Notre Dame's Spring To-Do List
1. Find the Right Personnel Group for the Defensive Front Seven
Jaylon Smith had a tremendous 2013 campaign for a true freshman and should develop into a consistently dominant player at outside linebacker, and Sheldon Day showed enough last year to be a force at defensive end. However, the rest of the front seven is unclear and/or unproven.
Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell figure to be the other two prominent linemen but both are still young and raw and need a lot of refining. In the linebacker ranks, Kendall Moore, Jarrett Grace and Ishaq Williams all figure to be key contributors, but Moore is still a bit lacking in experience, Grace will be rehabbing a broken leg all spring and Williams needs to finally play up to his potential to make a significant impact.
2. A Defensive Leader Needs to Emerge
During the impressive 2012 run, Notre Dame had an unquestioned leader on defense in Manti Te'o. He was the heart of a pretty good unit that finished ranked in the top 25 in a lot of categories. In 2013, there really was no leader on defense and it showed as the Irish regressed. There is a new coordinator and everyone is starting with a blank slate, and the players are there but one or two need to step up and become leaders.
Keep an eye on Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and Sheldon Day. These three players are the strongest defensive links on the field and therefore have the clearest road to become vocal and lead the rest of the unit.
3. Everett Golson Needs to Take Ownership of the Team
Yes, there will be a quarterback competition for the starting job between Golson and Malik Zaire, but my money is on Golson to win the starting job. As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Golson had the skill set to lead the Irish to an undefeated season. However, his knowledge of Brian Kelly’s system was limited, and he lacked experience and consistency. Tommy Rees had to rescue him on several occasions to preserve the 12-0 record, but now Rees is gone and can’t be a safety net.
In 2014, Golson’s development should allow him to overcome his 2012 issues and if he can command the respect of his teammates and carry the offense on his back, the Irish will be in great shape.
4. Find Answers at Wide Receiver
The top three receivers from 2013 will be missing this spring. TJ Jones and Troy Niklas are gone for good to the NFL, and DaVaris Daniels is suspended, clouding his upcoming season with question marks.
This leaves Chris Brown, Ben Koyack, Amir Carlisle, Corey Robinson and CJ Prosise as the most experienced returning receivers. In 2013, these five combined for 48 catches, 639 yards and five touchdowns. To put that into perspective, Daniels alone had 49 catches for 745 yards and seven scores last season, and he wasn’t even the leading receiver in any category.
The talent at receiver may actually be deeper than it’s been in a long time, but the inexperience is concerning. Kelly needs to get all of these players to a productive and consistent level before the season begins.
5. Get Players With Position Switches Comfortable in Their New Role
As with every spring, Kelly is tweaking his personnel to fit the needs of the team. He has already announced several position switches and there will likely be a few more to come. Wide receiver James Onwualu is now a safety; safety Matthias Farley is moving to corner and running backs Amir Carlisle and Will Mahone are moving to receiver.
With the depth at running back, the Carlisle and Mahone moves seem obvious with the need for receivers. Not to mention there won’t be many leftover carries after Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel and Greg Bryant get their fill.
Tackling positions at the corner spot plays more to Farley’s strengths than at safety, according to Kelly. The Onwualu switch is the most puzzling; he is a physical player who could likely have developed into a great receiver but sometimes the need of another position requires sacrifice and the nature of his play should allow him to excel at safety.