Chicago Colleges: ND spring 2014 position battles

Position battles to watch: No. 1

February, 21, 2014
2/21/14
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Our series looking at the top positions battles concludes with an area that will feature plenty of new faces in the middle of the Irish defense.

Inside linebacker

[+] EnlargeSchmidt
Chris Williams/Icon SMIFormer walk-on Joe Schmidt played significant action inside for the Irish last season.
No Manti Te'o in 2013 was a bigger adjustment than most expected. The veteran presence of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese kept things familiar, with Fox moving to the Mike, losing his job to Jarrett Grace, then bouncing back to play some of the best football of his career to close the 2013 season.

Now both are gone, and while the Irish lose Prince Shembo at the starting Cat linebacker spot as well, it is presumed that Ishaq Williams will step in with the chance to fill those shoes. (Jaylon Smith was a freshman sensation as the starting Dog linebacker.)

Grace figured to be the starting Mike, but his recovery from a broken leg means that the doors are open this spring for others to step up and make their marks. Kendall Moore is back for a fifth season and figures to play a big role this spring. So does redshirt junior Joe Schmidt, the former walk-on who earned a scholarship entering last season and played significant action inside in 2013.

One other thing to consider is that there is a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. And although Brian Kelly said that the Irish will still operate out of a 3-4 base and go 4-3 about half the time, it remains to be seen how much more aggressive, if at all, VanGorder is with the personnel at hand.

There will probably be plenty of mixing and matching this spring, as the Irish try to find where some of their young guys are most effective -- notably, Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph, a pair of players who redshirted last season as freshmen.

Outside linebacker has a bit more depth, with Romeo Okwara and Ben Councell, who will likely miss the spring after tearing an ACL late last season. And a major reinforcement inside could be on the way this summer in Nyles Morgan, the No. 5 inside linebacker in the nation and Notre Dame's top recruit from the 2014 class.

But that's a topic for fall practice. In the spring, the Irish need to work on replenishing the position unit that takes the biggest hit from 2013 to 2014 in linebacker, and in particular, at inside linebacker. Several players have opportunities to cement significant roles for the 2014 season.

Position battles to watch: No. 2

February, 20, 2014
2/20/14
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Our series looking at the top position battles this spring turns its attention to the backfield.

Running backs

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCam McDaniel was a surprising leading rusher for Notre Dame in 2013.
George Atkinson III is off to try his hand at the NFL after a sub-par junior campaign in which he entered the season as the top option before falling out of favor with the coaching staff, which suspended him for the for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Atkinson was second on the team in carries (93) and rushing yards (555), adding three touchdowns. Notre Dame as a whole had a down year running the ball, checking in at No. 80 nationally, at 151 yards per game. But as KC Joyner mentioned a few weeks ago, the running backs might have been better than advertised, as they avoided losses and return some experienced blockers up front. Having a mobile quarterback in the backfield will only help bolster the running attack, too.

The leading returning back is the surprising Cam McDaniel, who enters his senior year coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him tally 705 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 152 carries. Notre Dame knows what it has in McDaniel, a valuable piece to have in this relatively young backfield moving forward.

The biggest guys to keep an eye on this spring, however, are Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. The four-star prospects came in with plenty of hype last season but only one really delivered on it, with Folston going for 470 yards and three touchdowns on 88 carries. The bulk of his production came late in the season, as he earned a heavier workload and carried the ball 11 or more times for 47 or more yards in five of the Irish's final six games.

Bryant, meanwhile, carried the ball just three times for 14 yards in three games and he was shut down for the season because of tendinitis, likely earning a medical redshirt. He is back at full health and practiced with the team late in the season, though, leaving many to wonder if he can begin to show glimpses of the potential he flashed in high school and help further the Irish ground game.

Let's not forget about Amir Carlisle, either, as the USC transfer played in every game and tallied 204 rushing yards on 47 carries. All of the backs need to become better pass-catchers to help open things up for the offense, and while none of these players lack for experience, the potential they show moving forward makes for an intriguing battle to watch unfold this spring.

Position battles to watch: No. 3

February, 19, 2014
2/19/14
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Our series looking at the top position battles this spring shifts to a position that has been recruited like few others by the Irish in recent years.

Left side of the offensive line

[+] EnlargeMatt Hegarty
AP Photo/Scott BoehmMatt Hegarty stepped in at center to close 2013, and he could work his way into the startling lineup in 2014.
There are few quantifiable ways to measure the impact Zack Martin and Chris Watt brought to Notre Dame during their times manning the left tackle and left guard spots, respectively. Martin won the team's best offensive lineman award four years running, breaking the school record for most starts (52) along the way. He will likely be a first-round draft pick. Watt was every bit as consistent, starting 37 games and playing in 50.

It will be strange, at the very least, to see Notre Dame trot out an offensive line with neither. And while it is probably asking two newcomers a bit much to come in and immediately replace the production of those two bedrocks, the Irish do have viable options with starting experience.

Steve Elmer got plenty of action last season as a true freshman, starting four games at right guard in place of Christian Lombard (back). So, too, did Conor Hanratty as a redshirt sophomore, as he started two games at left guard in place of Watt and two more at right guard. These two are likely the frontrunners to man the left side, considering Elmer also has plenty of experience at tackle as well.

One person to keep an eye on: Matt Hegarty, who filled in for Nick Martin at center, starting the season's final two games. Hegarty will probably be the guy again this spring as Martin recovers from an MCL tear, and perhaps could play his way into another starting spot when Martin returns in the fall.

As for the right side? Lombard is back for a fifth year and on his way to full health after starting at right guard in 2013 and right tackle in 2012. Ronnie Stanley is back for his redshirt sophomore year as well after starting all 13 games at right tackle last season, so there is much more certainty and stability on that side for the Irish moving ahead to 2014.

Position battles to watch: No. 4

February, 18, 2014
2/18/14
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Our series looking at the top position battles to watch this spring continues with a spot the Irish probably didn't think they'd need to worry about in 2014.

Tight end

[+] EnlargeBen Koyack
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesBen Koyack will step into a lead role in Notre Dame's offense with Troy Niklas leaving early.
To be sure, the fact that this is not a discussion about the No. 1 spot should calm a few nerves, if that's possible. Still, the surprising departure of Troy Niklas has accelerated the learning curve for what is a deep but relatively untested group of tight ends on the Notre Dame roster.

Ben Koyack emerged plenty last year in the No. 2 role, stepping up to catch 10 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns -- with all but one of those catches and scores coming during the season's final six games. The 6-foot-5, 261-pound junior took plenty of pressure off Niklas and the rest of Notre Dame's more prominent pass-catchers, and he was set to build off that performance going into his senior year in 2014.

Now? The pressure is on Koyack to perform as the top target at tight end, and it is up to someone behind him to develop as a blocker and become another reliable receiving option for the Irish offense. Fortunately for Notre Dame, there are plenty of bodies at that position for a school that can boast the moniker Tight End U., and competition this spring will be a nice starting point to see who emerges in the fall.

Alex Welch is gone, choosing to play his final season at Miami (Ohio), but Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman should both have benefited from redshirt campaigns last fall as freshmen, allowing them to develop in the weight room and be more physically ready for the pounding they are sure to take at the position. Smythe was listed last year at 6-4 1/2, 235 pounds. Heuerman was at 6-3 1/2, 225, and he also had the added benefit of enrolling last spring.

It doesn't hurt that the Irish added a pair of 2014 ESPN 300 prospects in Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, but they won't be on campus until fall practice. For now, it is up to Smythe and Heuerman to gain separation and prove that they are viable options if and when their numbers are called.

Position battles to watch: No. 5

February, 17, 2014
2/17/14
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With Notre Dame opening spring practice in just two weeks, we're looking ahead to a few items to keep an eye on when things commence on March 3. We looked at players to watch last week, and this week we will follow with positions battles to watch, starting Monday with No. 5.

Quarterback

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsWhile Everett Golson might be the favorite to win the QB job, Malik Zaire (pictured) will need to develop.
We know, we know -- it is highly unlikelyEverett Golson can lose the starting job he held down two years ago. He led the Irish to the national title game as a redshirt freshman, got suspended for an academic violation, spent the fall training with George Whitfield Jr. and returned this past January. He is reportedly bigger, stronger and more refined. And with two years of eligibility remaining, well, he gives Brian Kelly plenty to work with as Notre Dame strives to look more like a Kelly offense.

Still, there are only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster this spring. And Kelly has said that Golson won't simply be handed the job. Kelly was effusive in his praise of Malik Zaire, who redshirted last season after enrolling early and now is essentially the team's only option if something were to happen to Golson.

So you can see why Zaire -- ESPN's No. 6 quarterback in the Class of 2013 -- is so important this spring. He'll get more reps than he would have had there been a more full cupboard at signal-caller. He will likely take the field in some capacity for the first time in 2014, whether it's as a replacement or at the end of a blowout victory. With that, his development is crucial to the Irish, regardless of how much better Golson looks, because Zaire will always be just one play away from becoming the Irish's top option.

This spring Zaire is the Irish's only other option, making this time all the more important for him to prove he belongs, quell any fears about what might happen if Golson goes down and, well, maybe become something more. He has a new position coach in Matt LaFleur, and it's not like Golson's memorable 2012 campaign was without its rough points.

Golson might be the runaway favorite, and he probably should be. But if we've learned anything in college football the last couple of years, it is the importance of the next man in, something Zaire at the very least has a chance to become this spring.

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