Notre Dame Football: 5 Biggest Position Battles Heading into Fall Camp
It may be the heart of July, but football is right around the corner. With Notre Dame opening training camp in two weeks, the long-awaited Irish season is (almost) finally here.
That means after months of speculation, we'll get our first look at the changes to Brian Kelly's football team. After a 9-4 season came up short of expectations, the Irish enter camp with plenty of talent, but need answers at some key positions.
The NFL draft plundered plenty of Notre Dame's top talent, with eight former Irish players taken. Competition to fill jobs will be fierce, especially with new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
Let's take a look at the five biggest position battles heading into fall camp.
Senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant will handle the running back duties, a position group that should take a major step forward in 2014. But how Notre Dame's offensive staff decides to split snaps will largely be decided during fall camp.
McDaniel led the Irish in rushing, but it was Folston who took control of the position down the stretch last season. Add to the mix Bryant, who is finally healthy after a lingering knee injury earned him a medical redshirt, and the youth in the backfield might turn McDaniel into a third-stringer.
While the talent of Folston and Bryant has many people thinking a youth movement is in order, it's too soon to count out McDaniel. One of the most reliable contributors the Irish had on offense last year, McDaniel proved himself in 2013 after playing mostly as a backup his first two seasons.
Brian Kelly values stability and consistency at running back. In 2012, Theo Riddick became the primary back in the Irish offense, even though Cierre Wood statistically outplayed him. But Riddick's ability to hold onto the football and make good decisions kept him on the field, even if he lacked the explosiveness of Wood.
Of course, Riddick also thrived in the passing game, which is where Folston and Bryant have an edge over McDaniel. The Irish running backs struggled to contribute much in the passing game in 2013, an area of concern that'll surely be remedied this year. We saw glimpses of that in the Blue-Gold Game, where Folston caught five first-half passes and the Irish executed a few nice screen passes, an area of weakness last season.
Bryant and Folston both have star potential. McDaniel has earned the trust of this staff and has a huge leadership role on this team. The three backs should bring the best out in each other this August, pushing the ground game forward in 2014.
At one of the deepest positions on the roster, only junior KeiVarae Russell is a certainty to start. From there, August camp will dictate how defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder plans to use a diverse group of cornerbacks.
While Notre Dame loses captain Bennett Jackson, there's every belief that the position group will take a step forward. That's because fifth-year transfer Cody Riggs joined the program this summer from Florida and sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler are ready to contribute.
This is not Bob Diaco's defense. VanGorder prefers his corners to play man coverage, with a free safety playing center field over the top. Notre Dame was burned early last season in man coverage, when Russell and Jackson gave up a career day to Michigan's Jeremy Gallon. With the talent the Irish will be facing this season at receiver, this position group is up for a big test.
The Irish depth extends beyond the above four players. Senior Matthias Farley spent the spring playing corner, a physical player with great athleticism who the coaches believe can thrive in a more defined role. Also expect freshman Nick Watkins to contribute early. The 4-star cornerback already possesses great man coverage skills and should see the field immediately in sub-packages.
Seniors Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown round out the group. Both played early in their career, but have seen talented young players leapfrog them on the depth chart.
That's the type of competition that exists at programs that expect to play at an elite level. So August will be dedicated to finding the right combination as the Irish transition from a predominantly zone coverage team.
The Irish lost two of their top three receiving options from 2013, with TJ Jones and Troy Niklas gone to the NFL. But after developing some young talent and welcoming Everett Golson back into the fold, most expect the aerial game to take a big step forward.
DaVaris Daniels' return is a big reason why. After catching 49 balls for 749 yards and seven touchdowns, Daniels was suspended for the spring semester for academic reasons. But he's back in summer school and offseason workouts and is expected to serve as the Irish's No. 1 receiver, re-teaming with Golson.
From there, the battle to get on the field should be fierce. Junior Chris Brown and sophomores Corey Robinson and Will Fuller will battle for reps at outside receiver across from Daniels. Senior Amir Carlisle and junior C.J. Prosise will share slot receiver responsibilities.
But youth is knocking at the door as well. After spending his freshman season recovering from an injury suffered at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Torii Hunter Jr. is ready to compete for playing time. Freshman Justin Brent enrolled early and took part in spring practice. Physically, he might be the most impressive receiver on the roster.
Freshman Corey Holmes also joined the roster this summer, a silky route-runner with top-end speed from St. Thomas Aquinas, the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, powerhouse that's one of the top prep programs in the country. While he needs to put some muscle on, he's the type of talent who could find a role in an Irish offense that expects to spread the field and throw the ball around.
August should be fascinating. After inheriting a depth chart that couldn't go four wide, the Irish seemingly have an embarrassment of riches at the position.
How the reps get split should be fascinating to watch.
When Notre Dame's defense played its best, it was because it had a quality safety anchoring the secondary. Harrison Smith provided that stability for two seasons, transforming himself from doghouse dweller to hard-hitting, first-round safety.
Zeke Motta anchored the Irish secondary in 2012, providing another hammerhead in Bob Diaco's secondary capable of quarterbacking the coverage schemes while also providing excellent run support.
But the Irish defense struggled last season when they slid Matthias Farley and Austin Collinsworth into the starting lineup, and a position that was one of the most productive on the Irish roster in Brian Kelly's first three seasons was content merely just getting by.
To Kelly's credit, he didn't wait until the offseason to make plans for 2014. He pushed freshman Max Redfield into the starting lineup, giving the blue-chip recruit the month of December to learn the job then letting him learn on the fly against Rutgers.
In the spring, they shipped Farley outside to cornerback. With Redfield looking like the perfect fit at free safety, Collinsworth has been given the first chance at winning the strong safety job. But even though the fifth-year senior played in all 13 games and started 11 last season, expect him to be challenged from the beginning of fall camp.
Both Elijah Shumate and Eilar Hardy have to feel like they can win a starting job. For Shumate, it means putting a rough sophomore season behind him and getting back to being the player that contributed key snaps as a nickel cornerback in 2012. At 213 pounds, Shumate has the ideal size for a strong safety. He'll also be able to focus on learning a job better tailored for his skill set, with new coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense needing a strong safety who can blitz, support against the run and play man coverage.
Hardy is a wild card in all of this. The senior took a while to recover from a knee injury suffered during his freshman season, but was incredibly productive when he finally got his chance to play last season. A big hitter with a nose for the football, Hardy is another athletic option who should challenge Collinsworth for playing time.
Making things more interesting is the classification of junior John Turner and sophomore James Onwualu. Turner went from afterthought to situational starter in spring football, sliding down to a linebacker position on passing downs after being buried on the depth chart. Onwualu played in 12 games as a freshman receiver before moving to defense in the spring. Both could technically be classified as linebackers, but will likely see playing time on passing downs.
Expect freshman Drue Tranquill to do his best to force his way onto the field as well. Recruited without a true position, Tranquill could add some heft to the position while running well enough to help in coverage.
Until Brian Kelly says the job is Everett Golson's, the quarterback battle is the most important one on the roster. No position means more to the fate of the football program than the man piloting the offense.
I'm on the record saying that the job is Golson's. But the fact that Malik Zaire has made it this compelling certainly says something about the sophomore quarterback's ability to compete and absorb a fairly complex offense.
For as successful as Kelly's run in South Bend has been it's been a star-crossed four seasons for the Irish head coach at quarterback. He inherited an injured Dayne Crist as his only experienced scholarship quarterback and spent his first days on campus trying desperately to add quarterbacks to the roster—resulting in the 2010 recruiting class taking three signal-callers, far from an enviable position.
Tommy Rees was the unlikely starter to emerge from that trio, beating out Crist for the job then taking back the starting role after Golson's 2013 season suspension. But with Rees graduated, Andrew Hendrix transferred and Luke Massa moving on to life after football, the position is finally on solid ground with Golson, Zaire and incoming freshman DeShone Kizer.
Naming the starter is only the beginning. One of camp's biggest priorities is making sure Zaire is ready if he doesn't win the job, considering Golson struggled to stay healthy through much of 2012. And while the plan is to redshirt Kizer, the third-string quarterback isn't too far away from the field.
Kelly will finally have the dual-threat quarterback he needs to run his system. But it's taken longer than many expected for him to name Golson as his starter.