QuarterbackSpotlight: Dayne Crist
Lost: Brian Castello (graduation), Luke Massa (position change), Nate Montana (transfer)
Gained: Andrew Hendrix (DNP as freshman), Everett Golson (freshman)
As long as Brian Kelly is the head coach at Notre Dame, there may never be a lack of depth at quarterback. There will probably be no lack of controversy, either. This year, Dayne Crist wins back his starting job even after Tommy Rees finished 2010 undefeated as a starter.
Of course, Rees was the beneficiary of a vastly improved defense and run game late in the season. Had Crist been healthy, he likely would have finished the season on a similar high note. Crist finished 2010 with better passing numbers than Rees, plus he is a threat to run - a major component of the Brian Kelly offense. One thing to watch this season is how much Kelly will let Crist run. Will Dayne run less, knowing his propensity for injury, or will he run more, now that he has a more than capable backup in Rees?
The second thing to watch is the fight for playing time for newcomers Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson. Both are greater running threats than either Crist or Rees, and speculation abounds that one or the other will be used in wildcat or goal line situations. Of course, with all the depth in front of him, it may benefit Golson to preserve a year of eligibility.
Running BackSpotlight: Jonas Gray
Lost: Armando Allen, Bobby Burger, Derry Herlihy, Robert Hughes (graduation), Cam Roberson (injury)
Gained: Tyler Plantz (walk on), George Atkinson III, Eric Lee, Cam McDaniel (freshmen)
In a very thin running back rotation, Jonas Gray is the key. With the graduation of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, and the loss of Cam Roberson for the year with a knee injury, Gray is the only separation between starter Cierre Wood and a collection of freshmen and walk ons. Sure the freshmen are talented. But the play of Jonas Gray will determine how often Notre Dame will have to rely on those freshmen in key situations. Cierre Wood is good, but he can't play every down. Plus, as with the end of last year, the more Notre Dame can rely on their run game, the less they have to rely on their quarterback to do everything.
There have been a number of running backs in recent memory - Travis Thomas comes to mind - that began their Irish career as "that running back who fumbles too much," but left Notre Dame as an effective player. If Gray can become the next such back, the offense will be in good hands this year.
Wide ReceiverSpotlight: TJ Jones
Lost: Dan Franco, Christopher Gurries, Duval Kamara (graduation), Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson (position change - defensive back), Shaq Evans (transfer)
Gained: Luke Massa (position change), Nick Fitzpatrick, Ryan Liebscher, Ryan Sharpley (walk ons), DeVaris Daniels, Matthias Farley, Eric Lee (freshmen)
TJ Jones came out strong at the start of last season, but nagging injuries prevented him from having a truly great freshman campaign. (In fact, the injuries limited his production so much, I didn't even realize he got into 12 games - it seemed like far less.) Jones, Michael Floyd, and Theo Riddick will truly be working as a unit this year. If the opposing defense puts an extra player on Floyd for being Floyd, or Riddick for being a threat to run or catch, then Jones will be in a position to catch some passes in single coverage - and he will need to make those plays to keep the offense going. And if TJ can prove himself as a reliable threat in this offense, it will prevent defenses from doubling up on Floyd or Riddick, allowing them to do what they do best.
For some reason, it seems like the receiving corps is a lot thinner than last year, but that may not be the case. In Floyd, Riddick, and Jones, the team has three capable starters. Robby Toma, originally the "player to be named later" when the team added Manti Te'o, had a very productive 2010 and could see starter's minutes in 2011. John Goodman proved himself as a reliable option when injuries increased his playing time. There are a trio of talented freshmen coming in, plus former quarterback Luke Massa, who had a few nice catches in the spring game. The wild card is Deion Walker. Now a senior, Walker appeared to be a casualty of the coaching change after not getting any playing time last year. The coaches then called his number quite a few times in the spring game, and he responded with five catches and 56 yards. Any production out of Walker this fall would make the unit so much stronger.
Tight EndSpotlight: Tyler Eifert
Lost: Bobby Burger (graduation), Kyle Rudolph (NFL)
Gained: Arturo Martinez (walk on), Alex Welch (DNP as freshman), Ben Koyack (freshman)
Anyone worried how the tight end position would fare in the transition from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly are at ease after Tyler Eiffert's freshman campaign. Forced into action after Kyle Rudolph's injuries, Eiffert finished with one less catch and one less touchdown than the current NFL rookie. Eiffert proved himself a more than capable receiver on long or short passes, and a matchup problem for opposing defenses as well. His blocking needs some improvement, which one can expect from a young catch-first tight end. But that will come with time.
As a whole, the tight end position is finally building up some depth again. Mike Ragone has never been much of a receiving threat, but he has been a reliable blocker when healthy. Jake Golic, now already a junior, will continue to struggle for playing time if he can't beat out Alex Welch, who had four catches in the spring game, and freshman Ben Koyack.
Offensive LineSpotlight: Trevor Robinson
Lost: Bill Flavin, Mike Hernandez, Matt Romine, Chris Stewart, Dan Wenger (graduation), Alex Bullard (transfer)
Gained: Matt Tansey (walk on), Christian Lombard, Tate Nichols (DNP as freshmen), Brad Carrico, Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin, Jordan Prestwood (freshmen)
Trevor Robinson gets the spotlight for the second year in a row. Last year, it was because he was the best young lineman coming in. This year, it's because injuries led to a disappointing season, and he's looking for redemption. Robinson is one of four returning starters on the line, as only opposing guard Chris Stewart ran out of eligibility. Chris Watt will replace Stewart in the starting rotation after being one of the team's top backups last year.
This year, the line's "sixth man" will be Andrew Nuss, who could see as much playing time as Watt. The unit will also have plenty of depth with Mike Golic and Lane Clelland coming back as veterans, Christian Lombard and Tate Nichols joining the mix, and a full line's worth of freshman joining the squad.