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Five things we’ll learn: Spring football kicks off

Mar 19, 2013, 1:02 PM EDT

Brian Kelly 2013 signing day

When Brian Kelly steps in front of the podium at the Guglielmino Athletic Complex Tuesday afternoon, he’ll be a man facing a drastically different set of expectations. Gone are the question marks about the coach from a sheer survival perspective. Last season’s 12-1 record, and the still-in-progress long term contract extension mean Jack Swarbrick has found his man. But with success comes a new set of goals. Yet before we get there, it’s worth taking a look back at where the football team was this time last year.

After a disappointing close to recruiting, Kelly made radical changes to his staff. Part out of necessity, but mostly to acknowledge the need to get better on offense. Some changes were jump-started by Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton’s move to Ohio State, where they joined Urban Meyer’s coaching staff. Charley Molnar took over UMass’ football program, in what seemed to some a coaching golden parachute, allowing Kelly to move his longtime confidant Chuck Martin to the offensive side of the ball.

Reconfiguring the staff wasn’t the only hurdle for a head coach that put together back-to-back 8-5 seasons. A four-quarterback competition needed to conclude with a signal-caller, however raw, that would stop turning the football over. Talk about counter-intuitive.

The blue-print that was laid in the long winter months of conditioning obviously was executed to incredible success last year, with an improbable run to the BCS Championship game. Before Kelly kicks off the 2013 season in earnest, let’s take a look at five things we’re likely to learn this spring.

***

Everett Golson will become the offensive identity of this football team.

In his first three seasons, Brian Kelly leaned on his top playmakers to power the offense. For two years, that meant pushing the football to wide receiver Michael Floyd. Last year, that meant leaning on Theo Riddick and All-American Tyler Eifert. But for the first time since taking over the Irish program, Kelly’s top offensive weapon is his quarterback. And that mean’s junior Everett Golson needs to step forward into the spotlight.

Golson’s debut season was impressive. Learning on the fly, Golson — along with some help from Tommy Rees — piloted the Irish through some rocky waters on the way to an undefeated regular season. For a young starter who many assumed was prone to turnovers, he did an impressive job holding onto the football. He also showed the type of athleticism that you can’t teach, improvising with his legs while creating plays downfield. He also showed a flair for the dramatic, with his late game heroics beating Pitt to continue the Irish’s dream season.

In 2013, Golson needs to elevate his game. The offense needs to move because of him, not in spite of him. Kelly finally has a quarterback of his molding steering the ship. Without a singular talent to push the offense through, it’s up to his quarterback to steer this team forward.

***

On the field, we’ll see what the defense looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

If there’s a gigantic hole in the Irish defense, it’s the loss of Manti Te’o. For the past four seasons, Te’o was the one constant at the epicenter of a unit that improved every season. This spring, we’ll get a look at Kelly and Bob Diaco’s plan for what the Irish defense looks like without the All-American, and what the Irish will do at both inside linebacker positions.

For the past two seasons, Diaco has used Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox as complimentary pieces next to Te’o. They’ll now be given the opportunity to play next to each other. Also added to the equation is Jarrett Grace, a promising young linebacker that’s waited his turn. Kendall Moore will also likely take this spring to force himself back onto the radar, a veteran that’s flashed big play potential but never had the chance to see consistent minutes.

Before Te’o’s breakout 2012 season, Diaco’s inside linebackers were often susceptible to the playaction pass game, caught playing downhill while quarterbacks took advantage of the soft zone behind them. Replacing a 100-tackle linebacker, who also was one of the nation’s leaders in takeaways, is no easy task. While that certainly won’t take place in fifteen practices, we’ll get a look at the staff’s early plans to move on with life after Te’o.

***

In the locker room, we’ll see what the leadership of this team looks like in life after Manti Te’o.

As important as Te’o was to the team on the field, he provided more off of it. Before we ever heard the name Lennay Kekua or Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, Te’o helped completely transform the culture of the Irish football program. The veteran linebacker provided transcendent leadership, bridging the gap between coaching staffs, while helping a roster filled with Charlie Weis players buy into Brian Kelly’s tough-love approach.

If there was a benefit to Te’o’s public humiliation, it’s that this football team sees that Te’o isn’t a deity. While his embarrassment may temporarily knock Te’o of the Irish’s Mount Rushmore, it will also allow others to feel worthy of stepping into his shoes. These past few months helped remind everyone that Manti Te’o was just a kid playing football. He’s already given teammates like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Bennett Jackson a perfect person to emulate. But his story has also pushed him enough off the pedestal for his former teammates to realize Te’o was also human as well.

Can George Atkinson develop the complete skillset to compliment his home run potential?

With two seasons under his belt and a depth chart that’s wide open in front of him, George Atkinson will be given every opportunity to be the big play leader of this offense. But he’ll have to show that he’s mature enough to take on the responsibility.

As we saw last season, Brian Kelly is more interested in having a running back he can trust than one that shows glimpses of greatness. That meant Theo Riddick getting the lion’s share of carries, even if Cierre Wood was the better home run threat. That also meant limiting Atkinson to single-digit touches, even though he had the world-class speed needed to be a big-play threat every time he touched the ball.

Not many players in college football are bigger home run threats than Atkinson. Yet the growing pains Atkinson has battled through the past two seasons, which included learning the position on the fly, need to be conquered heading into his third year.

He’s got the size, speed and strength needed to be the most complete back of the Kelly era. Now he’s got to take control of the job.

***

Finding the right combination on the interior of the offensive line is one of spring’s main objectives.

Returning three starting offensive linemen is a good start. But finding a replacement for two key interior spots will be one of spring’s main objectives. Gone are Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, the former a key three year starter while the latter played productive minutes the past two seasons. In their place will be youthful replacements — and could likely trigger a few dominoes as Kelly and Harry Hiestand determine the best starting five.

After battling back from a scary heart procedure, Matt Hegarty is a capable option at center. So are Mark Harrell and Nick Martin, who both have the ability to play guard as well. With Conor Hanratty and Bruce Heggie also competing, there are a variety of scenarios that could cause a ripple effect up front for the Irish.

While Zack Martin, Chris Watt and Christian Lombard all return, where they return might be the question. Consider Martin locked in at left tackle. But Lombard has been pegged by many to be a better guard than tackle and Watt has spent time cross-training as a center. If the Irish want to spread out some of their youth, there’s a version of the offensive line that moves Watt to the middle and Lombard to guard, allowing promising youngster Ronnie Stanley (or early enrollee Steve Elmer) the opportunity to take over at right tackle.

All of this is a long way from being decided, and Hiestand will likely work with a shortened deck, with line numbers still thin until reinforcements come this summer. But finding a center that can athletically fit the system will be the next step in the offensive line’s evolution, and will be one of the keys to improving the run game.

  1. runners00 - Mar 19, 2013 at 1:21 PM

    One thing we just learned is that Gunner Kiel is not part of the program. That sucks. I was looking forward to more of a pro-style quarterback, one with a cannon of an arm. He seemed to fit. Oh well. Life goes on. I wish him well.

    • stedward - Mar 19, 2013 at 3:48 PM

      Anyone have any info from the rumor mill on Gunner’s destination? Less than reputable sources like bleacher report are saying Arkansas and Tennessee. I think a good question would be who has a senior graduating this year with no heir apparent?

      • runners00 - Mar 19, 2013 at 4:08 PM

        But he has a one-year wait, right? I think when you transfer and you don’t fall within an exception (probation for the school, coach leaving, etc.), you have to sit out a year.

        It’s too bad that the kid didn’t stay. I liked him and I think he has a great arm and a bright future. That said, the best players play. That includes quarterback. Every starter is the best player available. Kelly wants to win as much as everyone else. There’s no way that he sits Kiel because of some personal issue or some other arbitrary reason. He sits him because Kiel’s not ready yet.

        It’s too bad. Like I said, I liked Gunner and was excited when we landed him. But not everything is meant to be. . . .

      • stedward - Mar 19, 2013 at 4:22 PM

        I guess that was confusing/wrong the way I worded it. By this year I mean this coming football season so someone like Clemson with Tajh Boyd. I know Kelly basically said the teams Gunner was looking at were basically not teams we schedule, so I don’t know if the ACC agreement counts for that yet.

      • irishpuma - Mar 19, 2013 at 11:33 PM

        Purdue would be a fit. Senior Qb no major recruits.

      • stedward - Mar 20, 2013 at 9:53 AM

        It doesn’t sound like they will let him go to anyone that we schedule so I don’t think Purdue is in the mix.

  2. gtizzo - Mar 19, 2013 at 2:07 PM

    Interest Keith,

    Nothing about receivers? The offensive line is also an interest question. I don’t mind going young at right tackle considering Golson will see a pass rusher coming. That would give a young guy time to develop and then maybe a move to left tackle once Martin is gone. I had a feeling Watt would get a look at center and maybe he helps push some of the young players. Should someone beat him for the center job he would then be a lock at guard. Watt and Lombard at guard a young center and right tackle…I’m not sure I like that. I would go young on the right side of the offensive line Watt at Center, Lombard at left Guard and Zack Martin at left tackle. Long way from being decide is very true. When you talk about the “luck of the Irish” you should mention the offensive line. Considering how thin the Irish were last season and nobody got seriously hurt.

    • heartofgoldandblue - Mar 19, 2013 at 9:22 PM

      Looks like Watt is staying put at guard (not sure if he’s staying on the right side). Nick Martin, Mark Harrell and Matt Hegarty will fight to take over at center and Hegarty and the other two who don’t lock up the center spot will battle for the other guard spot along w possibly Lombard who is looked at as a guard/tackle. Of all the other positions we talk about as a concern, this is the one I think is going to be most important. We’ve got three out of the five spots coming back and I think we’ve got to feel good about those but the other 40% is a question mark (especially the leader of the line at center). I remain cautiously optimistic…

  3. ndrocks2 - Mar 19, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    Hopefully BK is introduced to Special Teams and its features and benefits.

  4. dudeacow - Mar 19, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    BK confirmed that Kiel is not a part of the roster. Bummer, I was hoping he would stay for the spring. But oh well, life moves on.

  5. bernhtp - Mar 19, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    Here’s the audio:

    http://ec.libsyn.com/p/2/4/f/24f7801244e9166c/BK_Presser_Audio-pod.mp3?d13a76d516d9dec20c3d276ce028ed5089ab1ce3dae902ea1d01ce8430d3cd5fd6f0&c_id=5505898

  6. irish4006 - Mar 19, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    Great article, Keith!

    What a difference a year makes! Last year, we spent the entire offseason debating QB and criticizing some bloggers (wink, wink) for their support of someone who was supposedly very popular in the locker room. Now that the QB position is settled (as long as EG stays healthy, fingers crossed), the team had a good run and a great recruiting cycle; I don’t have the queasy feeling any more.

    I love the fact that the coaching staff can now be totally focused on finding the right combinations, chemistry and developing players; esp. on offense. Defense needs to replace Manti (not just the linebacker, but also the leader), that will likely be an easier task with so many returning starters and people picking up pieces of the responsibility.

  7. yaketyyacc - Mar 19, 2013 at 4:01 PM

    remember when Joe DiMaggio retired, and everyone was saying, hey, whoever replaces him, won’t be nearly as good. they were right, Mickey Mantle was better. Notre Dame has the best players ever. They aren’t going to as good, they are going to be better than….. lots of work ahead this spring, and lots and lots to work with. The Irish(mob) are coming…..

  8. kleinick - Mar 19, 2013 at 6:08 PM

    Here is the presser. We are going to continue to get bigger and stronger to compete with the Alabama’s out there. I’m already jacked for next season!

  9. jmfinsd - Mar 19, 2013 at 7:29 PM

    Florida Gator Head Coach Will Muschamp said Tuesday that freshman linebacker Alex Anzalone will be sidelined for the remainder of the spring because of necessary shoulder surgery. Hmmmm.

    • papadec - Mar 19, 2013 at 8:17 PM

      jm – I know I shouldn’t do this, especially during lent, but ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

      • 1historian - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:45 PM

        no, you shouldn’t do it. He’s an 18 year old kid for God’s sake.

    • jmfinsd - Mar 19, 2013 at 10:26 PM

      Just to clarify, I posted quickly at work with time to research. The “Hmmmm” was meant as an inquiry whether his injury was something that existed at the time of his commitment and had something to do with it. It in no way was a jab at Anzalone or a “good, he deserves it.” No he doesn’t. And I found my answer – ““He will be back for fall camp,’’ Muschamp said. “It’s usually about a four-month situation there. It was a freak drill. He just got hit on a tackling drill and he just got hit on it the wrong way.” Freak incident. ND has had its share of those the past few years, including Robinson breaking his leg in non-contact drill at Army All-Star game. In no way did my comment contain any malice.

      • irishpuma - Mar 19, 2013 at 11:39 PM

        Come on jm Just to clarify Robinson is perfectly healthy.Hunter is the player that got hurt.

  10. obie1818 - Mar 19, 2013 at 11:00 PM

    Anyone hear any rumors about field turf of jumbotron ? I known BK wants both. I think we can have both and still keep the old school feeling of the stadium. Fact is elite recruits like big shiny things ! Every bit helps….

    • bernhtp - Mar 19, 2013 at 11:21 PM

      The field turf might become a practical and competitive necessity. The jumbotron is a tougher sell.

      Notre Dame already has the biggest, shiniest thing on any campus – the Golden Dome – and that ought to be enough glitz for the right guys.

  11. ndnapa - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Just wanted to say this is some of the most cogent analysis of what the spring session holds for ND, but the passages about the loss of Teo are certainly the most eloquent and profound writing on the subject to date. Extremely well done, Keith.

    Another aspect of the LB puzzle that seems to have been shelved is the possible move of Spond to mike. He was so good vs the pass last year that I thought he might be a good successor to Teo at that position. I wonder if his below average showing vs the power game of Alabama took him out of the running for mike man, although it might be easier to play behind Louie as he takes up 2-3 blockers than to stand up to 310 lb OG’s coming at you leading sweeps and screens.

    I still think the ILB spots are the biggest ?s about this team.

  12. 1historian - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    Make sure you’ve got a constant supply of big uglies on both lines. If we can redshirt 4 of the 5 incoming OLs that’s a heck of a good start, and continue to do that next season.

    Kelly seems to learn on the fly and I can’t wait for this season to start. 163 and a wakeup!!

    I don’t think they are going to miss Teo or Eifert that much. This is Kelly’s 4th season and 7/8 of the players on the team are ones he recruited.

    Most important to me is the fact that I’m absolutely sure that the guys who played in the NC game last January will never forget what happened to them in front of God and everybody, and that drives them to do one more rep.

  13. 1historian - Mar 20, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    A defining characteristic of Coach Kelly from day 1 has been his ability to learn from his mistakes. He knew at halftime of the NC game (probably sooner) that he and his team were in way over their heads. Since January 8 they have been working to make sure that never happens again.

  14. seamus0317 - Mar 20, 2013 at 8:01 PM

    Wherever he puts Lombard the kid will bust his ass to be successful. Hard worker and very high football IQ!

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