TE Durham Smythe, WR Torii Hunter, OT Mike McGlinchey, RB Greg Bryant and QB Malik Zaire…
Smythe's ascent to this status is due in part to the unexpected defection of true junior Troy Niklas to the NFL. Nearly 6'5" and 235 pounds (as of his August camp measurement), Smythe was one of a trio of skill position freshmen to be lauded by head coach Brian Kelly during the team's bowl preparations last December.
"Durham Smythe is going to be a really good player, really good player," said Kelly, asked specifically about a player that impressed him since season's end. "Outstanding ball skills. He's going to continue to get bigger and stronger. I don't want to over-hype him, but he has some really unique ball skills for that position that he plays. As long as he continues to develop and get stronger physically, and he doesn't get into a hybrid position in terms of not getting strong enough to play as an in-line tight end, he's going to be an exceptional player."
Also singled-out by Kelly was scout team standout Torii Hunter, a freshmen relegated to that status largely because of a broken femur suffered during U.S. Army All-American Bowl practices last January (2013).
"He's a good kid. He's a pretty good player. That's all I'll tell you," said Kelly of Hunter. "He hasn't caught a pass, he hasn't caught a touchdown, but you're going to be talking about him. He's a pretty good player."
Smythe will battle classmate Mike Heuerman for the No. 2 tight end role behind senior Ben Koyack. Over the last two seasons, the No. 2 tight end (Niklas in 2012; Koyack last fall) received more snaps than did Notre Dame's fourth wide receiver and started a combined 12 games.
Heuerman missed the bulk of last fall due to shoulder surgery. Hunter figures to compete against a host of slot receiver candidates, notably junior (redshirt-sophomore) C.J. Prosise, and potentially a pair of running backs, Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone, both of whom have worked as a dual slot/RB competitor over the last calendar year.
Notre Dame's slot receiver position is no longer officially a RB/Slot listing, not since the graduation of Theo Riddick for whom the position designation was created, but Hunter and Prosise are near locks to align as slots this spring.
Party-Crasher? Mike McGlinchey
The void left by departed four-year starter (and four-time Guardian of the Year award winner) Zack Martin will be readily apparent when the Irish season kicks off next September, but the two-time captain's absence makes for an interesting set of options for offensive line coach Harry Hiestand in March.
McGlinchey worked with the best last fall
Will sophomore Steven Elmer, a projected tackle last fall but the team's starter at right guard for four of the final six games, move to the left tackle position? Will 13-game starter Ronnie Stanley be moved from right tackle to left tackle in Martin's absence? Could returning 5th-year senior Christian Lombard, a converted tackle that started 20 consecutive games at guard prior to injury last fall, remain inside?
Both Elmer and Lombard could compete at guard or tackle. Stanley and the athletic McGlinchey, conversely, are no doubt tackles. Add to the mix senior guard Conor Hanratty (four starts in the last five games) and backup senior center Matt Hegarty (who can also play guard), and the machinations of the Irish line include seven prime competitors for starting roles. (Center Nick Martin and Stanley are locks.)
McGlinchey's athletic skills (quick feet, long arms) seem ideal for left tackle duty and he worked as such behind Martin last fall (though he wasn't going to play in order to preserve eligibility). Then again, so do Stanley's, a junior (redshirt-sophomore) lauded by his veteran line mates last fall as a physical freak of nature from the moment he hit campus.
Initial projection for McGlinchey: Left tackle competition vs. Elmer while Elmer will also battle at guard vs. Hanratty (left) and Lombard (right). Stanley remains at right tackle where he works ahead of redshirt-freshman Hunter Bivin (look for more on Bivin and fellow freshmen John Montelus and Colin McGovern later in our preview series).
Multiple evaluations are on tap this spring.
Rookie of the Year? Asked by Foxsports.com if Notre Dame's 2014 squad possessed a redshirt-freshman that could have a breakout season on a national level, I first considered McGlinchey…then Hunter…then realized I'd missed the obvious: despite playing two games last fall, the latter against Michigan State as a member of the kickoff coverage team, sophomore-to-be Greg Bryant qualified thanks to a knee procedure performed midway through 2013.
Now he just has to qualify as a breakout player in his own backfield.
Bryant enters spring 2014 behind classmate Tarean Folston and senior Cam McDaniel in the unit's pecking order. Senior (redshirt-junior) Amir Carlisle and junior (redshirt-sophomore) Will Mahone are also in the mix. But it's Bryant that brings intrigue to the position during spring drills.
The pre-season consensus member of the '13 recruiting class to breakout prior to last fall, Bryant is back in the role of rookie that appears ready -- and able -- to battle with the big boys on Saturdays.
"He’s moving along very well after the procedure that he had, which is very similar to Louis’s (Nix) procedure, a little bit more involved," said Kelly of Bryant in late December. "He’s running around, took some carries in our (December 21) scrimmage. He’s really good, really excited about where he can be next year. I think we did the right thing with him not playing this year, because I can see where his development and how he’s going to help our football team next year.
"He’s a dynamic player."
Zaire will embark on his second spring
No. 2…and in direct competition
"I know we're always in this rush to move to Everett, but I just want to caution everybody that we have, I think, a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire as well," said Kelly. "And I'm not ready to hand everything over to Everett. I love Everett, he played in the national championship game, I'm like everybody here, but I'm also someone that wants to make sure that the quarterback position is such, especially with (quarterbacks coach) Matt (LaFleur) now with us, that we give everyone an opportunity to compete for that position and Malik is going to get that chance as well.
"I do want to caution everybody including anybody that's around the program, and our players in particular, I'll use this opportunity to do that, this is a pretty good quarterback that we didn't play this year, Malik Zaire, that's going to get a chance, too."
Regarding spring's 15 practices, I have no doubt Kelly strongly believes every word. But by the time summer camp begins, a likely 50/50 spring share of practice snaps will give way to at least three weeks of preparing Golson to best lead the Irish when the bullets go live in September.
Barring injury, Golson's your 2014 starter, but Zaire's spring and summer development will likely play a role during fall Saturday's as well, as Golson is unlikely to make it through 2014's gauntlet unscathed.
Next in the series: Three more redshirt-freshmen in range of the two-deep and playing time next fall.