Everett Golson has ben readmitted to Notre Dame University after sitting out the fall semester for academic reasons, but the offense he finds awaiting him is far different than the unit he led to the 2013 BCS National Championship Game.
Gone from that squad are six of the seven top receivers, all three leading rushers and blindside protector Zack Martin. The only common strand, it seems, are the golden-domed helmets and the man behind the play-sheet.
Brian Kelly reassumed play-calling duties this offseason after delegating the job to Chuck Martin in 2013. That continuity should help Golson fit back into the Notre Dame offense, though he'll need some time to establish a rapport with his new weapons.
Right now, however, that might be a little difficult. Kelly hasn't sorted out the depth chart at multiple different levels, so how does Golson even know which weapons to work with? Who will be aiding his triumphant return to college football?
Let's look at some options.
WRs William Fuller, Corey Robinson, C.J. Prosise and James Onwualu
It's hard to tell which of this quartet is ready to break out. Each possesses enough talent to compete for a job but none have much experience. Keep an eye on all four during spring practice—it should provide a better outlook on which will make an impact.
RB Cam McDaniel
McDaniel won't help Golson much catching passes, but he should remain a part of this offense. Even if his workload shrinks, as projected, he will use his vision to move the chains in short-yardage situations and keep the offense on the field.
RB Tarean Folston
Folston is the smallest, shiftiest back on the roster, which should make him valuable in certain spots no matter how the RB battle plays out. Having him outside the top five is a projection that someone else will pass him (along with McDaniel), but it wouldn't be a huge shock if he became the leading rusher.
WR Justin Brent
A true freshman from Indianapolis, Brent has the size (6'3'') and raw ball skills to become a red-zone threat right off the bat. Ranked the No. 67 overall player and No. 8 receiver by 247Sports, he's also enrolled early and will have a chance to work with Golson this spring.
Chris Brown has progressed slowly (but steadily) since arriving on campus in 2012, and he projects to take the biggest leap of his career this offseason. If he doesn't, the Irish might be in trouble.
DaVaris Daniels pulled a "Golson" and got suspended from the university this spring for academic reasons. The suspension doesn't appear likely to affect Daniels' playing status for next fall, but it will keep him out of spring practice and leave a glaring hole at the position of No. 1 receiver.
Brown, the most game-worn receiver who will be eligible this spring, seems a logical fit to play that role and get those reps with Golson. The two will have a chance to establish a nice rhythm with one another, though Brown did see the field a few times as a freshman during 2012 as well.
All told, the Daniels suspension could end up being a blessing in disguise for the Irish. If it helps Brown develop into a solid No. 2 receiver behind him, this team might be in better shape because of it.
A tight end has been one of Notre Dame's top three leading receivers in each of the past five seasons, including all four years of Brian Kelly's tenure.
Part of that has had to do with talent—Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and (ostensibly) Troy Niklas are all viable NFL players—but part of it has also had to with scheme. The position is vital to the proper functioning of this offense.
Koyack looked pretty good as the No. 2 tight end behind Niklas last season, and his presence made Niklas more comfortable with declaring for the draft. "Knowing Ben Koyack was coming back...was taken into consideration," said Niklas' father Don, per Brian Hamilton of SI.com. "He doesn't want to leave his alma mater high and dry."
Golson relied heavily on Eifert in 2012, feeding him 50 catches, 685 yards and four touchdowns—all of which were first or tied for first on the team. Koyack isn't the same physical specimen Eifert was, but the way Notre Dame has been developing tight ends, that doesn't mean he can't be as productive.
Greg Bryant will continue fighting for reps with Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel, who should both remain part of the offense and continue to have a role to play. If things go ideally for Notre Dame, however, those other guys will be phased out and the position will eventually become Bryant's.
That is not meant as a slight to either Folston and McDaniel. Both are pretty good runners and both do enough things well to see the field. It's purely a matter of upside. If he develops as projected, Bryant's ceiling is higher than that of Folston and McDaniels combined.
Bryant was a top-50 prospect in the class of 2013, lauded primarily for his completeness. He's big enough, fast enough, strong enough, tough enough and savvy enough to become one of the best backs in the country. He's pretty good with his hands as well, so Golson can use him out of the backfield.
After impressing coaches in practice before the Pinstripe Bowl, Bryant has the momentum and opportunity to become a featured weapon in this offense. If Notre Dame wants to be good enough on this side of the ball to negate its losses on defense, Bryant needs to make "the leap."
In Brian Kelly's own words, per Irish Illustrated: "If we have a quarterback with the ability to run the ball, we will be difficult to defend."
That seems a bit hypocritical after 2013, when Kelly left stone-footed Tommy Rees in the lineup over Andrew Hendrix and Malik Zaire. But Kelly had his reasons and, despite what some Irish fans might feel, Rees really wasn't the team's biggest problem in 2013.
Still, Golson's legs will be a valuable weapon in this offense, especially if Bryant doesn't pan out as expected. If he's truly improved as a passer under George Whitfield this fall, teams will quickly learn to respect his arm. And if they spend too much time and energy respecting his arm, the running lanes will be there.
More than anything, though, Golson's legs will be a weapon buying time and avoiding sacks. There's no telling how the pass protection will fare, particularly toward the start of the season, without Zack Martin in the lineup. Golson's ability to keep plays alive will be important against a loaded schedule.
DaVaris Daniels is "the guy" now, the truest and most experienced threat Notre Dame has on the outside. With TJ Jones out of the picture, he will have to play an expanded version of the role he has played these past two seasons, when he's caught 80 passes for 1,235 yards.
His suspension for the spring will hurt, but those reps are more important for young players than rising seniors. Daniels has played in enough big games and spent enough time in Brian Kelly's offense to survive. As long as he's readmitted next fall, the suspension is not a huge deal.
No receiver ever puts up huge stats at Notre Dame—at least not in the Brian Kelly era. The offense likes to spread the ball around, which slightly devalues the importance of having a No. 1 guy.
Still, it's important for Golson to feel like he has someone he can trust on the outside, someone he can go to when the offense most needs to make a play. Daniels is the only realistic option to fill that role.