Notre Dame Football: What Will the Fighting Irish Offense Look Like Next Season?
The Notre Dame offense will go through a metamorphosis of sorts at the end of this season.
The team will face arguably one of the best players in the country, Michael Floyd, departing for the NFL. A beloved running back in Jonas Gray will be leaving the team, and hopefully he will find his way to an NFL camp as well. The eligibility of two starting members of the offensive line will be up, Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, both NFL prospects, and backup Andrew Nuss's time with the Irish will be over, too.
And it comes as no surprise that Dayne Crist, who started the Irish's first game of the season at quarterback, will be leaving to attend graduate school somewhere other than South Bend.
With the changes that the Irish roster will undergo after the team's last game, what will the offense look like for the 2012-2013 season?
Cierre Wood will undoubtedly be named the starter going into next season, and he will likely be backed up by committee.
Cameron Robeson, a player that has yet to see the field in his two seasons (Roberson had a serious knee injury before the season began), could very well become the big back that the Irish will need for next year. At 6'0'' and 218 pounds, Roberson still has a steady combination of eating and weight training to do, and fans will have to look at Roberson's physique at the beginning of next season to see the role he will play in the Irish offense.
Two rising sophomores, George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel, will see an increased role in Notre Dame's offense as well.
Atkinson had nine rushes to McDaniel's three on the year, and after returning two kickoffs for touchdowns, Atkinson is going to remain the team's featured kickoff returner.
There has been quite a bit of enthusiasm about McDaniel's potential at running back, but unless he impresses coaches during the offseason, he will remain behind Atkinson on the depth chart (although an "or" is listed between the two on the Irish's official depth chart).
The last piece of the running back puzzle will be an incoming freshman from this year's recruiting class.
With Keith Marshall, a highly touted running back recruit picking Georgia over Notre Dame, the Irish are left with only one running back so far in the incoming recruiting class, William Mahone.
Behind Wood, there is no set rotation in the depth chart for running back, so if Mahone can separate himself from the competition, he could come into next season as Wood's backup, but a redshirt year is more probable for Mahone.
If Braxston Cave returns for a fifth year, then only two spots on the offensive line will be up for grabs.
Cave would retake his spot at center, Chris Watt would remain at left guard and Zack Martin would remain at left tackle. That leaves both right guard and right tackle open for competition.
Mike Golic Jr., who has played fairly well in Cave's absence (especially in the game against Wake Forest), could remain on the team for a fifth year like Cave. If he does, Golic would likely be competing against Connor Hanratty for right guard.
But the fight for the right guard spot won't be just a two-man race.
Lane Clelland could return for a fifth year to challenge for the position along with a host of talented younger players like Bruce Heggie and Zack Martin's younger brother, Nick, who is currently backing up his big brother at left tackle.
Right tackle will have just as much competition. Along with Nick Martin who is capable of playing guard or tackle, Christian Lombard has to be considered an early favorite. But right tackle won't be a two-man race either.
Florida State transfer Jordan Prestwood will get a chance to show his skills this summer, and youngsters Matt Hegarty, Brad Carrico and Tate Nichols will also get a shot at starting (Nichols looked impressive in the offseason, but was injured before the year began).
The Irish will be bringing in at least three offensive line recruits including 6'8'', 313-pound Taylor Decker, who should make the position battles all the more interesting.
One thing is for sure: With the amount of competition there will be at the two positions, there won't be a huge drop-off from this year's stellar offensive line play.
Maybe the biggest question mark is how next season's wide receiver corps will shape up.
As of now, Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones will remain the team's starters (although Riddick highlighted as a running back in Jonas Gray's absence).
Robby Toma and John Goodman, who became the team's third receivers when either Riddick, Jones or Michael Floyd left the game (Goodman for Floyd and Toma for the others), are the early candidates to help replace Floyd's production.
A starting lineup that consisted of Toma, Riddick and Jones would leave the receiver corps without a starting wideout over 5'11". Goodman, who is 6'3", would change that, but he hasn't been the model of consistency during his stay at Notre Dame.
Instead, Brian Kelly might look elsewhere to get some height at the position.
Rising sophomore DaVaris Daniels is one enticing option. Daniels is 6'1.5" and has the speed to be a deep threat. Daniels is also quite agile, as his name was thrown around to be a kickoff returner before the season began. Now that he has almost completed a redshirt year, Kelly will want to get him on the field.
South Bend-native Daniel Smith and former quarterback-turned-wideout Luke Massa, who are both 6'4", are other options at wide receiver. They have only seen the field in a special team capacity thus far in their careers though, so like Daniels, they are lacking experience.
The only other option to bring height to the position is to look at the incoming freshmen. Chris Brown, Justin Ferguson and Deontay Greenberry, all who are over 6'0", could very well forgo a redshirt season to be early contributors to the Irish passing game.
Like at running back, there is no controversy over who will get the starting tight end job. Tyler Eifert has played outstandingly, and with Floyd no longer on the roster, Eifert will come in as the team's leading receiver from this season by a wide margin.
There are a number of young tight ends on the team who will be ready to produce for next season as well. And with two projected starting wide receivers under 6'0'', the Irish's spread offense might consistently feature two-tight-end sets.
Eifert also has the ability to play in numerous positions, so it wouldn't be unlikely to see him at the slot or even playing out on the edge.
The real question then becomes, who will be the No. 2 tight end?
Mike Ragone, who was contemplating out loud the possibility of a rare sixth year, could return as Eifert's backup and an important contributor to the running game.
But the depth chart is filled with talent, so Ragone's position certainly wouldn't be assured.
Heavily recruited freshman and now rising sophomore Ben Koyak currently sits behind Eifert on the depth chart. Rising junior Alex Welch, another highly recruited tight end, is right behind Koyak and will probably be Koyak's biggest competition for playing time next season.
And then there is Jake Golic, who hasn't recorded any statistics in his career to date, but Golic is only an injury away from playing valuable minutes at tight end.
While the offensive depth chart will change quite a bit after this season, no position has drawn more attention than quarterback.
Brian Kelly is planning to start Tommy Rees against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, but Andrew Hendrix, who has been the talk of the town since showcasing a number of skills that Rees lacks versus the Stanford Cardinal, will also see minutes against Florida State.
Next season, well, that is a whole different conversation.
With word from SouthBendTribune.Com that top-ranked quarterback recruit Gunner Kiel is set to visit Notre Dame this weekend, the position battle could have four able-bodied contestants.
Kiel would be up against Rees, Hendrix and Irish fan favorite Everett Golson, who has yet to play a single down for the team (Golson's high school highlights have endeared him to fans).
Adding Kiel to the picture would make the contest all the more confusing considering fans aren't really sure what to make of the position battle already.
Rees could be auditioning for a job to start next season against Florida State on December 29, and if Hendrix outplays him or Rees is yanked from the game for poor play, let the speculation begin—again.
Golson should get a fair shot to play next season, too, but unless he has a solid grasp of the offense, Golson will probably be eased in like Hendrix was this season.
One thing is for sure: It will be a lively offseason for the Irish players and fans alike.