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The 2010 Shamrocks: A Pre-Season Look at Irish Football (Pt. 1)

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The 2010 Shamrocks is a look at Notre Dame football post-spring and heading into Brian Kelly’s first season as head coach in South Bend.

Who are Notre Dame best players?

What young players will we see emerge?

Who needs to step up their game?

What games will be must-see?

This is part one of two, a sort of web-based companion to all those pre-season magazines now flooding stores.

PLAYER WITH THE BEST SPRING PRACTICE

QB Dayne Crist

Most observers thought he’d be walking around delicately during spring practice nursing his knee injury and wouldn’t even partake in the Blue-Gold game.

Instead, Crist led the Irish in full speed offensive drills in the team’s first practice, assumed greater leadership and looked sharp in the spring game.

You could probably put a handful of other players who really stepped up during spring, but given the lack of depth and leadership at quarterback, Crist’s progress has been admirable.

RUNNER UP

LB Manti Te’o

He’s bigger and almost assuredly smarter and faster. Still a freshman, Te’o has assumed a leadership role and may be the team’s best defender already. It remains to be seen if that means he is that good or if the Irish defense is still average at best.

PLAYER WITH DISAPPOINTING SPRING

WR John Goodman

For a player without a ton of playing experience, Goodman was talked about quite a bit earlier in the year.

Would he transition to quarterback? How would Kelly use him in the new offense?

Fast forward to today and Goodman has kind of been lost in the shuffle a little bit and it is uncertain what role he will have in 2010. That’s not to say that he’s truly disappointed, but he was all but invisible during the Blue-Gold game.

Here’s hoping the talented Indiana product becomes a solid receiver in the fall.

RUNNER UP

S Zeke Motta

As a true freshman in 2009, Motta saw a lot of action on special teams and picked up some garbage minutes on the defensive side of the ball. As a highly touted recruit, it was thought that he would transition to safety and make a case to start there for the upcoming season.

Now, it looks like he will be on the sidelines for the immediate future, although the lack of depth at safety could have him playing quite frequently. Out of all the defenders however, Motta looked the worst in the Blue-Gold game and will look to rebound with a strong summer and fall camp.

TOP NFL PROSPECT

WR Michael Floyd

Floyd is a no-brainer at this point, but Kyle Rudolph is right up there as a player who could have a big year and hear the NFL calling after the 2010 season as well.

Floyd has such a great combination of size, speed and skill that it is hard to imagine he won’t put up All-American numbers and project as a first round pick. A lot will happen between now and next off-season, but Floyd will be the undisputed number one target for the professional scouts to drool over.

MOST LIKELY TO BREAK SCHOOL RECORDS

TE Kyle Rudolph

I’m not sold that Rudolph is a lock for a first round pick, not after watching Clausen and Tate fall to the second this past draft, but I do know two things.

1. Rudolph is a walking mismatch.
2. Crist will throw the ball to him often.

When these two things are added to Kelly’s new offense, it is not inconceivable that Rudolph approaches 100 receptions and 10 or more touchdowns. That would shatter most single season school records for tight ends and make him possibly the best in Irish history.

PLAYER POISED FOR A BREAKOUT SEASON

WR Shaq Evans

Evans has the size, speed and elusiveness to contribute in a big way this season. In fact, he could be the team’s best returning playmaker in 2011 if he has a successful season and others bolt early for the League.

It is likely that Evans will get significant more playing time and have many balls thrown his way in Kelly’s spread air attack. A breakout season is highly likely including as many as 40 or 50 receptions.

Runner-up

WR Deion Walker

Walker has been a bit of an enigma and disappointment since coming to South Bend as part of the 2008 recruiting haul, but he is the kind of playmaker that Brian Kelly would have killed to have at Cincinnati.

With Walker's talent and size, there is no way the coaching staff does not get this kid going and add depth to what could be the country’s best receiving corps. His career may have gotten off to a rocky start, but he still has three years of eligibility left and has all the ingredients to become a star in the blue and gold.

THREE THINGS THAT WILL BE IMMEDIATELY APPARENT IN THE FIRST GAME

The Team Will Have More Energy

One of the best things about the hiring of Kelly is the life he has breathed into the program with his focus on strength and conditioning. With that emphasis, we will see a fast-paced offense and a defense that will not tire as much in the fourth quarter.

From running out of the tunnel, to bearing down late in games, it will be apparent that this new Notre Dame squad will have more energy than in past years.

The Receivers Will Block Much Better

This was immediately noticeable during the Blue-Gold game and just another example of how much better the coaching has been thus far after only a couple months of teaching.

For how great some receivers performed during the Weis, the team ran far too many lazy and sloppy routes while not blocking to the best of their abilities.

This will all change very quickly under the new coaching staff as the improved blocking by the receivers will be a key to the Irish running game.

Time of Possession Matters Not

This one makes a lot of Irish faithful pretty worried, but there’s nothing we can do about it. The offense will move quickly and the defense will have to be ready to stay on the field against possession run-heavy teams like Stanford and Pitt.

ASSISTANT COACH WHO WILL PROVE THE DOUBTERS WRONG

Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco

There’s been a lot of concern about head coach Brian Kelly’s perceived lack of attention to the defensive side of the ball, but I’m not believing it.

Diaco may be young and somewhat unproven at the college level, but I think this guy has a big future ahead of him. His fiery attitude has already endeared him to the players and his enthusiasm and talent as a coach are sorely needed within the program.

Perhaps Notre Dame will not have a dominant defense, but Diaco will improve the unit and put a handful of players in positions to succeed greatly in 2010.

BIGGEST IMPACT FRESHMAN

WR TJ Jones

Jones doesn’t have ideal size, but he makes up for it with toughness and determination. Almost a perfect fit for Kelly’s spread offense, he comes to South Bend as an early enrollee with speed, precision and terrific hands.

It didn’t take long for the coaching staff to recognize Jones’ talent and heading into fall camp he is holding down a starting position. After an impressive showing in the Blue-Gold game, including a beautiful touchdown catch from Crist, this athlete from Georgia will have the biggest impact out of the entire freshmen class in 2010.

FRESHMAN WHO SHOULD PLAY BUT WILL PROBABLY RED SHIRT

DT Louis Nix

It is very rare that a true freshman defensive tackle will make the transition from high school to college and receive significant playing time in his first year on campus. However, Nix may be the special kind of talent with the size and strength necessary to make such a leap.

Still, even though Nix is a potential game-changer at the nose tackle position, it appears that Brian Kelly is intent on saving a year of his eligibility and making the Jacksonville native stronger and more in tune with the college game and the team’s philosophies.

It’s likely a smart move on the coach’s part, but Nix could probably be a decent player as a freshman if he does not red shirt.

FRESHMAN WHO SHOULD RED SHIRT BUT WILL PROBABLY PLAY

QB Andrew Hendrix

Hendrix also qualifies as a player and recruit flying under the radar as well as he is an extremely talented quarterback with experience in a spread offense. In fact, he’s one of the nation’s best quarterback recruits with a strong arm and multiple weapons.

Ideally, he would probably red shirt like Crist did as a freshman, but Hendrix will likely step up and become the backup quarterback for 2010 and into the future. As long as Crist stays healthy, Kelly should be able to develop Hendrix into a dangerous future leader of the offense.

MOST BORING GAME

Western Michigan

There are a couple other nominees, but none probably as bad as the Broncos, a team that struggled in the MAC last year and will likely take a step back next year.

This could realistically be the worst opponent to play inside Notre Dame Stadium in quite some time.

MOST EXCITING GAME

USC

This is obvious, although there are some other games that could be highly entertaining.

Still, the matchup to end the year at the Coliseum could be huge. There are so many story lines already and this could be a monumental game if the Trojans are in the national title hunt and Notre Dame is rolling into L.A. with only a loss or two.

3 OPPOSING PLAYERS WHO NEED TO BE STOPPED

Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis

A freshman All-American, Lewis will have great receivers but a new quarterback to deal with. Still, this kid is sensational and will be a big part of the Pitt offense. If Notre Dame can slow him, and the Panther running game, they should have a nice shot to beat them.

Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins

He played pretty well last year inside Notre Dame Stadium, until his untimely game-clinching interception was thrown. The Spartans return some really good players on offense and Cousins will have plenty of options when Notre Dame invades East Lansing.

Southern California’s Matt Barkley

Kiffin will probably want to establish a strong running game, but it is likely Barkley will throw the ball a lot more than he did in 2009. While Heisman talk is a little much, Barkley had a very good freshman year and is obviously very talented.

He had one of his best games last year against Notre Dame so it is imperative that he gets slowed down this fall.

3 ISSUES THAT NEED TO GO AWAY

Joining a Conference

This whole topic is interesting, but there’s too much rumor mongering going on and it is still likely that Notre Dame stays independent.

The NBC Broadcast Team

There are a lot of complaints about the broadcast team, but I think that the biggest thing is that they are too boring and not entertaining enough. Watching the spring game on und.com's feed, the presentation was raw but a million times better than what is offered Saturdays on NBC.

There's something wrong when most fans look forward to Notre Dame playing on ESPN, ABC, or CBS because the broadcast team will be better. For a program that has its own national television contract, this should not be happening.

The Field Conditions

I'm still in the minority on this subject, so let's say we can agree to disagree. Either way, it would be wonderful to see improved field conditions for the upcoming season.

PERSON WHOSE POPULARITY HAS SKY ROCKETED SINCE 2009

Jack Swarbrick

There’s been plenty of apprehension with the hiring of Swarbick after Kevin White left for Duke, but he has had a tremendous year in 2010.

He’s hired the successful Brian Kelly and has the program looking more toward a 6-5-1 schedule with the possible Miami series and other big games. Swarbrick has also handled the questions on independence fairly well and looks like he’s crafting a way to keep the team close to its traditional roots as a national program.

TOP OFFENSIVE LINEMAN

G Chris Stewart

Stewart is a monster run blocker who uses his immense size to his advantage. With the help of Paul Longo’s strength and conditioning, Stewart could play himself into a quality third or fourth round draft pick.

Or maybe he’ll continue with law school.

TOP YOUNG OFFENSIVE LINEMAN

C Braxton Cave

Braxton Cave has played a lot of starting center since Kelly took over and he looks like he will be a quality player who anchors the middle in 2010. There will be other much younger lineman who will develop, but Cave is the best one right now without much experience.

Upcoming in part two: The spring's biggest surprise, most likely to overachieve, player with the most pressure, who will become a household name, the top home games to attend and more.