Notre Dame Football: 5 Things to Keep an Eye on in the Champs Sports Bowl
The 2011 Champs Sports Bowl is right around the corner, and the game will bring about a number of interesting matchups and answer a few lingering questions for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Will the game foreshadow any changes for next season, or will it simply tell fans little more than who is the better of the two competitors?
The contest pits the Fighting Irish against a worthy opponent in the Florida State Seminoles, and for longtime Notre Dame fans, the matchup will bring back shades of the Irish's 1993 season.
Although it can be hard to look beyond the resentment felt by Irish fans in 1993, it is time to look towards Notre Dame's future.
Andrew Hendrix's Minutes
Fans should have a vested interest in how many snaps Andrew Hendrix takes and in what capacity the sophomore quarterback is used.
Will Hendrix be in primarily to run an option attack, or will Brian Kelly let him throw the ball down field?
The answer to that question could be telling to Hendrix's future next season.
If fans see Kelly using Hendrix in a similar way to how he was used against the Stanford Cardinal (especially if Rees is playing well), then one could assume that Kelly will use the game as a barometer of Hendrix's ability and potential. Obviously, Kelly trusts that Hendrix is developing a better grasp of the offense. If Kelly didn't, Hendrix wouldn't be playing at all.
Kelly knows more than anyone how hard it is to determine a starting quarterback just from practice.He tried to do so this season. While how Hendrix performs leading up to the first game of next season will be considered, the Champs Sports Bowl could be an audition for him.
Even if Hendrix plays well against Florida State, Kelly will certainly want to take a look at Everett Golson next season, and Kelly is relatively comfortable with Rees running the offense as well. But on Dec. 29, Hendrix could provide Kelly with a strong piece of evidence as to why he deserves to be the starting quarterback for Notre Dame.
How the Departing Starters End Their Careers with the Fighting Irish
Starters Michael Floyd, Darius Fleming, Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, Trevor Robinson, Taylor Dever and Ethan Johnson have all used up their eligibility for the Irish and will want to go out with a bang in their farewell game.
One can be assured that each player will look to end their college football careers with a win, but they all want to send one final message out to NFL scouts, too.
There is a possibility that a few of these players won't get drafted, but each one has a solid chance to make it to an NFL camp as a free agent.
Smith, Blanton and Gray have the chance to impress scouts by going up against Florida State's 34th ranked passing offense, and Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel will try to take advantage of Notre Dame's defense that has played well statistically against the pass but failed to cause many turnovers.
Fleming and Johnson can show off their pass rushing skills by chasing down the mobile Manuel. Manuel is averaging a dismal 1.9 yards per carry this season, his worst rushing average in his time the Seminoles, but he has already scored four rushing touchdowns this year.
On the offensive side of the ball Floyd, Robinson and Dever have less to prove.
Even if Floyd goes without a catch against the 18th passing and sixth overall defense in the FBS, he is a sure first-rounder.
Robinson and Dever will face a Florida State defensive front that is ranked ninth in sacks and fifth in tackles for loss. After giving up five sacks against Stanford, the Notre Dame offensive line didn't fall far and is ranked 18th in sacks allowed and tied for 21st in tackles for loss allowed.
While a good performance against an excellent defense would help their draft stock, Dever and Robinson will find their way into an NFL camp regardless.
Where Is Theo Riddick?
Theo Riddick has yet to show the show-stopping ability that coaches have expected of him, but with Notre Dame's biggest offensive threat in Michael Floyd leaving for the NFL, Riddick has a chance to shine next season.
Where Riddick will shine is now the question.
It has been revealed that Riddick will be in the backfield against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. In an article by Matt Fortuna on espn.go.com, Riddick said that he is most comfortable as a running back.
That doesn't mean that Riddick will make a permanent switch, and he will more than likely play wide receiver when Cierre Wood enters the game. It does mean that Brian Kelly is fond of Riddick getting a chunk of his production at running back, and Riddick's stint at wide receiver has helped him become even more deadly catching passes out of the backfield.
Riddick staying at running back for good depends on which wide receivers can step up after Michael Floyd's departure, or if any of the running backs currently on the roster or coming in next season can play well enough so that Riddick can remain at wideout.
After reading Riddick's comments, it seems he is hoping for the former. If Riddick is needed at running back next season, he will likely be used as a wide receiver as well. There is no reason not to have both Riddick and Wood on the field at the same time. The Notre Dame offense can't afford it.
Does the Offense Look Any Different?
The offense will probably remain almost exactly the way departing offensive coordinator and new University of Massachusetts Amherst head coach Charley Molnar left it. Molnar has been more of an advisor to the offense rather than a true offensive coordinator.
He helped with the schematics of the offense, but Kelly has always been the guy who has the final say when it comes to calling the plays. Molnar will be sitting in the press box during the Champs Sports Bowl, but any impact he has on the Irish offense at the bowl game will be purely ceremonial.
It will be difficult to determine what are new wrinkles in the offense with any uniqueness that Molnar brought to the game plan. Brian Kelly has been with Molnar since his days at Central Michigan in 2006, so Kelly has a fairly well developed sense of Molnar's style, and Molnar has meshed his style with Kelly's.
If anything will be missed, it will be Molnar teaching Notre Dame's young quarterbacks. Pete Sampson's piece on notredamerivals.com, "Missing Molnar," pointed out how important Molnar has been to the quarterback's overall progression. However, coaches come and go, and a new qualifed teacher will come in and take Molnar's place.
But if Notre Dame's offense begins to trend downwards, then Molnar's impact on the offense might have been understated.
An Aggressive Defense
Fans have been dying to see a game called by Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco where he let's the players loose, and the Champs Sports Bowl could very well be the game fans get appeased.
The Notre Dame defense has done very well on paper this season, but statistics don't always tell the whole story.
The Irish currently have the 34th ranked total defense. The team is ranked 58th in rushing defense and 33rd in passing defense. Impressively, Notre Dame is 28th in points allowed and 25th in allowing third down conversions, but the defense just hasn't been as imposing in games as its statistics would lead one to believe.
When taking a deeper look, the team's deficiencies on defense are glaring.
The Irish are ranked 83rd in tackles for loss, 79th in sacks, tied for 91st in interceptions, 113th in fumbles recovered and 112th in overall turnovers gained.
Next season with the talented young linemen, the Irish might be able to rush three or four defenders and get to the quarterback, but this season, it hasn't worked out that way.
If Notre Dame doesn't want Florida State's 34th ranked passing offense to pick the defense apart, Diaco will have to dial up some serious pressure.