Notre Dame Football: 4 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

Connor Killoren@@Connor_KillorenSenior Analyst IJanuary 5, 2014

(9:58 a.m. EDT) UPDATE: At the time of publication, Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt had not yet declared for the NFL Draft. Since then, Tuitt revealed to Sports Illustrated that he will forgo his senior season to join the professional ranks.

It's never too early to commence preparation for a season nearly eight months from its start date.

With Notre Dame's 2013 season officially in the books, now fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have developed a full-steam-ahead approach to preparing for the 2014 season, which, by all accounts, is headlined by a definitive goal of qualifying for the first annual College Football Playoff.

The first of a myriad of steps in transforming that goal into reality is addressing the lingering issues surrounding the program.

Aside from putting the finishing touches on their 2014 recruiting class—national signing day is a shade more than a month away—the Irish have a few question marks to address during the course of the offseason.

First and foremost is the state of Notre Dame's defense.


Shoring Up the Defensive Line

More than any other position group on the roster, Notre Dame's defensive line will be in need of attention and molding during the offseason.

While defensive end Stephon Tuitt still hasn't announced whether he'll forgo his senior season to enter the 2014 NFL draft, the Irish's defensive coaching staff, particularly first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, has its work cut out.

The heart of the defensive line is most worrisome, with defensive tackles Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke and Tyler Stockton each having exhausted their collegiate eligibility. One proposed solution to the loss of that trio is VanGorder's preference of four-man fronts, though the obvious retort is the lack of big bodies up the middle.

Thus, the rapid improvement and development of redshirt sophomore-to-be Jarron Jones, Nix's main replacement following the meniscus tear that knocked him out for the remainder of the season, will be a crucial factor in the efficacy of the defensive line in 2014.

However, the most significant factor for the defensive line going forward is Tuitt's decision.

Should the 6'6", 322-pound defensive end decide to return for his senior season, the Irish defense will receive an immediate boost, for Tuitt is the type of defender capable of altering a game through his own sheer dominance.

The Monroe, Ga., native must make a decision prior to Jan. 15, which is the cutoff date for early NFL draft entries.


Will There Be Any Controversy at QB? 

The early answer to this question is no, though there isn't such a thing as certainty in college football.

While former starting quarterback Everett Golson seems to be a shoe-in to reclaim his old job, redshirt freshman-to-be Malik Zaire won't go down without a fight through spring ball and fall camp.

Could Zaire legitimately challenge Golson for the starting job? Sure, but it's doubtful Golson would have made the effort to return to Notre Dame if he wasn't given some sort of indirect guarantee that the starting job would be his upon his return to South Bend, Ind.

It's also doubtful that Golson and his family would have spent the exorbitant fees for quarterback guru George Whitfield's instruction throughout the summer and fall semester (per's Bruce Feldman, Whitfield charges $200 per day for college quarterbacks).

Once spring practices begin in earnest in March, fans and coaches alike will learn whether that investment paid off for Golson.

So, through rational reasoning, it would appear that the starting job at Notre Dame is Golson's to lose. The good news for the Myrtle Beach, S.C., native is that an abundant amount of healthy competition will exist between him and Zaire for the better part of the next eight months.


Settling the Pecking Order at Running Back

Aside from the quarterback position, the most thoroughly discussed area of the Irish offense has been at running back.

Without the services of freshman Greg Bryant during the 2013 season, fellow freshman Tarean Folston and junior Cam McDaniel rose to the top of the depth chart, where they remained for the latter stages of the season.

With those two, along with every other back on the depth chart—George Aktinson III, Amir Carlisle and Bryant—the pecking order at the position will be a point of emphasis throughout the preseason.

Will Bryant, a highly acclaimed former recruit out of Delray Beach, Fla., usurp McDaniel on the depth chart and join Folston to form an explosive one-two punch? That remains to be seen, but should it happen, Kelly's recruiting pitch of the two forming a duo similar to that of former Irish backs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick would ring true.

Regardless of what transpires, Notre Dame possesses more than enough talent at the position, which is a good problem to have.


Solving the Depth Issue at Middle Linebacker

Now that fifth-year linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese have played their final collegiate downs, questions have arisen regarding depth at the middle linebacker positions they've left behind.

One surefire answer there in the heart of the Irish defense is Jarrett Grace, who had supplanted Fox from his starting position during fall camp. However, Grace was lost for the season after tearing his ACL early in Notre Dame's 37-34 win against Arizona State in Dallas.

His return will be an immediate boost for the Irish defense, though the task of naming his backup, as well as the starter and associated backup next to him, remains an issue.

That conundrum made the commitment of Crete, Ill., native and 4-star linebacker (per Nyles Morgan such an important pledge for the Irish. It's fair to say that Nyles' decision to join what has been commonly referred to as the #GoldenArmy14 on Twitter is the most significant of the recruiting class.

The 6'1", 225-pound linebacker is a favorite to start alongside Grace when the Irish open the 2014 season against Rice on Aug. 30, with either Michael Deeb or Joe Schmidt providing relief duties.


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