We're just under 2 weeks from the start of Fighting Irish spring practice with Notre Dame heading into a pivotal third year under Brian Kelly.
Unlike the previous two seasons, the 2012 football team is transitioning from a more veteran group to one that is more based on youth.
The result is more questions and storylines as we approach spring ball.
Part I begins after the jump.
Who's Locking Down the Right Side of the Offensive Line?
Notre Dame has three starters returning to the line in left tackle Zack Martin, left guard Chris Watt, and center Braxston Cave. The offseason battle will be for the right guard and right tackle spots vacated by the departing Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.
Junior Christian Lombard is target number one to fill a starting role, but the question through spring will be, does he play guard or tackle?
There's been some talk of Mike Golic, Jr. sliding over to right guard but he'll likely backup Cave at center for his final year of eligibility. If Lombard ends up at tackle then a big battle will ensue between a host of players at guard.
Sophomore Connor Hanratty is the most guard-ish (frumpy might be a good word to use) of the linemen, while fellow sophomore Nick Martin could be another candidate.
Another player who should have as good a shot as any of the young linemen to play or start will be Matt Hegarty. He was thought to be a tackle as a recruit, but he's been working inside more often. If Lombard stays at tackle, I expect Hegarty to step in at right guard.
If Lombard stays inside at right guard, then we'll likely be witnessing a spring battle at tackle between Tate Nichols and Jordan Prestwood. That would certainly be an intriguing competition to watch.
Most of all, this spring should give us a good idea as to who is going to play tackle, who is going to stay inside, and just how flexible the staff will be sliding players back and forth to get the best 5 players on the field.
What's the Pecking Order at Running Back?
How willing will the staff be to dish out carries beyond the top two running backs? Will we see more rushing attempts from slot players (Atkinson III, Neal) and will they take away from the other backs sitting behind Wood and Riddick?
This will be the first season where Kelly & Co. have legitimate deep depth at running back and lots of toys to play with. Even if we assume that Amir Carlisle does not win his appeal with the NCAA, that still leaves 5 running backs (3 for spring practice) ready to make an impact.
When's the last time Notre Dame could say that?
For spring, the focus will be on three players:
More on him in a bit.
He should have his role expanded this year and could be the third option at running back as far as taking carries from the backfield. His size may hurt his chances, but his agility and quickness are lethal and he has the benefit of a year on the field and a great skill-set for the offense.
There will be a lot of eyes on Roberson as he enters his third year on the team. Has he been able to rehab from his knee injury and will he be able to practice in the spring? Even if he is able to get to 100% does he fit the power role to such a degree that he'll immediately get some carries in 2012?
Where For Art Thou GA3?
George Atkinson III will be one of the two or three most watched athletes on the team this spring because of the uncertainty surrounding his role in the offense moving forward.
He's an awkward runner with stiff hips and because of the depth at running back and lack thereof at receiver, he's been rumored to move back to his recruited position. There's also the proposition that his hands aren't the greatest in the world too.
My guess is that Atkinson will be featured prominently in the spring as the prototype Rocket-like RB/WR---a role that may be quickly expanding under Chuck Martin's guidance. He'll be the first to be broken into that role with Theo Riddick helping out as well.
Post-spring we may see a slight tweak to the offensive gameplan with Davonte Neal stepping on campus, but I would expect Atkinson to take minimal carries at running back (at least in comparison to Wood/Riddick), and be the specialized weapon on jet sweeps, screens, and plays of that nature.
Will Anyone Besides Te'o, Calabrese, and Fox See Meaningful Minutes at Middle Linebacker?
Notre Dame is bringing back all of its starters at middle linebacker, totaling 213 tackles between Te'o, Fox, and Calabrese. So, is there any room for anyone else to see the field?
This boils down to two questions:
1) Will the backup to Te'o get more than mop-up duty?
2) How well do Calabrese & Fox have a hold on their job(s)?
The answer to the first is probably not. This is Manti's last season and he's going to play as much as possible.
The other inside 'backer spot certainly seems a bit more shaky. Calabrese came on strong as a redshirt freshman in 2010 with 60 tackles, but had that production cut in half as Fox took the majority of minutes away from him in 2011.
Four prospects fighting for playing time:
He might have the least amount of media attention paid to him than any player on the roster. He's got good middle linebacker size but there are likely legitimate concerns over his speed and knowledge of the position as a former defensive linemen in high school. Utupo is probably a long shot to see much playing time this year.
He'll be coming off shoulder surgery and a redshirt freshman season and this spring will be the first long look the public will see from the Florida product. Still a likely outside shot of playing much---and with the possible move of Niklas to tight end I'm wondering if Rabasa gets moved to Dog linebacker anyway.
Werewolf received a ton of praise from Diaco and now the eligibility clock is burning. It's tempting to think he'll be first in line as a primary reserve, but will it happen?
Now is the time for Moore to step up as he appears next in line to replace Manti Te'o or grab the other inside linebacker spot if some fifth year options are not exercised after next season. He showed a lot of promise in last year's spring game and looked very strong in extremely limited mop-up duty in 2011 (10 tackles, 2 TFL). I like his chances to see the field a lot more in 2012.
Safeties and the Role of Jamoris Slaughter
The staff is facing a bit of a dilemma with the graduation of Harrison Smith: Do they keep Jamoris Slaughter exclusively at safety, turn him into a full-time hybrid outside linebacker, or a combination of both?
We've seen the defensive staff take a very measured, some would say conservative, approach to gameplanning and for that reason I think they will keep Slaughter at safety and try like hell to get competent Dog linebacker play elsewhere.
With Zeke Motta being something of a weak-link on the defense, it's hard to imagine Diaco moving a veteran like Slaughter away from the back-end of the defense.
But if that happens and Slaughter sees less and less time at safety, four players will have to step up immensely in the spring.
In fact, Dan McCarthy may have been brought back specifically to be able to move Slaughter. Can McCarthy stay healthy and contribute though?
Chris Salvi earned a scholarship but still seems like a long-shot to see meaningful playing time, and that leaves rising junior Austin Collinsworth and redshirt freshman Eilar Hardy to make a move during spring.
I'd look for Collinsworth and McCarthy to distance themselves from the pack if Slaughter is out of the picture with Hardy possibly moving to corner due to a lack of size.
It's quite possible that the third safety (Slaughter's replacement) or the fourth safety is a true freshman.
Part II coming next week...