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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.

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