Despite a lack of recent national success, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are still one of the most-watched and discussed programs in college football. Much will be made of their spring game, but what should you be watching for?
An 8-5 season last year was solid for Irish head coach Brian Kelly, but it won’t be good enough to appease the Notre Dame faithful for very long. There are some things that need to happen in this spring game in order to show the program's continual improvement.
They're the same things you should be looking for.
A Leader at Quarterback
There are four guys right now competing for the ridiculously high-profile job as the starting quarterback of Notre Dame. Tommy Rees is the incumbent who, while he has looked good at times, still hasn’t shown fans that he can take the Irish to another level.
Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix are two more who want the job. Hendrix saw limited time last season, going 18-of-37 for 249 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. That’s in very limited action, but it still doesn’t have anyone too pumped. Golson is a bit of a wild card. He’s a dual-threat guy who is a great athlete, but may not have the physical skills to lead the team.
The final candidate is Gunner Kiel, the true freshman who chose Notre Dame at the last second over LSU. Kiel was the No. 1 quarterback in the country, and for good reason. He is talented, but would anyone really want to hand a true freshman the reins to the most historic program in college football?
One of the four must separate himself as the clear leader for this team. If they don’t, the Irish will be looking at a long and painful 2012.
Michael Floyd’s Successor
To deny that Michael Floyd was a special player would be to admit that one wasn’t familiar at all with Notre Dame Football over the last few seasons. Despite seemingly continual turnover at the quarterback position, Floyd always put up great numbers and made life easier for his teammates.
Now, Floyd is gone to the NFL, and it is time to find out who will replace him. The best returning receiver that the Irish have is Tyler Eifert, but he can’t make the kind of impact that the Irish need from his position.
John Goodman and T.J. Jones are really the guys who need to fill this role.
Goodman caught just seven passes for 65 yards all year last season, but he needs to do better now that Floyd is gone. At 6’3” and being a senior, Goodman has the size and experience to be a real difference maker. Jones could also fill this role. He had a better year than Goodman in 2011, tallying 38 catches for 366 yards and three scores. However, he lacks Goodman’s size.
At the very least, Irish fans need to see either one or both of these guys take a much larger role in the offense. That is the only thing that will soften the impact of Floyd’s departure.
High Energy on Defense
Despite all of the publicity being focused on the Irish offense, the defense might be what fans need to be paying attention to. Kelly is an offensive genius, so he can produce offense. However, defense is about talent and energy, both of which have been lacking as of late on this team.
The defensive line is the foundation of any defense, and this Irish team will be no different. The departure of Aaron Lynch definitely doesn’t help the Irish. He was their best pass rusher and will be missed.
Starting ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt will have to step up their game to make up for the loss of Lynch. Depth is an issue here, and seeing other younger players step up and play big will help.
Last year, this defense ranked 24th in the nation in points allowed (20.7 per game). That number isn’t the mark of a championship-caliber defense. Isn’t that what Irish fans expect?
The spring game will come down to the quarterbacks, receivers and defense. Those key areas will really show if this Notre Dame team is ready to take a step up or if it has not yet climbed out of its mire of mediocrity.
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