5 Unaswered Questions Heading into Notre Dame's Spring Game
With the Blue-Gold game approaching Saturday, Brian Kelly and his staff have just a few more practices to build the Irish until fall camp. Tasked with an ambitious list of objectives, the work already accomplished has been plentiful.
Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has installed a new scheme. Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock have rebooted the offense as well, going back to Kelly's spread roots, with hopes that it brings a return to the prolific scoring offenses Kelly had at Cincinnati.
As it often happens during spring, some answers have revealed themselves. Ronnie Stanley looks like the heir apparent to Zack Martin. Steve Elmer will move into Chris Watt's spot at left guard as redshirt Mike McGlinchey takes over at right tackle.
With Everett Golson being pushed at quarterback by Malik Zaire, Kelly finally has two triggermen that can run his up-tempo spread attack.
But with a national broadcast of the Blue-Gold game on tap for Saturday on the NBC Sports Network, let's look at five questions that still need answering for the Irish.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
Can Brian VanGorder Establish a Pass Rush?
If there's one major concern on a defense filled with question marks, it's the pass rush. Even with two All-American caliber players in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, the Irish only managed 21 sacks last season, good for 83rd in the country.
Brian VanGorder has been tasked with finding an answer to getting after the quarterback. And he'll need to do it with players that haven't proven they can do it. Only three total sacks return from 2013, with Jarron Jones and Ishaq Williams tallying a single sack and Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day sharing another.
But that hasn't stopped the defense from shifting from a more conservative philosophy to one that's all about attacking.
"We want to create more pressure for the quarterback," Kelly said last week. "We want them under more duress. From that standpoint, maybe the net-gain there is turnovers, but I think if they're making bad decisions and throwing the ball away, we're gaining downs in that respect, too.
"I think that's been a process for us. We're moving in a new direction for our defensive personnel. It's coming, and they're making progress in that regard, but it will take us some more time."
To create pressure on the quarterback, the Irish need to identify players who can do it. That means a breakthrough senior season for Williams, who has yet to show the talent many think he has. It also means a position switch for Romeo Okwara, from a drop-and-cover linebacker to defensive end.
The pieces that the Irish have are unproven. But there's a belief that underutilized players like Anthony Rabasa and Justin Utupo can help now that they're in a system that better fits their skills.
But after spending four seasons playing a system that relied on fundamental principles over schematic tweaks, VanGorder and Kelly are taking a calculated risk trying to utilize Xs and Os to get after the quarterback.
We'll find out soon if they have the Jimmys and the Joes.
How Will the Running Backs Split Carries?
Last year's running back depth chart might have been Brian Kelly's most talented, but it was also his least productive. Trying to mix and match a crowded position group with a diverse skill set, the Irish never seemed to get the running game on track.
The Irish are hoping for addition by subtraction at the position. George Atkinson left a year of eligibility to roll the dice and enter the NFL draft after his junior season. Amir Carlisle, last year's starter on opening day, is now a slot receiver. So is Will Mahone, who is recovering from a foot injury.
That leaves three back for the job, senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. It's a number that running backs coach Tony Alford thinks can be more productive.
"When you’re talking five and six, they believe they should be playing," Alford told Andrew Owens of BlueandGold.com. "And they believe they should be playing whatever the reasons are whether they should or shouldn’t, it’s hard to look them in the eye. … It’s a lot easier to manage I would say with three than five or six."
Now that the Irish are down to three backs, how those carries get split is the biggest question. Can McDaniel hold off Folston and Bryant, two players that are far more dynamic, but haven't proven as reliable?
Another opportunity for touches is in the passing game, where Bryant looks most dangerous. After getting next to nothing out of the backs through the air last year, utilizing the Irish backs like they did Theo Riddick in 2012 would immediately add a dimension to the offense that didn't exist in 2013.
From a talent perspective, it's hard to see McDaniel playing more than a minor role in the running game in 2014. But Kelly has shown extreme loyalty to backs that he can rely on, leaning on Riddick when Cierre Wood was more explosive.
Even with three, splitting touches will be interesting to watch. Let's see if the Blue-Gold game gives any clues as to how that platoon will look.
Can Jarrett Grace Recover in Time for the Season?
Joe Schmidt may be the surprise of the spring. The former walk-on linebacker will likely exit spring as the team's starting inside linebacker.
"He’s earned the right to be on the field right now because of his football IQ," Kelly said last week. "Defensively, you have to see things and react to them. Joe can see it and react. Some guys can’t see it and then it makes it hard for them to react... What’s keeping him on the field is his football knowledge and his instincts. He’s a football player."
Schmidt may have earned a role on this defense. But he's not the team's best option if Jarrett Grace can recover from a broken fibula suffered against Arizona State last year.
Grace has the ability to be a do-everything linebacker that Kelly and Brian VanGorder covet. It would also let Schmidt utilize his skills in sub-packages, a more productive defender against the pass than against running opponents.
Grace had an additional rod inserted into his fibula to help promote bone growth earlier this spring. That surgery needed six weeks of healing before the Irish medical staff would have an idea if the linebacker would be ready to return for next season.
It's still too early to tell, but the surgery seems to be helping.
"The early indications are very positive," Kelly said last week. "We're cautiously optimistic of where he is. He feels great. He's in a good frame of mind. I know our doctors feel really good when they got a chance to go in there... There's not a better kid that you'd want to root for coming back from an injury like that."
Who Will Play Along the Back Line of the Irish Defense?
Brian VanGorder has inherited one of the most talented group of cornerbacks that the Irish have had in over a decade. But the safety position needs sorting out, and learning a new system has taken this group back to square one.
"It's a very young group. A very raw group," secondary coach Kerry Cooks said. "I think it's a talented group, but right now these guys are learning everything... They're starting from square one."
As the Irish approach the Blue-Gold game, what Notre Dame plans on doing at safety still remains a mystery. Matthias Farley, a key starter for the past seasons, has been shifted into a nickel role. Max Redfield has been given every opportunity to take charge of a starting job, though he's still raw.
If Joe Schmidt has earned VanGorder's trust at linebacker because of his high football IQ, Austin Collinsworth has done the same at safety. The fifth-year player may not be the positions' best athlete, but he's taken to the role much quicker than Elijah Shumate or Eilar Hardy.
Saturday's scrimmage will be a great opportunity to see the progress this unit is making. But there's still plenty of work to be done at safety, a position where a mistake sometimes results in six points.
"Get better every day. We try to give these guys something to get better at every day," Cooks said, when asked about his objectives for the position. "As long as they're showing improvement everyday and we're not coaching the same things day after day after day, at the end of spring, if they've made small improvements, then they've gotten better.
Who Will Be the Receiver That Drives the Passing Game?
Last year, the passing game ran through T.J. Jones. The Irish's MVP supplied 22 percent of the Irish's total yards, with 1,175 yards and 11 touchdowns by either run or catch, the largest contributor by a wide margin. How Notre Dame replaces Jones' production is one of the big unknowns on the offensive side of the ball.
The best candidate to replace him isn't on campus. DaVaris Daniels has the skill set to be a No. 1 wide receiver, but he has yet to show the consistency. On paper, his more than respectable 745 yards and seven touchdowns puts him at a perfect trajectory for 2014. But Jones was far from efficient, catching just 49 of the 111 throws he was targeted with. Put into context, Jones caught 70 of his 109 targets.
If Daniels isn't capable of making the leap, there are other candidates. Sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller seem like the best bets. With Robinson, the Irish have a receiver who will catch nearly everything thrown his way. In Fuller, the Irish have their best deep threat in recent memory.
At its most optimal, Brian Kelly's offense doesn't key on one receiver, but rather spreads the ball around to the target with the best matchup. If there's reason to be bullish on the Irish passing game, it's that Daniels, Robinson and Fuller all seem like handfuls to cover one-on-one. With a potentially productive slot receiver duo in C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle, there's another dangerous playmaker for defenses to account for in space.
On paper, this looks like the best receiving corps Kelly has had. But somebody needs to replace Jones' production, and that's easier said than done.