Defensive LineSpotlight: Ethan Johnson
Lost: John Belcher, Martin Quintana, Christopher Skubis, Ian Williams (graduation)
Gained: Bruce Heggie, Louis Nix III (DNP as freshmen), Chase Hounshell, Aaron Lunch, Tony Springmann, Stephon Tuitt (freshmen)
Ethan Johnson has had a good career at Notre Dame, but he's yet to become great. This year, he'll look to join Justin Tuck and Victor Abiamiri, current NFL defensive ends who made the leap from good to great late in their Notre Dame careers. In past years, Johnson got a lot of attention from opposing lines for being the one good player on ND's line. This year, with a very good all-around line, Johnson should see less double teams and his numbers should improve.
That very good line starts at the other end, where Kapron Lewis-Moore has put together a good career for himself as well. In the middle, Sean Cwynar becomes the opening day starter after finishing the season in that position last year.
How good is Notre Dame's future on the defensive line? The starters are all seniors, of course. But three youngsters - freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, and sophomore Louis Nix - have made the two-deep without playing a snap of college football. Sophomore Kona Schwenke joins them on the two-deep after playing his way onto the field last year as well. The line is so deep, in fact, that Hafis Williams - last year's other key backup - isn't anywhere to be found on the two-deep this year.
Aaron Lynch was the star of the spring game, but at 265 pounds will need to bulk up a bit before he can play every down. Louis Nix sat out all of last year after showing up to camp out of shape. He's trimmed down and improved his conditioning, and if he can prove he can stay on the field, he'll be a starter on the end of the field. Meanwhile, Stephon Tuitt is already college-sized (and perhaps NFL-sized) at 6-6, 295.
LinebackerSpotlight: Prince Shembo
Lost: Steve Botsford, Kerry Neal, Steve Paskorz, Brian Smith (graduation), Derek Roback (transfer)
Gained: Jonathan Frantz (walk on), Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo (DNP as freshmen), Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, Connor Little, Troy Niklas, Anthony Rabasa, Joe Schmidt, Ishaq Williams (freshmen)
As the season went along, Prince Shembo earned more and more playing time with his relentless nose for the quarterback. This year, he's taking over Kerry Neal's outside linebacker role, where he'll have to prove he's capable enough in pass coverage to be an every down player.
Also joining Shembo in the starting lineup is Dan Fox. Fox replaces Carlo Calabrese as the inside linebacker next to Manti Te'o, although Fox and Calabrese will likely see even playing time. Anthony McDonald also returns as depth on the inside.
On the outside, Steve Filer, now a senior, has one more chance to convert his exceptional athleticism into results on the field. If he can't, he'll be passed up for sophomore Danny Spond or highly-touted freshmen Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas.
SafetySpotlight: Zeke Motta
Lost: Thomas Smith (graduation), Eilar Hardy (injury)
Gained: Blake Breslau (walk on), Austin Collinsworth (position change - wide receiver), Connor Cavalaris (freshmen)
Jamoris Slaughter has regained his starting position at strong safety, but both he and Zeke Motta should see their fair share of playing time this fall. As in the past, Motta could resume his hybrid linebacker/extra safety role on passing downs. Or, with the dearth of experienced cornerbacks on the roster, Motta could come in at safety and Slaughter move to corner in nickel and dime sets.
Last year, Harrison Smith went from the Jim Sanson of defensive players to one of the best free safeties Notre Dame has had in recent memory. Smith finished with seven interceptions, thanks in large part to his performance in the Sun Bowl. He'll be backed up again by Dan McCarthy.
Austin Collinsworth makes the move to safety this year, a position he played (at least part time) in high school. His depth will be welcome in the defensive backfield, especially after a knee injury will cost Eiler Hardy his freshman season.
CornerbackSpotlight: Lo Wood
Lost: Michael Garcia, Darrin Walls, Barry Gallup, James Redshaw (graduation)
Gained: Bennett Jackson (position change - wide receiver), Joe Romano (walk on), Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown (freshmen)
Notre Dame has two very capable starters in Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, but after that they are very thin at cornerback. That makes Lo Wood a critical piece to this team. Not only will he be needed against three-plus receiver sets that are becoming more and more popular these days, but Wood would also be the "next man in" to move up to a starting role if Gray or Blanton were to go down.
The cornerback position is so thin that converted wideout Bennett Jackson has cracked the two-deep. Jackson showed great speed and a nose for the ballcarrier last season on special teams, but the cornerback position is still new to him. Behind Jackson is a group of freshmen and walk-ons. Essentially, anyone in that group that impresses on the practice field against the first team offense will earn himself playing time on Saturdays.
Kicker/PunterSpotlight: Ben Turk
Lost: Brandon Walker (graduation)
Gained: Kyle Brindza
Ben Turk wins the spotlight again after another up and down season in 2010. For now, the punting job is Turk's to lose. But strong-legged freshman Kyle Brindza has already won the kickoff specialist role, and many already have him penciled in to replace Turk as punter at some point this season.
Nick Tausch continues to be the odd man out on this kicking unit, thanks to a historic 2010 by David Ruffer. Fortunately for Irish fans, Ruffer is back for another season in the blue and gold. Fortunately for Tausch, the starting job should be his again in 2012.