Last Monday I previewed the defensive side of the ball and asked several questions for the Irish heading into spring practice. Now it's time for the other side.
Does Durham Smythe Establish Himself as the Go-To Tight End?
Notre Dame's been on quite the impressive run at tight end since 2003 with Anthony Fasano, John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, and Troy Niklas all being drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft--except Eifert who went in the first round in 2013. Last fall was a little bit of a transition year for the Irish with Ben Koyack taking the reigns but at least Koyack had 14 career receptions heading into his last year, but more importantly, played a ton since his freshman year. He'll be drafted this spring but will likely break the streak of tight ends at least going in the second round.
For 2015 we've entered uncharted territory for the post-Iraq War era of Irish football--serious lack of experience. Rising redshirt sophomore Durham Smythe got some respectable experience last year but did nothing memorable and only caught one pass.
Everyone's kind of assuming Smythe is going to ascend to the starting role, kind of by default, but also because he played serviceably as a redshirt freshman and has been tagged as one of the-praised-by-Kelly-players-who-actually-sees-the-field-early-in-his-career promising stars.
Smythe's classmate Mike Heuerman has been injured for a lot of his career and his fall 2014 listed 225 pounds isn't inspiring much confidence. Rising redshirt freshman Nic Weishar is an unknown heading into spring so it'll be interesting to see his progress but we'll likely see a whole lot of Durham Smythe starting next week.
Is Tyler Luatua Going to be the All-Time Blocking H-Back?
Hey, what about Luatua? He's a tight end too!
Except, he largely filled a role as an H-back last year and his bowling ball 6-2, 260 pound frame likely will prevent him from developing into the pass catching tight ends commonly used by the Irish.
Luatua came out of the gate and played a decent amount last year but did seem to disappear in the middle of the season before coming on strong in the bowl game. But remember he was slowed down by a concussion and the always inconsistent Brian Kelly gameplans that forego the H-back for large stretches of drives covering multiple games. I'd expect Luatua to pair up with Smythe as prominent features of the first team offense for spring.
How Much Will Greg Bryant Push Tarean Folston?
Bryant and Folston were the two late gem recruits for the 2013 class but so far it's been the latter whose career has taken off. As the 104th best prospect in the county, Folston is poised to reach 2,000 career rushing yards this fall while Bryant as the 45th best prospect back in '13 is coming off a humble 289-yard season that saw him take 2 or fewer rushes in 7 out of Notre Dame's 13 games in 2014.
Complicating matters is that head coach Brian Kelly mentioned (paraphrasing) that it's hard to earn playing time at running back during practice. So barring something enormously drastic happening Folston is likely to always be running back 1A at worst going into the summer.
The good news for Bryant is that he's going head-to-head with Folston without any other competition during the spring. Due to the poor depth these are the only two scholarship running backs at Notre Dame's disposal.
Who are the Preferred Back-Ups on the Offensive Line?
The recent news of Matt Hegarty transferring seemingly clears the way for a slightly re-tooled offensive line next season. The consensus among just about everyone is that Nick Martin will stay at center for his final season, Quenton Nelson moves up to first team left guard, with Stanley at left tackle, Elmer at right guard, and McGlinchey at right tackle.
The jockeying behind those players is where things should get fun during spring practice. Rising redshirt freshman Alex Bars has appeared to claim Most Favored status and maybe, just maybe, might challenge for a starting spot at right tackle. Beyond that much practice time is needed to sort these guys out.
Redshirt junior Mark Harrell is the oldest of the bunch and is no longer under-sized at 306 pounds. He's been found working at both guard and center in the past but there's been a feeling he's more of a placeholder in practice than legitimate challenger for a starting spot. Montelus, Bivin, and McGovern are the next in line via age with Bivin being a backup close to seeing the field last year.
Two more redshirt freshmen in Sam Mustipher and Jimmy Byrne are in the mix as is freshman early enrollee Tristen Hoge. The fight for the backup center spot will surely heat up with Hegarty gone. With Harrell and Mustipher spending time there in practice they'll be mixing it up with Hoge.
Will There be Anything Interesting at Receiver?
Notre Dame receivers caught 214 passes last year. The 6 wideouts who caught those passes will all be participating in spring practice. The depth is wonderful but the storylines aren't all that juicy.
After an explosive 76 reception, 1,094 yard, 15 touchdown season we can see Will Fuller solidify his role as the No. 1 receiver and national star. Chris Brown, C.J. Prosise, and Corey Robinson each totaled at least 500 yards which is all good stuff. Robinson, in particular, should welcome getting back to the field without nursing a fractured thumb.
The growth of young players like Torii Hunter, Corey Holmes, and Justin Brent will be worth monitoring too. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the receivers will be the role of Amir Carlisle and if he's productive enough to be among the most favored 5th-year candidates.
How Defined Will Mike Sanford's Role be in the Spring?
A week ago Notre Dame introduced 4 new assistant coaches, including new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford but during Brian Kelly's press conference it sounded like the head coach was still trying to convince himself he hired a OC and not just a glorified quarterbacks coach.
The hiring of Sanford was hailed as a breakthrough for Kelly and possibly a momentous change for the program. However, until further notice things may be more complicated than ever. We don't know the full extent of Sanford's role with the offense because Brian Kelly and Mike Denbrock might not even know themselves.
Kelly stated last week that they'll wait until after the spring to greater define Sanford's role. So this upcoming set of practices appear to be a mere prologue and not the first chapter for the new OC in South Bend.
Changes to the Offense: Small or Significant?
There's been plenty of speculation of at least some change to the offense with Sanford now in town. Here's a snippet from Kelly's press conference last Monday when asked about whether the offense was still his or not:
Well, we're not going to change anything relative to verbiage, nomenclature. The structure is still there, but we're always looking for improvements. We're always looking for ways to run our offense more efficiently. It still should be centered around the players first and the plays second. So whatever best fits the players over the particular play. We're not bringing in a new offensive structure relative to terminology. What we're doing is we're bringing in more ideas. Mike Denbrock will oversee that. We'll put in what we think can make us more efficient, more dynamic, at the end of the day be a better offense than we were last year.
In other words, everybody chill with all this talk about changing the offense!
The players first and plays second line is important because it's always been a philosophy Brian Kelly closely adheres to while the comment speaks to the impending quarterback battle beginning next week.
So, that Quarterback Situation?
This is the 9th straight spring practice where Notre Dame's quarterback situation is not settled by a proven veteran and unquestioned number one signal caller. Well, that's not entirely true. Jimmy Clausen was The Guy for the 2009 spring practices but there was some grumbling after the 5-star wunderkind wasn't living up to the hype and finished the last 4 regular season games of 2008 with 2 touchdowns and 8 interceptions before obliterating Hawaii on the island in the bowl game.
So this is the 8th time in 9 years with a question mark at quarterback.
Kelly's comments referenced above about players over plays suggests to me he's waiting to see what happens with the quarterbacks to proceed with the whole Sanford hire. To that point this spring will be positively fascinating for Everett Golson. Kelly has never had The Guy in the spring and he's never named a starter during or immediately coming out of spring practice.
What does Golson do in this situation?
One way would be to play so well in the spring that, even without a public assurance from Kelly, Golson knows he'll continue to play well in August and open up the season as the starter. Anything short of this though? There's going to be an awful lot of doubt in Golson's mind.
Which is why, I think, a lot of the Fighting Irish media are predicting that Golson will transfer after spring practice. There are just so many outcomes that can leave Golson believing he'll be on the bench. He can split first team reps all spring, he can play well but not amazingly awesome, Zaire can play well himself, the offense can slowly rely on more running from the QB position (thanks to Zaire), he can get banged up or outright injured, and the threat of utilizing a two-quarterback system hanging around--any combination of these things could happen plus that whole pesky no starter likely to be named after spring thing.
A couple of months ago I didn't buy into Golson leaving if he made it to the start of spring ball. He's going to have to be ultimately committed, patient, and perhaps even sacrifice his own good for that of the team. He'll also have to convince Kelly and the coaching staff that he's all in otherwise why should they waste valuable reps on him during the spring? If he didn't leave school before the start of the spring semester (he didn't) or is choosing to not practice while finishing up his degree before transferring (he's not) then I have to think he understands what's demanded of him and that he wants to be a part of Notre Dame more so than being a starter at some other college.
But that doubt is going to hit him in the chest real hard.