant number of snaps in late-season games vs. Wake Forest, Maryland, Stanford, and Florida State. Wood's highlight was a 57-yard interception return for a score vs. the Terrapins in mid-November. Wood's playing time tailed off thereafter – as it did during late-season 2010 – and the second year competitor didn't participate in a snap to end the season at Stanford or in the bowl game.
The field cornerback is aligned to the "wide" side of the field – in other words, he has more ground to cover than does the boundary cornerback ("short" side, near hash mark close to the sideline is the best visual reference). And though Jackson by no means has the boundary position under lock and key, he is the prohibitive favorite for the job in February.
Brown was lauded by Kelly late last season for his scout team efforts, the coach noting that the scrappy cover man earned his keep vs. one of the nation's best in Michael Floyd on a daily basis.
Atkinson had a chance to showcase his speed in November, running down Wake Forest kick returner Lovell Jackson to save a first-half touchdown. Atkinson appeared at boundary cornerback last August in a scrimmage available to the media, but its illogical to assume he remained in that role throughout the next four months. In fact, it appeared his ascent to the varsity at mid-season appeared to pose a direct challenge to Wood at the field spot (and in the kick coverage game).
Both Brown and Atkinson have the speed to play the field position over the next 3-4 years. Then again, so too does prize recruit Tee Shepard, who also has the desired height and apparent ball skills necessary to challenge for a role from the outset. The boundary cornerback must be able to hold up vs. the run as well (remember Gary Gray's tour de force in that role vs. Purdue in Kelly's inaugural game on the sidelines?), and both Brown and Jackson have either the size or moxie to take on opposing ball carriers in short space.
Spring (Crystal) BallLook for Wood, Atkinson, and Shepard to tee it up at the field spot when spring ball begins and for Brown to pose a challenge to the "veteran" Jackson on the boundary. The best pair will emerge by mid-August with the real key being a trustworthy two-deep at both cornerback positions by the time Purdue comes to town for Game Two next September.
With five cornerbacks available in the spring, and potentially through the 2012 season (not many of the team's safeties, incoming or otherwise, appear likely corner candidates), it's a safe assumption that three of the quintet above will carry competition for the field spot into August while another will battle Jackson for the boundary role by late spring, through summer, and into training camp.
Note: Notre Dame's best cornerback at present might also be its best safety: 5th-year senior Jamoris Slaughter, who simply must remain in his safety/hybrid OLB roles.
(Barely) Educated Spring Guesses for the Field Cornerbacks: Jackson wins the boundary role, but Brown is viewed as potentially the team's second-best cornerback, leading to reevaluation over the summer as to his slotting (boundary or field)... No clear leader is determined at the field spot with both Atkinson and the still-too-light Shepard posing a major challenge to the junior Wood entering the summer. Shepard's ability to gain 10 pounds of muscle between today and August will be crucial to his early season chances at the position.
Coach's Quote to Note: "From RJ to Gary, you have guys that have played a lot of football and started a lot of games. You have Lo and Bennett trying to get to that level, so there's separation, but they're ultra-competitive and confident. They know what's going on.
"Then you bump it down to guys who have no clue about your system (the freshmen). No clue to what it's like being a freshman on campus, and no clue about all of the distractions they're about to go through. So there's clearly a separation right now. But all of them are athletic, aggressive players. It's a good group to work with."
--Irish cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks on the natural delineation of experience among his seniors, sophomores, and freshmen cornerbacks during last August's training camp.