About the only thing that's changed on the Notre Dame football team this week is the Irish's sun tans. With the university off for spring break, so was the football team, pausing their spring work after two practices to get out of the cold and step away from school.
That's never a fun situation for a coaching staff. And while we talked about Brian Kelly's trust of his team last week, there's still the feeling of a parent looking at the clock tick past midnight curfew until the team returns to campus.
With the Irish returning to the practice field next Wednesday, let's run through a few items worth keeping your eyes on.
Identities Emerge When Pads Go On.
We will get our first true look at this football team when the pads go on. NCAA rules only allow helmets to be worn during the first two practices of spring. But when things reboot next week, we'll get our first look at the identity of the 2014 team.
The battle in the trenches will be especially interesting to watch. For possibly the first time in Brian Kelly's tenure at Notre Dame, expect the offensive line to get the better of the defensive front. Even missing starter Nick Martin and having to replace Zack Martin and Chris Watt, Harry Hiestand's offensive line is filled with physical, mauling players.
With Ronnie Stanley getting the first shot at left tackle and Mike McGlinchey playing on the right side, the Irish have immediately upgraded the size and athleticism of their offensive front.
That's not saying that they'll be better. Martin may very well have been the best collegiate offensive lineman this program's produced, and Watt has a chance to have a long career in the NFL if he can stay healthy. But after looking like a team that started five guards against Alabama in the BCS title game, the Irish will average 6'5.5" across the offensive line, with backup center Matt Hegarty the shortest at 6'4.5".
With only Sheldon Day having played truly significant minutes along the defensive line, expect the unproven defensive line to have their hands full this spring. Especially learning new techniques and systems.
It's No Secret That Everett Golson is the Starting Quarterback. But Malik Zaire's Development is Critical.
It didn't take long for the open quarterback competition to be ended. The world's worst secret ended with Everett Golson taking just about every first-team rep and Brian Kelly acknowledging after practice that this offense is Golson's to helm.
"The quarterback is really going to be the centerpiece of this offense and the way we run it. And it's going to fall on him. Today was a very good day for him," Kelly said of Golson.
"We're going to heap a lot on this kid's shoulders, and he knows that. That's why he came back to Notre Dame, because he wants that opportunity. Clearly, he's going to be the guy that drives us."
So with the "competition" out of the way, it's time for Malik Zaire's focus to turn to a job that's just as important: Getting ready to be the next man in.
Even with 15 additional pounds on him, nobody will confuse Golson for a sturdy man. In 2012, injuries knocked Golson off the field several times, and a concussion kept him out against BYU. There is no Tommy Rees to enter in relief. That job is now Zaire's.
In his introduction to spring practice, Kelly quickly identified the quarterback position as the one that worried him the most.
"Quarterback. I think at that position, Everett has to continue to evolve. Malik has not stepped on the field. And then DeShone Kizer is going to come in with no experience," Kelly said. "So the quarterback position, just start right there. That's a position that needs seasoning."
That's not to say Irish fans should be nervous if Zaire does get his chance. Perhaps the most telling statement on Zaire's abilities came in January, when Andrew Hendrix announced he was finishing his eligibility at Miami (Ohio).
Now Zaire needs to understand he's just one snap away from being Notre Dame's starting quarterback.
Finally in Pads, How Will the Running Backs Look?
It's essentially a three-man race at running back, with Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant taking the lion's share of reps. While Amir Carlisle will cross-train between the back field and slot receiver, a once-crowded position group sorted itself out even before spring's first practice.
With pads on, we can finally begin to get a good look at one of the more fascinating position battles on the roster. McDaniel returns for his senior season, the team's leading returning rusher. Folston had a banner freshman season, taking over down the stretch. And Bryant passes every eyeball test you could give the former blue-chip prospect, now healthy after a knee injury.
There are carries for all three backs. But for those looking to call this race early, a quick look back should remind Irish fans that past performances certainly won't dictate future results.
Tommy Rees went from starting quarterback to backing up a redshirt freshman. He usurped Dayne Crist for a job that that was all but gifted to Crist. At running back, Cierre Wood looked poised for another 1,000-yard season until Theo Riddick essentially won the starting job in 2012. Kelly has showed time and again that the best player will see the field.
Tracking running backs in Kelly's first four seasons, he utilized play calling and situations to optimize his running backs' skill sets. While it likely enhanced the offense, it also created tells to help opposing defenses. With George Atkinson gone, all three backs have the skills to do every job this offense requires. It'll be interesting to see if Kelly continues his habit of specialization or allows the best back to do it all.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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