Apr 11, 2011, 1:29 PM EDT
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.
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.
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…
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