1. Notre Dame just signed about as balanced of a class as you'll find. Which positions should the coaching staff focus on for the 2014 class?
Well, first we have to see how many scholarships they'll have to work with. I'm looking at the soon-to-be seniors and I only see two (near) locks for 5th years: Lombard and Collinsworth. The staff could easily let Hendrix, Massa, Heggie, Moore, and Utopo leave with their degrees, Nichols could be a medical soon, while that only leaves Lo Wood and Alex Welch as maybe's as Nix foregoes a 5th year for the NFL.
So let's say (2) 5th-year players, 22 seniors, 17 juniors, and the newly signed 24 freshman becoming sophomores. That leaves 20 scholarships for 2014.
With 20 open spots, I'm thinking:
Sean Mele over at ISD has the staff going for 1 QB, 2 (or 3) running backs, 2 receivers, 2 tight ends, 5 offensive linemen, 4 defensive linemen, 5 linebackers, 1 (or 2) safeties, and 3 (or 4) corners.
That's at minimum 25 players, and as many as 27---neither number seems realistic at this point.
The top priorities have to be both lines and then linebacker. I think the staff has to get at least 3 players at each spot and 4 should be the goal. That'll be half, or a little more than half the class.
Of course one quarterback should be signed. Running back isn't a huge need, as there won't be any halfbacks leaving until Atkinson after 2014---the team will, at minimum, carry 5 for the next 2 years. So unless you're getting another Bryant & Folston combo I'd stick to one back for this class. I agree with Mele to sit on Brent and try to pick up another elite receiver.
Two more tight ends is a good idea, especially with questions surrounding Alex Welch. The numbers aren't dire at offensive line (11 should be back in 2014), but another 4 can bring the number back to 3 full squads and takes some pressure off the small 2-man class of 2012.
Nix, Tuitt, Schwenke, Moore, Utopo, Shembo, and Spond could all be gone after next year. Nothing is more important than keeping the numbers up in the front seven.
I really don't think there's a huge concern in the defensive backfield, certainly not to the point where the roster needs 3 or 4 more corners or 5 DB's overall in this class. There are 6 safeties with 3+ years left and the same amount of corners with 3+ years left. I don't think it's smart to be carrying a quarter of your scholarships from the defensive backfield.
2. Who are some of the big 2014 names we should keep an eye on for the next cycle?
SBN's Bud Elliot has a post on 25 of the top players for 2014. The Irish have offered 15 of those recruits already but there aren't any right now that are super high on Notre Dame.
Some others to keep an eye on are Charlotte RB/ATH Elijah Hood, Chicago tight end Nic Weishar, Charlotte tight end Jeb Blazevich, Chicago offensive lineman Jamarco Jones, Chicago defensive lineman Enoch Smith, New Jersey defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti, and Illinois linebacker Nyles Morgan.
3. As the 2013 class sent their faxes in a lot of the talk turned toward which recruits will see the field as freshmen. Out of the 24, who will see regular action, who will be confined primarily to special teams, and who will redshirt?
Smith, Redfield, Vanderdoes, and Bryant are locks to play. He might not see action right away but Folston is probably getting playing time in the slot or backfield too. Heuerman could see some time as could Onwualu, while at least one offensive lineman (likely Elmer) will burn their redshirt.
Defensively there really isn't a need for anyone outside of Jaylon and Max. Maybe Deeb cracks the two-deep at middle linebacker? Ideally, Luke could sit out this season but that might not be likely given his talent.
Add in a couple players on special teams and we should see 8 or 9 redshirts out of this group: Zaire, Robinson, Bivin, Rochell, McGlinchey, Kinlaw, Smythe, Butler, Montelus, Fuller, McGovern, Randolph, Hunter, and Matuska.
4. Who will be the top true freshman Notre Dame will face next season?
It'll either be Michigan running Derrick Green or USC safety Su'a Cravens.
The Wolverines have been wallowing in mediocrity at running back and Fitzgerald Toussaint took a major step backward in 2012 before suffering a nasty broken leg at the end of the year. Even if Toussaint is healthy by the fall it's likely Green is getting significant carries early in the season.
Green's a little slow for my taste but he's a nice little power back, kind of like a poor man's Jonas Gray.
Cravens enrolled early at USC and could be starting from day one for the Trojans. He's the consensus top safety in the country and could be phenomenal in no time at all.
5. Which game next season are you least looking forward to?
Pitt at Heinz Field.
Temple isn't exactly raising eyebrows but at least that is surrounded by the hype of the season and home opener. Purdue is always in the running but that's a road game and the Boilers always get psyched for that. That will also be another night game which adds to the atmosphere.
That Pitt game just looks like it will be miserable. It's in early November, there will probably be some precipitation of some sort, an early kickoff is likely, and the field will be torn to bits. It's also at the end of a four game stretch against USC, Air Force, and Navy.
That visit to Colorado Springs will be interesting though.
Bonus: Which will be the bigger home game for 2013, Oklahoma or USC?
I'll go with the Sooners.
I base that on the idea that the Trojans might still be in turmoil next year---I can't see them rebounding THAT well with a new quarterback---and that Lane Kiffin is their head coach.
Plus, the Irish have lost by more than 25 points at home on 10 occasions throughout history. Although USC is responsible for two of those games (2003 & 2007---Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis everybody!) it's the Sooners who hold the distinction of giving Notre Dame the worst home loss ever at 40-0 in 1956.
We're not exactly looking for revenge (we won last year's meeting and the last 3 home games against OU) but it's also been 14 years since the Sooners came to South Bend so that adds more to the matchup, I think.
Then again, we haven't beat USC in South Bend since two thousand-freaking one. So maybe that's the bigger game.