Brian Kelly is excited about the depth and talent that he and his staff have assembled on the Notre Dame roster for 2013. That much was clear on Friday when he gushed about being excited for some key position battles that will kick off today with the start of fall camp.
Five positions stood out during Kelly’s Friday press conference – linebacker (inside and out), safety, running back, defensive and offensive line – based on Kelly’s responses to direct questions on position battles in addition to other positions that were discussed in at length.
Linebackers. “What’s going to happen at linebacker?” Kelly asked Friday afternoon. ” We got some really good players. We’re really deep at linebacker. Inside and outside, (Dan) Fox, (Carlo) Calabrese, (Jarrett) Grace, (Kendal) Moore. You look on the outside with Ishaq (Williams), (Prince) Shembo, (Romeo) Okwara, (Danny) Spond, (Ben) Councell, and Jaylon (Smith). It’s going to be exciting,” he added.
On the surface it wouldn’t appear that there was much of a question of who will start at the four linebacker spots. Spond and Shembo should be the outside backers with Jarrett Grace stepping in for Manti Te’o and Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese splitting duties next to Grace just as they did a year ago with Te’o.
As Kelly pointed out though, there is a lot of talent on the depth chart at linebacker for the first time in a long time – moreso on the outside but there is still a lot of talent in the linebacking corps. Ishaq Williams has always had the talent, but is this year the he finally breaks out and lives up to his 5-star billing? Ben Councell built up a lot of hype during recruiting as well with strong all-star game performances but we haven’t heard much from him so far. Will that change this year?
There’s a lot of questions to answer at linebacker, but there’s also a lot of talent for Bob Diaco to work with.
Safety. Notre Dame has just three defensive starting spots open from the 2012 squad – one of which comes at safety with Zeke Motta pursuing a NFL career this summer. Like linebacker, the Irish defensive depth chart is full of talented, albeit unproven, athletes at the safety position. “At safety we have a number of really good safeties with (Austin) Collinsworth back, (Elijah) Shumate. (Matthias) Farley has proven himself to be a BCS safety for us. (Eliar) Hardy had a great spring. Bringing in a Max Redfield,” Kelly described his safety depth.
We highlighted Shumate’s role in the Notre Dame defense on Friday and expect the sophomore from New Jersey to lock down the starting role opposite Matthias Farley, but he will still need to win the position over some other talented safeties on the roster – specifically true freshman Max Redfield.
Running Backs. Notre Dame has six scholarship running backs on the roster today as the Irish kick off camp – George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Will Mahone, Amir Carlisle, Greg Bryant, and Tarean Folston. As Kelly was quick to point out though, only two have proven they can make plays on the college level thus far – Atkinson and McDaniel. “We’ve got two guys that have done it and we’ve seen,” said Kelly. ” The rest becomes, ‘Let’s go see in practice and see how they compete.’ That’s where it’s going to be. It’s going to be fun.”
The other four backs offer Notre Dame a lot of exciting possibilities given the skill-set each brings to the offense. They have a combined zero carries in their careers for Notre Dame though since all of Carlisle’s career stats came as a freshman on the 2011 USC Trojans.
The biggest challenge for the Notre Dame coaching staff will actually be finding a role for each within the offense. Kelly was confident they will do just that but what that role is right now, he just isn’t sure. “Each one of them will have a role,” Kelly stated.
With so many talented running backs on the roster, the staff won’t be able to get all six carries meaning once they define each backs role, it’ll be their job to keep the backs who won’t have a prominent role happy. “They’ll have to accept what their role is. Maybe one role will be an expansive special teams role. He’ll have to accept that role. Maybe another role is that if somebody goes down, he now gets more reps.”
Despite having a glut of backs and only a finite number of carries and passes to divide among them, Kelly is confident he and his staff will find a way to get the most talented players on the field. “As you know, within our offense, we can play a couple of running backs at one time because of the versatility of the slot position. You could see one of those running backs playing in the slot.”
Offensive Line. When pressed about the offensive line, Kelly was non-committal when talking about the right side of the line or selecting a starting five up front. “There will be some battles, right side, right guard. Nick Martin has had a great spring. (Matt) Hegarty is healthy. He’ll get a chance to charge at that position,” Kelly said on Friday.
Martin and Hegarty will battle it out for the starting center position, but Hegarty’s comeback from a stroke and the time he lost in the weight room is going to make it difficult for him to seriously challenge Martin after the younger brother of Notre Dame’s rock at left tackle had a great spring.
The right side of the line will be interesting to watch. Every Notre Dame fan and blogger has opined about the thought of Christian Lombard moving to right guard if someone can emerge as the right tackle although up to this point, there hasn’t been any mention of Kelly or the Notre Dame staff of such a move being possible. If Lombard stays at right tackle, Connor Hanrattay would appear to have the inside track to lock down the starting role at right guard.
Kelly is confident they will find the right mix of starting offensive linemen this summer based on the cohesiveness of the unit. “That’s probably one of the units that I’m less concerned about that group playing together because they do it as a way of life,” said Kelly.
Defensive Line. Along the defensive line of scrimmage, the starting lineup is pretty much set in stone with Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day on the ends flanking Louis Nix, but the rotation backing them up will be completely up for grabs this summer. “We have six, seven defensive linemen. Tony Springman gets a chance now to step up a little bit. Jarron Jones. What can Isaac Rochell do for us?” Kelly said.
Throw into the mix Kona Schwenke on top of Springman, Jones, and Rochell and there you have the seven defensive linemen Kelly referenced. The more Notre Dame can rotate in talented linemen and keep the starters fresh, the more dominate the Irish line will be in the fourth quarter of games.
There will be other battles to watch as well such as the backup tight end position where Alex Welch and Ben Koyack will fight to be Troy Niklas’ backup. There will be a battle for playing time at wide receiver too – especially in the slot where Notre Dame will be looking for someone to emerge.
All of these battles will be fun to watch over the next few weeks as the 2013 squad comes together and emerges by the end of fall camp.