Just a few minutes after talking about Gunner Kiel’s decision to leave the football program, head coach Brian Kelly deflected a question about the battle to back-up Everett Golson. It was an interesting look into the psyche of a head coach that’s spent four years building a roster that’s going to feel mighty crowded for years to come.
“We had kind of created an opportunity for him to compete in the spring,” Kelly said of Kiel, when asked if he was surprised to hear about Kiel’s move. “So maybe I was a little surprised from that standpoint, because he was actually told that he would be given an opportunity to compete.”
That appears to the only right for any player on the roster this spring. Compete for a job. Even if it appears the one in front of you is locked up.
“Everett Golson has experience, but that’s all he has,” Kelly said, when asked about the battle at back-up quarterback. “It’s your job to go out there and show us that you can be the starting quarterback, not to settle for being the backup. When you’re given your opportunity, to compete and keep pushing. If you back off at all, you don’t want to be the starter, we can make that happen for you.”
That competition won’t just happen at quarterback. Tracking some of the major position battles, expect to see these fifteen practices only the beginning of the competition at positions like center, running back, tight end and a very crowded secondary.
At center, Kelly identified Matt Hegarty, Nick Martin and Mark Harrell as the three guys competing for the job. For Hegarty, getting on the field after a serious medical condition showed Kelly a commitment to the team that impressed. For Martin, the opportunity to start alongside his brother on the offensive line feels like it should be quite a motivating factor. And for Harrell, his work not just in the offseason, but in the month of bowl prep, when there was next to no depth on the line, was the look he needed to get Harry Hiestand’s attention.
“That’s what we’re looking for. We want competition,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Your program is in good shape when there’s competition within. And competition without thinking about who’s coming in.”
That’s certain the case at running back, where George Atkinson will be given the first chance at holding down the starting job before talented freshman Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston arrive. And with Amir Carlisle’s ability to add competition now that he’s returned after injury, there’s another wrinkle that maybe didn’t exist last season.
“He’s got a gear. He’s got a high level where he’s really going to be able to help us,” Kelly said of the USC transfer. “He’s got the ability to play, he’s a very good pass catcher, he’s got good ball skills, I could see us getting him the football in a number of a different ways with another running back on the field.”
Perhaps no competition will be more interesting than the one being waged in the secondary. With Bennett Jackson being protected this spring after shoulder surgery, there’s a chance for just about everybody to take a shot at the starting lineup. That includes Lo Wood, who is likely gunning for a starting job he lost to KeiVarae Russell. And Austin Collinsworth, who would have been on the field before Matthias Farley last season.
“I think the way we set things here, there isn’t a depth chart,” Kelly said. “You don’t walk into the locker room and see a depth chart.”
That’s probably for the best, because things could get mighty confusing in the secondary, especially with the Irish finally having the flexibility to play a dime defense for the first time in the Kelly era. That means guys like Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown are competing for jobs. Elijah Shumate will push his way onto the field, now that he’s locked in at safety. And even starters like Russell and Farley, they’ll be challenged all the way to fall.
“Keep in mind we also have to go through the spring and find a Matthias Farley,” Kelly said, talking about unearthing contributors. “We need to find those guys that are going to step in and be key players for us during the season. You can never have enough of those guys. We welcome that.
“The best guys are going to play. We’ll choose the right 11.”