Thursday, May 13, 2010
Experience back, but still questions for Irish
By Wes Morgan
Michael Floyd gives new quarterback Dayne Crist a freakishly-talented target during his first season under center.
Overshadowed by a an unfulfilling 6-6 record last season, the Notre Dame football team moved the ball efficiently en route to one of the program's highest-powered offenses in history. Six starters who helped the Fighting Irish roll up 451.8 yards per game return this fall, but first-year coach Brian Kelly entered the spring knowing there were several holes to plug.
The spring game on April 24 gave us a broader look at what Kelly is working with. Some position battles appear to be over, while others are expected to be rekindled in August when the entire freshman class arrives.
GONE TO CAROLINA As Jimmy Clausen gets used to his new southern digs with the Carolina Panthers, junior quarterback Dayne Crist takes up residence in the fish bowl. Wearing No. 16, walk-on Nate Montana harnessed his Hall of Fame father's legend in South Bend and delivered another fine performance ... in a scrimmage. His aberrational performance may have been the buzz of the Blue-Gold game, but Montana has a better shot of walking across the surface of Hesburgh Library's reflecting pool than dethroning Crist.
It has to be some measure of comfort for Kelly knowing what Montana, who managed to hold off early enrollee Tommy Rees -- a freshman QB far more suited for the spread offense -- is capable if needed. However, the No. 2 spot is very much in the air and will only grow more complicated once freshmen Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa arrive on campus.
Crist has the dubious distinction of entering this season at Notre Dame with only 20 career pass attempts -- the least amount of experience since Ron Powlus in 1994 and failed-experiment Demetrius Jones in 2007, both of whom had zero attempts to their credit before starting under center. But with a great arm, sharp mind and more charisma in his chinstrap than Clausen ever had, Crist is more than a serviceable replacement.
TAKING STOCK OF THE STABLE Using the spring game alone as a barometer for future success in the running game at Notre Dame has failed miserably. Remember Junior Jabbie in 2007? How about Travis Thomas the year before? If Blue-Gold dominance really served as a gaze into the crystal ball, then senior walk-on Patrick Coughlin, who rushed for 80 yards on 11 takes, will be a Heisman Trophy candidate and sophomore Cierre Wood, after breaking out for 111 yards on 10 carries, might take the hardware home by season's end. Try again.
Wood's performance, which included a 44-yard touchdown scamper, was impressive, however, leaving fans very comfortable with a pack of running backs led by senior Armando Allen. In 382 carries, Allen's never popped for over 26 yards and doesn't elicit many fist pumps. To be fair, he has never worked behind top-notch offensive lines. Allen's primed to have a great season, though it won't be a surprise to see as many as four tailbacks getting serious work, combining as one of the most talented units on the team.
ALL HANDS ON DECK? Losing Biletnikoff Award winner Golden Tate to the NFL is no reason to panic, not with wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph -- a pair of juniors that make grizzled defensive coordinators curl up in a fetal position under their office desks -- galloping back in 2010.
Talk about making Crist's transition a bit more manageable, Floyd is a physical freak with circus-catch capability. Rudolph is a gamer who can catch the ball in traffic and bail out an inexperienced quarterback. In open space, both can chew up yards and Floyd is a threat to find the end zone with each touch. If the duo remains healthy, first-team All-America honors await.
Throw in dynamic freshman Tai-ler Jones, senior Duval Kamara, running back transplant Theo Riddick (sophomore), speedy junior Deion Walker, star-in-the-making Shaq Evans (sophomore) and shifty slot Roby Toma (sophomore) and the Fighting Irish are stacked at receiver.
Tight end Mike Ragone was a pleasant surprise in the spring game, catching six passes for 75 yards and a score. His recent snag might erase all progress made, however. Ragone's Saturday arrest for marijuana possession on the Indiana Toll Rode might net the senior a semester suspension or worse, according to Notre Dame's student handbook. Ragone, with two years of eligibility, was formally charged Wednesday at LaGrange (Ind.) County Circuit/Superior Court with the misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail.
Brian Hardin, director of football media relations told the Associated Press that Kelly had spoken with Ragone and "feels it is a serious matter" and that any team-related recourse would be "handled internally."
If Ragone isn't on the sideline this fall, that leaves just senior Bobby Burger and sophomores Tyler Eifert and Jake Golic as backup tight ends -- a trio combining for a whopping two catches.
Early enrollee Alex Welch, a Cincinnati product, has a leg up after going through spring practices and might find more repetitions when camp begins.