Notre Dame Football: 5 Biggest Challenges for Chuck Martin
Entering Notre Dame's 2013 season, perhaps no individual within the program is faced with as many harrowing tasks as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin.
As has been discussed in earnest recently, the Irish defense will, once again, be the overwhelming strength of a team many had pegged as a contender in the race to the 2014 BCS National Championship Game prior to the news of former starting quarterback Everett Golson's dismissal from the school.
Regardless of the circumstances, there remains an enormous amount of work to be done on the offensive side of the ball prior to the Irish's season-opening contest against Temple on August 31.
The challenges await.
Define the Rotation at Quarterback
With incumbent starting quarterback Everett Golson not enrolled at Notre Dame for the fall semester, the Irish coaching staff has turned to a familiar face in Tommy Rees, who started 11 of 12 games during the 2011 season.
While turning to Rees in Golson's absence is the safe choice, the book is out on how to defend the senior quarterback; on obvious passing downs, opposing defenses will drop eight in coverage with direct knowledge that Rees is no threat to pick up yards with his feet.
Therefore, Martin must decide to play Andrew Hendrix or Malik Zaire or both because of their mobility, which stretches defenses.
As I outlined in a column last week, the smart choice is to give Zaire serious minutes, so that entering the 2014 season, Notre Dame will have at least one experienced quarterback at its disposal.
How Martin and Kelly decide to split practice reps and game snaps between Rees and Zaire will be a focal point of the remainder of the offseason.
Develop a Rhythm Along the Offensive Line
Changes within the offensive line are an inevitable aspect of each offseason, and a task the Irish are currently facing.
Former starting center Braxston Cave, who signed with the Cleveland Browns hours after April's NFL draft, is gone, and Nick Martin, the younger brother of Irish left tackle Zack Martin, has filled Cave's vacancy.
With the center position being responsible for line shifts and adjustments, the development of the younger Martin will be crucial to the success of the Irish offensive line.
He won't be the only new face, either.
The right guard spot—left vacant by Mike Golic, Jr.—is up for grabs. Connor Hanratty and Mark Harrell are locked in a tight battle for starting duties at the position that will most likely last through fall camp.
It may require a few games for this group to gel, but the sooner the better for a team that will be looking to predominantly run the football.
Establish a Set Rotation at Running Back
Having a wealth of talent is always a great problem to have, and it's one that exists at the running back position at Notre Dame.
Despite the loss of both Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, the Irish will feature six running backs vying for minutes in 2013—George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, William Mahone, Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
Questions still abound pertaining Atkinson's true ability to take on the role of a lead back, raising the very likely possibility of Kelly and Martin employing a committee approach.
Which backs would be members of the so-called "committee" is still a mystery in itself, though answers will become readily available once fall camp kicks into full gear. My early prediction of the rotation includes the following players in no particular order: Atkinson, Carlisle and Mahone.
However, the freshmen—Bryant and Folston—will likely see minutes in garbage time.
Identify Threats in the Passing Game
For the first time in Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame, he'll be without both former receiver Michael Floyd and former tight end Tyler Eifert, two of the Irish's most lethal receiving threats in school history.
While some may see the absence of that dynamic duo as a body blow to the Irish offense, it may be a blessing in disguise.
Without a true No. 1 receiver, Martin will attempt to distribute the ball to the many receivers at his disposal.
DaVaris Daniels, T.J. Jones, C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown, James Onwualu, Daniel Smith and Corey Robinson are each viable candidates to steal the spotlight. Time will tell whom among the bunch will rise above the rest.
Establish an Identity
This may be the most difficult task of all for Martin.
Without Golson, the potential of the offense is certainly scaled back, but exactly how much is the question waiting to be answered.
With a combination of either Rees/Hendrix or Rees/Zaire, will Martin be content with a conservative offense centered around running the football and winning the time of possession battle? The answer to that question is unclear.
With such an elite defense, there may not be a need to set the tone early as an aggressive, attacking offense, particularly with the immobile Rees under center and, most likely, an inexperienced Zaire beneath him on the depth chart.
But if the offense struggles to put points on the board, Notre Dame will find themselves in many dangerously close contests as they did a season ago. And the luck of the Irish may not be present this time around.
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