Further competition awaits the current quartet in August camp…
Projected Starters and Key Reserves through nine practices: Junior George Atkinson has carried himself as a lead running back for a championship contending spring. Expect major improvement from the likely first-time starter, though he needs extensive work in the passing game.
Despite a broken collarbone and subsequent surgery near the end of March, 2012 USC transfer Amir Carlisle has looked explosive in unit and individual drills. He's a lock to contribute in good health next fall.
Key Storyline: Carlisle's injury. After missing the 2012 spring with a broken ankle and the season with complications from surgery, Carlisle's injury elicited an ominous reaction from fans hoping he'd be a difference-maker in the fall. Its apparent the set-back was minor, with Carlisle expected at 100 percent by the end of April.
Change in the pecking order? None. But Atkinson, Carlisle, junior Cam McDaniel and redshirt-freshman Will Mahone must begin to compete anew when freshmen four-stars Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston hit South Bend in June. Atkinson and Carlisle appear safe in their roles; McDaniel will go all-out in August to keep ahead of the freshmen pair.
Quote to Note: "I think we've got some flexibility with Amir and Cam in particular that they can do a lot of those jobs. We'll never rule out playing both of them. If we feel like they're (part of the) best 11, the offense is such that we can have a George Atkinson and an Amir Carlisle on the field at the same time. Certainly we could have done that last year with Cierre (Wood) and Theo (Riddick). If they're our best 11, we can find a way to get both of them on the field."
-- Head coach Brian Kelly on McDaniel's potential role in the offense.
The hierarchy is established and unlikely to change, with junior (redshirt-sophomore) Everett Golson the starter, senior Tommy Rees his backup, Rees' classmate Hendrix the likely third, and early enroll Malik Zaire in line for a necessary redshirt season.
Projected Starter and Key Reserve through nine practices: Everett Golson and Tommy Rees
Key Storyline: The transfer of redshirt-freshman and former FOX Sports NEXT five-star prospect, Gunner Kiel, prior to outset of spring ball.
Change in the pecking order? None, other than Kiel was projected by most to beat senior Rees for the No. 2 role behind Golson.
Quote to Note: "From the mental end of things, he's in the top group of guys that I've coached that really understands the nuances of the position and can understand coverages and rotations and pressures and movement keys. He's really at a high level there. His is simply we've got to tighten him up a little bit, quicker release, we've got to work on his footwork - the things we had to work on with Everett. But he's really got a good mind for the game."
-- Kelly on early enrollee Malik Zaire
The unit is officially down two competitors from spring's outset; unofficially a third -- all from the sophomore ranks.
Projected Starters and Key Reserves through nine practices: Senior T.J. Jones and junior DaVaris Daniels remain the key cogs, with Jones in good health and at his peak as a collegian to date. Daniels has been sidelined of late with a jammed knee. No true third starter has emerged though senior Daniel Smith and redshirt-freshman C.J. Prosise have both run often with the first unit, the latter in the slot.
Key Storylines: It's all about the sophomores -- first transfers by Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson for undisclosed -- and likely never to be officially disclosed -- reasons. Both had begun spring practice before their defections. Second is recent report that speedster Chris Brown has a serious hamstring injury, though a timetable for his return and official report is not yet available.
Conversely, the trio's 2012 classmate C.J. Prosise has seized his opportunity in Year 2. After spending most of his rookie campaign as a scout team Dog linebacker and safety, the 6'2" 215-pound Prosise has been the talk of camp due to his ball skills and presence in the slot, running with the first unit over the last two weeks in practice viewings. (Including a practice prior to Neal's departure.)
Change in the pecking order? Neal was at least the No.2 slot receiver and likely to challenge for a starting role/major playing time. Ferguson was part of the second wave of hopefuls looking to earn a game day role. Brown is a player the Irish need as a perimeter backup -- his speed a rare commodity among the unit's competitors.
If Brown is out for an extended period of time, one of the team's quartet of incoming freshmen in guaranteed opportunity in August.
Quote to Note: "There'll be more guys leaving, there'll be more guys coming, This is a process that every year you go through. You're going to have some additions, you're going to have some deletions. But we didn't miss a step. They've been through it (the remaining players) and they're prepared for the 'Next Man In.' They didn't blink. Nor do I, nor the staff."
-- Kelly responding to the defections of Neal and Ferguson
The nation's premier landing spot for tight ends reloads after the graduation of all-time program stalwart, Tyler Eifert…
Projected Starters and Key Reserves through nine practices: Junior Troy Niklas has shown no drop-off; he'll be one of the team's two major tight end contributors (and there could again be three). Senior Alex Welch has shown well in return from August ACL surgery, it'd be a major surprise if he's not an in-line tight end regular. Junior Ben Koyack was lauded by position coach Scott Booker, but by his own admission, he must improve his blocking acumen in space. Promising early enrollee Mike Heuerman's time will come, but it won't likely be 2013. His projected progress though could force a brutal competition for playing time by 2014.
Key Storyline: Status quo, and considering the tiered depth of the position, that's a good thing. There's no Tyler Eifert in this bunch, but the position unit remains the envy of nearly 120 FBS teams.
Change in the pecking order? No, but Welch appears ahead of schedule and has designs on the lead role when 100 percent in August camp. Its relevant to note he was ahead of Troy Niklas last August prior to injury. "He was playing physical. He was creating another line of scrimmage," said Booker of what pushed Welch in front of Niklas and Koyack last summer. "He was really physical."
Quote to Note: "I can definitely say that we won't. 100 percent. Even cumulatively."
-- Niklas on the unit's expectations to broach the 96 passes for which Eifert was targeted in 2012.