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Spring practice heads for the home stretch

Apr 11, 2011, 1:29 PM EST

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With the Blue-Gold game set for this Saturday, Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish are down to their final four football sessions until preseason camp in August.

Let’s take a quick look at a few of the battles that caught our interest:

At ‘Dog’ linebacker, it’s a two-man race, with sophomores Prince Shembo and Danny Spond leading the way. It isn’t hard to read between the lines and see how excited both Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco are for the two youngsters to emerge, and we’ll likely see Shembo in the backfield and Spond in coverage.

What opened as a crowded race for the one vacated starting spot among the linebackers has clarified quickly, with senior Steven Filer working in a niche role at the ‘Cat’ position behind Darius Fleming and Dan Fox impressing with his work on the inside.

Don’t expect to see much from Diaco and the defense this Saturday — especially with a network broadcast providing better sight lines into Irish preparations, but if you’re excited to see anything, the Irish just infused two elite athletes into the mix at outside linebacker, bringing in size and speed at a position that struggled in space last year.

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Probably by design, there’s no true news out of the quarterback position, but the coaching staff has to be relieved and happy that Dayne Crist didn’t miss a beat in his rehab and is once again the man to beat at quarterback.

Last season, expectations might have been unrealistic as Crist was taking his first snaps as a starting quarterback. This season, whoever gets the majority of playing time should thrive, playing in an offense that should be vastly improved in the run game as well as with the particulars of the passing system.

Crist and Tommy Rees have both shown themselves to be capable of leading the Irish to wins, but newcomer Everett Golson has shown a ton of promise this spring, and Andrew Hendrix has wowed the staff with his impressive skillset, highlighted by great athleticism and a rocket arm. Kelly’s only mentioned that he plans on limiting the fall competition to three quarterbacks. Who those three are remains to be seen.

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Last September, it was assumed that Jamoris Slaughter would be the steadiest safety on the field for the Irish, with his coverage skills and solid tackling a much needed boost after inconsistent safety play plagued ND’s defense. Fast forward to this spring and Harrison Smith is coming off a breakthrough season, is the captain of the defense, and Zeke Motta impressed everybody with some rock-solid play after being thrown into the fire after Slaughter went down with an ankle injury in the season opener.

Now it’s Slaughter working to get back into the starting lineup. Even if he doesn’t, expect to see three safeties on the field whenever the Irish go into nickel, with Slaughter’s versatility and coverage skills helping make the pass defense even better in year two under Chuck Martin’s tutelage.

If you’re looking for someone to watch in the Blue-Gold game, keep an eye on Dan McCarthy, who has yet to kick the injury bug long enough to make a difference for the Irish. Brother Kyle was a late bloomer too…

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Simply put, the Irish special teams were incredibly ordinary last season. After Armando Allen went down, the punt return game sputtered with John Goodman back deep, and the Irish’s paint-by-numbers approach to returning kickoffs with newcomers like Bennett Jackson didn’t help jump-start the Irish offense either.

Injuries to Allen and Theo Riddick certainly didn’t help the return game, but neither did the depth blocking for them. With Mike Elston spending another season with the special teams units, expect better results coming from both return units, even if the Irish haven’t identified who will be returning the kicks. (Here’s a hint: he might not be on campus yet…) With the influx of young athletic talent continuing, the Irish coverage teams should continue to be a strength.

Kicker Kyle Brindza wasn’t just brought onto campus because he can kick field goals, he was brought on to compete for the punting job with Ben Turk, who hasn’t put together a solid season yet at Notre Dame. Too often, Turk’s punts stuck the Irish defense on a short field.

Another small, but important job to watch: The battle for the long snapper spots, a position the Irish were continuing to recruit down to the wire, even with Jordan Cowart and Ryan Kavanagh already on the roster

  1. vegasirish - Apr 11, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    KA, you really think Cam McDaniel will be taking punts come Sept 3? I think the safe bet would be Theo Riddick, maybe Roby Toma?

    • whisk3yjack - Apr 11, 2011 at 5:54 PM

      Kelly has stated he won’t risk Riddick or Wood as kick returners, but he strongly implied that Riddick will be returning punts in 2011.

      I expect C McD and GA III to be in the mix as kick returners.

      Bennett Jackson gets mentioned a lot as a potential kick returner too, but he made the move to CB to provided some desperately needed depth. He’s not the proven performer that Wood and Riddick are (yet), but surely risk of injury is a good reason not to use Jackson there either, no?

      • bradwins - Apr 13, 2011 at 12:42 PM

        Yeah I think Cam could be an option, but my first thought on KA’s “hint” was definitely GA III.

  2. huffer48 - Apr 11, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    This is great information! But, why do we get so little information about about the IRISH spring practices at NBC? I check every day and hear very little about what is going on in the spring. Is NBC cut off to the IRISH in the spring?

    • vegasirish - Apr 12, 2011 at 11:57 AM

      Go to UND.com and stop complaining. Prepare to lose your afternoon watching Notre Dame spring practice features though. KA does all the leg work himself on this blog and really keeps his finger on the pulse of ND football.

      • huffer48 - Apr 13, 2011 at 12:42 AM

        Been there…every day. I wasn’t complaining about UND.com. Actually, I wasn’t even complaining per se. Just asking a question. To reiterate, I was asking the questions about the coverage on THIS site. If I didn’t like KA’s work, I wouldn’t bother coming back day after day. Given how much I DO like his blog, I was even wondring if he was at the spring practices and if not, why doesn’t ND invite him in so he can continue to give even more input to the readers of this site and to support those who watch ND on NBC. But, thanks for your input!

    • turkisland - Apr 13, 2011 at 4:51 PM

      Keith Arnold . . . information ? It’s his ” opinion ! As far as Spring football goes he don’t know jack !

  3. turkisland - Apr 13, 2011 at 2:27 PM

    Hey keith , you write , and we as readers respond honestly . A good writer takes criticism (constructive) , and accepts and grows , or is thin-skinned and resents the honest feedback . When you talk about Ben Turk not having a solid season yet, your inaccurate. Ben Turk came in as a Freshman and took over the duties from the senior punter Maust mid-season. Yes, Turk, a true Freshman, was thrown into the fire and performed admirably (better than the senior). But that hardly counts as a season. So taking in to account last year was his first full season, thats what you judge him by. Yes, Turk was inconsistent at times, but unlike his predecessor, he did not cost Notre Dame any games. As a matter of fact, Turk was personally responsible for the win against Pitt, and his contributions in many other games including the Army game and the Sun Bowl were significant. Turk at one point even led the country in PRY (ex: leading PR “Shakey Smith” from Utah), 0 yards returned! Also, through Spring practice till now, Turk and Brindza have been punting side by side, and lets just say Brindza is looking forward to kick off duties. GO IRISH!

    • turkisland - Apr 13, 2011 at 2:43 PM

      Solid season yet ? It was his first full season !

  4. turkisland - Apr 13, 2011 at 2:45 PM

    Whatever …. dumb fuck .

  5. turkisland - Apr 13, 2011 at 2:47 PM

    Hey , forgive me , im drinking four loko ! : )

  6. turkisland - Apr 13, 2011 at 5:10 PM

    Keith Arnold . . . show yourself ! Your a ” hack ” !

  7. turkisland - Apr 13, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    Your even wrong about the deep snapper ! BK denied a scholarship to a highly recruited deep-snapper because he’s got two good one’s ! Jordan Cowart will be starting and doing a good ass job as usuall ! Any bad snaps that cost us last year that you can mention . . . NO ! C’mon man , write about something we don’t know ! Not something your making up ! We’re real football fans here , not dweebs !

    • tedlinko - Apr 19, 2011 at 12:31 AM

      You’re entitled to your opinion but the profanity is rather unnecessary.

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