Even though temperatures won't climb out of the teens this week, spring football is almost here in South Bend. With Brian Kelly moving workouts up to the earliest they've been since he's coached at Notre Dame, the Irish will begin their work for 2014 in the first week of March.
Camp Kelly already opened, with the strength and conditioning staff leading Irish players through a series of harrowing outdoor workouts at the crack of dawn. They're the first step in establishing this team's identity, a group that'll need to overcome another herculean schedule if they want to contend for the four spots in college football's playoff.
That still feels like a lifetime away. In the meantime, the Irish will need to find a way to rebuild their roster, replacing the nine players competing at the NFL Scouting Combine and starters Tommy Rees, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox.
With jobs open and competition intense, let's take a look at four players with the most to gain in spring practice.
Torii Hunter Jr.
The trajectory of Hunter's career was pushed off course after a serious injury at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. A broken femur derailed the Texas native's hopes of contributing during his freshman season, even though he was widely believed to be the most college-ready receiver in his recruiting class.
While Will Fuller, James Onwualu and Corey Robinson all made a mark during 2013, Hunter stayed on the sidelines, suffering a setback to his recovery as he tried to push his return too quickly. But he's healthy and ready to compete this spring after impressing during bowl workouts.
Hunter looks like the missing piece at slot receiver, a position Brian Kelly just hasn't been able to get production from in four seasons. Though C.J. Prosise returns, Hunter's the type of open-field athlete that Kelly covets for the position.
The wide receiver depth chart is stacked heading into spring, even without DaVaris Daniels on campus. But it's time for Hunter to make his move.
Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox have graduated. Jarrett Grace is recovering from a nasty broken leg. Freshmen reinforcements have yet to get to campus. The timing is perfect for Michael Deeb to grab hold of an inside linebacker job and not let go of it.
Deeb sat out 2013, saving a year of eligibility while the coaching staff gambled on Calabrese, Fox and Grace, making three players fit for two spots. It didn't work. With Grace injured against Arizona State, the Irish scrambled to fill in holes with little-used senior Kendall Moore and former walk-on Joe Schmidt.
Moore and Schmidt return, though Deeb will immediately find himself in the mix. A physical, downhill linebacker, Deeb has surely added another coat of armor to an already stout 6'2", 242-pound frame. That gives him the bulk that Kelly coveted at inside linebacker, though we'll have to see if he's quick enough sideline to sideline to be a three-down linebacker.
Deeb will have a clean slate, with defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Brian VanGorder getting his first real look at his depth chart next week. With bodies limited at the position, he won't have much choice but to kick the tires on Deeb.
Filling in seamlessly after Jamoris Slaughter went down early in the 2012 season, many expected Matthias Farley to be the next leader of the Irish secondary. The former wide receiver proved a quick study at the back end of the defense, providing physical play, as well as good cover skills for a defense that powered the Irish to the BCS title game.
Yet 2013 was a disappointing season for Farley. His highlight reel was overshadowed by the plays that he missed. Underwhelming in coverage, Farley also made a habit of missing tackles, something painfully obvious when you're the last line of defense.
Farley didn't start in two of the Irish's final three games, with freshman Max Redfield getting the nod against Rutgers. If Irish fans had their way, that's how things would kick off this spring as well.
But don't count out the senior safety just yet. The veteran is too smart and has played too much football to be held off the field for long.
Brian VanGorder's arrival in South Bend came at the right time for Farley and the entire secondary. Tasked with simplifying things for the back end of the defense, there'll be plenty of new teaching points for the safeties and cornerbacks, with the hopes of manufacturing a few more turnovers.
A cerebral player who also has the experience to fall back on, Farley is likely intent on slowing down any youth movement in the secondary. But he'll need this spring to show that last year was an aberration.
Few players in the country will have more eyes on them than Everett Golson. After a long, lonely season away from football, Golson is back with his teammates and charged with returning the Irish to the elite of college football.
But that's not to say it'll be easy. For as talented as Golson is, there should be real concerns about his layoff from the game. Even though he spent 10 weeks training with George Whitfield in San Diego, there's no true way to replace a season.
Since setting records as a prep phenom in South Carolina, Golson has only played in 12 games the past three seasons. That's not enough football. Spring will likely be a crash course spent with a new teacher (quarterback coach Matt LaFleur), a new dean of students (offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock) and a headmaster (head coach Brian Kelly) who certainly hasn't gained any patience.
Golson lost a key season in his development as a quarterback. Spring's objective will be to make up for lost time.
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