Well, we've reached the halfway point. Be honest Irish fans, how many of you thought you would be sitting undefeated with a top five spot in all of the major polls? Three of you? Perfect.
As far as grading the positions, it's a little difficult to hand out grades when a team has played so well (trailing for only a portion of one game all season) and to a point, overachieved. That is the scary part though: There are aspects where the Irish can vastly improve, and you will see that reflected in their mid-term grades.
Obviously, these grades can change quickly, as Notre Dame heads on the road to face Oklahoma and USC in the second half of the season. As for the first half, enjoy the lofty ranking while it's here, and with that in mind, let's get to the grades.
If there is a position lacking stability, it's probably quarterback.
Everett Golson was named the starter shortly before the opener, and technically, he still holds that spot. Backup Tommy Rees, last year's starter, has come in to "close" three games now, and you get the sense that if the Irish ever find themselves in a late-game, must score situation, Brian Kelly will turn to Rees.
As far as how Golson has performed, he has shown flashes of brilliance, but to be honest, he has left me wanting to pull out my hair more often
The biggest problem I'm seeing is that his pocket awareness is awful. Golson can have a near perfect pocket and he will still be quick to escape to the edge and actually run into pressure. When he has time to set, load, and launch, there are few quarterbacks in the country that can match his arm. The problem with Golson is that he's so often on the move, usually for no reason at all. As a general rule, when your quarterback is moving, the odds of a turnover spike.
Luckily for Golson, he's kept the turnovers somewhat in check thus far. Yes, he has had some fumbling problems, especially lately, but Notre Dame is winning the turnover battle halfway through the season.
Moving forward, Golson needs to be more confident in the pocket, stepping up and hitting his receivers over the middle of the field, and he needs to keep working on his ball security, especially when he's on the move.
Lastly, Golson really needs to trust his reads. Watching tape, the first and second options usually have windows, but Golson almost always holds the ball too long, not trusting either his own arm or mind. Getting the ball to Tyler Eifert more often, even when double-teamed, can only help Golson down the stretch as well.
Spoiler Alert: I only gave out two A's; this is one of them.
There's plenty of depth when it comes to the Irish backfield. There are arguably three top-tier starters, and even fourth-string Cam McDaniel has been running the ball well in his limited opportunities.
With Theo Riddick moving to see a little more action in the passing game, Cierre Wood will lead the pack heading into the second half. George Atkinson III will continue to provide a change of pace and serve as a home run threat every time he touches the ball.
If Wood or Atkinson III were given 20+ carries a game, they would be considered one of the best backs in the country. Meanwhile, all three backs will get their fair share of touches and will cause nightmares for opposing defenses, keeping them off balanced.
I know, it seems like a harsh grade given their opportunity, but the fact is they will have to step up if they want to beat the big boys in the second half.
TJ Jones has been the most dependable receiver, finishing off the first half with a game winning touchdown catch in overtime in the win over Stanford. Robby Toma has also looked good at times, possessing the most durable hands on the team.
Other than that? A little of this, a little of that. The receiver I had the highest hopes in, DaVaris Daniels, has been battling injury all year but has shown flashes of brilliance here and there. If the quarterback position can be solidified and Daniels can stay healthy, don't be surprised to see him put up huge numbers in the second half.
I'd also like to touch on the topic of playing time as it pertains to the freshmen. I've been tweeting this all year, but I'll touch on it again: Eventually this offense will need a legit threat to blow the top off of a defense every once in awhile. Otherwise the Irish will continue to see a stacked box to stop the run.
Freshmen receiver Chris Brown can be that threat. Brown is freakishly athletic and easily has the speed to get behind a defense.
The other option, you ask? Davonte Neal.
Speaking of freakishly athletic, watch some tape on Neal. The issue I have with the playing time of these two is similar to the criticism I had last year regarding Atkinson III: Why burn a redshirt to use them in such a limited role? As it stands now, Brown is used to run the occasional go route and Neal is used exclusively on punt returns. I should mention that I've studied every punt return Notre Dame has set up this season, and I can count the number of returns they've set up on one hand.
Moving forward, Jones and Toma need to stay solid and reliable. Daniels needs to get healthy and become the go-to threat Golson so desperately needs. And after that, we have to hope Kelly takes the training wheels off of Brown and Neal to let them show off their athleticism.
For a group that includes Tyler Eifert, it's pretty odd to see anything other than an A here, isn't it?
Well, this grade is only this high due to Eifert. It may seem like Eifert has been blocked out of the offense, but the fact is that he sees double teams nearly every down. The linebacker that bumps him underneath usually scares off Golson during his first read, then the safety over the top usually scares off Golson when he looks back in his direction.
Moving forward? That needs to change, especially downfield. Give Eifert a chance to make a play, like he did in the win against Stanford in the end zone. It should also be mentioned that Eifert's blocking is much improved this season. He's a lock to be the first tight end off the board next April.
Now, the reason this grade is a little low is due to the guys behind Eifert. Troy Niklas has looked above-average in the passing game, showing reliable hands and solid athleticism. He's even been pretty good in run blocking. The biggest problem Niklas is facing is pass protection. It was painfully obvious during the Stanford game, but the problems have been around for much longer.
Finally, Ben Koyack. The former five-star recruit has been a disappointment thus far, and I'm not expecting him to be very involved in the second half. However, if Niklas gets dinged up, Kelly won't have a choice: Koyack will be next man up.
No surprise, this unit has been pretty tough.
Led by homegrown center Braxston Cave, the Irish offensive front has been throwing people around in the first half of the schedule. Cave, Zack Martin and Chris Watt have all played extremely well thus far, especially in the running game. Christian Lombard, right tackle, has played well most of the time, adjusting nicely to the outside. Lombard still needs to tighten up his footwork in pass protection, but that's a minor problem in the grand scheme of things. Finally, Mike Golic Jr, has actually played pretty well himself after moving to guard earlier this fall.
After a rough outing for Golic against Stanford, Brian Kelly stuck up for his senior guard, saying that a couple of his false starts were the result of some poor communication up front. That may be the case, but Golic will need to play well throughout the second half, especially in pass protection, as Notre Dame will be trailing much more often than they did in the first half, therefore turning to the passing game.
If this unit can keep up the physical play, Notre Dame should be able to run on any team left on their schedule. Honestly, their toughest test when it comes to the run game could be this weekend, as the BYU Cougars and their tough as nails defense make a visit to South Bend.