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Notre Dame Spring Practice Storylines: Part III

We've come to our last installment of the Spring Practice Storylines as Notre Dame gets set to take the field this morning in South Bend.

If you've missed any of the first two parts click here for part one or here for part two.

So far we've covered:

The right side of the offensive line, the pecking order at running back, the role of GA3, youngsters stepping up at middle linebacker, the role of Slaughter, Niklas and the tight ends, the answer at outside receiver, the pecking order on the defensive line, the plan for Ishaq Williams, and finally the odds that the now-departed Tee Shepard could start at corner.

Part three contains just four topics, but it will end with the biggest of them all.

How Big Will Shembo's Role be at the Cat Position?

Right now everyone with any knowledge of the program is expecting Prince Shembo to settle into the Cat-outside-linebacker role for the final two seasons of his career.

Prince started his freshman year as an edge rusher and finished the season with only 15 tackles, but a respectable 4.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Last year he was moved to the Dog position, missed a game due to his father's illness, and only ended up with 31 tackles and just two sacks despite being a de facto starter on defense.

With Darius Fleming and Steve Filer graduating, the Cat position is wide open and should be Shembo's spot to lose this spring. The question will be if he's going to be the unquestioned starter like Fleming or if he'll be sharing a lot of minutes with someone like Ishaq Williams.

While we'll look at the depth and playing time at the Cat position, we should also keep an eye on whether Shembo can take a big step forward in his junior season. He has most of the tools to be a very good player in the same vein as Darius Fleming and if he can sew up this spot in the spring it will be one less problem the staff has to deal with in 2012.

Is Ben Councell the Big Dog (Linebacker) Answer?

Here's something to ponder: Notre Dame has switched to the 3-4 defense since Brian Kelly came to South Bend and the program has seen quality improvement in said defense---all while getting very little out of the Dog-outside-linebacker position.

What could this defense look like with a legitimate threat at Dog? I'm thinking most of you would agree that it could be pretty scary, especially with Manti Te'o patrolling the middle.

The fact is the Dog position is probably the most difficult to master, yet is incredibly important in the 3-4 defense. The starter there is asked to do a lot of things, and if he's not making plays the defense is almost playing with 10 guys on the field.

Last year the Dog trio of Shembo-Spond-Niklas totaled 64 tackles and 4 tackles for loss---numbers that are woeful for a position that needs to be one of the top playmakers on the defense. With Shembo likely moving to Cat and Niklas moving to tight end, only Spond (who was injured for most of the 2011 season) remains as a viable choice with experience.

But then there's upcoming sophomore Ben Councell.

If we do in fact see Shembo move positions, that may signal that Councell is ready to jump into a role where's he playing serious minutes in 2012.

We know that Diaco and the coaching staff desire length and the ability to take on offensive linemen near the line of scrimmage, and that through two seasons a huge emphasis has been put on stopping the run. Councell has the prototypical size you'd like to see at Dog (6'4" 240 pounds) and adds a really exciting combination of length and speed. If he can add the physicality near the line that the staff so covets, we might be seeing a lot of Councell this upcoming season.

Perhaps the staff may even have to back away from the deep concern with physicality up front at this position and focus more on speed, making plays in the flat, and tightening up the underneath passing defense---because these areas have received poor-to-failing grades from the Dog position through two years of Kelly's tenure.

A combination of Spond and Councell may be the perfect answer for 2012, a one-two punch of physicality, awareness, and tackling ability with speed, length, and unlimited potential.

Will There Be Any Discernible Difference in the Offense Under Martin?

This is a question that is as important as the quarterback decision and will have an enormous influence upon ultimately selecting a signal caller for 2012.

In fact, a large part of finding out how different the offense will be should revolve around which quarterbacks are being given first team reps and distinguishing themselves during practice.

However, it's not like Notre Dame will be switching to the flexbone (much to burgs' chagrin) so it may take a while to figure out exactly what Martin and Kelly are planning on tweaking.

Three key issues to watch for:

The Quarterbacks

The quarterbacks have already been brought up and there will be more below. If there's no announced starter towards the end of the spring, if there isn't a big shakeup in the depth chart, if we're not hearing much about who's excelling and it's all a bunch of coachspeak with nary a hint about someone stepping up and grabbing the reigns---we might not be looking at much of a change to the offense.

Going Up Tempo

This has been a consistent issue from all the staff at One Foot Down---that the spread offense that Kelly uses becomes truly lethal when it pushes the tempo on the opponent.

Burgs has chronicled it on film before and Whiskey even saw what wonders it could do watching Oregon live at the Rose Bowl this season. In short, tempo really matters in this offense.

The question is "will we see it this year," or rather, "will it be a priority during the spring?"

According to Brian Kelly from his press conference on Tuesday afternoon, it appears that tempo is not going to be a huge concern right now as the offense needs to work on protecting the ball first and foremost. That may be fine in the spring as the quarterbacks battle it out for playing time, but it might not be a wise approach to continue abandoning the up tempo in the fall.

We also have to consider that it will be difficult to know how much the up tempo is being stressed during the spring with the limited viewings of practices and the fact that the Blue Gold Game has been notoriously slow-paced. This means we'll likely be subject to typical coachspeak and without any real evidence of increased tempo all the time in practices this month.

Running the Ball More

Who hasn't been thinking about this for the past few months?

Chuck Martin ran the ball a lot as the head coach and offensive coordinator at Grand Valley State and it's allowed just about everyone to surmise that the Irish will pound the rock in a variety of ways in 2012.

There's no doubt that many signs point to this happening: 3 of the 4 quarterbacks can use their legs and their inexperience would suggest shying away from throwing the ball as much. The team is also stocked at running back and with hybrid slot runners like GA3 and Davonte Neal.

Just like running the up tempo offense, we may not know how much emphasis is being placed on running the ball during the spring. I will say this though: If we don't see even a modest increase in running the ball in 2012, it's unlikely that we will in the future or that Martin's offense will be all that different from the past two seasons.

The Battle of All Battles at Quarterback

I have nothing to give but wild speculation and pure opinion on each candidate.

Gunner Kiel

He'll mix it up in the spring and into the summer/fall practices, but we won't hear a definitive answer to his status for 5 months or longer.

I'm sure it will be a lot like Golson's status last year where even into the start of the season there was the threat he could play---just put me down for someone who thinks Kiel will eventually redshirt.

Tommy Rees

Most expect that Rees is going to take a back seat this spring and it will be someone else stepping up as the starting quarterback for the Irish. If some of the gameplan changes mentioned above are blatantly obvious or the coaches continue stressing the attributes that Rees doesn't own, he may slip into the background before fall practice begins.

I'm not holding my breath for that to happen though.

I wouldn't put money down that Rees is going to start, but I don't think we've seen the last of him just yet. Even with his struggles last year it is extremely uncommon for a player with his amount of starts and experience to be unseated at the quarterback position.

The team is going to need someone not named Rees to step up to such a degree that it forces Kelly to name a new starter, and I just don't think the spring affords the staff enough time to make such a decision. I fully expect Rees to still be in the starting discussion after the Blue Gold Game.

Andrew Hendrix

I've always liked Hendrix. Maybe it's his name, his skill set, or the fact that he could have left for (what was then) greener pastures in Florida with Urban Meyer, but ultimately decided to stay with Notre Dame. I still think he has a lot to offer this team, but I can't shake the feeling that he's going to be the man left out when this whole ordeal shakes out.

I tend to think his appearances last season were pretty encouraging on the whole and even that little experience should give him a leg up this spring---but will it be enough?

He's just so damn raw, he hasn't played this thing called "starting quarterback" for very long, and he's staring at an experienced returning starter above him, and two incredibly talented youngsters below who seem born to play the position.

If he ends up pulling ahead of the other three guys then he's obviously made a significant jump and that probably means he's developed into a very good quarterback. Also, in many ways he's probably the best/smart/shrewd choice in that he has some experience and has a terrific combination of size, speed, and arm strength.

I just have my doubts right now.

Everett Golson

We've gone over Golson this offseason with the Reviewing the Redshirts series and the gist is that there is a lot to drool over with Everett except his size. And since he already appears to have packed on some weight, he's limited that weakness after just one season with the program.

Yet, if it could be hard for someone with experience like Hendrix to leapfrog an established starter, it might be even more difficult for Golson to do so too. In this sense, we might be wise to preach more patience with He Who Shall Not Be Slept On.

However, there are many indications from "those in the know" (how valid they are!) around the program who suggest that 2012 is going to be Golson's coming-out party and Kelly and the coaching staff are absolutely in love with what he brings to the table.

I'm not sure how much stock to put into those claims---Golson wouldn't be the first player to have those things said about him and not make a big impact---but I'm a believer in Everett being a potentially massive game-changer at the quarterback position.

This has essentially been a 24+ month ongoing quarterback battle at Notre Dame and it's also been quite the headache that isn't much fun to write about anymore. I don't know if Golson will be the starter in Ireland just 5 months down the road, but I think it won't be long before he creates some distance between him and the other players.

I just don't expect that to happen this spring.