Five veteran upperclassmen: none of which has earned a consistent starting role over the last two seasons. One has shined on special teams; two have intermittently served as key backups since arriving on campus; another was named by his coach as an up-and-comer this spring while the fifth is a highly-touted pass-catching target still searching for his first meaningful grab.
Steve Filer, Mike Ragone, Jonas Gray, Dan McCarthy and Deion Walker have appeared in an aggregate 71 games (7 starts), and just over 270 game minutes from scrimmage (more than 158 of which were posted by Ragone last season).
Separately, a quick search shows 20 recruiting stars attached to their collective names dating back to 2007.
None have reached the end zone and as a group, they've lost more turnovers than they've created in the college game. Aside from valuable special teams contributions from four of the five (with Filer serving as the ring leader in this regard) the meaningful statistical highlight of the quintet's collective career to date is a half-sack by Filer vs. then-powerful USC last October.
Ragone is a senior with an extra season of eligibility remaining following 2010. Gray and Filer are true juniors; Walker and McCarthy their classmates with an extra year of football available following the 2011 campaign.
Each has a chance to play a major role in Notre Dame's expected rebirth this season under head coach Brian Kelly and a new coaching staff. And each could use an early-season dose of good fortune, a snap during which the player's ample skills and hard work converge to create something tangible on the field – a breakthrough that sets a strong season in motion next fall.
Both Filer and Ragone (especially the latter) are likely to begin the season in key backup roles: Filer at the highly competitive OLB position behind senior Brian Smith
, and Ragone behind All-World TE candidate Kyle Rudolph
Ragone won't beat out Rudolph, but the senior's continued improvement and penchant for physical play has endeared him to the new staff, with the man in charge intimating Ragone might force his way on the field next fall.
"Ragone is a tough kid. He's going to help us, he's going to move the chains for us and do some things that allow us to get into two tight end (formations) as well," said Kelly after Ragone's six-catch, 75-yard, TD effort in the Blue Gold Game. "He's very important in terms of what we're going to be doing in the fall."
Ragone fought his way back onto the field last year after two ACL injuries in three seasons (including high school). He performed well as an extra run-blocker at TE but failed to make an impact in the passing game, dropping the first pass thrown in his direction: a chest-level bullet on the sideline that hit him squarely in the hands. He later did the same with a shuffle pass on a two-point conversion attempt in the 29-24 loss at Pittsburgh.
His effort in the Blue Gold Game notwithstanding, Ragone needs a dose of down field confidence early next September: a seam-route in which he absorbs a hit during the catch to fire up the crowd; a diving touchdown grab in the red zone; a bruising run after the catch.
Ragone has strong hands, but he displayed a lack of concentration in the passing game during limited opportunities last season. That could change with an early-season moment in the sun.
Filer's emergence is likely. He's the prototype OLB in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's scheme.
Filer will make big plays next season: he'll chase down ‘backs in the flat, pressure opposing quarterbacks, and make enough big hits near the line to justify playing time regardless of the performance of those in front of him (Filer is battling with veterans Brian Smith, Darius Fleming and Kerry Neal at OLB).
But he needs to show he can make the correct read defensively; that he can react and anticipate rather than think and second guess his assignment in order to avoid coming off the field in favor of his more established competitors.
One Play Away?
A big hit or red zone pick-off by McCarthy; a leaping grab when it matters by Walker; the first career touchdown for the star-crossed Gray.
Each member of the junior trio was knocking on the door at the conclusion of his third spring session. None of them have emerged for a definite role next fall.
As noted in his Pre-Camp Assessment yesterday, Gray has yet to hit pay-dirt in an Irish uniform. Would his 2009 season have taken a turn for the better if his apparent diving score in the season-opener vs. Nevada had been correctly deemed a touchdown?
It's rarely that simple in athletics, but success breeds success, and despite some impressive runs, Gray has experienced more failure (in the form of costly fumbles) than crowd-pleasing moments through two seasons.
A role is there for the taking this season for the junior tailback, but Coach Kelly has displayed downright Holtz-ian qualities when dealing with fumblers. Gray's next might be his last with Armando Allen and Cierre Wood fighting for snaps.
Walker appears to represent a case of opportunity lost, to date. Former head coach Charlie Weis wisely worked him into the rotation in last year's blowout win over Nevada, dialing up a Dayne Crist-to-Walker comeback route that resulted in the receiver's first career catch after a season on the sideline.
But Walker's next chance to shine ended with a poorly-run slant route in the second quarter vs. USC – that's all it took to earn an outside-looking-in role with the deep Irish WR rotation last season (one which is just as competitive entering 2010).
Walker's made the spectacular look routine at times during media practice viewings. He's also made the routine seem anything but. It's clear that Walker should heed his coach's demand for attention to detail entering August camp.
More McCarthy Moments? Slated for backup duty but still in the running for a starting spot next fall, Dan McCarthy can take a cue from his decorated brother, Kyle.
Trailing 23-0 at Purdue in 2007, the elder McCarthy recorded a diving interception near the goal line to stop what would have been a game-sealing Purdue drive. (The then-winless Irish came alive, cutting the lead to 26-19 before falling 33-19 at Ross-Ade.) With just three career tackles entering that contest, Kyle McCarthy recorded 16 more over a seven-game span in relief of starters Tom Zbikowski and David Bruton, earning his first career start along the way.
One year later, McCarthy exploded for 14 tackles and a pass break-up in the season-opener vs. San Diego State. 24 starts, 211 tackles, and 8 turnovers created later, McCarthy transformed into one of the most reliable strong safeties of the decade at the school.
Dan McCarthy has taken the first step: he was noticed and singled out by his head coach as a tackler this spring. The next step is big play No. 1 on game day.
Ragone, Filer, Gray, Walker and McCarthy are each just a play or two away from transforming talent into production.
They just need to catch, or make their own break, along the way.
Note: We'll have more on Ragone, Filer, Walker and McCarthy in our Pre-Camp Assessment series this summer.
A senior and four juniors must take a major step forward in the development process next fall.
McCarthy, Walker, Gray, Filer and Ragone look for increased production in 2010.