Notre Dame Football: Predicting the Starting Offense for 2011

Matt MattareCorrespondent IIIApril 5, 2011

Notre Dame Football: Predicting the Starting Offense for 2011

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    Spring football in South Bend is winding down, and the annual Blue-Gold Game is just two weeks away. The team appears to be taking shape, and an offense brimming with potential seems to be on the verge of hitting its stride even without its most dangerous weapon.

    The Irish return a whopping 10 players who made at least five starts on offense, experience that has bumped up the expectation level both internally and externally. There are still some battles raging where the starter position is up in the air, so today we're going to take a stab at predicting each of the 12 starting positions. 

Quarterback

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    2010 Starter: Dayne Crist (nine games), Tommy Rees (four games)

    Potential Starters: Crist, Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson 

    2011 Prediction: Dayne Crist

    Confidence Level: Rising each day 

    This is far and away the most heated and scrutinized battle of the spring. Just like in 2007, there are four quarterbacks in the running. This time, two of them have significant starting experience (and an offensive line that isn't constantly described as being "a sieve"). 

    There were plenty of fans who thought Tommy Rees would have the inside track on seizing this job due to Dayne Crist's injury, but Crist bounced back quickly from his knee surgery and appears to be the front runner again. He has significantly more experience not only starting, but also with reps in general since he received nearly all of them starting last spring up until his season ended against Tulsa.

    By all accounts Crist's confidence and decisiveness in the offense have improved this spring, and with the rising comfort level comes more consistent production. Crist is a much more impressive physical specimen than Rees and is capable of adding dimensions to the offense that Tommy simply cannot. 

    The smart money says that if Dayne stays healthy (granted, that's a big if), then he will be under center on September 3rd. 

Running Back

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    2010 Starter: Armando Allen (seven games), Cierre Wood (nine games)

    Potential Starters: Wood, Jonas Gray 

    2011 Prediction: Cierre Wood

    Confidence Level: Mortal Lock

    Cierre Wood stepped in when Armando Allen went down with a hip injury and filled in admirably for the fallen senior. Even though he started one less game than Armando, Wood bested him in every single rushing category by the end of the season. 

    Wood will step into the starting role this season at one of the thinnest positions on the entire team. Senior Jonas Gray will be the main backup, but he's the only other healthy scholarship running back on the roster thanks to a major knee injury suffered by Cameron Roberson. Roberson was the MVP of the scout team last year and a darkhorse candidate to contribute this fall, but unfortunately he's most likely gone for the season.

    It will be important for Wood not only to be productive and consistent like he was down the stretch of last season, but it will be essential that he finds a way to stay healthy. Notre Dame cannot afford another injury at this spot.

Fullback

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    There isn't even a fullback listed on the roster, and you know what? Mark Edwards is not coming through the door any time soon now that Brian Kelly has implemented his spread offense. 

    A moment of silence for those that pine for the ol' Power I before we move on...

Wide Receiver

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    2010 Starters: Michael Floyd (12 games), TJ Jones (13 games), Theo Riddick (13 games)

    Potential Starters: Floyd, Jones, Riddick, John Goodman, Deion Walker, Robby Toma

    2011 Prediction: TJ Jones, Theo Riddick, John Goodman

    Confidence Level: Sadly Confident

    This position that appeared to be in great shape took a huge hit when superstar Michael Floyd was suspended indefinitely after being arrested for a DUI. Word from South Bend is that a decision on his future will be handed down some time in the near future, so at least the team won't be held in limbo awaiting his fate. More than likely though, he'll be watching the South Florida game from the bench. 

    That leaves the trio of Theo Riddick, TJ Jones and John Goodman as the most likely to emerge. Riddick began to flourish out of the slot before going down with an injury that sidelined him for four games. He's still learning the position, but he's a dangerous threat in space that Dayne Crist will likely lean on heavily before Floyd returns. 

    Jones burst onto the scene with a couple big plays early in the year but wore down and fizzled by season's end. He's a very polished receiver for such a young player and will be given ample opportunity to fulfill his promise. Goodman is the only starter that may be in danger of losing his position. Currently rising sophomore Daniel Smith is listed behind him, but while Smith has been a pleasant surprise, he's also been hampered by an injury this spring. Notre Dame hopes Goodman will emerge as a Robby Parris-type of reliable option that bloomed late.

    One quick prediction: Robby Toma will emerge as one of the top four receivers on the team (including Floyd). He's too quick and too sure-handed to ride the pine and with the plethora of four- and five-receiver sets in the spread, he won't have to do it very often. 

Tight End

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    2010 Starter: Kyle Rudolph (six games), Tyler Eifert (seven games)

    Potential Starters: Tyler Eifert, Mike Ragone

    2011 Prediction: Tyler Eifert

    Confidence Level: No-Brainer

    Much like Cierre Wood at running back, Tyler Eifert stepped in as a starter halfway through the season and did a valiant job replacing All-American candidate Kyle Rudolph. Their numbers were nearly identical by season's end.

    Eifert is essentially Kyle Rudolph Lite. He's not quite as big as Rudolph, but he's a long and athletic target capable of getting up the seam for big plays in addition to providing a safety blanket underneath. He's got great hands and will be a deadly threat in the red zone. 

Left Tackle

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    2010 Starter: Zack Martin (12 games), Matt Romine (one game)

    Potential Starters: Zack Martin

    2011 Prediction: Zack Martin

    Confidence Level: 100 percent

    Zack Martin emerged last year as one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. As a redshirt freshman, he appeared from relative oblivion and seized the job over senior Matt Romine.

    Despite the fact that he'd never played a down in college, Martin was the best and most consistent lineman on the team last season. He's a rock that will be locking down the blind side for the next three years. When he ultimately leaves campus after the 2013 season, he has a great chance to be Notre Dame's first lineman selected in the first round of the NFL draft since Jeff Faine in 2003. 

Left Guard

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    2010 Starter: Chris Stewart (13 games)

    Potential Starters: Andrew Nuss, Chris Watt

    2011 Prediction: Andrew Nuss

    Confidence Level: Coin Flip

    The only starter that must be replaced on the offensive line is the most famous law student in college athletics, Chris Stewart. Looking to fill his giant shoes are Andrew Nuss and Chris Watt. At this point in spring practice, it appears that Nuss is the slight leader, a somewhat surprising development since many have Watt pegged for great things.

    This isn't a bad thing that Nuss may beat out Watt; in fact, it's quite the opposite. Watt is still oozing with potential, an athletic mauler with a nasty streak. It's just that Nuss is playing phenomenally well. It's never a bad thing when there's a surplus of solid, productive options to plug in the lineup.

    It wouldn't shock me if either player won the job. Nuss may snatch it for one year, but expect Watt to be a stud for his final two years. 

Center

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    2010 Starter: Braxston Cave (13 games)

    Potential Starters: Cave

    2011 Prediction: Braxston Cave

    Confidence Level: Definite

    While Mike Golic, Jr. has received praise this spring for his emergence as a viable backup, there hasn't been anything to lead you to believe Braxston Cave isn't locked into the starting spot. 

    Cave had some rough patches in his first season as starter, but he improved over the course of the year and worked his way into the "reliable" category. He's incredibly strong and surprisingly nimble. If you go back and look at the tape, Cave threw a lot of the key blocks on pulls when Cierre Wood sprang for big yardage. 

    Look for him to continue to make strides in year two as a starter. 

Right Guard

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    2010 Starter: Trevor Robinson (13 games)

    Potential Starters: Robinson

    2011 Prediction: Trevor Robinson

    Confidence Level: Same as it's been the past two years.

    Trevor Robinson enters his fourth season as a starter at guard for the Irish. He's more of a pro-style interior lineman, so it's not surprising that he took a small step backward last year as he struggled to adapt to the spread. 

    A road-grading run blocker, Robinson gives the Irish a bruiser to lean behind in short yardage situations. If he improves in the same way he did after his freshman and sophomore seasons, then Robinson will be giving Zack Martin a run for his money for the title of the team's best lineman.

Right Tackle

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    2010 Starter: Taylor Dever (12 games), Matt Romine (one game)

    Potential Starters: Dever

    2011 Prediction: Taylor Dever

    Confidence Level: No doubt about it.

    After three years of limited opportunities sitting behind Sam Young, Taylor Dever won the starting right tackle position over fellow classmate Matt Romine last spring. Just like Martin on the left side, Dever was a pleasant surprise at his bookend position and turned a preseason question mark into a strength.

    When Dever was granted his fifth year of eligibility this spring, it ensured that four starters along the line would return for the 2011 campaign. That continuity will pay serious dividends in the fall.