March 22, 2015
The most popular story line surrounding Notre Dame spring practices figures to be the competition for the starting quarterback spot, but position battles on the offensive line, tight end and running back should also receive serious attention.
The Irish feature 16 returning monogram winners on offense - with 14 players who have started at least one game for the Irish, nine players who have started at least nine games in their Irish careers and seven players who opened at least seven contests last year.
The only three offensive positions where a starter does not return are right tackle (where junior Mike McGlinchey started the Music City Bowl), tight end and left guard. Of a possible 143 starts last season (13 games with 11 starters), 102 total starts return for Notre Dame's offense in 2015. The Irish return 86.6 percent of their rushing yards from 2014, 100.0 percent of their passing yards and 89.4 percent of their receiving yards.
The defensive side of the ball in 2014 was a tale of two seasons for the Irish.
Notre Dame allowed just 60 points through its first five games, a 12.0 points-per-game average, which was tied for third best in the nation. The Irish held each of their first five opponents to 17 points or less, a feat also accomplished by the heralded 2012 Irish defense, but one which had not been previously seen by Notre Dame since the 1982 squad.
However, inexperience and attrition took a toll down the stretch. The Irish were without 15 experienced players whose anticipated contributions were limited or eliminated all together in 2014.
Notre Dame started 20 different players on defense last year, with only three (CB Cole Luke, DL Isaac Rochell and LB Jaylon Smith) starting all 13 games. Of the 20 defensive starters in 2014, 12 were making their first career start on defense, and three others had just a single start prior to last year.
While the inexperience and depleted lineup led to a tough November, the 2015 Irish feature 24 returning monogram winners on defense - with 18 players who have started at least one game for the Irish, 11 players who have started at least eight games in their Irish careers and eight players who opened at least 10 contests last year.
The only defensive spot where a starter does not return is at cornerback. Of a possible 143 starts last season (13 games with 11 starters), 127 total starts return for Notre Dame's defense in 2015. The Irish return 89.6 percent of their tackles from 2014, 92.5 percent of their tackles for loss, 100.0 percent of their sacks, 90.0 percent of their forced fumbles and 87.5 percent of their interceptions. Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the Irish for 2015:
Starters Returning/Lost: 1/0
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 2/1
Fifth-year senior Everett Golson (256 of 427 for 3,445 yards, 29 TDs, 14 interceptions) started all 12 regular-season games for Notre Dame in 2014. A semifinalist for the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien Awards, Golson ranked eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in point responsibility (224), 11th in point responsibility per game (17.4), t-13th in passing TDs (29), 18th in passing yards (3,445), 21st in passing yards per completion (13.46), 22nd in total offense (286.8), 22nd in passing yards per game (265.0), 23rd in passing yards per attempt (8.07), 30th in passing efficiency (143.6), 38th in completions per game (19.69), 47th in completions percentage (60.0) and 86th in rushing TDs (eight).
Golson became the fourth quarterback in school history to eclipse 3,000 passing yards in a single season (joining Brady Quinn, Jimmy Clausen and Tommy Rees), and his 29 TD passes rank fourth in single-season Notre Dame history. He eclipsed 300 yards passing five times last season (only three other Irish passers have registered more 300-yard games in a season). Golson threw for at least three TD passes in six games in 2014, tossing four against Syracuse and three each against Michigan, North Carolina, Florida State, Navy and Northwestern. He added eight rushing TDs -- one shy of the Irish quarterback single-season school record of nine rushing TDs (Tony Rice, 1988; Rick Mirer, 1991).
Golson will have to compete to maintain his starting role after a hard charge from junior Malik Zaire, who started and was named Most Valuable Player of the 2014 Music City Bowl as Notre Dame upended No. 22 LSU, 31-28.
In his first career start against the Tigers, Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and one TD, and also ran for 96 yards and one TD on 22 carries. Zaire established or equaled his single-game highs for points scored, TDs, rushes, rush yards, rush TDs, completions, pass TDs, total offense attempts, total offense yards and all-purpose yards.
Sophomore DeShone Kizer did not play in 2014. He served as Notre Dame's third-string quarterback and split time between the Irish regulars and the offensive scout team during week-to-week game preparation.
The quarterback competition will add a new face this August when freshman Brandon Wimbush arrives on campus.
Starters Returning/Lost: 1/0
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 2/2
The Irish must replace their most experienced running back in 2014 captain Cam McDaniel (47 games played, 255 attempts for 1,117 yards, 8 TDs), but they'll do it with a near 900-yard rusher in junior Tarean Folston (175 for 889, six TDs in 2014; 88 for 470, three TDs in 2013).
Folston played in all 13 games and started 10 contests in 2014. He led Notre Dame in carries (175), rushing yards (889), rushing yards per game (68.4), and ranked second on the team with six rushing TDs. Folston's 889 rushing yards were the most by an Irish sophomore since Darius Walker ran for 1,196 yards in 2006. He rushed for 100 or more yards in four of Notre Dame's last seven games.
Folston scored three TDs, two on the ground and his first career TD reception, in the 50-43 victory over North Carolina. He rushed for 98 yards, including 56 yards in the fourth quarter alone. Folston gained 169 all-purpose yards (98 rushing, 71 receiving) against the Tar Heels.
Folston picked up his first 100-yard rushing game of the year with a 120-yard effort at No. 2 Florida State. He then rushed for a career-best 149 yards, including a 25-yard TD run, on 20 carries versus Navy. Folston registered a career-best 187 all-purpose yards against the Midshipmen. He became the first Notre Dame player to rush for at least 120 yards in consecutive games since Walker against Air Force (153 yards) and Army (162) on Nov. 11 and Nov. 18, 2006. Folston added back-to-back 100-yard rushing games against Northwestern (106 yards on 20 carries) and Louisville (134 on 18). His 134 yards were the most allowed during the regular season by the Cardinal defense. Folston capped his 2014 campaign with 73 yards rushing in the Music City Bowl victory over No. 22 LSU. He scored a six-yard TD run and a critical 16-yard third-down grab on Notre Dame's game-winning drive against the Tigers late in the fourth quarter.
Fellow junior Greg Bryant (54 for 289, three TDs in 2014) will push Folston throughout spring practice.
Bryant, who missed most of the 2013 campaign with an injury, made significant strides as a sophomore a year ago. He played in 12 games (missed the contest with Navy) and ranked second on the Irish in rushing yards (289) and rushing yards per game (24.1). Bryant's three rushing TDs ranked fourth best for Notre Dame.
Bryant rushed for a team-high-equaling 71 yards (on eight carries) in the season-opening victory over Rice, including his first career touchdown on a 17-yard run in the fourth quarter. He rushed for a career-best 79 yards (on seven carries) at USC. Bryant registered a season-best 27-yard run and a one-yard TD run against the Trojans, and equaled his career high of 102 all-purpose yards.
While much will be made of the battle between Folston and Bryant, and which running back will get the bulk of the carries, both will play significant roles for Notre Dame in 2015. The duo gives the Irish as talented a pair of experienced running backs as at any point previously under Kelly.
Two heralded freshmen will join the Irish in August and could contribute at running back: Josh Adams and Dexter Williams will have the chance to work into the playing rotation, or create an even more important role.
Starters Returning/Lost: 2/0
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 6/1
There's arguably not a position group of any team in the country that returns the amount of experience and talent, as does Notre Dame's wide receiving corps.
The Irish had 11 different players catch passes last season and nine of them return in 2015, including six different wide outs. Five of Notre Dame's top six pass catchers from a year ago return.
Junior All-America and Biletnikoff Award candidate Will Fuller (76 receptions for 1,094 yards, 15 TDs in 2014) headlines the group. Fuller enters 2015 on the heels of the best sophomore receiving season in school history.
Fuller started all 13 games at wide receiver a year ago and led the Irish in receptions, receiving yards and receiving TDs. His 15 TD receptions, 76 catches and 1,094 receiving yards were the most in single-season school history by a sophomore.
Fuller ranked third in the FBS in TD catches, 21st in receiving yards, 23rd in receiving yards per game (84.2), tied for 24th in total TDs (15) and 34th in receptions per game (5.8). He had at least one touchdown catch in 11 of 13 games, and eight of his 15 TD catches went for at least 20 yards.
Fuller, who already ranks tied for ninth in school history with 16 career TD grabs, eclipsed 100 yards receiving in four games, including two of the last three regular-season contests. He had a catch of at least 30 yards in seven of Notre Dame's 13 games, and registered two of Notre Dame's five receptions of at least 50 yards. Fuller became the fourth player in school history with a pair of TD receptions of 72 yards or longer (Nick Eddy, 1964, Tim Brown, 1986, and Golden Tate, 2009).
Fuller recorded five of Notre Dame's 11 receptions of at least 40 yards, 19 receptions of at least 20 yards, 51 of his 76 receptions went for a first down or touchdown and 17 of his 19 third-down receptions went for a first down or touchdown.
Fellow junior Corey Robinson (40 for 539, five TDs in 2014) is another popular target at wide receiver.
The high-flying son of basketball Hall of Famer David Robinson played in all 13 games in 2014 and started against both Michigan and Syracuse. Robinson ranked second on the Irish in receptions and TD catches, as well as third in receiving yards. He registered 10 receptions of at least 20 yards, 32 of his 40 receptions went for first downs or touchdowns and 10 of his 11 receptions on third down went for first downs or touchdowns.
Robinson excelled in the classroom as well. He became the first sophomore at an NCAA Division I institution to earn first-team Academic All-America honors since 2008 and just the fourth sophomore to attain first-team status since 2002. Robinson is the first Irish player named a first-team Academic All-American since Manti Te'o and Mike Golic Jr. in 2012, the second Irish sophomore football player to earn first-team Academic All-America status, and the first since Joe Heap in 1952.
Robinson registered career-bests with eight receptions, 91 yards and one TD in the 31-15 victory over Syracuse. He led the Irish at No. 2 Florida State with 99 receiving yards and caught two TD passes, both in the first half, against the Seminoles -- his first career multiple-TD game.
Senior Chris Brown (39 for 548, one TD in 2014) played in all 13 games last season and started every contest with the exception of Michigan and Syracuse. He ranked second on the Irish in receiving yards, second in receiving yards per game (42.2) and third in receptions. Brown registered four receptions of at least 30 yards, nine catches of at least 20 yards, 24 of his 39 receptions went for a first down or touchdown and eight of his nine third-down receptions went for a first down or touchdown.
Brown collected a career-high six receptions and 57 receiving yards in the 31-15 victory over Syracuse. He hauled in four passes for 60 yards in the 17-14 victory over No. 14 Stanford and scored his only TD of the season on a 17-yard pass. Brown set a career high with 82 yards receiving and 82 all-purpose yards in the 49-39 victory over Navy -- including catches of 46 and 36 yards.
Prosise played in all 13 games and started six times (Syracuse, Stanford, North Carolina, Florida State, Navy and Northwestern) a year ago. He not only led all Irish receivers with an average of 17.8 yards per catch, but he also led Notre Dame in total special teams tackles (11), kickoff return tackles (eight) and punt return tackles (three). Prosise even added 126 yards rushing on 10 carries. He became the first Notre Dame player with at least 500 yards receiving and 100 yards rushing in the same season since Golden Tate's consensus All-America season in 2009.
Prosise recorded three of Notre Dame's five receptions of at least 50 yards, four of the team's 11 receptions of at least 40 yards and 10 receptions of at least 20 yards. He registered four plays (three receptions and one rush) of 50 yards or longer.
Prosise collected his first career touchdown and then longest career reception on a 53-yard TD grab from Golson in the season-opening victory over Rice. He hauled in a career-long 78-yard TD pass from Golson on the second offensive play from scrimmage in the 49-39 victory over Navy - the 78-yard reception was the longest of the season for Notre Dame. Prosise caught three passes for 34 yards, added 75 yards rushing on three carries, including a 50-yard TD run, and one special teams tackle in the 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over No. 22 LSU.
Carlisle, a former running back, started six games last season (Rice, Michigan, Purdue, No. 11 Arizona State, Louisville and USC) - his first year at the position. He recorded the third-most starts of any wide receiver on the team. Carlisle ranked sixth on the Irish in receiving yards, fifth in receiving yards per game (25.8) and sixth in receptions.
Carlisle also served as Notre Dame's primary kick returner. He registered 35 kickoff returns for 761 yards, including a season-best 47-yard return versus Purdue.
Carlisle caught a career-best seven passes for 61 yards and two TDs (the first two TDs of his Irish career) in the 31-0 rout of Michigan. He registered three catches for a career-best 92 yards and a TD at No. 11 Arizona State. Carlisle added 102 yards on four kickoff returns and totaled a career-best 194 all-purpose yards.
Junior Torii Hunter Jr. (7 for 65, one TD in 2014) - son of longtime Major League Baseball outfielder Torii Hunter - is the sixth and final returning monogram winner at the wide out position.
Hunter Jr., who lost his freshman season in 2013 to lingering effects of a broken leg and then missed each of the first three games of the 2014 campaign due to a groin injury, made his Irish debut in the 31-15 victory over Syracuse. He caught a 13-yard TD pass and added a pair of rushes for 13 yards. Hunter Jr. recorded two receptions for 24 yards, including a critical 12-yard catch on a third down to extend a fourth-quarter scoring drive, in the 17-14 victory over No. 14 Stanford.
Sophomore Justin Brent did not catch a pass in 2014, but did see action in nine games for the Irish - predominantly on special teams. He has the all the physical tools needed to become a major contributor and will continue to progress with increased opportunity and experience.
Sophomore Corey Holmes played in the first two games of 2014, but did not see the field the rest of the year and reserved a year of eligibility. He provided practice depth, and aided the Notre Dame offensive scout team by regularly playing the Irish opponent's top wide receiver.
Notre Dame's depth at the position will increase this fall with the addition of four impact freshmen: Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton, C.J. Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown.
Starters Returning/Lost: 0/1
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 3/1
No position on the Irish roster over the last decade has produced as much NFL talent as the tight end spot. Notre Dame has developed the likes of Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack - all of whom were named at least semifinalists for the Mackey Award, given to the nation's top tight end. Fasano, Carlson, Rudolph, Eifert and Niklas were all selected in the top two rounds of the NFL Draft.
So, who is next in line? That's a question that likely won't be answered this spring, but it's not necessarily a new story line. Notre Dame finds itself in a similar spot - without the previous year's starting tight end for the third straight spring (Eifert following 2012, Niklas 2013 and Koyack 2014).
Despite this uncertainty, Notre Dame does return a quartet of scholarship tight ends that includes junior Mike Heuerman, sophomore Tyler Luatua, junior Durham Smythe (1 for 7, no TDs in 2014) and sophomore Nic Weishar. Only Luatua and Smythe have played for the Irish, and Smythe is the only tight end on the roster with a career reception.
Luatua, who played in 10 games last season, saw the majority of his action in multiple tight end sets. He played a major blocking role in the Music City Bowl victory over No. 22 LSU. Luatua's effort on the edge, and even in the backfield as a lead blocker, helped the Irish rush for 263 yards and three TDs against the Tigers.
Smythe did not see the field as a freshman in 2013, but did play in all 13 games a year ago as Koyack's primary backup. He caught a seven-yard pass that resulted in a first down at No. 11 Arizona State.
Heuerman has battled a couple different injuries over his career that has hindered his ability to get on the field. Weishar spent the 2014 season on the offensive scout team and did not see any game action.
Fifth-year senior Chase Hounshell (11 career games played on the defensive line) will move to tight end this spring.
Alize Jones, a blue-chip recruit who is widely acknowledged to be the best high school tight end in the country, joins the fray in August.
Starters Returning/Lost: 3/2
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 4/3
Notre Dame returns three starters from last year's offensive line. The trio of fifth-year senior Nick Martin (24 career starts), senior Ronnie Stanley (26 career starts) and junior Steve Elmer (17 career starts) has combined for 67 career starts. The Irish also return junior Mike McGlinchey, who made his first career start in the Music City Bowl victory over No. 22 LSU.
Martin, Stanley and Elmer each started all 13 games in 2014, but only Stanley started every game of the season at the same position -- left tackle. Martin started games at both center and left guard, while Elmer started games at both right tackle and right guard.
Martin, a 2014 co-captain and Rimington Award candidate, will likely slide back to his natural position of center where he's registered 14 career starts. With 14 career starts at right guard, Elmer will enter spring as first possible candidate to hold onto that starting position.
Stanley, Notre Dame's Offensive Lineman of the Year in 2014, will anchor the left side of the Irish offense line. He recorded 16 knockdown blocks and yielded just one sack - the fewest of any Irish offensive lineman. Stanley faced some of the top defensive linemen in the country a year ago, including Michigan's Frank Clark, Arizona State's Marcus Hardison, Louisville's Sheldon Rankins and Lorenzo Mauldin, Stanford's Henry Anderson, USC's Leonard Williams and LSU's Daniel Hunter. That group of seven opposing players combined for 92.5 tackles for loss and 46 sacks during the 2014 season, but managed just six tackles for loss and two sacks in their outings against the Irish.
Stanley's talents were on full display in Notre Dame's 31-28 victory over No. 22 LSU in the 2014 Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The Irish denied LSU a sack, rushed for 263 yards, recorded 449 total yards and scored 31 points. Only Auburn and Mississippi State (both 268) ran for more yards against the Tigers in 2014. The 31 points scored by Notre Dame tied for the most against LSU by a non-conference foe since Texas scored 35 in the 2003 Cotton Bowl.
McGlinchey should have a solid chance to emerge as the frontrunner at right tackle after playing in 13 games last fall as Christian Lombard's top backup.
Eight other returning players, including sophomore Alex Bars, junior Hunter Bivin, sophomore Jimmy Byrne, senior Mark Harrell, junior Colin McGovern, junior John Montelus, sophomore Sam Mustipher and sophomore Quenton Nelson, will battle for significant playing time. It should make for one of the most competitive areas on the football field.
Two freshmen - Tristen Hoge, an early enrollee this spring, and signee Trevor Ruhland - add tremendous depth.
Starters Returning/Lost: 4/0
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 8/1
One of the biggest question marks in the 2014 preseason, the defensive line held its own last year. Now, in 2015, it's considered to be one of the areas of greatest strength and depth.
The Irish have a nice blend of youth and experience. In fact, some of that youth already owns experience. The returning starters are senior Sheldon Day (40 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups in 2014), senior Jarron Jones (40 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two blocked kicks, one forced fumble, one pass breakup), senior Romeo Okwara (39 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, one pass breakup) and junior Isaac Rochell (39 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one blocked kick, one fumble recovery).
Day enters 2015 as one of the top defensive linemen in the country. He started the first 10 games in 2014 before a knee injury sidelined him versus Louisville and USC. Day returned to the starting lineup in the Music City Bowl victory over No. 22 LSU. He registered two tackles and recovered a fumble in the win over the Tigers.
Day ranked second on the Irish in quarterback hurries (nine) and tied for second in tackles for loss. He also finished tied for first among all Notre Dame defensive linemen in tackles.
Day dominated the Michigan front in the 31-0 victory over the Wolverines. He recorded five tackles, including a half tackle for loss, and four quarterback hurries. Day registered five tackles, four solo stops, two tackles or loss and one quarterback hurry in the 31-15 victory over Syracuse.
Jones, who will sit out spring practice while still recovering from a late-season foot injury, played and started on the defensive line in each of the first 11 games. He tied Day for the most tackles by an Irish defensive lineman with 40 and tied for second on the team with seven and a half tackles for loss.
Jones recorded six tackles, including three solo stops, one for loss, and forced a fumble in the 31-0 victory over Michigan. He collected five tackles, two quarterback hurries and blocked an extra-point attempt in the 50-43 victory over North Carolina. Jones dominated No. 2 Florida State's offensive line, recording three tackles for loss among his six total stops, and he added a quarterback hurry. The Seminoles went three-and-out on each of the three possessions that Jones collected a TFL. Jones equaled his career high with seven tackles against Northwestern and registered a PBU and TFL.
Okwara, who enters his second season as a defensive lineman after spending his first two years as an outside linebacker, played in all 13 games and started 12 a year ago. He led Notre Dame in sacks.
Okwara collected a pair of tackles, including a sack (for a loss of 17 yards), and forced a fumble in the 31-0 rout of Michigan. He registered 11 tackles in the 30-14 victory over Purdue -- easily surpassing his previous career high of five tackles in a game. Okwara added a half sack and a forced fumble against the Boilermakers.
Rochell has the ability to play both inside, as evidenced by his performance in the Music City Bowl victory over No. 22 LSU, as well as on the end.
Rochell was one of three Irish defensive players who started all 13 games in 2014. He ranked tied for third among all defensive linemen in tackles, tied for second on the team in tackles for loss and fourth on the Irish with two and a half sacks. Rochell added a team-best 10 quarterback hurries.
That quartet will not only have help from junior Jacob Matuska (six tackles in seven games played, 1.0 tackle for loss and one sack), sophomore Grant Blankenship (12 tackles in 11 games played, 1.0 tackle for loss and 1.0 sack), sophomore Daniel Cage (four tackles in 11 games played, 0.5 tackle for loss), sophomore Jay Hayes (two tackles in three games played) and sophomore Andrew Trumbetti (21 tackles in 12 games played, 5.5 tackle for loss and 1.0 sack) - all of whom earned monograms in 2014, but also a trio of sophomores who did not see the field last season: Jonathan Bonner, Peter Mokwuah and Jhonny Williams.
A pair of early-enrollee freshmen - Micah Dew-Treadway and Jerry Tillery - will get a chance to compete for playing time this spring, while Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum and Bo Wallace will get into the mix this August.
Starters Returning/Lost: 3/0
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 6/0
Notre Dame returns all three starters from last season at linebacker, including junior James Onwualu (24 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss in 2014), fifth-year senior Joe Schmidt (65 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, one pass breakup in 2014) and junior Jaylon Smith (112 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two pass breakups in 2014).
Smith reached the double-digit tackle plateau on four separate occasions in 2014, including each of the last three games of the regular season. The last Irish player with 10 or more tackles in three straight games was Manti Te'o in 2012 (had 10+ tackles in four straight games). Smith was the first Notre Dame player to record 100 tackles in a season since Te'o had 113 in 2012, and was the first Irish sophomore to record 100 tackles in a season since Te'o had 133 in 2010.
Smith was named the Lott IMPACT Trophy's Player of the Week for his efforts in the 17-14 win over No. 14 Stanford. He registered a career-high 14 tackles against the Cardinal with 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack. Smith had 11 tackles versus Louisville, as well as a tackle for loss, a pass breakup, and two quarterback hurries. He equaled his career high of 14 tackles at USC. Smith registered nine tackles, including five solo stops, a half sack and one quarterback hurry in the 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over No. 22 LSU.
Schmidt was one of college football's great stories last season before an injury against Navy sidelined him for the rest of the year.
Schmidt entered 2014 with 21 career tackles over his first three years with the Irish. The former walk-on not only earned a starting spot, but he developed into arguably Notre Dame's most indispensable player.
Schmidt was voted Most Valuable Player by his teammates despite missing the season's final five games. The fifth-year senior started each of the first eight games of the year and led the Irish in tackles and solo tackles (42) to that point.
With Schmidt in the lineup on a full-time basis (the first seven games), Notre Dame allowed 19.1 points per game, 102.7 rushing yards per game and 345.6 total yards per game. Without him over the final five games of the year, the Irish allowed 42.1 points per game, 234.0 rushing yards per game and 476.2 total yards per game.
While Onwualu's story failed to garner nearly as much attention as Schmidt's, he developed into a reliable option in just his first season at the position.
Onwualu was recruited as a wide receiver and played his entire freshman season in 2013 at that position. He opened last spring at safety, but quickly moved closer to the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's new system.
Onwualu played in all 13 games in 2014 and started eight contests. He recorded career bests in both tackles (seven) and tackles for loss (2.0) in the victory over Navy.
While Schmidt's injury proved difficult on the Irish a year ago, it did allow a pair of freshmen, Greer Martini (26 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack in 2014) and Nyles Morgan (47 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sack, one pass breakup in 2014), to gain immeasurable experience.
Martini saw action in all 13 games and started against both Navy and USC. In his first career start, Martini collected a career-best and team-high nine tackles, including six solo stops, in the victory over Navy.
A Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and Sporting News Freshman All-American in 2014, Morgan played in 12 games as a rookie and started each of the last four games of the season. His 47 stops were tied for the eighth-most in single-season school history by a freshman.
Morgan became the fifth Irish player to earn a spot on the FWAA Freshman All-America Team since the inception of the squad in 2001.
Morgan collected 39 tackles over Notre Dame's final five games of the year, including three straight outings with at least 10 stops to end the regular season.
The most interesting, and potentially beneficial, news surrounding the Music City Bowl wasn't solely Notre Dame's victory over Southeastern Conference power and No. 22 LSU. It was the significant progress gained by fifth-year senior Jarrett Grace (53 tackles, 1.0 tackles for loss, one pass breakup in career).
Grace, a fifth-year senior, spent his first couple seasons with the Irish behind Te'o. Grace played significant snaps over the first three games and eventually ascended into a starting role by week four of the 2013 campaign. He had registered 41 tackles, but suffered four separate fractures in his right leg on Oct. 5, 2013, against Arizona State.
Grace underwent two different surgeries and missed the rest of the '13 season as well as the entire 2014 campaign. He made drastic strides forward during Notre Dame's bowl prep last winter and enters this spring ready to contribute on the field.
Sophomore Kolin Hill (7 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks in 2014) spent most of his freshman campaign playing on third down, sub packages and obvious passing situations as an edge rusher.
The Irish should also get a boost of energy and athleticism at the position with the addition of early-enrollee freshman Te'von Coney.
The talented group of linebackers will be bolstered in August by the arrival of Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal - two of the top recruits at their position in the country.
Starters Returning/Lost: 1/1
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 4/1
The good news is that Notre Dame returns budding junior star Cole Luke (48 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, 11 pass breakups in 2014), a pair of experienced veterans in junior Devin Butler (23 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble, four pass breakups in 2014) and fifth-year senior Matthias Farley (53 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, four interceptions, one pass breakup in 2014) and rising sophomore Nick Watkins.
The bad news is that the Irish have to replace Cody Riggs - their other starting cornerback from 2014.
Luke started all 13 games last season, and ranked sixth on the Irish in tackles and solo stops (33). He either led the team or tied for the team lead in interceptions, pass breakups and passes defended. Luke's 11 PBUs were the most in a single season by a Notre Dame player since Raeshon McNeil in 2008. In fact, an Irish player has not registered more than 11 PBUs since Dave Waymer had 12 in 1978.
Luke, who ranked tied for 20th in the FBS with 15 passes defended, was one of 11 players in the country with at least 11 PBUs and four interceptions. He rebounded from a difficult game against Syracuse with his best career performance in the victory over No. 14 Stanford. Luke picked off two passes, the first two of his career, added a sack, forced fumble, pass breakup and four tackles.
Farley's contribution over his career has been vastly under-appreciated.
Farley played in all 39 games and started 23 over the last three seasons. Only Smith has started more games for Notre Dame on the defensive side of the ball.
Farley started 11 games at safety as a sophomore in 2012 on an Irish defense that helped Notre Dame reach the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game. He started eight games at safety in 2013 and four contests at nickel in 2014.
Farley tied for the team lead in interceptions, ranked second in sacks, fifth in TFLs and fifth in tackles. He was one of only four players in the FBS - and just two defensive backs - with at least four interceptions and three and a half sacks.
Notre Dame has two freshmen - Nick Coleman and Shaun Crawford - coming this summer with excellent credentials.
Starters Returning/Lost: 2/0
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 5/3
Notre Dame returns both of its starters from last season - junior Max Redfield (68 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, one interception, two pass breakups in 2014) and senior Elijah Shumate (66 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one interception, one fumble recovery, four pass breakups in 2014).
Redfield started 11 of 13 games a year ago. He finished second on the team, and first among defensive backs, in tackles. Redfield registered six tackles and his first career interception in the 31-0 shutout of Michigan. Redfield posted double-digit tackle games against North Carolina (10), No. 11 Arizona State (10) and No. 22 LSU (career-high 14).
Shumate also started 11 contests in 2014. He moved into a starting role following the injury to Austin Collinsworth two days prior to the season-opening victory over Rice. Shumate led the Irish with a then career-best 10 tackles, an interception, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry in the 31-0 romp against Michigan. He collected a career-best 13 tackles, including nine solo stops, at USC.
Sophomore Drue Tranquill (33 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, 0.5 sack, one interception, one fumble recovery, one blocked punt in 2014), who will miss the spring recovering from a torn ACL suffered against Louisville, played in 11 regular-season games and started three (Navy, Northwestern and Louisville). He was one of four true freshmen (Martini, Morgan and Trumbetti) to start on defense.
Two seniors - Nicky Baratti (8 tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery, one pass breakup in career) and John Turner (eight tackles in career) - are potential options at safety as well. Baratti suffered multiple shoulder injuries over the last couple years, but has been cleared to participate in spring practice. Turner has been a significant special teams contributor over his career and returns this spring to his natural safety spot after spending the 2014 campaign at linebacker.
The freshman trio of Nicco Fertitta, Ashton White and Mykelti Williams, as well as graduate transfer Avery Sebastian will bring some much-needed depth to the position this fall.
Starters Returning/Lost: 3/4
Monogram Winners Returning/Lost: 4/2
With the graduation of Kyle Brindza, Notre Dame lost its kickoff specialist, punter and place kicker in one fell swoop.
The Irish expect to turn the placekicking responsibilities to incoming freshman Justin Yoon, but he will not join Notre Dame until this fall. Yoon was a priority in the most recent recruiting class.
Notre Dame would like to get more out of its kickoff return game in 2015. The Irish ranked 75th in the FBS at 20.47 yards per return. Carlisle, who filled the role last season, returns to the mix. Additional options should help shore up those numbers.
Bryant handled the majority of Notre Dame's punt returns over the second half of last year. He averaged 11.8 yards per punt return (eight returns for 94 yards), including a career-best 61-yard return versus Louisville - the longest punt return by an Irish player since Golden Tate went 87 yards for a TD against Pittsburgh in 2009.