Notre Dame opens up spring football early this year with the team beginning the first of its 15 practices this upcoming Monday, March 3rd. As Brian Kelly heads into his 5th season, the offense isn't quite at a crossroads as much as it is doubling back towards the road it began two years ago. A lot of pieces have finally fallen into place--the team is full of Kelly's players--and many fans are expecting the best offense of the Kelly era.
The pressure is on.
Here are some questions worth asking as the Fighting Irish get back on the field to set the tone for 2014.
How Rusty will Golson Be?
Obviously most eyeballs will be squarely on Golson as he returns from suspension. What kind of player are we going to get right out of the gate after such a long absence? Will his work with George Whitfield pay immediate dividends? Or is it possible Golson might be a little shaky coming back while trying to put the past behind him, improve his passing, expand his knowledge of the offense, and take on a position of leadership?
Everett's weight gain will also be something else to monitor this spring. He came to Notre Dame at a skinny 170 pounds and was able to get up to 185 pounds during his redshirt freshman season. Although head coach Brian Kelly mentioned that Golson finished 2012 under 180, there have been numerous reports that he began his training with George Whitfield this past fall at 190 pounds and got up to as high as 204 pounds.
Can Zaire Challenge for the Starting Job?
But wait! There will be plenty of eyes on Malik Zaire this spring too as he enters a mano-a-mano quarterback competition with Golson. It would be surprising to see him usurp Golson, however, as there is enough pressure on Zaire to get himself ready for real action on the field this fall.
It's one thing when you're battling mono all season, the starting quarterback stays healthy, and the coaching staff wants to keep the redshirt on you. That was Zaire's life in 2013. Now, he's one injury away from being the starter, and many are expecting Malik to take a big step forward after lurking in the shadows last year.
Greg Bryant: Good or Great?
If you recall Greg Bryant was getting the bulk of the attention and hype going into 2013 compared to his classmate Tarean Folston, but it was Folston who ended up making the big impact as a true freshman. Bryant carried the ball twice in the opener against Temple and then once a couple of games later against Purdue before a knee injury shut down the rest of his season.
Following some rumor and speculation of a possible transfer, he appears 100% healthy and ready to make a big impact in his redshirt freshman season at Notre Dame. There have been other whispers around the program dating back to last August that Bryant was the most talented back on the roster, so can he show the world he's ready to be a No. 1 type of back for this team in the spring?
What's Happening with Carlisle & Mahone?
Notre Dame will return Cam McDaniel and his 838 career yards, while Tarean Folston figures to be the favorite to be a mainstay following his 470 yards--the most by a true freshman since 2004 when Darius Walker's 786 yards broke a school record. We already mentioned Greg Bryant, so where does this leave Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone?
Carlisle, a rising senior academically, will be participating in his third spring practice but the first one in full health. He missed 2012 with an ankle injury and broke his collarbone very early in spring ball last year. Big things were expected from Carlisle last year, but he finished fourth on the team in rushing attempts, only caught 7 passes, and only picked up 3 carries over the last 5 games. He should figure prominently in special teams, but what about as a running back?
Mahone has yet to make an impact on the field and sat out his redshirt freshman year with an ankle injury. He should be completely healthy this spring and a move to the backfield from the slot (where he worked last August) is likely with the departure of George Atkinson. Can he fill a niche as a power back or will Bryant and Folston fill that role by themselves?
Who Will Step Up in the Absence of Daniels?
I'm looking at you, Chris Brown! Okay, not all the pressure is on Brown, but a lot of certainly should be. Will someone step up over the 15 practices and head into the summer to make the coaching staff a lot more comfortable about DaVaris Daniels missing the spring? Is one of the rising sophomores ready to take the next step? Will Torii Hunter amaze in his first spring? Does Justin Brent have starter potential as a true freshman?
What Do We Have with Heuerman and Smythe?
With Troy Niklas scurrying off to the NFL, the tight-end depth chart suddenly became very dependent on some young players. Among the 5th-year seniors, true seniors, and juniors there's only one player (Ben Koyack) on the roster and he's the only guy with ANY experience. That's why we'll need to find out how much the redshirt freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe can contribute this spring. Depending on their development the offense could stay very tight end dependent or shift away from the model used heavily in 2012-13.
What's the Plan at Left Guard/Tackle & Who's Next Up in the Rotation?
We've been discussing these positional battles for a couple weeks on the site. So many options and so many different combinations could be used. Does Stanley stay at right tackle or does he move over to the left side? Is McGlinchey too good to keep off the field and does he keep Elmer at guard? The spring battle really goes far beyond replacing Zack Martin and Chris Watt on that left side. Nearly every position is in flux right now depending on where a handful of players settle in during these 15 practices.
Will any Changes to the Offense be Evident this Spring?
It's been a topsy turvy 4 years. The Brian Kelly Spread at Notre Dame has been a mish-mash of styles and performances. Little changes have come and gone inside of a single game. Other changes have stayed around longer only to disappear later. Up-tempo has stuck its head out of the sand a few times too.
Where is this ship headed in 2014 and how apparent will any changes be this spring? Will we see some of the stuff I've personally been clamoring for (more option, up-tempo, multi-back sets, motion, etc.) and if we do will any of those things be a part of the regular every game offense? Or are we going to see the 2012 offense except with better passing?
What questions are you asking of the offense this spring?