As Notre Dame pushes into the final stages of spring practice for 2012, we look at some players on the roster whose role for the 2012 is still very much undefined but could end up being major based on how they progress between now and September.
Many were surprised when it was announced that Goodman was coming back for a 5th season. Through four years the Indiana native caught just 28 passes for 315 yards with 1 touchdown overall. With limited depth at wide receiver and a few swings and misses down the stretch in recruiting though, Notre Dame had more than enough scholarships left paving the way for Goodman’s return.
Early returns from spring practice suggest that Goodman is certainly making the most of his life line with head coach Brian Kelly heaping praise on him so far. Now, we have seen this before. Last spriong Kelly sang the praises of Deion Walker and Walker failed to catch a single pass during the 2011 season. At the same time we also saw Jonas Gray have the proverbial light switch turn resulting in a breakout season that had him cruising towards the 1,000 yard mark before suffering a season ending knee injury.
Could Goodman be headed towards a Jonas Gray type final season? He certainly has the talent to do so. In fact, talent has never been an issue for Goodman. Don’t believe me? Just look back at Goodman in the Army All American Bowl more than holding his own against the nation’s elite corners. For whatever reason though, Goodman has not been able to turn that potential into production on the college level. He’s got the size, speed, and athleticism to put up big numbers in this offense. Whether or not he puts it all together and does so, however, is an entirely different story. If that story has a happy ending for Goodman, some of the questions Notre Dame has at wide receiver will clear up quickly.
Backup quarterbacks are typically among the most popular players on a team. That is until they are no longer the backup and are thrust into the starting lineup anyway. With the struggles Notre Dame has had at quarterback the last two seasons, it should come as no surprise that Golson fits the bill as one of the most popular players on the team among Notre Dame fans right now. Golson is an electric talent who dominated the competition in high school while winning three consecutive state championships.
Let’s recap Golson’s resume quickly. Rocket arm? Check. Great speed and athleticism? Yup. Track record as a winner before arriving to Notre Dame? You bet. All of that makes Golson the most intriguing candidate in what has become the yearly spring practice quarterback race. None of the other quarterbacks on the roster possess the ability to add another dimension to the Irish offense like Golson does. For that reason alone Golson is one of the more intriguing players on the Irish roster this spring.
Before Golson is ready to add that dimension to the Irish offense though, he’ll need to beat out Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and Gunner Kiel by showing command of Brian Kelly’s spread attack and the ability to limit mistakes – something no quarterback on Notre Dame’s roster has been able to do the last two seasons.
The left side of the Notre Dame offensive line is more than solidified already with Zach Martin and Chris Watt having a stranglehold on the starting left tackle and guard spots respectively, but on the right side of the line Notre Dame will be replacing right tackle Taylor Dever and Trevor Robinson – two mainstays on the Irish offensive line the last two seasons and in Robinson’s case, 4 years.
That brings us to Nichols. One of the few last minute offers from Brian Kelly shortly after taking over for Charlie Weis, Nichols reported to Notre Dame as an over-sized tight end who immediately moved to tackle. Since reporting to Notre Dame Nichols has drew very positive reviews in fall and spring camps the past two seasons, but injuries have limited him from cracking the rotation along the line.
So far this spring Nichols has been turning some heads after some intense one on one battles with Aaron Lynch. An athletic tackle with Nichols size could help the Irish offensive line reach the next level after being one of the most solid units on the team last year. Is Nichols ready to face speed rushers at full speed after hardly seeing the field over the course of his first two seasons?
Even before Prince Shembo suffered a slight case of turf toe, Ishaq Williams was one of the most intriguing players on the Irish roster this spring. Williams enrolled early last year and saw the field plenty as a true freshman but didn’t have close to the impact his fellow 5-star defensive classmates Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt had during their rookie seasons. With Shembo banged up now though, Williams is running with the first team defense and with every rep he takes, he is getting closer and closer to the level of play Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco want him at in practice.
Williams did not face a strong level of competition in high school and as a result, it took him longer to adjust to the college game – not just to speed of live action, but to the intensity of practice as well. Kelly and Diaco have both talked this spring about Williams getting to the point where he is practicing at the level he needs to be at in order to tap into his enormous talent. Both have said the outside linebacker is not there yet, but that the New York native has made big strides this spring.
When Shembo is healthy, he will likely slide right back into the top spot at the CAT outside backer position, but if Williams takes advantage of his reps with the first team now, he will set himself up nicely for additional playing time in the fall. With his size, speed, and length; Williams is the prototypical CAT LB in this defense and the sooner he becomes the complete player Kelly and Diaco are looking for, the sooner the Irish defense can rise to elite status.
Notre Dame is in search of playmakers at the wide receiver position and one of the more intriguing options for Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin is rising sophomore/redshirt freshman DaVaris Daniels. The son of former NFL defensive end Phillip Daniels didn’t see the field last year as he learned the offense but as he enters his second season a lot is expected of him.
Daniels is a physically imposing wide receiver who can create matchup problems against most defensive backs that line up against him but it took him some time to pick up the offense last year and he ended up redshirting. Notre Dame is in desperate need of playmakers at wide receiver with Michael Floyd getting ready to be drafted later this month and Daniels is one of the most logical replacements from a sheer measurables standpoint.
While Ishaq Williams was a more heralded recruit, Troy Niklas was the freshman who saw the most action at outside linebacker in 2011 even going so far as starting a game in the process. In fact, even though he only started one game, Niklas only trailed Prince Shembo in the tackles department by 11. Despite his rise up the depth chart last season though, Niklas has moved over to the offensive side of the ball as a tight end where he offers the Notre Dame coaching staff some interesting possibilities.
Niklas is a physical specimen and part of the reason he saw the field so early last time was because he was more physically advanced than most true freshmen when they step on foot on campus. Tyler Eifert will be used all over the field in the passing game which means the backup tight end will need to be a proficient blocker – something Niklas could excel at early because of his strength and physicality. If he can pick up the receiving end of the position enough to be a threat in the passing game that defenses have to be honest about, he could end up serving as Eifert’s backup this fall.
On the flip side of the tight end equation is rising sophomore Ben Koyack. While Niklas may be physically capable of being the kind of blocker Notre Dame needs, Koyack has the receiving skills to add another receiving option for the Irish offense that defenses have to respect. Koyack was thrust into playing time last fall when Alex Welch got hurt and he held his own but clearly experienced some growing pains at times in the blocking department.
Is one off-season in the training program enough to get him over the hump to be the type of dependable blocker Notre Dame needs at the #2 tight end position? That remains to be seen at this point. From a match-ups perspective though, having Koyack and Eifert on the field at the same time would give Kelly and Chuck Martin a lot of possibilities. If Koyack gets up to speed with his blocking he could have the upper hand on both Niklas and Welch for the backup spot because of the experience he received last year.