Fall camp is still in its early stages with the first day of full contact coming today, but its never too early to look at some questions Notre Dame needs to answer before September 3 when South Florida comes to town.
Who is the Starting QB?
This one almost goes without saying and has been discussed non-stop since the end of last season. No quarterback was able to distance themselves from the pack during spring ball even though it’s been widely speculated that Dayne Crist was the leader in the clubhouse heading into fall camp.
I’ve written since the end of last season that if healthy and able to play, I thought Crist gave Notre Dame the best chance for a BCS bowl run in 2011 and I still think that is the case. It is tough, however, to overlook Tommy Rees’s 4-0 record as a starter to end the season.
One thing I’m fairly certain of is Brian Kelly won’t play favorites here and whoever performs the best over the next few weeks will be the starter heading into South Florida. Kelly has said he wants to name a starter a week or two before the Irish open the season so we may not have to wait long to find out who will be lined up under center September 3.
Who is the top DOG?
There is only one linebacker definitely spot up for grabs in camp this year – the DOG outside spot opposite Darius Fleming. Fighting for the job are a pair of sophomores that contributed more than most felt they would as true freshman in 2010 – Danny Spond and Prince Shembo.
Shembo was a surprise pass rushing threat for Notre Dame on the outside last season and looks to have the inside track for the starting nod this year, but Spond, a special teams standout last year, was impressive in spring ball and will give Shembo a good fight in camp.
For Shembo, the key will be adjusting to dropping into coverage more after serving as just a pass rushing specialist last year and playing defensive end in high school. All signs point to Shembo being able to make the transition, but if he struggles, Spond, a former high school quarterback, will be more than happy to step in.
Odds are both will play a lot this season, but Kelly and Bob Diaco will need to settle in on a starter at some point in fall camp.
Who is going to return kicks and punts?
Brian Kelly threw the media and Notre Dame fans a curveball over the weekend when he threw out the names of Michael Floyd, Cam McDaniel, and Everett Golson as possible returnmen for the Irish in 2011. Would Kelly really use Floyd, his most indispensable player, in the return game? Tim Brown won the Heisman Trophy because of the impact he made in the return game for Notre Dame, but with all of the question marks at receiver for Notre Dame I just can’t see Kelly using Floyd in the return game unless one or two underclassmen receivers really established themselves.
As for Golson, would Kelly use Golson in the return game unless he worked his way into the two deep at quarterback in camp? Again, I think it’s doubtful here, but you never know.
McDaniel makes sense as a return man – especially on punts – since he is a shifty running back that could make defenders miss and then use his speed to break some long returns.
The other name Kelly mentioned was Theo Riddick. Riddick is an obvious option as both a kick and punt returner for the Irish, but given his injury history of a year ago, using him could be a bit of risky proposition.
Some other names I think we’ll see getting looks in the return game are George and Josh Atkinson and Bennett Jackson. Both of the Atkinson twins have the speed to be factors in the return game and Jackson showed some promise on kicks last season.
What’s great to see here is Kelly is making the return game a priority and it seems he is open to trying anyone and everyone until he finds someone that can help Notre Dame win the field position game much more frequently than they did a year ago.
Hopefully seeing fair catches on every punt will be a thing of the past.
How much will Louis Nix play?
One of the big stories so far in fall camp has been the conditioning of Nix since spring ball. The massive defensive tackle shed 26 pounds since the end of fall camp and is now listed at 324 lbs after reporting to Notre Dame last year over 350.
With the improved conditioning its entirely possible for Nix to overtake Sean Cwynar for the starting position in the middle of the Irish defensive line. In the action Nix saw in the Blue Gold Game, Nix was impressive and threw some offensive linemen around the way a tackle should in this defense.
For his part, Cwynar has reported to fall camp in great shape himself and will do everything he can to hold onto the position that he assumed after the injury to Ian Williams last season.
If the work Nix put in in the weight room has him in position to at least split the snaps at tackle with Cwynar, the Notre Dame defensive line should be very, very good this year.
What will happen at wide receiver?
With Michael Floyd back we know for sure that Notre Dame has at least one legit super star caliber wide receiver, but after Floyd what exactly does Notre Dame have? Theo Riddick looked like he was on the verge of breaking out last year before his injury and I’ve done my best to hype up the converted running back because I think Riddick has star potential, but to this point he is still more potential than production.
Riddick has the slot position locked down at this point and barring injury like last year, he should flourish at the position. Should Riddick suffer another injury plagued season in 2011, junior Robby Toma looks ready to step in.
The other outside receiver position is still up in the air though. TJ Jones showed flashes of big play potential a year ago, but faded down the stretch and will be pushed by the likes of John Goodman, Daniel Smith, and DaVaris Daniels in camp. Whoever starts outside opposite Floyd will enjoy single coverage almost every snap with all of the attention Floyd will command.
Developing some depth at receiver has to be one Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s top priorities in camp along with finding a quarterback and building depth at running back. The talent and bodies are definitely here for the Irish unlike running back where the numbers are limited.
How much depth is there at running back?
If there is one position on the offensive side of the ball that scares me heading into this season, it’s running back. Cierre Wood returns as the starter and in line for a big season, but if he were to go down to injury for any substantial amount of time like Armando Allen did a year ago, things could dicey pretty quickly for Notre Dame in the backfield.
Jonas Gray has shown flashes of potential throughout his career, but has not been able to put together consistent performances to this point. Early in his career he had some ball security issues. That wasn’t a problem for him last year, but even with the injuries at the position last season, Gray was unable to establish himself as a reliable threat.
After Gray, things get a little scary with just two true freshmen providing additional depth at running back for Notre Dame in 2011. Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson, a recruit originally considered to be a wide receiver prospect, will have to get a crash course in the Irish offense in fall camp because one of them will be just one injury away from cracking the two deep this fall. McDaniel may have the edge over Atkinson because he played running back in a spread offense in high school.
Gray will really be the key here for Notre Dame. If he can establish himself in camp and force his way onto the field, Kelly can split the carries up between he and Wood and avoid having to overuse Wood which would make him much less susceptible to injury.
Just how much will some of these freshman play?
This is a popular question every year, but this year more so than any has Notre Dame fans excited about the potential of some true frosh after Brian Kelly went out and signed the best class of defensive prospects Notre Dame has seen in over 20 years this past winter.
Based on the eyeball test a few frosh jump out as ready to contribute. Both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt look ready to see the field at defensive end this year. Neither looks much like a freshman at all which is especially impressive for Tuitt since Lynch had the benefit of enrolling early and working with Paul Longo all off-season while Tuitt had to work out on his own.
Outside of these two ends there are plenty of other candidates for early playing time – both Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson will get a look at the running back with the little depth at the position. Sticking on offense, DaVaris Daniels certainly has the talent to play early if some of the upperclassmen ahead of him don’t step up in camp.
Linebacker Ishaq Williams enrolled early like Lynch and could be tough to keep off the field as well. Fellow linebackers Ben Councel and Anthony Rabasa could also be candidates for special teams duty if nothing else. In the secondary, one of Jalen Brown, Eliar Hardy, or Josh Atkinson will almost certainly see the field due to limited depth in the secondary. My money’s been on Brown all off-season, and I’ll stick by that prediction – especially after hearing Jack Nolan report Brown is running a 4.37 40 yesterday.
Kyle Brindza could be factor in both the punting and kick-off duties after enrolling early and pushing Ben Turk for the punting job.
This class is shaping up much like Nick Saban’s first class that made an instant impact for Alabama after his disappointing 6-6 first season in Tuscaloosa. They have a long, long way to go before those comparisons are fully earned, but at this point – at least on paper – the similarities are there.
There are plenty of other questions that Kelly and company will need to answer in camp this year, but these are some of the more pressing issues facing this staff as they enter their second season on the sidelines in South Bend.