For most Notre Dame Football fans this off-season has been a whirlwind of news—a somewhat reserved excitement and hopeful optimism for what the 2010 season holds for the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame let a coach go, hired a promising replacement, said goodbye to a handful of players who are currently demonstrating their abilities for the NFL draft, welcomed eight new position coaches (nine if you count the Strength and Conditioning Coach), and signed its newest recruiting class, including five early enrollees.
Soon, the football players will cease their “voluntary” workouts and dust off their jock straps in anticipation of spring football. With the annual Blue-Gold game just under two months away, Clashmore Mike will look at three separate areas of focus for the 2010 football team as spring practice commences in just under a month. These three areas of focus were major problem areas that plagued the 2009 squad nearly all season and should be targeted for improvement this spring. The first is expected and unexpected personnel changes.
The hiring of Brian Kelly and his new staff, who will implement their own flavor of spread offense, will throw a big wrench in what is usually a simple matter of fitting current players into vacant positions left open through graduation and those bolting early to the NFL. With Kelly’s offense, there will be more reliance on the passing game which impacts the quarterbacks, wide receivers, and offensive linemen (because of increased emphasis on pass protection). This year’s offense will be missing last year’s record-setting and record-breaking quarterback, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, and three offensive linemen (both tackles and the center).
Substituting those positions out of a highly-potent offense is like taking the tequila out of a margarita and still expecting it to remind you of Jimmy Buffett. And because the offense will be plugging in players at so many crucial positions they will arguably be under more scrutiny than the defense this spring by Notre Dame staff and the passionate fanbase.
Obviously, most of the attention on offense will be directed at the one taking the most snaps. Dayne Crist is the leading candidate to be that guy, although he’s recovering from an ACL injury at a rapid enough rate that could allow him be under center the majority of the spring. Besides his bum knee, the only other problem with Crist is that he’s unproven— he’s never started a game for the Irish and he’s only totaled 38 minutes of playing time in his first two years. On top of that, he’s learning a new offensive system—-albeit an easier system to learn than Weis’ pro-style offense.
Crist may be the starter by default, but of all the quarterbacks who will be on the roster in the spring—Crist, Montana, freshman Tommy Rees, and possibly current wide receiver John Goodman—Crist is the one who fits Kelly’s offense the best. So the real question might be “Who is likely to backup Crist on the depth chart?” This may be the first year since 2005, when David Wolke and Evan Sharpley fought for the backup spot behind Brady Quinn, that there will be such a stark drop-off in talent and development from the starter to backup. Quarterbacks coach Charlie Molnar will certainly have his work cut out for him.
The running back position is pretty cut-and-dry this season. Unless something drastic happens, the odds are fairly good that Armando Allen will keep his starting job. I think the real question at running back is “Who stays?” and “Who goes?” The running game will certainly not be absent from Brian Kelly’s offense, but it isn’t utilized as much as it was for Weis’ offense, and certainly not in the same way. Kelly’s offense is more suited for speedier backs like Allen and Theo Riddick and not as well for bigger backs like Robert Hughes, Jonas Gray, or Cierre Wood.
There are also a couple of other backs like Steve Paskorz and Cameron Roberson who will be seeing very limited action, if at all. Obviously, it was necessary for Weis to stock up on running backs, but now that Brian Kelly is here, who will be seeing meaningful time in the backfield? Will Cierre Wood switch to the other side of the ball? Does Riddick move to wideout and contribute on Special Teams exclusively? Much like the quarterback position, the majority of the focus may not be on the starter, but on the backups and how things shake out.
The wide receivers will be a very fun group to watch this Spring. With Golden Tate gone, Mike Floyd will most definitely step up into the primary receiver roll. But again, as with the other positions, who will step up behind him? In Kelly’s offense, there is almost always two wide receivers on the field at the same time and sometimes as many as four or five. Shaquelle Evans is a player who has shown signs of promise, but only has 33 minutes of playing time under his belt. John Goodman was a surprising contributor last season, notching one touchdown (from Crist) in mop-up duty against Washington State. But, if Goodman moves to quarterback to give some depth, his ability to catch footballs is moot. Roby Toma, Deion Walker, and Barry Gallup could all see some action this season, but none of them have really shown anything noteworthy, with Toma surprisingly leading that bunch in productivity.
Finally we come to Duval Kamara. He has been somewhat of an afterthought these past two seasons after a promising freshman year. It appears Duval has regressed significantly and it’s hard to explain why. If Kamara can pull himself together and have a Mo Stovall type of senior season, he could definitely help the team with his modest experience and help himself if he’d like to play at the next level, which, at this point is a long shot at best. As Brian Kelly’s offense relies heavily on the passing game, the progression of this position could mean a highly explosive offense, or one that continues to sputter throughout the season.
Offensive Line and Tight Ends
The offensive line and tight end positions are in a very unique situation this season. Notre Dame will return both offensive guard and starting tight end positions and will look to replace both offensive tackles and the center. However, if Dan Wenger can get his act together, Notre Dame might just find itself only needing to replace the right tackle and center positions, which is a bit less daunting. Matt Romine could fill that right tackle spot, but he has been battling injuries through most of his career and he is certainly not a lock at that position.
It’s encouraging to see that all of Notre Dame’s tight ends are coming back and this is exactly the type of offensive system that could see Kyle Rudolph finally get the recognition he deserves as being an elite pass-catching tight end. If Mike Ragone can get to 100% following his knee injury a couple of years ago and someone like Tyler Eifert can provide quality depth at the position, the tight ends are easily in the best shape of any position on the team. The biggest positive aspect that these two positions have going for them is quality depth. It’s encouraging to see that Weis didn’t leave the cupboards bare when he left. As long as Brian Kelly can continue to recruit at these positions, the Irish should be able to avoid another 2007 disaster.
Besides the safety position, the trend on defense is not that the Irish have untested players, but rather that the Irish have highly-talented players who are not performing to their potential. No position is more guilty of this than the defensive line.
As the Irish transitions yet again to a 3-4 base defense, there are likely to be changes along the line that will see Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming shedding some pounds and moving back to an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid position. Ian Williams, Ethan Johnson, and Kapron Lewis-Moore could prove to be trouble for any opposing offensive line if they can be coached to provide consistent pocket pressure. However, come spring and summer, the name of the game for the defensive line will be technique and, perhaps more importantly, conditioning. If Brian Kelly’s offense performs as it should, expect the defense to be on the field a majority of the game. This definitely could spell disaster if the line isn’t conditioned properly. Also necessary will be a fresh rotation of players, which puts a lot of strain on the depth at this position. And while that depth is promising, it is untested.
Much like the defensive line position, the linebackers will be tested in their versatility. This group lost Scott Smith, who didn’t see much action last year, Toryan Smith who had marginal playing time, and Harrison Smith who, according to Brian Kelly, will be moving back to his original position of safety, which has more than one fan cringing. However, in Diaco’s 3-4 defense, they have likely gained Kerry Neal and Darius Fleming, as stated above.
To lead the group, Brian Smith and Manti Te’o are back, and will undoubtedly be the starting middle linebackers. But, again like most of the other positions, behind the four starters is a lot of untested talent. With the inexperience in the secondary, especially at the safety position, and the previous lack of production along the defensive line, it could be up to the linebackers to provide leadership and consistency throughout the season. It is crucial that players like Steve Filer, David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald ready themselves to be called upon if needed.
Of all the other positions on the team, the secondary is unquestionably the weakest. While the cornerbacks aren’t in horrible shape this year, only losing Raeshon McNeil and special teams standout Mike Anello, their performance the past two years has been underwhelming, to say the least. After a promising showing in his sophomore year, Darrin Walls dipped a bit in production this past season, and his experience and leadership will be sorely needed in a secondary that is sure to be picked on throughout the year.
The real battle this spring could be on the other side of the field between Robert Blanton who has shown flashes of greatness and toughness throughout his career, and Gary Gray, whose play on the field hasn’t really lived up to his hype coming out of high school. The only other non-freshman cornerbacks on the roster are E.J. Banks and Jamoris Slaughter. The former hasn’t had a lick of playing time and the latter may make a switch to safety, depending on the situation.
The safeties are in a league of their own this off-season—and not in a good way. Besides Harrison Smith, who has been known to struggle in pass coverage, the only other safety on the roster who has seen more than 10 minutes of playing time is Zeke Motta, who saw a whopping 11 minutes last season. Losing Kyle McCarthy may have a greater impact on the secondary in 2010 than losing Tom Zbikowski after the 2007 campaign. Outside of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta the only other safeties on the roster who aren’t incoming freshmen are Leonard Gordon and Dan McCarthy.
Because of the lack of depth at this position, we may end up seeing the staff jockey around with personnel and switch someone like Jamoris Slaughter from the cornerbacks or even someone from the offense switch sides of the football and lend a hand (perhaps Cierre Wood). Because of the additional time the defense will likely be on the field, and the lack of depth in the secondary as a whole, the safeties could once again find themselves being an Achilles’ Heel of the entire team.
Across the entire roster this spring, “Who starts?” may be less of a question than “Who is going to provide reliable depth?” At nearly every position, the number one spot on the depth chart should already be determined, it’s the backups that will really be fighting for position. On offense, Notre Dame will have the tools to field an explosive attack that should be capable of scoring points quickly.
This lack of emphasis on offensive ball control will mean the defensive starters will be on the field much longer than usual. In order to make sure that there are constantly fresh, experienced, and talented players on the field, each position must equip itself with a bevy of well-trained backups. This also means that excellent physical conditioning will prove to be a very precious commodity this fall in Notre Dame Stadium.
Check back soon for the next Spring Football Focus Part II: Conditioning.
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