There isn’t a lack of story lines for the Irish heading into spring ball this year. Here’s a quick look at a few of the major ones facing the Irish as they head into the first spring under Brian Kelly.
Brian Kelly’s First Spring
The most prominent story line of the spring this year, is first year Irish head coach Brian Kelly. Ever since being named the head coach for Notre Dame in December, Kelly’s done just about everything right. Now comes time to start coaching and developing a group of players that clearly didn’t perform to their capabilities the last few seasons. The pressure is only going to start increasing on Kelly as soon as that first whistle blows later today.
The common theme with most of the move Kelly has made so far has been “change”. He is trying to change the culture of the team and it will interesting to see how much different spring practice will be this year. Will Kelly focus on the basics since this team can use the work in that department or will he jump right into installing the new offense and defense?
We’ve already learned of a few position changes, but there are bound to be more. So far senior Harrison Smith is moving back to safety, sophomore Theo Riddick is moving to wide receiver, senior Steve Paskorz is moving back to linebacker, and junior Lane Clelland is moving to defensive end. As the depth chart starts to shake out and the staff gets a better idea of what they are working with, there certainly could be a couple more switches.
There are some switches that haven’t been announced, but are almost certain to occur with Notre Dame moving back to a 3-4 defense such as Darius Fleming and Kerry Neal moving to outside linebacker.
Other minor position changes could be in store too for players like Brian Smith – is the senior captain candidate going to play on the inside or the outside of the linebacking corps? With a lack of depth in the defensive backfield, it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone move to safety at some point this sprin as well.
Dayne Crist’s Health
Ever since Crist tore his ACL on the Astrodome turf on Halloween night, his status for the spring has been up in the air. Recently Brian Kelly has said that he is very optimistic about the health of his former five star quarterback, but ACL injuries are not easy to come back from in such a short time span (just under five months). Some professional athletes such as Donovan McNabb and Carson have injured their ACL’s late in seasons and returned in time for the next year, but neither were quite the same that first year back.
With Crist’s health still a question mark and only one other scholarship quarterback on the roster for the spring, it’s safe to say that there probably won’t be a whole lot of contact taking place for the QBs. Midyear enrollee Tommy Rees should get a crash course on the spread this spring and could end up backing up Crist in the fall. Nate Montana is back at Notre Dame as well, but it might take a lot for him to climb up the depth chart based on his performance last season at junior college.
Replacing Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate
Notre Dame is going to be replacing arguably the best quarterback-wide receiver combo in school history this season with both Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate leaving for the NFL after their junior seasons. Clausen’s departure combined with Crist’s injury has Notre Dame is a precarious situation under center this spring.
Luckily for Notre Dame there is no shortage of candidates trying to replace Tate. Senior Duval Kamara, sophomore Shaquelle Evans and juniors John Goodman and Deion Walker will be the primary candidates to fill the void opposite Michael Floyd that was created with Tate leaving for the NFL. All four candidates have the skill to be productive college receivers, but Evans might have the most pure skill and talent for the position. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he will lock down a starting spot this spring, but if he can pick up the offense quickly he gives Kelly a potential gamebreaker to line up opposite Floyd.
Can the Irish Defense Improve Drastically?
The Notre Dame defense in 2009 was one of the worst in school history statistically speaking. The talent is there, but will the defensive players be able to quickly pick up yet another defensive system under new defensive coordinator Bob Diaco? The current group of seniors will be learning their third defense in four years this spring after playing in Corwin Brown’s 3-4 and then Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 defenses. Will another defense be the fresh start they need or will it only add to the confusion?
Notre Dame has some of the right personnel for a 3-4 defense with a couple very talented outside linebackers such as Darius Fleming and Steve Filer, but the inside linebacker spots are still a concern. Super sophomore Manti Te’o should have no problem manning one of the inside spots, but who lines up next to him is still a question mark. Can Brian Smith handle playing inside even though he struggled as an inside linebacker in 2008? Is Anthony McDonald ready to step up and play regularly after mainly being a reserve early in his career?
Along the defensive line, Notre Dame should have enough bodies and talent to field a serviceable front. Ian Williams will be the anchor of the defensive line at nose tackle with juniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore serving as the defensive ends. It will be interesting to see what some of the other young defensive linemen like Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams, and Sean Cwynar are capable of contributing.
Can Notre Dame Establish a Running Game?
Kelly moved promising running back Theo Riddick to wide receiver in order to get him and Cierre Wood on the field at the same time before the spring started. Wood will be vying for the backup running back spot behind Armando Allen with Jonas Gray and Robert Hughes. His game would seem to fit the spread offense the best, but the bigger question is can Notre Dame establish a sound running game after having problems running the football for most of the past three years?
Both Allen and Wood are the type of backs that could excel in a spread offense where they can get the ball in space. One of the biggest problems for Allen over the past three seasons is that he hasn’t been able to get the ball in open space. Even when he has, he seems to always be just one shoe string tackle away from breaking a long run. For a back with his kind of speed, it’s almost unheard of that he still doesn’t have a career run of 30 yards or more.
Most people seem to think that Kelly’s offense is only about throwing the ball, but at times last year, Cincinnati showed a pretty strong running game – mostly when Tony Pike was out of action. Kelly is going to have be able to establish some sort of running game at Notre Dame – especially with Crist’s mobility most likely being limited early on coming off the ACL injury.
Who is Going to Start at Tackle?
Notre Dame loses both of its starting tackles from 2009 this year with Paul Duncan and Sam Young exhausting their eligibility. Lane Clelland was thought to be in the mix for one of the tackle spots, but Kelly announced that he was moving to defensive line. That leaves seniors Taylor Dever and Matt Romine and sophomore Zach Martin as the only tackles on the roster heading into the spring. Junior Trevor Robinson could move over from guard to handle one of the tackle spots. He has the size and is the best offensive lineman on the Irish roster. Look for Notre Dame to try him out at left tackle since he has two years of experience under his belt already.
If Robinson moves to tackle, that would leave Romine, Dever, and Martin to battle for the other tackle spot. If Romine can stay healthy, he should have the inside track for the spot. Injuries have plagued him throughout his Notre Dame career though so it’s anyone’s guess right now who ends up with the spot by the Blue-Gold game. Look for sophomore Chris Watt to fill in for Robinson at guard if he moves over to tackle. Watt didn’t play as a true freshman, but he has the mentality the Irish offensive line has been lacking and the skill to back it up.
An offensive line of Trevor Robinson, Chris Watt, Dan Wenger, Chris Stewart, and Matt Romine could be a formidable lineup. Wenger will have to win back the starting center spot though after losing it last year to Eric Olsen. He’ll be fighting Braxston Cave for the spot.
There are plenty of other story lines to follow this spring with all of the changes that are bound to continue happening with the Irish as the Kelly Era officially begins.