Notre Dame’s 85th annual Blue-Gold spring game will kick off this Saturday at 12:30 PM EST and will provide Fighting Irish fans one final fix of pigskin action before the summer doldrums commence. Though the game serves as a glorified practice in front of thousands of fans, the yearly spring battle does allow a glimpse of what is to come for the ensuing season. With that in mind, UHND presents the top areas/positions Irish fans should train their focus as the action unfolds.
Offensive Line (Left Tackle, Left Guard)
It has been all too easy to overlook the left side of the offensive line the past several years. The production and familiarity has almost been taken for granted, with former left tackle Zack Martin having broken a school record with 52 career starts. Paired next to left guard Chris Watt, the duo tallied 89 solid starts for Notre Dame, laying the foundation for the offensive line overall.
Redshirt sophomore Ronnie Stanley has flipped from his former starting position at right tackle to fill the void left by Zack Martin, and rising sophomore Steve Elmer will be entrenched at the left guard position. Watching how the new tandem of Stanley and Elmer hold up will be interesting to witness after several years of great line play at the two positions.
Notre Dame fans will likely need no extra incentive to gaze upon the emerging three-headed monster of running backs Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. McDaniel’s steady play and old school toughness have elevated him into a leadership position, a role he has taken by the horns this spring.
When asked by the media what Notre Dame’s goal will be for the upcoming season, the senior from Texas momentarily paused, debating internally whether to provide a cliché or unabashed candor.
“Winning a national championship,” McDaniel stated bluntly. “That’s our team goal, and if anybody else says anything otherwise then they shouldn’t be here.”
Sophomore running back Tarean Folston will look to add to his stellar freshman performance while redshirt freshman Greg Bryant, who Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock has described as “incredibly explosive” during spring practices , will potentially offer glimpses of what Irish fans can look forward to in 2014.
Slot Wide Receiver
The slot wide receiver position at Notre Dame has failed to live up to the explosiveness seen by Brian Kelly’s teams at Cincinnati, a fact that could change dramatically at the hands of a wide receiver who has yet to play one down for the Fighting Irish. How good could redshirt freshman Torii Hunter Jr., former MVP of Nike’s The Opening , truly be? If expectations are sky high for the young Hunter it’s because former Notre Dame captain T.J. Jones placed them there.
“He could be one of the greats to come through here,” Jones said to the media in December regarding the emerging slot receiver.
All eyes should also be directed toward Amir Carlisle, former running back converted to the slot position. Though Carlisle only mustered 7 receptions for 30 yards in 2013, news trickling out of the Loftus Center says Carlisle has been catching very well throughout the spring practice session.
It should come as no surprise many Notre Dame fans will monitor the defensive line after the losses of All-Americans Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. The progress of their replacements, such as late-season upstart Jarron Jones, will play a critical role in determining how successful the 2014 season will be. Equally as important, however, is how effective the defensive line will be at implementing the scheme of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
“A year ago, most of the time, we were waiting on a guy to move, and then we were key-stepping with them and trying to work a knock-back. But now we’re coming on, we’re taking it across the line of scrimmage and attacking them,” said defensive line coach Mike Elston.
Given a switch to a more aggressive approach along the line, the ability of linemen Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones to create penetration will be worth a glance come Saturday.
With the more aggressive scheme Brian VanGorder hopes to run, Notre Dame’s secondary may arguably be the key to the success or failure of the defense. Increased defensive pressure will ultimately rely on whether or not Notre Dame is capable of playing more man coverage. Cornerback KeiVarae Russelll’s ability to go one-on-one consistently with Notre Dame’s wide receivers will be essential.
Keeping in the secondary, the development of former 5-star safety Max Redfield Is paramount given Notre Dame’s struggles at the position.
“We’re still in the learning curve with Max but he’s so gifted – that’s why you coach. You gotta get Max Redfield ready. We’re gonna get him ready,” said head coach Brian Kelly.
The position most fans will focus their attention given the return of former starting quarterback Everett Golson. Though quarterbacks are limited during spring games, Golson’s development after working with a private quarterback coach – as well as adding solid muscle to his frame – will be worth taking note. The intrigue at the quarterback position extends beyond Golson’s return, however, to the #8 standing slightly within his shadow.
While redshirt freshman quarterback Malik Zaire is unlikely to unseat Golson as the starter, the Blue-Gold game could give an indication of how much pressure Golson is receiving from the young challenger.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at email@example.com.