Notre Dame Football: Nick Martin

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This really is 2011 all over again, from the fateful turnovers to the final, attractive matchup with a similarly underwhelming brand name.

Notre Dame will play No. 23 LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. And, similar to the lead-up to the Irish's matchup with Florida State to conclude that wayward campaign three years ago in the Champs Sports Bowl, they will enter the game in Nashville, Tennessee, with uncertainty at the quarterback position.

Quarterback was supposed to be settled for three straight seasons after Everett Golson helped lead Notre Dame to the national title game in 2012. Even after Golson was suspended for last season and returned this past spring, he was still supposed to be settled for the next two seasons after several big early-season performances helped spark premature Heisman Trophy chatter.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsEverett Golson will have something to prove in practices leading into the Music City Bowl.
But as the Irish look to stanch the bleeding from a four-game slide to end the regular season, it appears to be open season on Golson's job security, along with that of everyone else on a roster that helped lift the program into the early discussion of the College Football Playoff after a 6-0 start before falling apart down the stretch.

"The tone is pretty clear about what the expectations are," coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "There's competition. There's competition at all positions. So we'll be looking forward to that kind of spirited practice opportunity."

Kelly conceded that was never really the case under center this fall, holding true to the stance he took upon anointing Golson his starter early in fall camp. It was not until turnover No. 22, in game No. 12, that Kelly threw Malik Zaire into the fire in a rout at USC.

If this sounds familiar, just peek back to three years ago, as Tommy Rees' 20 turnovers and Andrew Hendrix's flashes of potential late in a different rout in California, that one courtesy of Stanford, led to even more ambiguity around a position that was initially held by another guy, Dayne Crist, to start the season.

"I think that really what we're talking about is some things that I want to see change that will have to change during practice," Kelly said. "And I've already had a conversation with both quarterbacks. So I think it's probably more towards what my eye sees during practice. It will be when I see what I see will be the duration of that competition.

"So it may be eight practices. It may be a year. But I'm going to have to see what I need to see from both of them."

When that time comes is anyone's guess, as the waiting for quarterback answers continues with Year 5 of the Kelly era rounding to an end this month. It didn't happen at the end of the 2011 season, when three more interceptions from two different quarterbacks cost the Irish a chance to gain a respectable victory over the 9-4 Seminoles. And while that hiccup hardly mattered in the big picture of the following season — a surprising 12-1 run that illustrated everything this coaching regime does so well — the feeling of familiarity three years removed from that letdown might linger, which makes the idea of playing LSU, even this year's 8-4 outfit, so appeasing.

"We want to win," safety Matthias Farley said. "At the end of the day, we're going to a cool location to play an opponent we don't normally play, but the focus and the outcome is what we're trying to determine and work toward, so it's just like any other week in that sense."

With a similar cast of characters returning next year, though, this finale against the Tigers from the SEC could help right the ship heading into 2015.

"Especially being a younger team," guard Nick Martin said, "it makes it easier for everyone to buy in."

For the Irish, amends for 2014 start with the guy under center, like so many other years. Figuring out who that is, and how to move forward with him, will help avoid the back-to-square-one feeling surrounding this year's final act.

Irish morning links

August, 27, 2014
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Congrats to Austin Collinsworth, Sheldon Day, Nick Martin and Cam McDaniel on being named captains.
» More team previews: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC

Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth

Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson

Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson returns as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame after missing all of the past season due to issues related to academics.
Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 0.538 (pre-suspensions)

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)

Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.

High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.

Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)

Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.

They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe

Irish kick camp off at Culver

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CULVER, Ind. -- Brian Kelly spending the day with the wide receivers was probably the biggest oddity emerging from Day 1 of Notre Dame fall camp. Everett Golson returned to run the first-team offense Monday, the defense's "D-Boys" chant went on without coordinator Bob Diaco and the punt returners could probably do a better job of fielding undefended kicks, first day of practice or not.

Oh, and a pair of horses looked on at the new artificial turf fields here at Culver Military Academy, where the Irish will practice the rest of the week before returning to campus Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Everett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson was running the first-team offense on Monday.
"It was good, it was fun for me," Kelly said after the two-hour padless session, the entirety of which was open to reporters. "Obviously you're in this business because you want to teach and being able to get in here and just give them a good base and foundation and some of the fundamentals, I think we've got really top notch athletes at that position. Just really spending a little more time with fundamentals on releases, transition, some of the things I think can really help them develop a solid foundation, they've got a great skill set."

Kelly said that his time with the receivers has not affected his ability to evaluate the quarterbacks, as the fifth-year Irish head coach subs in for offensive coordinator/outside receivers coach Mike Denbrock, who is out for the first several weeks of camp following an undisclosed operation.

Kelly said the program is happy to accommodate Denbrock however it can, as the staff is relaying video to him on an iPad. The date of Denbrock's return remains up in the air.

As for what else went down on Day 1 at Culver:
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If Everett Golson thought his whirlwind experience from his lone season of playing at Notre Dame was enough to earn back his starting job, he was sadly mistaken.

"I would argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship," a smiling Brian Kelly said of Golson and the Irish's 12-1 campaign in 2012, serving caution to the idea that this is a quarterback competition in name only.

Kelly, who unofficially kicked off the 2014 preseason Friday for the Irish with his pre-camp news conference, addressed several pressing topics, though none as frequent as the battle between Golson and Malik Zaire to start under center Aug. 30 against Rice.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Joel Auerbach/Getty ImagesEverett Golson still has a fight on his hands to return as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
"I think in an ideal world, I think every coach would want one quarterback that has clearly demonstrated a consistency, great leadership, and the ability to take you to a championship," Kelly said. "And so if that guy shows himself, I'm ready to name him the quarterback on that day. So I'm not playing a game where we are trying to create artificial competition within the ranks. I think we still have competition for that particular role to show itself.

"I think it can show itself and when it does, we'll be ready to make that declaration. It just has not shown itself yet, but I'm confident that it will, and when it does, we'll be ready to make that call."

The last time Kelly entered camp with a quarterback conundrum, two years ago, he ultimately chose Golson over three others nine days before the season opener. The fifth-year Notre Dame coach said he would likely name a starter by that time period once again this year, adding that having two quarterbacks with similar skill sets has made life much easier for all offensively.

"This is the first time that we don't have to have two scripts for two quarterbacks," Kelly said. "They are running the same plays and that is a huge advantage in terms of building that consistency throughout the ranks for everybody, from the offensive line, for the receivers, to the quarterback."

Notre Dame's run to the national title game in the 2012 season was led, of course, by its defense, with Golson, then a redshirt freshman, managing the offense. But his return to the program this spring following an academic-related suspension last fall has been met by a stiff challenge from Zaire, a left-handed redshirt freshman who has said and done all of the right things up to this point.

With fall camp commencing Monday at Culver Military Academy — where Notre Dame will hold its first week of practices — the race between the two will resume.

Not that Kelly minds the competition.

"I'm not in here complaining about our quarterback position," Kelly said. "I'm actually pretty excited that I have two guys that are moving in a very good direction."

Injury items: Defensive lineman Tony Springmann's football career is over because of a back issue. The redshirt junior had been rehabbing from an ACL tear and an ensuing infection initially suffered during last year's preseason camp, and he will go on a medical scholarship. … In better news, linebacker Jarrett Grace is "close" to being ready for the season after a pair of right leg surgeries following the breaking of his tibia and fibula in an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State. … Tight end Mike Heuerman (hernia) is out for a month. … Kelly was pleased with the recoveries of Nick Martin (MCL), Christian Lombard (wrist) and Ben Councell (ACL) following season-ending injuries last season, as each appear to be fine. Kelly said that Martin, like his brother Zack before him, is now the clear leader of the offensive line. … Tight end Ben Koyack underwent offseason shoulder surgery, but Kelly said he is fine.

Other notes: Kelly said freshman linebacker Nile Sykes, who transferred to Indiana shortly after enrolling at Notre Dame, "wasn't the right fit," though he did nothing wrong with the Irish and was given a recommendation upon his departure. … Kelly praised DaVaris Daniels' physical and mental maturity following the receiver's spring exile for academic reasons, adding: "I think we saw some really good signs and we want to be able to see that every day." … Florida cornerback transfer Cody Riggs has rounded into better shape physically since he arrived this summer, with Kelly praising his approach: "He's a Notre Dame man." … Kelly also praised Johnny Lujack, who is recovering from spinal surgery, saying he has been struck by the former Heisman winner's humor in all situations.

Three pre-camp questions for ND

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Brian Kelly will unofficially kick off the 2014 Notre Dame season at noon Friday when he meets with the media. The Irish will start fall practice Monday at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Indiana, with 10 players speaking afterward. The team will return to South Bend for practice next Saturday.

Here are three pressing questions as camp gets underway:

1) What is the timetable for naming a starting QB? Kelly has been adamant all along that this is a real competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, and both players have echoed that. Zaire certainly isn't going away quietly, but it is hard to discount the experience Golson has. Two years ago, when the Irish entered camp with four signal callers jockeying for position, Kelly anointed Golson the No. 1 guy nine days before the opener. Don't be surprised if this race drags on a little bit longer. (And let's not forget DeShone Kizer will be taking snaps, too, though he obviously has plenty of ground to make up.)

2) What is the status of Jarrett Grace? The last we heard, Notre Dame planned to be aggressive with Grace in his recovery from a second knee surgery, when he had a rod inserted into his right knee on March 28. Kelly sounded as though the options were getting him healthy for the opener or getting him ready to compete for a starting spot. Grace, who had broken the tibia and fibula during an Oct. 5 win at Arizona State, would provide a huge boost to a thin inside linebacker corps should he be at full-strength during camp.

3) What's next for the offensive line? Despite the losses of left-side bedrocks and NFL draft picks in Zack Martin and Chris Watt, Notre Dame enters camp with more quality depth up front than it has in recent years. The sure things appear to be the returning starters: Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, Nick Martin at center and Christian Lombard at right guard. After that, well, Steve Elmer will probably start off at left guard, but might be better-suited for right tackle, where 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey impressed this spring. And if Elmer ends up at right tackle, that leaves the door open for Matt Hegarty or Conor Hanratty to start at left guard. Both players saw extensive action last season, and Hegarty actually played center in place of the injured Martin both down the stretch last season and throughout the spring.

What else are you itching to hear from Kelly about from with football right around the corner?
College football guru Phil Steele last week released his combined 2014 experience chart, which uses a formula that breaks down returning two-deep players in order to rank teams by their returning experience.

In what is probably a surprising number to many, Notre Dame comes in at No. 120 out of 128.

Now, we all know that the Irish have a lot to replace on the defensive side of the ball, where, depending on your formula, they are breaking in roughly six new starters. Offensively, too, there will be new faces in the receiving corps and, technically, under center, as Everett Golson returns after a one-season absence.

It is important to take a closer look at this formula in order to understand Notre Dame's ranking. Steele takes into account seniors who are starters and in the two-deep. The Irish do not have many of those. (And the ones that they do have are mostly redshirt juniors with another year of eligibility remaining in 2015.)

As starters, there's Golson, Cam McDaniel, DaVaris Daniels, Ben Koyack, Nick Martin and Christian Lombard on offense. And there's Ishaq Williams, Joe Schmidt and Austin Collinsworth on defense.

Four of those aforementioned players -- Golson, Daniels, Martin and Schmidt -- have eligibility remaining beyond this season. The other five don't, and Steele goes with that number in listing five senior starters for the Irish.

Other factors that Steele weighs include percentage of lettermen returning, percentage of returning offensive yards, percentage of tackles returning and returning starts on the offensive line. He goes further in-depth with these categories in his magazine.

For comparison's sake, Notre Dame ranked 65th going into the 2013 season, 65th going into 2012, 27th going into 2011, 105th going into 2010 and 17th going into 2009, which was the first year Steele used this formula.

Of course, experience does not always tell the story. Looking for promise down the list in recent years?
  • Stanford entered 2012 at 109th and won the Rose Bowl, while Northern Illinois entered at 113th and made the Orange Bowl.
  • USC entered 2011 at 102nd and went 10-2. (The Trojans were serving a bowl ban.)
  • Georgia Tech entered 2009 at 112th and made the Orange Bowl, while Boise State entered at 119th (out of 120) and ran the table, winning the Fiesta Bowl.

Grace status still uncertain

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame is taking an aggressive approach with Jarrett Grace's comeback from multiple knee surgeries. As for whether that means Grace will compete for a starting linebacker spot, or even be ready for the Fighting Irish's Aug. 30 opener against Rice, clarity might not come until the end of the month.

"We’re going full-go for him to be ready for Rice," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. "He wants to do it that way. He’s very encouraged. I think it’s the best I’ve seen him mentally. He was in a tough spot there for a little bit before the surgery. It was good to see him in very good spirits today. We’re going to be very aggressive with him, let him go and I think if we really went slow with him, it would probably put him in jeopardy for being ready for the first three, four weeks. That’s not what he wants. We’re going to go at it and go for the best."

[+] EnlargeJarrett Grace
Zach Bolinger/Icon SMIJarrett Grace is on track to return by the opener, but there are still hurdles to clear for the Notre Dame linebacker.
Speaking before Football 101, a charity event put on by Kelly Cares, the fifth-year Notre Dame coach said that Grace rode a bike during Tuesday's summer workouts, the Irish's first of the season. All other ailing players from the spring were able to participate in conditioning drills, Kelly said, with center Nick Martin (MCL) and linebacker Ben Councell (ACL) fully cleared.

Receiver Will Mahone (ankle) did some running, while tackle Ronnie Stanley was limited following a minor knee procedure to clear up "some loose impediments." Kelly added that defensive lineman Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) was good to go.

It will take some more time before the Irish know if the same can be said of Grace, who had a rod inserted into his right knee on March 28, more than five months after he had surgery to repair a broken tibia and fibula suffered during an Oct. 5 victory over Arizona State.

Grace, a Cincinnati native, had a team-high 41 tackles last season before suffering the injury.

"Right now we would take it, as we want him healthy to compete against Rice, and then whatever happens from there," Kelly said. "We were at a point where we didn't know where he was and whether he could play, and we're seeing some positive things. So I think we'll take it as, 'Let's get him back against Rice, and then if we hear better news over the next two, three weeks' -- I think by the end of June, we're going to know really whether we can answer that question as, 'Let's get him on the field against Rice,' or, 'Let's get him competing for a starting position.'"
It's already watch list season, and Notre Dame is among the (many) early schools garnering some early preseason pub.

Nick Martin was named to the watch list Monday for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top center.

Martin was one of 64 players named to the watch list. The winner will be selected by determining the consensus All-American center pick from three different All-American teams — Walter Camp, Sporting News and FWAA. The winner will be recognized Jan. 17, 2015 at the Rococo Theatre in Lincoln, Neb.

A rising redshirt junior, Martin is entering his second year as a starter for the Irish, as he started the first 11 games before suffering an MCL tear in his left knee, costing him the rest of the season and spring ball. He is expected to be ready for preseason fall camp this August.

Starting O-line on ND camp agenda

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Few would blame Matt Hegarty had he hung his head entering this spring. The redshirt junior has had a roller-coaster ride at Notre Dame, from seeing the perfect regular season of 2012 cut short due to a series of mini-strokes to being thrust into role of starting center for the Fighting Irish's final two games last season.

That the former guard was a more than capable fill-in in the middle is a testament to his versatility. That he stayed there with the first team for most of this spring is a testament to his attitude.

Nick Martin started at center in 2013 and will again in 2014 despite spending this spring recovering from an MCL tear suffered in his left knee during a Nov. 23 win over BYU. This might have indirectly hampered Hegarty, seasoned and talented enough to possibly start elsewhere on the line but relegated to mostly snapping duties.

Still, his performance in March and April are enough to warrant a chance to compete in fall camp for the top left guard spot, which was a revolving door of sorts among Steve Elmer, Conor Hanratty and, when necessary, Hegarty.

"It was good being able to have a little bit of momentum kind of coming in playing there a little bit at the end of the year," Hegarty said of starting last season, "and then it's always great to get a lot of reps in the spring like this. I couldn't ask for anything more there, but it's been great as far as trying to develop my blocking."

Redshirt freshman Mike McGlinchey saw plenty of time with the first team at right tackle this spring, and Hanratty -- owner of three career starts -- filled in at right guard after Christian Lombard went down in March with a dislocated right wrist that kept him out of the rest of spring drills. Elmer, who started four games last season as a freshman, saw plenty of time at left guard, though he might project better as a tackle.

It may essentially come down to whether coach Brian Kelly thinks both his offensive line and the precocious McGlinchey could benefit more with the 6-foot-7.5 behemoth as an immediate starter, as it seems Elmer is flexible enough to be a player where needed, having seen action in 2013 at every spot but left tackle and center.

"(Hegarty's) had a really good spring. We want to give him a chance to compete at left guard," Kelly said. "So if that's the case, are we better with him at left guard and Elmer at right tackle, or better with McGlinchey at right tackle and Elmer at guard? So if you want to boil it down, it's who's the left guard with Elmer at right tackle, or Elmer at left guard and McGlinchey at right tackle? So that's going to kind of sort itself out in preseason camp."

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 11, 2014
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One more time before the spring game ...

Derrick from Warsaw, Ill., writes: Matt, first off, thanks for doing such a great job covering the Irish! I always look forward to reading everything you write! My question is, with all the great options the Irish have at running back heading into the season, how do you see everything going at the running back position? Will one guy get the lion's share of the carries? Do they go with the hot hand? Or will each guy get a fairly equal share of touches? Thanks! And keep up the great work!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Derrick. I think everyone will get a fair share early. Cam McDaniel is obviously the veteran of the group and will probably "start" the season with the first unit, but I don't see it being a traditional 1-2-3 pecking order. I said it last year (and was wrong) and will say it again now: I do think the bulk of the workload will go to Greg Bryant if he's playing near the top of his game. After all of his talk this spring about being "hungry and humbled," I think the light will click on for him in 2014.


Brian Henighan from Medina, Ohio, writes: During the practices leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl, we heard a lot about how Torii Hunter was looking very good. There was some good hype around this kid before and after his injury. Spring practices are now nearly over and I haven't heard his name mentioned one time. How is he doing/progressing? It's just strange for his name to completely disappear lately.

Matt Fortuna: Brian, I was actually wondering the same thing recently, as he rebounded from his leg injury last year to win offensive scout team player of the year: Here's what offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said when I asked him Monday: "He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road. Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."


[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsTommy Rees' legacy at Notre Dame will likely grow with time.
Jeremy from Bethlehem, Ga., writes: Hey Matt, great job on the blog! I was curious on your take of Tommy Rees' legacy. He has been on the losing side of some games that they should have won, like Stanford. But he has won some big games in his career, such as against No. 14 Utah in 2010, being the closer in 2012 to go on to the BCS championship game, and against Michigan State this past year.

Matt Fortuna: Jeremy, like most things, I think it will only grow with time. Sure, a lot of the turnovers are what stick out in most fans' minds right now, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Notre Dame had flat-out awful quarterback luck in three of Rees' four seasons there. And yet, the Irish were lucky beyond relief to have a guy like Rees who not only knew, but embraced his role, stepping in unfazed every step of the way. And in the one year they had good quarterback luck, in 2012? That 12-0 regular season doesn't happen without Rees being the great teammate he was, relieving the guy who took his job and leading the Irish to some crucial wins. Speaking of which, that locker room absolutely loved him, which speaks louder to anything the rest of us could say.


Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill., writes: Hey Matt! I've been looking at the offensive line for this year and it seems like there is a lot of talent overall. I've seen on various sites that they have Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey playing tackle, but do you think Steve Elmer could get a chance, too? Also, I was excited last year when they got Hunter Bivin because he seemed like a great player. How do you see him factoring into the mix in the coming years/this year? Lastly, it seems that the talent of the offensive line has increased a lot. Do you think the offensive line could change from good to great in the coming years or even this year? As always, I love reading your blog!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Thomas. Brian Kelly actually addressed this topic Wednesday, saying that the left guard spot could very well be affected by the right tackle spot, which would be between Elmer and McGlinchey. That could provide an opening at left guard for Matt Hegarty, who has plenty of experience across the line and has filled in at center for Nick Martin this spring. As for the depth question, we'e seen Notre Dame sign nine offensive linemen across the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. So while the numbers are down this spring -- especially on days such as Wednesday, when Elmer had a stomach ailment and the Irish were down to eight healthy offensive linemen -- the addition of four more come fall camp should be a big boost to this group's daily progress.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The opening question to Christian Lombard, per protocol, was about which position he preferred playing, guard or tackle. The response, also per protocol, was that the redshirt senior is fine wherever his coaches choose to line him up.

But the biggest questions surrounding Notre Dame's fluid offensive line situation don't revolve around whether Lombard will be in the starting lineup. He will start, that much appears certain. And, if the first 30 minutes of the Fighting Irish's first spring practice are any indication, it might very well be at right guard for the second straight season.

A more pressing question comes on the left side, where Notre Dame replaces a pair of bedrocks in Zack Martin and Chris Watt, NFL-bound linemen who started 52 and 37 games, respectively. Ronnie Stanley and Steve Elmer took the first reps at left tackle and left guard, respectively, but filling the leadership void of the departed seniors is a task that will ultimately fall on Lombard.

"He was an example guy," Lombard said of Martin, a two-time captain. "He definitely talked, too, but he was the same guy in and out every single day. Consistency was his big deal. Guys would try and emulate what he would do, coming in with that professional attitude, like he's going to be at the next level. He was just a professional all the way around."

The soft-spoken Lombard sees a similar approach in himself, and it's one he'll have no choice but to take on given his seniority over Stanley (redshirt sophomore), Elmer (sophomore) and right tackle Mike McGlinchey (redshirt freshman).

Stanley occupied the spot next to Lombard last season before the latter missed the final six games after undergoing back surgery. Elmer was essentially all over the place in 2013, playing everything but center over the course of the season.

Meanwhile, the 6-foot-7», 300-pound McGlinchey has impressed behind the scenes after redshirting during his first season on campus, with Lombard quipping that the tackle's stamina is so impressive that "he could practice for 48 hours straight."

"He's a tough, physical kid," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of McGlinchey. "Toughness, mental toughness, physical toughness. Long, athletic. He's got all the tools. He just needs experience and time, and he's fighting to get on the field. It's a very competitive situation. He's got all the tools necessary for him to be a starter for us.

"It's going to be time and place: When is that time, and when does he get that opportunity?"

Redshirt junior Matt Hegarty was the starting center Tuesday, filling in for injured classmate Nick Martin.

New faces must step up as spring opens

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly got into his car on Friday morning and saw that the outside temperature was minus-8 degrees -- as if there was any doubt Notre Dame would be indoors on Monday when the Irish commence Kelly's fifth spring here.

What he will see, though, are more new faces in new places than he probably has during his Irish tenure. And he's anxious to see who rises up from a team that said early goodbyes to three juniors after the 2013 season and welcomes two new staff members.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsBrian Kelly is looking for some new faces to step forward in the spring.
"In an ideal world you'd want your best players to be your best leaders," Kelly said. "Sometimes that's not the case, so you observe daily and find out who those guys are and you try to cultivate those individuals. I think with this group in '14 our best players can be our best leaders and they may not all be seniors. I think we've got some great seniors, I think all of our seniors are committed, but we may have some great underclassmen who are great leaders, too."

The additions of assistants Matt LaFleur (quarterbacks) and Brian Van Gorder (defensive coordinator) have given the staff more flexibility as well, as Kelly said Friday that Kerry Cooks will now coach the entire secondary, not just the cornerbacks, while Bob Elliott will move from safeties coach to outside linebackers coach. Kelly also added graduate assistants in former NFL fullback Ryan Mahaffey (offense), former Irish safety Kyle McCarthy (defense) and Mike Hiestand (defense), son of current Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

As for switches on the field: Matthias Farley has moved from safety to corner, John Turner has gone from safety to outside linebacker, James Onwualu has moved from receiver to safety, Will Mahone has moved from running back to receiver, and Amir Carlisle is now a runner and a receiver. Everett Golson, meanwhile, has returned at a listed 200 pounds, 15 pounds heavier from his listed playing weight from 2012.

Personnel notes: Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Devin Butler (shoulder) are out for spring. … Nick Martin (MCL) and Ben Councell (ACL) will be limited to non-contact. … Nicky Baratti, Chase Hounshell and Doug Randolph (all shoulders) are good to go. … Receiver Luke Massa will not return for a fifth season after initially planning to come back. Kelly said Massa had received a job offer that was too good to pass up.

Kelly on Shembo: Kelly addressed Prince Shembo's comments during last weekend's NFL combine, when the former Irish linebacker said the coach told him not to talk in school about the the Lizzy Seeberg investigation.

"That was a collaborative decision," Kelly said Friday. "I don't make any decisions independent when it comes to major decisions at this university. The head football coach works in concert with our administration, so we made a decision based upon the information that we had that we felt it was in Prince's best interest that this was not a matter that needed to be discussed, but that was certainly something that he could've decided to discuss. We didn't threaten him with, he couldn't play or we were going to put him on the bench or throw him out of school. It was still his decision. But talking to his parents and talking to Prince we felt because of the information that we had in front of us that it was a matter that be left alone at the time."

Position battles to watch: No. 3

February, 19, 2014
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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.

Where ND players stood as recruits

February, 4, 2014
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We are one day away from national signing day, an occasion packed with promise. As we noticed last week when looking at the Ultimate 300, some prospects meet their potential better than others.

Recruiting is an inexact science, as projects such as the Ultimate 300 reveal, and as many rosters filled with blue-chip prospects show, too.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJaylon Smith was the only five-star recruit among Notre Dame's starters last season.
Look no further than Notre Dame, which currently has Recruiting Nation's No. 11 overall haul for the Class of 2014, down from No. 4 last season. The Irish were No. 9 in 2012, No. 9 in 2011, No. 21 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2009.

The 2009-13 classes made up the 2013 Notre Dame roster. So, using Recruiting Nation's rankings, we will take a look back at this past season's (general) starters to see where they stood as recruits.

The numbers? Notre Dame had one five-star recruit, six four-star recruits, 11 three-star recruits and one two-star recruit.

(Note: ESPN did not use the star system until 2010.)

Offense

  • QB Tommy Rees, Lake Forest (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 19 QB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • RB: George Atkinson III, Granada (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 40 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • WR: TJ Jones, Gainesville (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: DaVaris Daniels, Vernon Hills (Ill.) High: Four stars, No. 65 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: Chris Brown, Hanahan (S.C.) High: Three stars, No. 66 WR, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 78
  • TE: Troy Niklas, Servite (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 19 TE, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • T: Zack Martin, Indianapolis Bishop Chatard High: No. 109 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 81
  • T: Ronnie Stanley, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High: Four stars, No. 34 OT, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • G: Chris Watt, Glenbard West (Ill.) High: No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 82
  • G: Christian Lombard, Williams Fremd (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 20 OT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • C: Nick Martin, Bishop Chatard (Ind.) High: Three stars, No. 39 OT, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
Defense

  • DE: Stephon Tuitt, Monroe (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • DE: Sheldon Day, Indianapolis Warren Central High: Four stars, No. 143 overall prospect, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 80
  • NG: Louis Nix, Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines High: Four stars, No. 64 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • LB: Prince Shembo, Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell High: Three stars, No. 47 DE, Class of 2010, Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Dan Fox, Cleveland St. Ignatius High: No. 76 OLB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76
  • LB: Carlo Calabrese, Verona (N.J.) High: No. 12 ILB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Jaylon Smith, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High: Five stars, No. 7 overall prospect, Class of 2013. Scout grade: 90
  • CB: Bennett Jackson, Hazlet (N.J.) Raritan High: Three stars, No. 97 WR, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 77
  • CB: KeiVarae Russell, Everett (Wash.) Mariner High: Three stars, No. 28 RB, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • S: Matthias Farley, Charlotte Christian (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 92 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 77
  • S: Austin Collinsworth, Highlands (Ky.) High: Two stars, No. 121 S, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 74
Special Teams

  • K/P: Kyle Brindza, Plymouth (Mich.) High: Three stars, No. 6 K, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79

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