Mar 21, 2012, 12:50 PM EDT
With almost three months to ponder the changes that were certainly coming after last season’s disappointing 8-5 campaign, the 2012 Fighting Irish took the field for their first spring practice, giving the media its first (and one of its only) looks behind the curtain.
While this humble writer wasn’t in South Bend to see in person the 30 minutes of open workouts, I’ve spent the morning reading dozens of reports, and here are some of the more interesting nuggets collected along the way:
The battle on the right side of the offensive line is starting out as I had hoped. Many expected fifth-year senior Mike Golic to shift out to right guard and compete for Trevor Robinson‘s job, but the Irish opened with Christian Lombard at guard and Tate Nichols at right tackle, a good indication of the coach’s evaluation process.
With Braxston Cave still recovering from a foot injury that ended his 2011 season early, Golic took the early snaps with the first team offensive line, where Zack Martin and Chris Watt remained entrenched on the left side. It’ll be worth watching what happens with Golic once Cave comes back, but I’ve got a feeling that he’ll turn into a super-sub type player, rather than a starting caliber guard, where he might not be as physically up to the task as the other candidates.
The staff likely won’t say it, but there is plenty of confidence in both newcomers. Lombard’s ability was one of the reasons the staff didn’t bring Matt Romine back for a fifth year last season and Nichols — at a massive 6-foot-8, 320-pounds — is a prototype right tackle to replace the undersized but athletic Taylor Dever.
With the flip of Troy Niklas to tight end (much more on the tight ends in a bit), the outside linebacker depth chart is going to be fun to watch. Head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco must be happy with Danny Spond and Ben Councell because there’s not a ton of depth at the position with only four players for two spots this spring.
Prince Shembo got the first shot to work at Darius Fleming‘s ‘cat’ linebacker spot. Ishaq Williams will likely get his chance, too. (Now donning No. 11 after giving up No. 1 to Tee Shepard, who never made it to the football field.) Councell looked to pass the eyeball test from the various reports on the web today, and he was looked at as the best option in space for the Irish even while redshirting. Spond has always had the trust of the coaching staff, but hasn’t seen the playing time to match.
With such a dynamic defensive line, the Irish might find themselves in more four-down situations, making depth here a little less important. But after spending two seasons without great structural fits as the roster transitioned, even though the depth isn’t there, the prototypes are, giving Diaco some intriguing options that should make for some more plays behind the line of scrimmage.
It’s tough to tell what to make of the quarterbacking race, but newcomer Gunner Kiel acquitted himself quite well, and Everett Golson (who might as well be dubbed the people’s champ this spring) looked pretty good running the option during tempo work.
Kelly worked with the quarterbacks quite a bit, and while he kept Kiel out of the quick-paced drills that had so many heads spinning during his first season, he heaped praise on the talented newcomer that spurned LSU to play for the Irish.
“He’s a very talented young man. He wasn’t rated that way because he was not. He’s extremely talented,” Kelly said. “When we can get him comfortable, he’s got all the tools. Now it’s going to be how much can he learn to get him to a point where he can really be in there.”
As for Golson, it isn’t hard to notice he’s got a skill set unique to the position and one that’d immediately add a new component to the offense. Kelly didn’t disagree, while also trying to temper enthusiasm.
“He’s got quick feet. He’s got a strong arm. He’s got all the tools,” Kelly said. “Now, for me it’s about accuracy. Getting the ball out on time. Obviously having good football intelligence. Those are the areas that he’ll continue to work on because there’s no question about his footwork, there’s no questioning his arm strength.”