With training camp over, the Irish now turn their preparation to South Florida, with Skip Holtz‘s troops readying for their first visit to South Bend.
As Brian Kelly met with the media yesterday, he took a shot at answering all but one of the big questions left unanswered before the No. 16 Irish begin the year. Let’s take a look at a few of the major questions entering camp and see how they’ve shaken out.
Who’s going to help fix the Irish return game?
All signs point to wide receiver Theo Riddick. Emphatically.
“Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick,” Kelly said when asked about the punt and kickoff returners. “Wherever you kick the ball he has to be around it. Kickoff return, it’s him and Bennett Jackson right now. Punts, it will be Theo.”
This is far from a surprise, but it has quelled any of the murmurs about guys like Michael Floyd, Cam McDaniel, and wildcards like Everett Golson. If Riddick is truly the Irish’s best player in open space, it’s only logical to have him making plays on both punts and kicks.
Who’s going to win the starting linebacker job next to Manti Te’o?
It looks like a crowded battle for the Will linebacker has been paired down to two players, with juniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox leading the way.
“It’s a very good competition there,” Kelly said. “Fox and Calabrese are battling it out and I’d say we’ll probably have a decision on that pretty soon. Both of those guys are going to play considerable football for us.”
I expect Calabrese to be the guy that gets named starter next Tuesday, but if you’re trying to venture a guess on how each guy will be used, it’ll likely be Fox spending more time in the passing game against spread teams while Calabrese is the hammerhead that’ll be used to blow up rushing attacks.
Fox’s ascension really just means that Kelly will have the ability to keep his middle linebackers fresh… at least the guy that’s playing next to Manti Te’o, who doesn’t plan on leaving the field.
What freshman is going to come out of the blue to seize early playing time?
That’s got to be Troy Niklas, who has wowed coaches and his fellow teammates with a physicality and athleticism that is hard to teach.
“He is extremely athletic,” Kelly said of Niklas. “He will be on all of our kick teams.”
Expect Niklas to be joined on kick teams by Ishaq Williams, which could be quite an imposing sight for opponents to see when two six-foot-six 250-pound freshman galloping down the field in coverage.
Whether tight end Jake Golic‘s injury made a difference or not, freshman tight end Ben Koyack sounds like he’ll spend this season on the field as opposed to saving a year of eligibility. The Oil City, Pennsylvania native is another stout youngster, and at six-foot-five, 253-pounds he’ll have the physicality needed to hold his own.
“Emerging would be the word I would use more than anything,” Kelly said of Koyack. “He’ll play this year.”
Will Andrew Nuss or Chris Watt win the starting left guard job?
It’s the only position on the offensive line available with Chris Stewart graduating, and both Nuss, a fifth-year senior, and Watt, a talented junior are running neck and neck for the job. Who’ll end up starting against South Florida?
“It depends what day you ask me,” Kelly said about the battle. “I would say right now we’re probably not ready to decide on that. We had some things today that we need to evaluated. Both those guys, I have a lot of trust and confidence in both of them, but I’m not ready to say who that starter will be.”
Again, who number one is probably isn’t all that big of a deal as both guys are going to play considerable football.
Who’s going to be the starting quarterback?
That answer is coming Tuesday. And from the sounds of it, both quarterbacks did a great job stating their case.
“We wanted to see everything from grounding the ball in a clock situation to throwing it away and not taking a sack knowing that you’ve got another down,” Kelly said. “We really had to rehearse most of those game situations because both of them are so statistically even. We were doing a production chart for both of them last night. The deeper we dug on numbers, the cloudier it became. I’ve been doing this a long time and sometimes, it’s easy as you look at the numbers and know who the number one and number two quarterbacks are. We are going to get into some subjective things as we move forward because the numbers are so equal.”