Summer break is over for the Irish football team.
Returning members of the football team came back to South Bend yesterday to begin preparation for the 2013 season. While all workouts are technically voluntary, every player (freshmen will show up in two weeks) is expected to begin work with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo as the Irish look to put behind them a six month period that took a program that was near the top of the mountain and treated them like Sisyphus.
Two fairly large new questions sit unanswered — what will happen with Everett Golson during this year of academic exile, and the fate of Eddie Vanderdoes. Those two stories have all but covered up a few of the other important objectives that need accomplishing this offseason, so just as a reminder, let’s talk through a few key summer storylines for the Irish.
How to replace Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick.
Most of the recent talk is understandably focused on Golson’s departure, but this summer will go a long way towards determining which running back gets the first shot to start in the backfield. All signs point towards George Atkinson getting the first shot. But as we saw last year, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin aren’t afraid to specialize their players to accentuate their skillsets.
That means seeing if Cam McDaniel can get some looks in the passing game / third down situations, while Amir Carlisle has the shot at being an elusive hybrid slot player. (Let’s not forget about Will Mahone, who has the chance to put himself back on the radar after a good offseason.)
The wild cards in all of this are blue-chippers Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. Bryant is the highest rated running back the Irish have signed in the Rivals era. Those type of guys are ready made for college action. What that means for a Kelly offense? Well, not much at Notre Dame yet, but maybe Bryant is the rare freshman that takes advantage of the opportunity.
Before he had a fake girlfriend, Manti Te’o was an All-World linebacker.
It bears mentioning that before the Lennay Kekua debacle, Manti Te’o put together one of the finest defensive seasons in college football history. After four years in the starting lineup, the Irish defense will need to find another player to call the shots at middle linebacker.
No, the Irish aren’t shy of big-name players, both Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix will likely hear their names called in the NFL Draft before Te’o heard his, but just assuming Jarrett Grace is just ready to step into Te’o’s hefty shoes is a bit of a stretch.
The Irish have both Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese back on the inside, but it sure sounds like Grace is a good enough player to take Te’o’s job while Fox and Calabrese will keep up their platoon. That’s high praise for Grace, who will need to play up to his reputation if we’re to expect the Irish defense won’t take a small step backwards.
How does the secondary shake out?
The Irish will need to replace both Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta at safety, two guys who will be playing on Sundays this season. It looks like Matthias Farley has filled one spot at safety, but what happens behind him will be fun to watch.
Brian Kelly has essentially rebuilt the secondary since taking over and everybody competing for the safety jobs was handpicked by this staff to play in this system. That means young guys like Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti will battle Austin Collinsworth and Eilar Hardy. Throw in five-star stud Max Redfield, who will be showing up in a few weeks, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see how Bobby Elliot‘s safeties perform.
At corner, the Irish return a healthy Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell will have a year of valuable experience under his belt. But that won’t hold Lo Wood back from fighting for time whil Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown will do battle with blue-chipper Cole Luke, who is flying way under the radar for a lock down, elite corner prospect.
Will the Irish discover their own offensive identity?
Losing Everett Golson is a tough pill to swallow. But the team has rallied around Tommy Rees, who was one of the offense’s leaders and preparing like it this break even without a starting job. Can the Irish figure out how to tap the very best of Rees — the most accurate quarterback in Notre Dame history — and limit some of the mistakes that plagued the 2011 offense.
Kelly already talked about the need to cut down turnovers and he’s telling the truth when he says that whoever is playing quarterback won’t be allowed to turn the football over at the rate Rees did in 2011 (especially with this defense). But it’s not inconceivable that Rees could put together a season like Tony Pike’s senior season, thanks to a talented group of skill players and an offensive line that should give Rees plenty of time.
Sure, a 29:6 TD:INT ratio is probably asking for too much, but don’t think Rees doesn’t think it’s possible. But it’ll mean a mastery not just of the game presnap, but making those same sounds decisions once the play is live.