Notre Dame Football: 2012 ND spring wrap

Video: Notre Dame games to watch

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
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Matt Fortuna looks at three Irish games to watch in 2012.

Best of Notre Dame's spring

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
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Best spring game performance: Everett Golson, considered the biggest mystery in the four-man quarterback battle entering the spring, was 11 of 15 for 120 yards and two scores. He carried it six times for 25 yards. Most importantly, he was the only quarterback to not turn the ball over.

Best overall unit: The running back/slot receiver group coached by Tony Alford is loaded with talent. Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III made big play after big play in the spring game (though Atkinson will have to protect the ball better after fumbling twice). We all know what Cierre Wood is capable of after a 1,000-yard season while splitting carries with Jonas Gray in 2011. And we might even see a bit of Robby Toma in the backfield, though the senior remains an invaluable pass-catcher for the Irish.

Best position battle: Other than under center? Let's go with the right side of the offensive line, where Mike Golic Jr., Nick Martin and Christian Lombard look to have the inside track for the two open spots.

Biggest surprise (good): John Goodman raised some eyebrows with his play this spring, earning most improved player on the offensive side of the ball and getting to be a captain for the spring game. Coach Brian Kelly said he's been the go-to receiver this spring, and Goodman wants to reward the staff's faith in him after he was invited back for a fifth year.

Biggest surprise (bad): Aaron Lynch has transferred to South Florida, leaving the Irish down a man on the defensive line. Kapron Lewis-Moore, a previous starter, will slide back into Lynch's role, but the loss of an elite pass-rusher who had no trouble bursting onto the scene as a freshman is a blow to the team.

Notre Dame spring wrap

May, 10, 2012
5/10/12
10:30
AM ET
2011 overall record: 8-5

Returning starters: Offense: 7; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Tommy Rees, QB Andrew Hendrix, RB Cierre Wood, RB/WR Theo Riddick, RB/WR George Atkinson III, TE Tyler Eifert, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, C Braxston Cave, C/G Mike Golic Jr., WR Robby Toma, WR John Goodman, WR T.J. Jones, DE Stephon Tuitt, NG Louis Nix, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, ILB Manti Te'o, ILB Dan Fox, OLB Prince Shembo, S Jamoris Slaughter, S Zeke Motta

Key losses
WR Michael Floyd, RB Jonas Gray, RG Trevor Robinson, RT Taylor Dever, DE Aaron Lynch, NG Sean Cwynar, DE Ethan Johnson, OLB Darius Fleming, S Harrison Smith, CB Gary Gray, CB Robert Blanton

2011 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Cierre Wood* (1,102 yards)
Passing: Tommy Rees* (2,871 yards)
Receiving: Michael Floyd (1,147 yards)
Tackles: Manti Te'o* (128)
Sacks: Aaron Lynch (5.5)
Interceptions: Robert Blanton/Gary Gray (2)

Spring answers

1. Tyler Eifert: His offensive teammates -- and the next starting quarterback, in particular -- owe Eifert the world for returning. New offensive coordinator Chuck Martin will use Eifert in a variety of different ways this season, and his position will resemble that of Michael Floyd's more than it will a traditional tight end's. A strong season will likely propel Eifert into the first round of next year's NFL draft.

2. No shortage of skill players: Yes, the all-time leading receiver is gone. But the Irish still boast a plethora of skilled, versatile assets who can make big plays with their speed. Tony Alford is in charge of the running backs and slot receivers this season, and Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Robby Toma and George Atkinson III all have the ability to make things happen out of the backfield. Look for a big year from DaVaris Daniels on the outside as well.

3. Defensive leaders: Manti Te'o would appear to be a shoe-in for a captain role this season, and he'll have plenty of help bringing along some of the unit's young talent. Jamoris Slaughter is back for a fifth year, and becoming a father this spring has forced him to grow up fast. Kapron Lewis-Moore is back for a fifth year as well, and the defensive end is one of the more respected voices on the team.

Fall questions

1. What will happen to Tommy Rees and, by extension, the QB race? Rees' immediate future is up in the air following his May 3 arrest, though his chances of starting this season figure to have greatly diminished in light of being charged with four misdemeanors. Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will likely benefit the most and should enter camp as the favorites, while prep phenom Gunner Kiel continues to adjust after enrolling in January.

2. What about those corners? Bennett Jackson has the talent to play well at the boundary in his first year starting but will likely have to endure some growing pains, especially against some of the elite passing offenses the Irish will face in 2012. At the field, Josh Atkinson has pushed Lo Wood for the No. 1 spot, and that will be one of the more intriguing position battles once preseason camp opens.

3. Can anyone handle this schedule? The two Big Ten favorites, the Big 12 favorite, the Pac-12 favorite. A trip to Dublin. The 2012 schedule is absolutely loaded, and the Irish will have several new pieces in key places entering the season. How quickly everybody can adjust to their roles will go a long way in determining whether Brian Kelly's third season at Notre Dame is a success.
Following consecutive 8-5 campaigns, Notre Dame entered this spring with a re-shuffled staff, a wide-open quarterback competition and arguably one of the nation's best defensive lines.

So, uh, about those three new assistants ...

"I love the energy out there, I love what I'm hearing in terms of teaching," head coach Brian Kelly said April 4, roughly halfway through the spring. "Guys are teaching and I can hear it. So for me it's exactly what I need to hear from our coaches. There's a lot of teaching going on, there's a lot of energy. So for me I feel really good about going out to practice, and what I hear I really like."

Nine days after that comment, defensive end Aaron Lynch announced his decision to transfer, eventually ending up with Notre Dame alum Skip Holtz at South Florida. A series of cryptic Twitter posts by nose guard Louis Nix in the days after Lynch's departure unsettled an already-uneasy fan base, and Nix's admittedly honest public comments afterward about having missed his Florida home did little to quell Irish fans' worst fears.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondCoach Brian Kelly, left, still has issues with how QB Everett Golson (1) manages the game.
Then came the spring game, Everett Golson's coming-out party. The rising sophomore quarterback completed 11 of 15 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns, adding 25 yards on six rushes. Most importantly, he was the only of the four quarterbacks to not turn the ball over.

If that wasn't enough for Golson to improve his chances of starting in 2012 -- Kelly said afterward that he had trouble getting plays in on time -- the events of May 3 certainly did.

Tommy Rees, the only of the four signal-callers with starting experience, was charged with four misdemeanors as a result of his arrest at an off-campus house party. Police said that they had to use pepper spray to subdue Rees, who faces two counts of resisting law enforcement, in addition to minor consumption and battery.

So begins an offseason whose storyline, like last year's with Michael Floyd, will be dominated by an off-field run-in by a big-name player. Rees is due in court May 17, but his status with the Irish remains up in the air. Discipline of any kind -- even an offseason suspension -- would strongly diminish his hopes of taking the first snap Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland.

Kelly said after the spring game that the guy to emerge as the starter will be the one who commits to all the details in the summer. Golson and Andrew Hendrix — in addition to early enrollee Gunner Kiel — would be in much better positions to do that should Rees be dealt a ban. Regardless, leadership issue becomes an obvious question in light of the arrest.

Whoever does start should have plenty to work with in proven playmakers like Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and Tyler Eifert. He will also be protected by an experienced offensive line, which returns four players with starting experience.

Linebacker Manti Te'o, who passed up NFL millions this offseason, returns to lead a defense that should still be strong enough up front, though a depleted cornerback corp could have benefited from playing behind an elite pass-rusher like Lynch.

A season that begins overseas is still four months away, but the drama attached to the hip of the nation's most polarizing program has only increased with spring ball in the rearview mirror.

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