Freshman DT #75 Daniel CageThe interior prospect purportedly impressed during summer workouts and with a consistent training camp, Cage is likely in-line for a rookie season on the varsity. Notre Dame's multiple front seven has room for (myriad?) freshmen reinforcements among its ranks this fall and Cage, along with early enroll Andrew Trumbetti, appears the best bet to contribute in the trenches.
Realistic Ceiling: A full-time role as backup defensive tackle; weekly contributions to the defensive front.
Other side of the coin: Either classmate Jay Hayes or a host of heretofore little-used veterans hold Cage off and he's relegated to travel team duties on fall Saturdays -- but without the game day payoff -- much like current junior nose tackle Jarron Jones as a freshman in 2012. (Cage is ahead of Jones at the same stage.)
Senior QB #5 Everett GolsonThere's little drama regarding his status for the first day of camp (No. 1 QB) and, barring an epic face plant or injury, his status for the August 31 matchup with Rice (No. 1 QB). Thereafter, it's up to Golson, because redshirt-freshman Malik Zaire is a playmaker at present and future starter in South Bend.
Golson's time away from the sport could affect early-camp -- or perhaps early-season timing -- both in terms of the intricacies of the position and his rapport with receivers, but it cannot be argued that 2014 doesn't represent the best quarterback situation for the program since the Kelly Era began in 2010.
Golson is 10-1 as a starter and was a redshirt-freshman that played his best football as the 2012 season progressed. He played as well as could be expected as part of an overmatched offense against Alabama in his only defeat. He should prove to be one of the nation's 10-12 best triggermen by season's end.
Realistic Ceiling: Team MVP; quarterback of a Final Four squad -- and by virtue of those, a Heisman contender.
Other side of the coin: The Zaire Era begins in South Bend.
Senior LB #59 Jarrett GraceTeam beat writers shouldn't have a rooting interest, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a Notre Dame scribe not rooting for Grace -- both to return from injury and hit the field in 2014, and thereafter to play at his previous, pre-injury level.
Had Grace not lost the second half of his 2013 season to a gruesome broken leg (tibia and fibula), the senior would be a no-doubt starter in the middle, and as projected here, a team captain. Instead, he hopes to complete the long road back to appear in the opening contest vs. Rice. Anything else on August 31, and frankly, through most of September, would be gravy -- and great news for the Irish defense.
Realistic Ceiling: 1B to Joe Schmidt by the time Stanford rolls into South Bend in early October; a quality season as a part-time starting MLB and weekly contributor thereafter.
Other side of the coin: He's not at full strength until spring ball 2015.
Senior G #65 Conor HanrattyWill push for a starting spot at left or right guard pending the eventual slotting of talented sophomore teammate Steve Elmer. Hanratty ranks below both Elmer and classmate Matt Hegarty in terms of athletic potential, but a close review of game film from last season places him as 1A among that trio in terms of on field performance to date.
Hanratty brings toughness and a road-grading approach to the position -- he'd likely make the Irish short-yardage offense better with a continued presence. The question is: can he be as adept in pass protection as his friend, 5th-year seniorChristian Lombard, or classmate Hegarty, or Elmer, because the Irish will throw more than they pass (not including QB scramble runs) this fall.
Realistic Ceiling: Starting guard for part of the season; heavy rotation member for all of it. A no-doubt fifth-season on the table for 2015.
Other side of the coin: The fourth guard, and therefore he'd receive fewer snaps than a definitive No. 3. Fifth-year of eligibility to be determined...
Senior S #4 Eilar HardyWhere would he rank if not for a pair of one-game suspensions last season? As it stands now, Hardy is no better than the No. 4 safety in a five-player pecking order, and he'd likely be No. 5 if junior Nicky Baratti were at full strength (shoulder). Hardy though opens camp as a "swing" safety -- that is, he could spell either Austin Collinsworth at SS or Max Redfield at FS. Challenging for a starting spot before Rice seems unlikely, but Hardy and Baratti should fare well enough in camp that the safety position includes playing time for the entire quintet pending the opponent.
Realistic Ceiling: Starting safety should Collinsworth or Redfield falter or succumb to injury; more likely as a weekly contributor.
Other side of the coin: The definitive No. 5 and therefore an easy decision regarding his 2015 fifth-season of eligibility.