With just a little over a week to go before the start of the 2012 season, Notre Dame has several questions looming whose answers will determine if we are talking about when the Irish will be making a title run under Brian Kelly or whether we are questioning if he is the long term answer for Notre Dame at season’s end. Today we’ll look at some of those looming questions on the offensive side of the ball.
1. Who starts under center against Navy and after?
It has become increasingly clear that Everett Golson will be the starter when the Irish take the field in Dublin a little over a week from now, but until Brian Kelly officially announces a starter this question will remain. The more improtant question here, however, is who will start at quarterback for Notre Dame after the opener.
Tommy Rees, the incumbent and embattled, starter from last year will be done serving his one game suspension for his off-season arrest after the Navy game and will be eligible to play. If Golson starts and struggles or if Andrew Hendrix comes in and fails to give the offense a spark, will Kelly fall back on Rees? Kelly knows what he has with Rees, but will he be patient with either Golson or Hendrix if they don’t get off to a hot start? He certainly wasn’t with Dayne Crist last season.
2. Can whoever starts at quarterback cut down on all of the turnovers?
For whoever starts at quarterback this season, the biggest question mark surrounding them will be turnovers. Turnovers straight up killed the Irish in 2011 costing Notre Dame victories against South Florida and Michigan and a potential comeback attempt against USC.
If this year’s starting quarterback can just cut down on turnovers and protect the football, Notre Dame will have a chance to improve on last season’s 8-5 mark despite facing a tougher schedule in 2012. Now, that is a lot easier said than done, but considering Tommy Rees and Dayne Crist combined for 15 interceptions and 6 lost fumbles, the bar is set pretty low here for whoever is tapped by Brian Kelly to lead this year’s offense.
3. How will Notre Dame replace the production of Michael Floyd?
There is actually a pretty easy answer here. Notre Dame simply won’t replace the production of Michael Floyd. There just isn’t a way to replace the production of the school’s all time leading receiver in pretty much every statistical category that matters.
With that said, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin are going to need to find multiple ways to replace some of that production. The first way being getting the ball int he hands of Tyler Eifert as much as possible. There are very, very few linebackers in the country that can cover Eifert so when opposing defenses do try to cover the All American with a linebacker, Notre Dame has to take advantage. Force the opposing defense to commit a safety to cover Eifert and things will open up for the rest of the Irish receiving corps.
Speaking of the rest of the Irish receiving corps, Notre Dame is simply going to need someone to step up. Who that is I don’t know at this point. Is it 5th year senior John Goodman who has shown some flashes but no consistency over the last three years? Is it local product Daniel Smith whose made more news due to injuries than anything he’s done on the field? How about TJ Jones? Jones burst onto the scene two years ago, but his production has flat lined. Then there’s sophomore Davaris Daniels. Daniels has all of the tools to be a great college receiver, but is he ready to assume a staring role after not playing last year?
There are also three extremely talented freshmen coming in at receiver this year too, but more on that in a bit.
4. Can the staff find a way to best utilize Theo Riddick?
Theo Riddick is one of the most athletically gifted players on the Irish roster, but after three years we have seen more potential than production out of the New Jersey native. I thought last year was going to be the year he broke out and became a household name, but that obviously didn’t happen.
In the spring the staff moved Riddick back to his original position – running back – but its likely the senior will play more of a hybrid role of running back/slot receiver. Will Kelly and Martin finally be able to find a way to utilize Riddick’s athleticism this year or will we see some more flashes but no real consistency?
5. Will freshmen steal the show at wide receiver?
I touched on this earlier, but the trio of freshmen wide receivers have been catching a lot of attention so far in fall camp. Between Davonte Neal, Chris Brown, and Justin Ferguson, it will be a shock at this point if at least two, if not all three, see the field this year.
Much has been written about Neal already this summer, but just to reiterate, Neal is the type of dynamic playmaker Notre Dame has failed to consistently recruit. Look for him to make an instant impact and have his name called often throughout the season. Brown meanwhile has the ability to be the downfield threat Notre Dame is lacking now that Floyd has moved on to the NFL although he could still be a bit undersized to be used too much. Then there’s Ferguson. He tends to be the forgotten man among the freshmen receivers, but he could be the most complete receiver of them all.
Notre Dame has a lot of options at wide receiver this year in the upper class, but if they are unable to seize the opportunity, these freshmen could very likely steal the show in 2012.
6. Can the offensive line be dominant?
It has been a while since a Notre Dame offensive line could be called dominant, but the 2011 line took a major step in that direction by providing some consistent protection for Tommy Rees and at times huge running lanes for Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. The Irish will have to replace two mainstays from the starting lineup – Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever – but their likely replacements, Christian Lombard and Mike Golic Jr, appear to be more than ready to step in and pick up where their predecessors left off. Notre Dame is also replacing offensive line coach Ed Warinner with Harry Hiestand, but the early returns on Hiestand have been glowing and it appears as though a seamless transition has taken place.
With a quarterback making his first collegiate start, whether its Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson, in the season opener, having a line that can dominate the line of scrimmage – especially against a team they have a decided size advantage on – will go a long way in easing that green signal caller into action.
The 2012 Notre Dame offensive line will feature all juniors and seniors with three returning starters (four if you count Mike Golic as a returning starter after he filled in for Braxston Cave at the end of last season) with two potential All American candidates in Cave and Zack Martin. All of the ingredients are there for a dominant line.
7. Will the offense be able to run the up tempo, high octane pace Brian Kelly would like to?
This one is going to be tricky since the Irish will be breaking in a new quarterback, but up until this point, we have not seen Notre Dame run the high octane, fast pace offense Brian Kelly was known for. I remember watching Cincinnati games at the end of the 2009 season when it was clear he was the front runner for the Notre Dame job and getting excited about seeing an offense run at warp speed in South Bend. Three years later I’m still waiting to see that same offense take the field in Notre Dame Stadium.
Until we see that break-beck speed offense in South Bend, we are not going to see the Irish offense reach its full potential in this system. Up until now Kelly just hasn’t been able to run it because of the question marks he has had at quarterback since his arrival and in order to do so, he will need to finally establish a quarterback that develops a stranglehold on the position. In year three of his tenure, it is not unreasonable to expect both of those things to occur. The reality of the situation, however, is that we still might not see either happen this season.