NCF Nation: Daniel Smith

Roster breakdown: Offense

March, 28, 2012
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With Notre Dame a week into spring practice, the fifth-year players officially returning and the 2012 recruiting class finalized (we think), let's break down the Irish's complete roster, position-by-position, as it gears up for Year 3 under Brian Kelly.

We'll start with the offense today and delve into the defense tomorrow, with special teams coming Friday.

QUARTERBACK

The players: Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, Gunner Kiel

The incoming: None

The breakdown: Experience is the only real way to rank these guys, as Rees has 16 starts, Hendrix has played in five games, Golson has sat a year learning the offense and Kiel arrived on campus just two months ago. Nonetheless, that likely won't matter as Kelly goes to a square-one approach, opening the playbook from the beginning to allow for a fair chance for everyone. The decision -- which will likely be up in the air deep into the summer -- may prove to be Kelly's biggest so far with the Irish.

RUNNING BACK

[+] EnlargeCierre Wood
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireCierre Wood is still the clear favorite in Notre Dame's backfield, but the Irish have other running backs ready to vie for playing time.
The players: Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam Roberson, Tyler Plantz

The Incoming: Will Mahone, KeiVarae Russell

The breakdown: Wood is the clear No. 1, as he was heading into last season as well. Riddick broke off a pair of huge runs toward the end of Saturday's scrimmage, and Kelly wanted both him and Atkinson to see more time back there as Wood rested with a minor quad injury. (Kelly said Wood did go in the rodeo drill earlier.) Both Riddick and Atkinson are capable of playing in the slot, and may end up seeing more time catching balls this season than taking handoffs, though Tony Alford will coach both regardless.

Carlisle, the USC transfer, is eligible to play in 2012 but out for the spring with a broken ankle. Where he fits in will be interesting, as carries may be hard to come by if Atkinson really progresses this spring in the backfield. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Carlisle was featured on kickoffs last season with the Trojans, and there, or on the punt return team, may prove to be the fastest way on the field for him.

WIDE RECEIVER

The players: John Goodman, T.J. Jones, Robby Toma, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith, Luke Massa, Eric Lee, Nick Fitzpatrick, Ryan Liebscher

The incoming: Justin Ferguson, Davonte Neal

The breakdown: Goodman has talked about making the most of this last chance, and the coaching staff would not have invited him back for a fifth year had it not believed in him. Whether he can be a top target is up in the air, but he should bring some stability and leadership to a group loaded with youth. Jones has been solid through two years and Kelly has said he is on the cusp of breaking out. Toma has done everything asked of him and then some in the slot when replacing the oft-injured Riddick, and he may have the position to himself this year.

Daniels has the complete package physically, but he has yet to take a snap after redshirting last season. He was seen running with the 2s to start spring, but that could easily change with a strong showing. Smith, too, ran with 2s to open spring, but he must stay healthy first. Ferguson has the tools to compete for playing time upon arrival, but that could likely depend on how the incumbents step up in front of him. Neal is pegged as an athlete, but Kelly said there are no plans right now to play him at corner upon his arrival. He could possibly be a playmaker at receiver or on special teams.

TIGHT END

The players: Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, Alex Welch, Ben Koyack, Jake Golic, Arturo Martinez

The incoming: None

The breakdown: We all know what Eifert can do, which is why he almost entered the draft this year. Niklas is the big question mark. And by big, we mean it literally. A switch from linebacker -- where he started one game last fall as a freshman -- to tight end for the 6-7, 252-pounder has many excited to see what the offense can do with a potential two tight end set. Everyone saw what the New England Patriots did last year with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

It would be foolish to expect that much so soon -- both without Tom Brady as the Irish's quarterback and without Niklas having played the position since high school. How quick Niklas can master the playbook and blocking could go a long way in seeing some of these sets come to fruition. The move does leave some to wonder what this means for Welch and Koyack, but the duo is young and, according to tight ends coach Scott Booker, up for the challenge.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The players: Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic, Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, Bruce Heggie, Jordan Prestwood, Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, Brad Carrico, Matt Tansey, Dennis Mahoney

The incoming: Mark Harrell, Ronnie Stanley

The breakdown: Cave will not be playing much, if at all, this spring as he recovers after injuring his foot last season. Golic, who started in his place, is the center with Cave out, but it would not be surprising to see Golic move to right guard upon Cave's return. Right now Lombard is manning the right guard spot, with Nichols at right tackle. How the second unit gets shuffled upon Cave's return to the starting unit remains to be seen, but to open spring, it consisted of Heggie, Prestwood, Hegarty, Hanratty and Martin.

Punt return situated remains unsettled

September, 18, 2011
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame was good enough Saturday to notch its first win of the season, but it was far from perfect.

One of those imperfections once again was in protecting the ball, as John Goodman fumbled a punt return deep in his own territory late in the fourth quarter. The gaffe by Goodman, in his second week as punt returner after Theo Riddick struggled in Week 1, might lead head coach Brian Kelly to re-evaluate the punt return position.

"Obviously we're disappointed that we put the ball on the ground again in punt returns," Kelly said during his weekly Sunday afternoon teleconference. "We'll have to talk about that later today when we have our meetings on special teams personnel. We feel like John's got great hands, he obviously turned the ball over late. We'll have to evaluate it. It's not certainly where we want to be, but it's not like we have a number of guys that we can go to, either. We felt like Theo and Goody were our two best. We may have to look at other players at this point, I really haven't decided that."

Kelly said Robby Toma is in the mix as one of those other players. Toma, part of the Fighting Irish's five-man receiving corp at the beginning of the season, has not made a catch through three games this season as Riddick's back-up in the slot position.

At the beginning of the season, Kelly said Riddick's breaks would come on offense, potentially opening the door for the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Toma to see more action because of Riddick's punt return duties.

Of course, Riddick's life as a punt returner lasted only a week, which might be only a week shorter than Goodman's.

"When we evaluated our punt-returners he was as sure-handed as anybody that we've had; he was last year, too," Kelly said of Goodman. "So hopefully it's just one of those things where he had a turnover and a tough time in the game and that's it. But like I said earlier, we'll continue to evaluate him because he was the best guy we had at the time."

Notes: Lo Wood had an MRI today after aggravating his quad against Michigan State, but Kelly didn't think it was anything serious. ... Daniel Smith has been fighting a leg injury that forced him to not dress against MSU. ... Prince Shembo (family emergency) is expected to be back on campus today and in classes Monday. ... Reserve tight end Alex Welch (foot infection) is day-to-day. ... Danny Spond (hamstring) is still doubtful to play Saturday at Pitt, though he could be dressed for emergency use.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- How will Notre Dame's offense operate if star receiver Michael Floyd is gone for a significant portion or even all of the 2011 season? Maybe like the New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeMichael Floyd
AP Photo/El Paso Times/Mark LambieNotre Dame plans to run more tight end sets if receiver Michael Floyd is out for an extended period of time.
Without Floyd, who was suspended following a recent DUI arrest, the Irish could lack a wideout who can truly stretch the field. The good news is they have plenty of players who can catch the ball and a tight end corps that head coach Brian Kelly says can go five deep.

"When you lose a player like Michael Floyd, I don't know if you replace him without an issue," Kelly said. "But you can do certain things with our personnel groupings where we change our look a little bit. I really believe that our go-to would be more tight end sets. We'd be a little more like the New England Patriots team that used multiple tight end sets but still could spread it and use ball control."

Kelly is excited about what the Notre Dame tight ends can do, led by Tyler Eifert and Mike Ragone. He said Jake Golic has made great progress in the offseason, and incoming recruit Ben Koyack could be a weapon right away.

As far as downfield threats, that's a different story. Physically speaking, the 6-foot-4 Daniel Smith might have the closest attributes to Floyd. But Smith has been slowed this spring by a hamstring injury and lacks experience. It remains to be seen if John Goodman can develop into a No. 1 target, and Theo Riddick is more of a slot guy. Kelly said incoming freshman DaVaris Daniels could make an immediate impact. But the Irish may have to rely on the short passing game and running the ball more than explosive plays downfield.

"We can still win football games and score points without having four wide receivers on the field," Kelly said.

Floyd's future will first be determined by the school's Office of Residence Life, and Kelly said Friday that a decision from that group could come soon. Whatever punishment it doles out, Kelly said the senior receiver still must meet the coach's own guidelines before being reinstated on the team. Without divulging specifics, Kelly said Floyd has taken steps toward meeting those goals.

Kelly said Floyd -- who has had other alcohol-related problems in his past -- would be better served to remain a part of the program.

"He needs help," Kelly said. "I think I fail if I read about him in the NFL in two years doing something like that. He's looking for help and we're going to be there for him."

Notre Dame spring preview

February, 24, 2011
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Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Spring practice starts: March 23
Spring game:
April 16

When Brian Kelly looks back on how Notre Dame finished the 2010 season with a flourish, he sees more than just an improved defense and the clutch play of Tommy Rees.

Kelly sees how the team finally began to understand the way he wanted them to practice, how to take care of their bodies and the subtleties of his system. All the things that take a while to jell in the first year of a new coaching staff. That alone would cause Kelly to be excited about getting his second year started this spring.

"The players now have our nomenclature down and they understand the offense," he said last month. "Now we're really going to fit what we do to our personnel. Year Two becomes more about the players than the plays."

And Kelly has an awful lot of experienced players to work with this spring. Starters are expected to return at every position on offense except right guard, while the defense returns the nucleus of a unit that dominated down the stretch. Expectations are always high for the Irish, but after winning four straight to close out 2010 -- including victories over Utah, USC and Miami -- this team might actually have the talent and depth to fulfill them.

"We're so far along relative to where we were last year," Kelly said. "The players know what to do, how to do it. They've got weight on their back already, and we're hitting the ground running."

Like any team, though, the Irish have some issues to iron out this spring. Here's a look at a few things to watch during the 15 spring sessions:

Quarterback competition: All Irish eyes will be focused on the quarterback situation, though it may not resolve itself until the fall. Rees started the final four games and won them all, showing poise and a quick release. Dayne Crist started every game until getting knocked out by a knee injury against Tulsa. For the second straight spring, he will likely be limited and protected during contact drills.

"We think we'll be able to do similar kinds of things [as last year] and keep him involved in competing," Kelly said.

Nate Montana transferred and Luke Massa is moving to receiver, clearing up the pack a little bit. But Notre Dame is also high on Andrew Hendrix and early-enrolled freshman Everett Golson, both of whom can run better than Rees or Crist. Kelly said last month he had a clear vision of what style he wanted to play and who could do it, and though he did not disclose details, he said it would be evident in the spring. Crist still has the edge, but he may have to prove he's healthy -- and the best option -- all the way into fall practice.

Carry conundrum: After senior tailback Armando Allen suffered a season-ending injury, Kelly mixed and matched with Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes with decent results. Hughes is gone, and it remains to be seen whether the talented Wood can truly perform as an every-down, workhorse back. Kelly hinted last month that receiver Theo Riddick could switch back to his original tailback position to bolster the backfield. Can senior Jonas Gray provide some help? For this team to reach the next level, it will need a strong running game.

Secondary concerns: The defense returns a lot of experience at most spots, but not in the defensive backfield. The Irish have only two veteran corners on the roster. Receiver Bennett Jackson will move to corner in the spring, and the coaching staff hopes Lo Wood, a signee in last year's recruiting class, is ready to take on a role. A healthy Jamoris Slaughter should help at safety. This is a position that needs to avoid injuries and find contributors this spring.

New and relatively new faces: Fans are eager to hear about early enrollees from this year's class, including Golson, defensive end Aaron Lynch and linebacker Ishaq Williams. Each has a chance to contribute right away. And don't forget about last year's recruits who spent a year on the sidelines getting ready. The Irish hope to get some production at nose tackle from Louis Nix, who reported way overweight last year. We mentioned Wood at cornerback, but linebacker Danny Spond and Justin Utupo and receiver Daniel Smith are other second-year freshmen who could make some spring noise.

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