Notre Dame Football: 5 Spring Practice Position Battles to Watch
Notre Dame: 5 Position Battles to Watch This Spring
The BCS National Championship Game may have been played less than two months ago, but the 2014 college football season has already arrived for programs all over the country. With spring football practice set to begin on Monday, Mar. 3 and the Blue-Gold Game slatted for Saturday, Apr. 12, that is especially true for Notre Dame.
Head coach Brian Kelly leads the Irish into the spring fresh off an underwhelming 9-4 campaign in 2013. But with another top-10 recruiting class in the fold and quarterback Everett Golson's return to campus, optimism has been restored in South Bend.
March and April should be interesting months for the Irish, whose 2013 roster was gutted by the losses of key starters like Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas to the NFL. With so much young talent expected to step up and contribute in 2014, it should be a competition-themed spring for Kelly's squad. There are position battles to monitor and starting jobs to be won on both sides of the ball.
If Notre Dame wants to rebound after a relatively disappointing year in 2013 in order to emerge as a legitimate contender to play in the inaugural College Football Playoff this season, the competition throughout the roster must do its part to fortify an explosive offense and a stingy defense.
Let's take a look at the top-five position battles to monitor during spring practice in South Bend.
Cody Strahm is an NFL writer for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.
5. Wide Receiver
Offensive MVP T.J. Jones graduated and should find a home in the NFL as a prototypical slot receiver. Meanwhile, DaVaris Daniels will be away from campus this spring after being suspended for an academic violation. Needless to say, the young Irish receivers will have a great opportunity to impress during spring ball. The group isn't short on talent but is littered with inexperience.
Junior Chris Brown is the veteran by default and could be poised for a breakout season. Other notables at the position are C.J. Prosise, Corey Robinson, Torii Hunter Jr., Williams Fuller and Josh Brent. It should be interesting to see which targets are able to develop rapport with quarterback Everett Golson.
4. Left Tackle
Last season's starting left tackle, Zack Martin, will likely become a first-round pick in May's draft. Thus, the Irish will face the difficult challenge of replacing an NFL-caliber tackle this spring. Sophomore Steve Elmer appears to the early front-runner, but he primarily played guard as a freshman. His expected transition to tackle will be something to keep tabs on.
If Elmer struggles to adapt, Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty could factor into the equation. Although the right side of Notre Dame's offensive line is proven, the left side is a question mark heading into spring practice.
3. Inside Linebacker
After the departure of Heisman candidate Manti Te'o in 2013, Notre Dame struggled to field two quality starting inside linebackers. Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace all provided veteran leadership at the position but weren't able to become difference makers like Te'o. There may never be another Te'o in South Bend, but improvement in the middle will still be required in 2014.
Fox and Calabrese are gone while Grace will attempt to return from a broken leg. Fifth-year senior Kendall Moore and redshirt junior Joe Schmidt will look to earn starting roles. Also, expect competition from redshirt freshmen Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph, who were three and four-star recruits respectively in 2013. Four-star recruit Nyles Morgan, who is expected to contribute as a freshman, won't join the program until the summer.
Everett Golson returns to Notre Dame after a one-season hiatus as the heavy favorite to become the starting quarterback again. Brian Kelly has gone on record saying he won't hand the job to Golson, though. That means the door is open, albeit slightly, for redshirt freshman Malik Zaire to steal the show in the spring.
Zaire was a highly coveted recruit last winter as the nation's No. 3 ranked quarterback prospect according to Rivals.com. However, the odds aren't in Zaire's favor. He would likely need to be far and away the better quarterback for the duration of spring practice to earn the job.
Golson struggled some as freshman in 2012 -- as evidenced by Tommy Rees playing in relief duty during several games -- but showed enough promise and made enough big throws to be the odds on favorite in this battle. The Irish went 12-0 in 2012 with Golson starting at quarterback after all.
1. Running Back
Some positions feature competition because there is no proven talent in place. Others do because there is an abundance of talent. Running back falls under the latter category for Notre Dame in 2014. Cam McDaniel is the most accomplished returnee, but he'll face stiff competition from talented youngsters Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
Folston and Bryant were highly sought after recruits in 2013, and both carry breakout potential into their second years on campus. But McDaniel runs and works extremely hard. He'll do anything coach Kelly asks of him, which will make him tough to beat in this competition. Expect two runners to emerge as co-starters in 2014 but all three to get plenty of opportunities.