Brian Kelly needs some answers this spring.
My typical morning—the alarm goes off just as I’m cracking open my first cold one. Before I can blow the suds off the top, the damn cell phone starts chirping. As per usual, it's Brian Kelly...
"Hi Dan, Brian. Sorry to call so early, but I need to borrow roughly 67 Notre Dame scholarship athletes next month for four weeks to run around and then have a clock-running pick-up game at the end."
Dan: “With pads?”...Kelly: “Yes Dan, with pads.”...Dan: “Way too early Brian...I'll think about it.”
After mulling his request over one more breakfast beer and a stiff shot of Yukon Jack to get my game face on, and duly inspired by television showings of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as the top of my perpetually crappy Sunday cable lineup, I called him back.
“Brian, Second Year Wizard of Notre Dame, the answer to your query is yes, but only if you can answer my four questions. …Oh, and two cases of Corona.”
And so, as a result of the deal struck this very day, spring football at Notre Dame is a go, on the express condition that Brian Kelly answers my four questions by Second Happy Hour on April 16.
So, what are my questions you might ask?
Question No. 1: Can Bennett Jackson Play Defense?
After I politely declined to play corner for fear of ripping my pants yet again, Kelly decided to go with switching special teams player of the year Bennett Jackson from receiver to cornerback.
After starters Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, 5’10” Lo Wood is the only other corner that was on the roster last year, so it’s understandable that Kelly would ask somebody else to step in and play.
But can Jackson do it?
Kelly has every reason to believe he can, but this spring will tell him if his thoughts are justified.
Jackson is fast, and despite his size, he showed he knows how to hit. As a receiver, he has great ball skills and a working knowledge of what receivers are trying to do.
He played last year at 6’0" 172 lbs, and will probably be beefed up under the gentle tutelage of Paul Longo if this spring shows he has a future on defense.
In a parallel move, Kelly is also switching receiver/special teamer Austin Collinsworth to safety.
These could be very good moves to shore up a paper-thin secondary. This spring will tell Kelly what he has to work with, what he needs to work on, and whether these moves will work at all.
Question No. 2: Will Riddick Move to Running Back Again?
After seeing limited action at running back as a freshman, Theo Riddick showed some real explosiveness in the slot last year.
Kelly devoted a lot of time educating Riddick to the position, and when healthy, Riddick responded with some big plays.
Be that as it may, Kelly needs two solid backs for his system. With Savon Huggins afraid to leave the state of New Jersey, and my 40 time not requiring a second hand, this team doesn't have a lot of depth at the position.
Right now the two main backs are junior Cierre Wood and senior Jonas Gray, with redshirt Cameron Roberson the third back. Freshman Cam McDaniel is not arriving until fall.
If Gray doesn’t establish himself as a legitimate second option and Roberson doesn’t show he’s ready to contribute, Kelly will be taking a harder look at re-integrating Riddick back into the running game.
Make no mistake, Kelly will be very reluctant to shift Riddick to running back, especially since that means taking another explosive athlete (Cierre Wood) off the field.
The running back performances this spring will tell Kelly a lot about where these pieces will fall.
Question No. 3: Can the Kids Play?
We all read that ND had 23 recruits that rated five zillion stars each by every recruiting service in this solar system.
For the five early enrollees, Kelly will get to see what happens when they take those shiny stars off and have to play against the big boys.
Of course, then there is also me. I weigh 235 lbs, but after that my stats drop off dramatically. At 51 years old and a 40 time gauged by the angle of the sun when I hit the line, I may not be in the mix until Longo has worked with me for a summer.
On the other hand, OLB Ishaq Williams is also 235 lbs, but he's a freakishly athletic 6’6” and runs a 4.65 forty yard dash.
Look for him to challenge for a starting position at outside linebacker.
Also like me, DE Aaron Lynch has a lightning first step that, with a good summer in the weight room, might get him in the D-Line rotation early.
Less heralded but solid DE recruit Brad Carrico will get a chance to show what he can do before hitting the weights this summer.
Kicker Kyle Brindza is a 6’2" 195 pound kid with a really big leg. Actually, two big legs, but he only kicks with his right one, and he does it really well.
Although Ruffer will be the field goal kicker in 2011, Brindza may be the leader for handling kickoffs and punting duties with a good spring.
Everett Golson may be the biggest question mark of all of the early enrollees. I’ll get to him later.
Kelly will be kicking the tires pretty damn hard to see which of these kids can play right away.
Question No. 4: Who's under Center?
With Nate Montana transferring, Luke Massa moving to receiver, and my bum rotator cuff, the QB race is down to four candidates, each of which brings a distinct set of tools, and drawbacks, to the table.
Last year’s starter, Dayne Christ has a strong arm, above average mobility and a history of injuries.
Before he went down, he seemed to be picking up Kelly’s offense, although more slowly than his detractors might like.
It’s important for him to see if he can continue to progress in Kelly’s system.
Who should be the Irish quarterback in 2011?
Freshman Tommy Rees stepped in after Christ was injured and showed some good accuracy and leadership along the way. He is also the least athletic QB on the roster and threw into coverage a lot.
Kelly’s scaled-back playbook, Michael Floyd’s gymnastics and a renewed emphasis on defense and the running game did a lot to make Rees look better than he really was, but he did great under the circumstances.
Redshirt sophomore Andrew Hendrix is a 6’3” 220 lb athlete with a gun and a good set of wheels. The coaching staff raves about him to the point of true man-love, but he has never taken a snap in a college game. They've seen him on the scout team all last year and he’ll get a good hard look this time around.
Finally, early enrollee Everett Golson is an intriguing prospect. He’s a 6’0” 170 lb athletic QB that played the spread in high school.
As we all know, 170-lb spread QBs have a hard time staying on the field in college—just ask Denard Robinson.
Still, Golson has good arm strength and a knack for using his great mobility to buy time.
It probably would be best to redshirt him and give him a year to develop, but if he kicks ass in the spring he has the exact skill set Kelly likes to run his offense.
How these players compete this spring will tell Kelly a lot about who should get the keys to his offense going into next year, and almost as importantly, who will get the most reps as the backup.
Brian Kelly Owes Me 20 Bucks
Yes, it's a lot of money, but I am willing to forgive the debt Kelly owes me in exchange for preferred walk-on status. A handsome offer, but my guess is I'll get shot down on this one too.
That being said, for several key players (other than me), this spring may well determine their fall.
In addition to these questions, we'll have the annual musical chairs that spring ball stirs up in the depth chart. The trench and receiver position battles will play out, and continue through fall camp.
Over the course of four weeks, many of these kids are going to see what they need to do to improve their play, and then spend the offseason doing it.
To make it even more confusing than Bailey's Pub on my $1 Whiskey Fridays, eighteen more recruits with a bagful of talent will be showing up this summer. Many will be given a crash course on special teams.
Some of the more skilled athletes might get ahead of the curve to add depth to a thin defensive backfield, and in the case of recruits like DE Stephon Tuitt, possibly challenge for time in the starting rotation.
This isn’t Kelly’s first rodeo, so expect him to get the answers before fall so he can concentrate on refining his offense, defense and special teams to get ready for a tough 2011 schedule.
As for me, I am going to get off the couch and see if I can get some answers on April 16, or at least get my twenty bucks back.
Hope to see you there.