Spring ball brings new hope but also myriad questions for teams mired in the 8-5 muck.
So while the 2012 Irish will be lead by All Americans such as Tyler Eifert and Manti Te’o; senior stalwarts Cierre Wood, Zack Martin, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Braxston Cave, Chris Watt, and Jamoris Slaughter, none of the above represents a major story line this spring.
With the exception of Lewis-Moore and Cave recovering from in-season surgeries last fall, few known quantities on the Irish (save for storyline #1 below) merit mid-April discussion. As head coach Brian Kelly often muses: “We know what we have, there.”
Now Irish fans need to know what they have regarding the players and storylines below – our nine biggest through nine practices this spring.
#1 – Lynch Takes a Break
Whether it was suggested he take said break, whether he inexplicably chose to do so, or whether Lynch simply had a personal, unrelated football matter to attend to, Aaron Lynch’s “excused” absence from Notre Dame’s final practice before Easter and only practice from April 4th until the 11th was the unquestioned top news of spring session to date.
It will likely only be topped by his expected return Monday night, or news to the contrary. Lynch was one of the team’s 10-12 best players last fall, easily one of the 10 biggest of impact, and figured to hit the top five with a bullet in 2012. The Notre Dame football team (and the coaching staff, to be blunt) needs him back – then the entire program could use fewer social media updates and (thrice verified) rumors on and regarding his every whim.
#2 – The Non QB Story
This was easy to see coming, but the simple fact that the staff will not have a starting quarterback, and won’t likely be close to a decision, at spring’s conclusion is a bit more telling than head coach and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin suggest.
I agree there’s no rush in making a decision for the 2012 starter, because of the current situation. But entering Year 3 of the Kelly regime, with three of the four competitors entrenched in the program for 28, 21, and 15 months, respectively, shouldn’t the situation be a bit clearer?
#3 – Shepard Exits Stage West
Though likely a major hit to the 2012 offense and especially future editions, the “loss” of verbal pledge Deontay Greenberry on February 1 to Houston (Houston! I can’t stop typing that!) was put in proper perspective by Kelly who noted something along the lines of “You can’t miss what you never had.”
Well the program had his cousin, 5-star cornerback prospect Tee Shepard. And it needed him.
Shepard left the University before spring ball. The reasons are irrelevant, of course. He, like Greenberry and fellow final month de-commits Taylor Decker and Ronald Darby likely would have helped greatly over the next four seasons.
In my opinion, the athletic void vacated by the Greenberry/Shepard/Darby trio will be difficult to overcome. (Decker is a good prospect, but Notre Dame has ample prospects throughout its classes on the offensive line – we won’t know what his presence would have meant for at least three years.)
The saying “Those that stay will be champions” hasn’t applied to the program for more than two decades. Kelly will curry fan base favor forever if he can make it a reality during his tenure.
#4 – Injuries (help) open the door
Dan Fox beat out former starter Carlo Calabrese for the Will linebacker spot last fall, doing so on the strength of his spring, summer, and August camp performance. Fox has been recently sidelined with a sprained PCL and Calabrese had apparently been knocking on the starter’s door previously. Now Calabrese will be on at least equal footing with last year’s 13-game starter and the team’s official Defensive Newcomer of the Year at August’s outset.
A similar situation presented for sophomore Ishaq Williams whose ascended to the No. 1 Cat linebacker role with expected starter Prince Shembo’s left foot in a protective boot. Williams’ will receive the lion’s share of reps at the position through the remainder of spring ball and the pair could form a formidable 1-2 punch at the position next fall.
#5 – Job Shares Aplenty
Will and Cat linebacker will feature a depth chart of “1 and 1A” rather than a true 1 and 2. The same is likely for the field cornerback position, the Dog linebacker spot, one defensive end spot, the No. 2 tight end (a relative starting position) behind Tyler Eifert, at least one, if not both perimeter wide receiver spots, and potentially running back, slot receiver, right tackle, right guard, and nose guard.
Throw in the likelihood of three safeties logging major minutes and the near certainty that you’ll see multiple quarterbacks next fall and the Irish are either really, really deep, or the roster could use more front line talent.
Teams can win and win BCS games with either but the margin for error is minimal if the latter is the reality.
#6 – Emergence(s) Imminent?
The dreaded C-word has reared its ugly head, but that’s not unexpected for a roster back-loaded with talent. Consistency has plagued early spring story-grabbers such as DaVaris Daniels, Troy Niklas, and the aforementioned Ishaq Williams.
But Daniels and Williams bring much-needed athleticism to their sides of scrimmage. Players such as cornerback Josh Atkinson, his brother George in the offensive backfield, and even senior Theo Riddick has untapped or developing talent
There are playmakers on the roster. Now plays need to be made, you guessed it: Consistently.
#7 – Sudden Surge
Notre Dame’s March 24 Junior Day changed the 2013 recruiting cycle from dormant and (for those that care in March) downright depressing, to one of hope, with needs met and momentum the new norm.
Kelly’s 2013 class has grown from three to 10 since that Saturday gathering, the latest addition at the much-needed cornerback spot with Washington, D.C. prospect Devin Butler.
Two cornerbacks (another is certain, don’t be surprised if there are two more); four offensive linemen (never turn down a quality fifth), a QB (steal), two wide receivers (two more would be ideal), and a Big Skill recruit round out the 10-spot to date.
The Irish should be able to bring in nine more pledges prior to making a tough decision on a prospective 5th-year candidate (that number assumes Eifert leaves for the NFL but no one else does; and does not factor in any transfers in or out).
An even 20 is reasonable. Tough decisions are part of the job.
#8 – Debut Delayed
January brought news of a new skill position weapon joining the roster in USC running back transfer Amir Carlisle. Two months later, Carlisle was cleared for immediate duty, eligible to play next fall. Less than two weeks later, Carlisle was sidelined for the spring with a broken foot. His expected return is sometime in June.
Notre Dame’s uncertain offense needs him on the field from Day One in September.
#9 – Prospective Pro Days
Nearly 40 current Irish players gathered in the Loftus Center for the 2012 Notre Dame Pro Day. Throw in recent early entrants Jimmy Clausen and Kyle Rudolph (also present) and 2009 superstar Golden Tate, and the gathering/reminders of talent that has come through South Bend was both impressive and disconcerting considering the recent past.
Tyler Eifert, Manti Te’o, Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt.
Zack Martin, Cierre Wood, Jamoris Slaughter, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick.
Expected, solid, and prospective professional football futures await the groups above.
Brian Kelly’s won a lot more with a lot less. And there’s much more developing talent within the roster in the freshman, sophomore, and even true junior year ranks.