Brian Kelly's Biggest Challenges for Notre Dame in 2013
As is the cyclical nature of college football, the dawn of each new season arrives with fresh challenges and kinks to be ironed out.
No team carries with it an identical resemblance from season to season, contributing to the belief that a head coach must possess an intimate familiarity with his roster, so as to trot a high-quality product onto the field each and every fall Saturday.
Such is the life for Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who put the finishing touches on his fourth round of spring practices since accepting the position in Dec. 2009.
And while those spring practice sessions—which culminated in the annual Blue-Gold Game—knocked off any rust accumulated since January's BCS National Championship Game, they weren't sufficient to solve the more pressing issues at hand.
Perhaps the most burning question in need of answers is at the running back position.
Distribution of Carries
The addition of the pair of 4-star recruits (per 247sports.com) to the roster has given way to rampant discussion surrounding the distribution of carries during the 2013 season.
The consensus belief is that George Atkinson III will be the Irish's starting running back, but as Kelly has shown in the past, the label of "starter" is not a translation for receiving the lion's share of the carries.
In each of his three seasons on campus, Kelly has employed a committee approach at the position—Robert Hughes and Armando Allen in 2010, Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood in 2011 and Theo Riddick and Wood in 2012.
Gone are Riddick and Wood, leaving just 74 carries and 486 yards worth of experience remaining on the depth chart from Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel.
Add in redshirt freshman Will Mahone and redshirt sophomore Amir Carlisle, and Kelly has himself quite a fiasco to work out during fall camp.
My early prediction on the rotation at running back is in the following order: Atkinson III, Mahone and Carlisle.
Solidifying the Secondary
As recently as one year ago, the Irish secondary was considered a liability.
After cornerback Lo Wood suffered a season-ending foot injury, Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco were forced to insert then freshman KeiVarae Russell—a player recruited as a running back—into Wood's vacant starting position.
One year later, Wood is fully healthy and competing for his former job.
Whether he will usurp Russell remains to be seen, but the fact that competition within the ranks exists is a positive sign.
Opposite Wood/Russell will be Bennett Jackson, who is entering his third season at cornerback, after playing his freshman season at receiver.
Yet the most pressing issue within the secondary exists at the free safety position, where Elijah Shumate is widely expected to earn the starting job. However, Nick Baratti won't go down without a fight, setting up for what could potentially be quite an entertaining position battle in fall camp.
Kelly's 2013 squad may require a more lengthy time frame to establish a set group of leaders.
On the offensive side of the ball, left tackle Zack Martin—a captain in 2012—returns for a fifth season, though gone is tight end Tyler Eifert, who was selected 21st overall by the Cincinnati Bengals in last month's NFL draft.
Also gone are center Braxston Cave and right guard Mike Golic, Jr.
While the departures of those veterans are obstacles to overcome, incumbent starting quarterback Everett Golson has developed into a highly respected voice both on and off the field, per Kelly.
“I’ve seen a maturity level. He benefits from smelling the air on Notre Dame’s campus. Just growing up, seeing that maturation take place. We know he has talent. It’s never been an issue of that. But it’s how he deals with the game and all of the demands.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Irish will miss the leadership provided by safety Zeke Motta, linebacker Manti Te'o and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore.
While there isn't an immediate answer to those leadership vacancies, Kelly believes it's simply a matter of time before individual leaders emerge.
“Leadership is the area that we’ve been working on from a defensive standpoint. I think it’s letting that leadership develop and guys stepping up.”
The only member of the coaching staff who will have a direct influence upon that dynamic is strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, who will be guiding the players through the throes of summer conditioning.
It is during those grueling sessions that the true leaders of a team emerge.
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