Notre Dame kicks off the first spring practice under head coach Brian Kelly on Friday. While the excitement level isn’t quite where it was at after the last coaching change, excitement is starting to build and Notre Dame fans are excited to see how different the Irish will look this season.
Here’s a look at 12 players who either haven’t played much yet or are making position changes this season that will determine how successful a campaign
1. Cierre Wood, RB – With Theo Riddick getting moved to wide receiver so that Brian Kelly can get more playmakers on the field at the same time, the spotlight will be a little brighter on Cierre Wood this spring. The former five star running back “redshirted” last year and was passed by Riddick early on in fall camp. His style of play should fit in well in the spread offense where he can get the ball in space. Armando Allen has the #1 running back pretty much locked down, but the backup spot should be up for grabs and Wood will have the opportunity to stake his claim to the role.
2. Theo Riddick, WR – Wood is going to get his chance this spring because fellow sophomore Theo Riddick was moved to wide receiver this off-season. Riddick is built similarly to another running back turned wide receiver that passed through Notre Dame recently – Golden Tate. If Riddick can have anywhere close to as successful a switch as Tate had, Notre Dame will be in great shape. Riddick doesn’t have Tate’s speed though and for this season, Kelly has said that Riddick will compete for time in the slot immediately. He’s a playmaker and should see action at wide receiver this fall.
3. Shaquelle Evans, WR – Evans was one of the more highly ranked offensive recruits in last year’s class, but after moving up the depth chart early, he wasn’t heard from much at all down the stretch last season. There was plenty of grumblings that Evans was going to be a possible transfer during the off-season, but those rumors thankfully turned out to be false. Evans might be the most physically gifted receiver not named Michael Floyd on the team, but he is going to need to make some big strides this spring in order to have a chance to take over Golden Tate’s vacated starting receiver spot.
4. Deion Walker, WR – Another receiver competing for the starting spot opposite Floyd is rising junior Deion Walker. Walker came to Notre Dame has a highly ranked recruit in the same class as Floyd but has been unable to earn much playing time in his two seasons in South Bend. The time is definitely now for this one-time former five star recruit with Evans fighting for playing time along with fellow junior John Goodman. A trio of incoming freshmen will be on Walker’s heels as well if he is unable to climb the depth chart this spring.
5. Tommy Rees, QB – No matter how optimistic Kelly says he is about Dayne Crist, the backup quarterbacks are going to get plenty of reps this spring since Crist almost certainly won’t be taking part in any contact drills. Rees is going to get a crash course in the spread and will have an opportunity to take a big lead in the backup QB race with Luke Massa and Andrew Hendrix finishing up their senior years. With Crist coming off a serious injury, Kelly is going to need to have at least one backup prepared to play this fall just in case.
6. Matt Romine, OT – With the news that Lane Clelland is moving to defensive end this spring, the pressure is going to be on Matt Romine and fellow senior Taylor Dever to lock down one of the tackle spots. It wouldn’t be surprising if Trevor Robinson is moved to one of the tackle spots. He’s the best offensive lineman on the team and has the size to play tackle. If that happens, only one tackle spot would be open. Romine’s always had the skill, but he’s battled injuries and has needed to add some size. Can he stay healthy all spring and was a winter working with Paul Longo enough to have him ready to step into a starting role?
7. Ian Williams, NT – As soon as Bob Diaco announced that Notre Dame would be running a 3-4 defense, Ian Williams became the most important player on the defensive side of the ball for 2010. Williams thrived as a backup NT in the 3-4 defense in 2007, but hasn’t shown that same promise playing from the defensive tackle position in the 4-3 defense the past two seasons. The nose tackle position is the most pivotal spot on the defense in a 3-4. Hopefully Williams can dial up some of the magic we saw in 2007 and anchor the Irish defensive line this season.
8. Darius Fleming, OLB – Fleming looked like a prototypical outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense coming out of high school, but struggled at times as a defensive end last season. Fleming has shown flashes of being a dominant pass rusher off the edge at times and should be one of the defensive players that benefits the most from the move to the 3-4 defense. He’ll need to work on his pass coverage since he hasn’t been asked to do that too much the past two seasons, but I’d be shocked if he wasn’t one of the starting OLB by the end of spring. Fleming gets my vote as breakout defensive player this spring.
9. Steve Filer, OLB –Another player that should benefit from the move to the 3-4 defense is Steve Filer. Like Fleming, he’s shown flashes of passing rush ability at times, but was always a bit of a tweener. Filer will be fighting for a starting spot this spring. He could get a look on the inside, but with his edge pass rushing ability, he seems like a great fit for the outside linebacker position.
10. Anthony McDonald, ILB – Moving to the inside of the linebacking corps, this could be the spring that Anthony McDonald steps up and grabs hold of a starting spot. He’s played sparingly over his first two seasons, but he has the size to be an effective inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. McDonald and Filer’s playing time and chances of starting will likely depend on where Brian Smith ends up playing. He was an OLB in the 3-4 in 2007, but moved inside in 2008 and hasn’t shown the same promise he showed as a freshman. If he moves back outside, look for McDonald to step up and start next to Manti Te’o on the inside.
11. Jamoris Slaughter, FS – Slaughter saw some playing time last year but couldn’t lock down the starting free safety spot. As a converted cornerback, he has the coverage skills to be able to be a rangy free safety, but like most of the Irish defenders, he’ll need to improve his tackling skills to stake his claim for the starting spot. As a blogger, I’d love for Slaughter to become a full time starter for the potential for horribly cheesy headlines if for no other reason. I’ve been waiting for three years now to write “Irish Defense Slaughters _______ “.
12. Harrison Smith, SS – There was not a more maligned player on the Irish squad in 2009 than Harrison Smith. While some of the consternation from Irish fans was self inflicted by a few bone-head penalties, a lot had to do with the previous coaching staff continually moving Smith around and not letting him get settled at any one position. Smith is a safety with great athleticism – not a linebacker. Hopefully a stable position and a new coaching staff will give Smith a fresh start and let him tap into his potential. Some fans might be willing to write Smith off already, but there’s a hell of a football player waiting to come out in Smith with the right coaching and the right position.