Notre Dame Football: 5 Offseason Issues to Address
It's been a wild two weeks for the Notre Dame football program since the team's 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game. There was the Brian Kelly-NFL flirtation, the decommitment of linebacker Alex Anzalone and, of course, the ongoing Manti Te'o girlfriend-hoax saga.
Alas, Notre Dame will be playing football again next fall, and the beginning of spring practice is only two short months away. The Irish took a tremendous step forward in 2012, going from 8-5 to 12-1, but now Brian Kelly and the Irish must ensure that 12-1 seasons become more the norm than the exception.
Here are five key issues Notre Dame must address in the coming months if it hopes to remain at the top of the college football ladder.
Establish a Quarterback Pecking Order
Everett Golson starting the season against Temple on Aug. 31 isn’t set in stone, but the rising junior is the overwhelming favorite to retain the No. 1 quarterback slot. The biggest question lies in the role behind Golson.
Andrew Hendrix appears to be on the outside looking in, so the battle for No. 2 likely comes down to Tommy Rees and Gunner Kiel. The role may be shared by the two. Rees would continue as the “closer,” but Kiel would get the call should Golson suffer an injury that would require missing multiple games.
Determine If GAIII Is a No. 1 Back
The Irish bid adieu to their top two rushers, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. There are plenty of options to replace the duo, but all are unproven.
Rising junior George Atkinson III has the talent but has yet to prove he can be a serviceable lead running back. Juniors Amir Carlisle and Cam McDaniel, sophomore Will Mahone and freshmen Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant will all be in the mix, but the Irish would love for Atkinson III to seize control of the top spot during spring and fall camps.
Find the Man in the Middle
Braxston Cave’s departure leaves a big hole, both literally and figuratively, in the middle of Notre Dame’s offensive line. Cave will be the next in a long line of Fighting Irish centers (Jeff Faine, John Sullivan, Eric Olsen) to play in the NFL.
For the 2013 Irish, juniors Matt Hegarty and Nick Martin are the top two candidates to replace Cave. Hegarty suffered a mild stroke during the season, and his future availability is uncertain. Martin has worked primarily for guard but, with center such a critical position, will likely spend spring practice at that position until more information is known regarding Hegarty's condition.
Develop Front-Seven Depth
While Notre Dame had one of the best defensive fronts in the nation in 2012, the Irish were very fortunate that they stayed relatively healthy. Depth was lacking for much of the season, and the next seven months must produce more game-ready backups.
Three of four starters return at linebacker, as well as co-starter Carlo Calabrese. Three freshmen join the fray in the summer, including consensus five-star recruit Jaylon Smith.
Up front, Sheldon Day should slide into the spot vacated by Kapron Lewis-Moore. Sophomores Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara should be capable backups, in addition to returning contributors Kona Schwenke and Tony Springmann.
Evaluate Eifert's Replacements
Let’s get this out of the way. There isn’t another Tyler Eifert on Notre Dame’s roster—or any team’s roster. That said, the Irish need two capable tight ends from the group of senior Alex Welch, juniors Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas and early-enrolling freshman Mike Heuerman.
Welch missed the season with a shoulder injury, while Koyack proved inconsistent when seeing the field. Niklas has the talent and frame but still needs some polishing to become an effective No. 1 tight end. All four will likely play, but the division of snaps between the group is still murky.