Mar 19, 2013, 1:02 PM EDT
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.
May 18, 2013, 4:04 AM EDT
The future depth chart along the offensive line for Notre Dame just received another star-studded name when Tennessee’s Alex Bars gave his verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound linemen picked Notre Dame over an elite offer list, turning down Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, Penn State and Stanford among a slew of…
May 17, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT
When you think back to this time last year, there were so many unanswered questions about the Notre Dame offense. We were quoting Nelly and analyzing pie charts, hoping to get to the bottom of what was wrong with an offense that couldn’t stop shooting itself in the foot and struggled getting any efficiency. Everett…
May 16, 2013, 11:19 AM EDT
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen defensive end Aaron Lynch on the football field. After a freshman All-American season for the Irish, Lynch left South Bend in the middle of spring practice and headed home to South Florida. The soap opera surrounding the decision to transfer, which included social media pleas to stay…
May 16, 2013, 5:38 AM EDT
It appears football life (almost) in the ACC is starting to come into scheduling focus, as news is starting to trickle out from Big Ten rivals about future dates. While the Michigan series is on hold (likely until 2020), Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis announced the future of the Irish-Spartans rivalry isn’t going anywhere.…
May 14, 2013, 11:54 AM EDT
It might not fly too well on the handshake circuit, but Brady Hoke‘s dig at Notre Dame for backing out of the Michigan series might not be all that appropriate… considering Michigan asked to take a break first. Last June news broke that the Irish and Wolverines were going to take a two-year hiatus in…
May 14, 2013, 7:40 AM EDT
God bless Brady Hoke. During a time of year where just about anything counts as college football news, the Michigan head coach provided some real bulletin board material and ratcheted up a Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry that will be coming to a temporary end after the 2014 season. “We are fortunate to have unbelievable rivalry games…
May 13, 2013, 10:41 AM EDT
With news light on the college football front (we’re still putting the pieces together for some long-form offseason features), let’s take a quick look at San Diego, where Manti Te’o‘s life as an NFL football player just got started. Te’o debuted at rookie minicamp, where reporters and coaches got their first look at the former…
May 12, 2013, 8:07 PM EDT
For Notre Dame football fans, there will always be a bit of a “what if” with Jeff Samardzija. The former All-American wide receiver, who exploded onto the scene when Charlie Weis arrived in South Bend, scored a ridiculous 27 touchdown passes in his final two years in South Bend, exactly 27 more than he did…
May 10, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
The news of Gunner Kiel leaving Notre Dame was hardly a surprise. The talented young quarterback, who redshirted during the Irish’s 2012 run to the BCS Championship game, departed before spring practice, with an eye on finding an opportunity to play. It was another switch on an already wayward journey for Kiel, one of the…
May 8, 2013, 6:58 PM EDT
Sad news out of the Notre Dame football program. Former fullback Asaph Schwapp has lost his battle with cancer. He was just 26 years old. News of his grave condition broke earlier today when former Irish coach Charlie Weis tweeted, “One of the first young men I ever recruited to ND, Asaph Schwapp is gravely…
May 8, 2013, 4:58 PM EDT
As the school year draws to a close, the Irish are in the unofficial portion of the calendar. Yet that’s the time — through the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, that leadership usually emerges. Watching Brian Kelly’s teams evolve, you get the idea that when Kelly says his team develops at its…
May 7, 2013, 6:25 PM EDT
Last year, Notre Dame assembled a recruiting class that did most of its own work. Spearheaded by early commitments like James Onwualu, Malik Zaire and Jaylon Smith, the “Irish Mob” built on the camaraderie and closed strong, adding five-star recruits Greg Bryant, Max Redfield and Eddie Vanderdoes. It looks like the current recruiting class is…
May 6, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
Putting the 2012 season into context will be easier the farther away it gets. Notre Dame’s unlikely run to the BCS Championship game is incredible for so many different reasons. Even if the end result was a one-sided Alabama victory, the fact that the Irish found themselves at the apex of the mountain is one…
May 4, 2013, 7:55 AM EDT
The house that Rockne built is in need of another expansion. At least that’s the thinking among Notre Dame administrators. The university announced a feasibility study that’s going to explore all options for the iconic stadium over the next six to nine months, as part of the a larger campus plan. “Inspired by the University’s…
May 2, 2013, 5:08 AM EDT
Just a few days after adding one of the top running backs in the country, the Notre Dame coaching staff accepted the verbal commitment of New Jersey offensive lineman Quenton Nelson. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound offensive tackle had offers from Alabama, Miami, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford and a slew of others. Nelson joins a growing offensive…
May 1, 2013, 7:08 AM EDT
While draft day might have been disappointing for some graduating Notre Dame players, it’s far from that when you’re looking at the overall health of the football program. The six Irish players drafted last week is another data-point that shows the talent on the roster, and the health of the program, is on the rise.…
Apr 29, 2013, 3:20 AM EDT
After a slow start to recruiting this spring, the 2014 group received a huge jolt when blue-chip running back Elijah Hood pledged his commitment to the Irish on Sunday evening. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder is Rivals’ top-ranked athlete, No. 12 prospect overall, and has offers from North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State, USC and more.…
Apr 28, 2013, 11:00 AM EDT
During Kapron Lewis-Moore‘s Notre Dame career, the six-foot-four, 300-pound defensive end had his share of bad timing. An injury during the 2011 season cut short his junior year just as the Irish needed him most. After an impressive final season, an ACL injury during the biggest game of his career threw his draft potential into…
Apr 28, 2013, 6:13 AM EDT
It took longer than they probably hoped, but four more Irish football players went off the board in the late rounds of the NFL Draft. Safety Jamoris Slaughter, whose season was cut short after an Achilles tendon tear, was selected in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns. Later in that round, Theo Riddick went…
Apr 27, 2013, 4:04 AM EDT
The waiting is finally over for Notre Dame All-American Manti Te’o, who was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the sixth pick of the second round. For Te’o, it’s a silver lining landing spot after a disappointing slide dropped him out of the first round. The former Irish linebacker heads to San Diego, about…