The most oft-asked question of the off-season (at least one not regarding Everett Golson
or Eddie Vanderdoes
) has been: "Who's going to start at the RB/Slot position next year?"
Not only has my answer been decidedly uncertain, but it usually includes a follow-up question:
"Why does there have to be a RB/Slot hybrid?
Kelly's creation of the position prior to 2012 was more about best-utilizing a singular senior weapon in Theo Riddick than any long-standing offensive philosophy by the veteran coach.
In other words, Riddick was a true hybrid runner and receiver. His cohorts Cierre Wood and George Atkinson were running backs in the traditional sense -- occasionally asked to stress the defense by lining up in the slot or swinging from the backfield for a pass. (Fellow 2012 "Slot/RB" Robby Toma was primarily a slot receiver that needed a group to practice with. He, along with since-transferred understudy Davonte' Neal, joined assistant coach Tony Alford's running backs room.)
To best describe this approach I'll borrow from Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and his view on a similar subject, the nomenclature of calling the Crimson Tide defensive front a "3-4" when in reality, Alabama played four down linemen roughly 80 percent of the time last fall.
"We need a place to meet."
In other words, Alabama's 3-4 allows the outside linebackers to go to a meeting room (the linebackers) and the defensive ends to go to another (the defensive line). But their assignments and requirements often overlapped.
The same held true last fall for Riddick, and Wood and Atkinson, and Toma, et al, with Alford -- that group joined Notre Dame's longest-tenured position coach in the RB/Slot meeting room.
Primarily for the sake of organization and day-to-day consistency, perimeter receivers T.J. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, John Goodman, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, etc., joined perimeter receivers coach Mike Denbrock in his.
Neither room will look the same this fall, because its no longer necessary -- the reason for the RB/slot approach, Riddick, has graduated and left the building.
"How much information can you bring in and retain, and be able to do it at a high level?" said Alford of the key to playing the slot, or any other role in Kelly's offense. "I'm not going to ask any of our players to be Theo Riddick. I'm going to ask them to be the best we can be.
"The way our offense is generated, guys can do anything. If TJ (Jones) can do it, then he'll be the guy that does it. If Troy Niklas shows he can do more because he matures, then we'll move him and have him do some things. If George, Cam (McDaniel), Will (Mahone), Amir (Carlisle) show they could do things, they'll do it.
Alford noted that the "slot receivers" (Prosise might have been the only true "slot" in the spring) spend the bulk of their time with Denbrock these days. In other words, no Riddick, no need for a slot receiver in the running backs meeting room. Alford continued to describe the evolution of the "slot" -- or for our purposes, the fifth skill position starter on offense.
"It depends on what you're trying to do. I still think we're working through that. I think Chuck (Martin) does a fantastic job of being the offensive coordinator to the rest of the staff as far as saying, "Who do we have at our disposal? Here's what we have, how can we do this? How can we position guys to maximize what we want to do and maximize their skill set?"
That reality will play out in August camp and likely throughout the season's first four to six weeks.
For the sake of clarity and this discussion, assume the starting receivers are Jones and Daniels (they will be), the starting in-line tight end is Troy Niklas (likely) and the starting running back is Atkinson (the spring leader heading into the clubhouse).
Candidates for the open fifth spot are thus listed and categorized below:
The Power Approach
"(Last year) we ran the ball more," said Alford. "We had a bigger body in there (the second tight end) vs. having Robby Toma (unofficially listed at five-foot nothing, a hundred-and-nothing) block a guy."
There's no diminutive slot receiver on the 2013 Irish and there are again an ample supply of big bodies at Kelly and Martin's disposal. The presence of each of the players detailed below could aid a backfield that will doubtless include a committee of runners. At minimum two as regulars, likely three or four, and potentially five from a six-player running back unit over the course of September, October, and November as attrition occurs and talent -- or deficiencies -- are exposed.
(I assume the "sixth" running back will be headed for heavy scout team action this fall, as there aren't enough practice snaps post-camp available.)
Wide Receiver Daniel Smith: Easily the team's best blocking wide receiver last season, Smith can crack down to offer an outside lane to runners, he can secure defensive backs in space, and as long as he's not asked to take on the schedule's most physical linebackers and defensive ends, can do the job vs. that group as well. Smith will be the clear-cut choice as the fifth starter if he can become more than a hitch receiver as a senior -- only one of his seven receptions last fall was in excess of 10 yards and he rarely caught a pass with any room to maneuver.
Tight End #2 and/or #2B: Niklas hasn't locked down a starting job, but its safe to say he'll play a major role. The 6'7" 260-pound Big Skill athlete could also fill this position though it seems he's better suited in-line or in motion rather than aligned in the slot. That leaves recovering senior Alex Welch (ACL tear) and junior former FOX Sports NEXT five-star Ben Koyack as candidates.
Welch is certainly a better blocker than Koyack who likely has Welch (and Niklas) as a pass-catcher on the move. The leader for the slot role among this trio is Koyack -- he'll have to improve greatly as a blocker in space to lock it down, because Niklas showcased that skill by November last season.
Slot Receiver C.J. Prosise: Easily the fastest player among this collection and the most intriguing from a fan's perspective, Prosise is also the least experienced non-freshmen skill player on the roster, toiling as a scout team defender until December last season. He was the best slot weapon during spring ball, a consolation prize that becomes irrelevant as the full-squad Irish gather for season preparations in August. If Prosise wins the job, Notre Dame will be a pass-heavy offense, because the entire group listed above is better at securing blocks in space than the neophyte redshirt-freshmen.
The Technical Slot/RB Candidates
"The goal is to figure out who's going to be there," said Alford of the spring and off-season. "We're going to put guys on the field who are going to be consistent playmakers for us."
Each below fits the bill:
Running Back/Slot Amir Carlisle: If in good health for the first time since suffering a broken ankle in March 2012, Amir Carlisle will play a major role in the offense. Period. He'll be a running back. He'll line up in the slot. He'll catch swing passes, screen passes, he'll take handoffs in mis-direction on the move. You name it, he'll do it. But he still has to prove it in August and for three months thereafter.
More important, Kelly, Martin and Co. have to decide where Carlisle, and with whom, can he best aid the offense. If its with another running back, Carlisle is your slot receiver. If its as a running back, a job share automatically exists at the position, because Carlisle won't carry the ball 20 times per game. Stay tuned...
Running Back/Slot Cam McDaniel: A fan favorite because of his style and dominant relief efforts last season, McDaniel has yet to do it vs. a quality defense. There's little doubt he'll play, but a weekly role will be determined by both his improvement and to be frank, the health of Carlisle and the acclimation of a pair of freshmen competitors. And competitive drive might be an overlooked aspect of McDaniel's best qualities.
Asked if he could approach 2013 differently because the team's long-time RB starters have graduated, he offered "To be completely honest, no, it isn't. When i was a freshman and I came in, I came with the mindset that I was competing for playing time. And I know Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, and they're going to come in with the same mentality. If you have a different mentality than that, you really shouldn't be here."
To answer a likely follow-up question from fans wanting to know more about his skill set, McDaniel is apparently adept as a pass-catcher. "I feel like that's something that's definitely been conditioned with me, but you can never catch too many balls. With the schedule we get sometimes it can be hard to get that extra work in, but summer is going to be an excellent opportunity for me. And with the offense that we have we're able to maximize the potential of all the 'backs. I've always seen myself as a versatile guy."
Running Back/Slot Tarean Folston: See Friday's write-up on the team's newest dual-threat back linked here. Folston's window for playing time becomes wider if Carlisle isn't either A.) durable or in good health, or B.) as advertised.
Best Man In?
What if the team's best slot receiver is also its best and most experienced perimeter receiver?
Wide Receiver T.J. Jones: Said Martin of Jones, "We got to the point last year when we were game-planning and sometimes we wanted to put T.J. everywhere. Well you can't line him up at all five spots." But they can line up him at two: his regular X (field side) wide receiver position alternating with a role as a slot receiver able to find holes in the defense. Jones is the team's most polished pass-catcher.
He's a north-south runner after the reception and knows every check, nuance, concept, and adjustment necessary to work in congress with sage but slow-footed senior triggerman Tommy Rees. In fact, I'm not sure why Jones wouldn't be the slot option in the team's base offensive attack.
-- Which means…Wide Receiver Chris Brown: becomes an option as the fifth starter. Brown's speed on the perimeter would be of great benefit to the offense. Of course, there's more to football than running fast down the post, so its the sophomore's improvement in the nuances of the position that will determine his 2013 role. That and if Jones moves inside on a regular basis, because suddenly a hole exists on the perimeter, and Brown could be poised to fill it.
A Freshmen to Be Named Later? It's doubtful early enrollees James Onwualu or Corey Robinson will win a starting role, but the former has a college-ready body and the latter has innate ability to catch passes thrown in his direction. Both could forge their way onto the field, Onwualu perhaps as a slot player, Robinson as a perimeter threat should Jones, as opined above, spend ample time in the slot. Fellow frosh Will Fuller would seem a few steps behind his classmates as a newcomer this summer, though Fuller is my top-rated Irish wideout among the 2013 quartet (including injured rookie Torii Hunter, Jr.)
As for the future recruitment of the slot position and playmakers in general, Alford added:
"There's a lot of good football players running around this country. It still goes to who fits what we want to do. Not just because someone said they have a fifth star next to their name, and they might, and God bless them. But do they fit what Notre Dame is doing? Do they fit what Coach Kelly, Coach Diaco, Coach Martin, are doing. If they fit, then we're going to go after them no matter what anyone thinks."
Four Notre Dame skill positions will again make up the basis of head coach Brian Kelly's Irish offense, with two wide receivers, a tight end, and a running back involved in the majority of the snaps. But it's the fifth position and fifth player, either a slot receiver, second tight end, or a runner/slot hybrid that will help determine the offense's success over the long haul in 2013.
Irish offense could feature power, quickness, veteran savvy in the slot…or perhaps all of the above.