Conversation: heavy competition

Irish Eyes looks at the team's most intriguing position battles heading into spring 2011.

The 2011 spring session kicks off Wednesday with head coach Brian Kelly's opening press conference. We kick off our week with a look at the 10 most hotly contested position battles, none of which are likely to be secured by the Blue Gold Game in mid-April.

#1 – Quarterback

We'll learn more about Dayne Crist's status (knee) at Wednesday's media press conference, but its safe to assume a relatively healthy Crist and 2010 season-saver Tommy Rees will square off in a spring, summer, and August camp battle for the 2011 starting role.

Redshirt-freshman Andrew Hendrix repeatedly impressed head coach Brian Kelly with his arm strength and athletic skills as a member of the Scout team. Unfortunately, arm strength isn't high on the required list of skills for successful collegiate (especially spread) quarterbacks. Hendrix should provide solid competition for the more experienced pair, nonetheless.

The wild-card is freshman dual-threat Everett Golson, who, while highly unlikely to emerge from the spring as the lead signal caller, will nonetheless put himself in position to compete throughout 2011 as did his early enrollee predecessor, Rees, one year ago.

Official position switches/departures: Senior Nate Montana transferred to FCS competitor, Montana University.
Rumored position switches: Sophomore Luke Massa moved to wide receiver/tight end.
Others to consider: None, Kelly noted that he'd operate this spring with four quarterback competitors, he has that now in Crist, Rees, Hendrix and Golson.

Final thought: I, like you, have no earthly idea. My gut says Rees starts the season opener, but ask me again on April 1, August 10, and September 1 and you'll likely receive two-three different answers.

#2 – DOG/Drop Linebacker

Senior Steve Filer has the inside track – but that and a quarter won't buy him a phone call this spring. Filer's time has come but something has kept him off the field from scrimmage over the last three years as the message board favorite and undisputed athlete failed to receive consistent playing time from two different coaching staffs. Kelly spoke highly of him last August and even hinted that he'd play a key role in 2011.

Early enrollee Ishaq Williams should be evaluated at the DOG as well if only because the CAT starting position is on lock down by senior Darius Fleming. Williams' future appears to be as a CAT, but building a two-deep depth chart is central to Kelly's program.

Official position switches/departures: None. 12-game starter Kerry Neal was lost to graduation.
Rumored position switches: Sophomore Prince Shembo reportedly received a look but is better suited to compete at both the CAT and WILL (next to Manti Te'o).
To consider: Sophomore Danny Spond was an inside ‘backer last fall and from what we've heard, remains as such entering Spring 2011. But Spond appears to possess the athletic skill set to drop and cover as well as the ability to take on opposing tight ends on the edge vs. the run. Of note, Kelly offered that Spond displayed advanced technique last August: "He has the ability to shock you with his hands."

Former OLB Dan Fox moved inside during 2010. He also possesses the skill set for the position, though that's according to his former defensive coordinator and my limited practice viewings. Fox is an underrated athlete (in terms of his coordination/football skills).

Final thought: The more competition the better at the vexing DROP LB spot. The Irish were hurt by generally inconsistent, always unspectacular play here for the better part of 2011. It's not easy for a 230-250 pound player to re-route slot receivers and tight ends while also taking on tackles and tight ends vs. opposing running games. I'd love to see Filer win the job, but the Irish need viable second and third options as well.

#3 – "X" Wide Receiver

Senior Michael Floyd is locked in as the W receiver and it appears imposing sophomore target Daniel Smith will begin the spring as his backup, while juniors Theo Riddick and Robby Toma provide a divergent, defined 1-2 punch in the slot (Z)

Sophomore Tai-ler Jones (seven starts) and senior John Goodman (three) rank as the top competitors for the X role with Goodman's classmate Deion Walker also in the fold. Walker must improve greatly to earn legitimate, competitive snaps in the team's two-deep chart.

Our early edge goes to Jones, who won back the starting X role for the Sun Bowl after suffering through most of November with a hamstring injury.

Official position switches/departures: Senior Duval Kamara exhausted his eligibility; sophomore Bennett Jackson moved to the defensive backfield.
Rumored position switches: Sophomore Austin Collinsworth to the defensive backfield. Rampant message board rumors suggested Theo Riddick "moving" back to tailback, but I believe the press on-hand misinterpreted Kelly's comments to that effect. Riddick will likely receive plenty of time in the backfield, but remain the team's starting slot receiver in 2011.
To consider: None…unless there's an injury to a running back or the staff feels backup slot Robby Toma and sophomore X competitor Tai-ler Jones can succeed in tandem inside (Jones started in the slot vs. Navy and played one of his better games last October). The Irish have seven scholarship players for the spring plus two more talented freshmen joining this summer.

Final thought(s): Converted from tailback to slot receiver last winter, Riddick was just hitting his stride prior to a Week Seven ankle injury last fall (he led the Irish in receptions and was tied with Floyd, securing three touchdown receptions). Allow him to continue to grow in the slot over the next two seasons and rely on a talented trio of tailbacks to handle the bulk of the running game.

Finally, if sophomore Daniel Smith is capable of winning the job, or a heavy role in the rotation, there's no reason he should sit behind Floyd for 99 percent of the season's meaningful snaps.

#4 – Free Safety ("Other" Safety)

Notre Dame lists the position(s) only as "safety" with no further designation. (Players refer to the roles as "boundary" and "field" to match the cornerback designations; coaches have intermittently offered the traditional "free" and "strong" labels). Regardless, team captain and (thus assumed) 5th-year senior Harrison Smith should start at one safety spot – the actual role depending on whether senior Jamoris Slaughter or junior Zeke Motta emerges opposite.

Official position switches/departures: Two-deep walk-on Chris Salvi is a graduating senior.
Rumored position switches: Austin Collinsworth's move to the defensive backfield would likely land him a backup safety evaluation.
To consider: Bennett Jackson, should he struggle mightily in his cornerback competition, but that move would leave the Irish with three CB competitors: Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, Lo Wood, entering August. Four freshmen DB will join the team this summer.

Final thought: Slaughter won the starting role last season, then suffered a severe ankle sprain in the opener that plagued him for the majority of the season. Motta filled in capably, but would have to become much more consistent to hold off the talented, sometimes explosive senior this spring. Motta was slated for a key nickel role ("Buck" linebacker) prior to Slaughter's early injury.

#5 – WILL Linebacker

Junior Carlo Calabrese appears to have a decided advantage after starting the first eight games at the position last season. Calabrese injured his hamstring in Week Eight vs. Navy and never regained a regular role with since-departed senior Brian Smith excelling in his stead.

Seniors Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny will join the spring fray, neither of whom has started a game. Junior Dan Fox and sophomores Prince Shembo and Danny Spond also appear as WILL competitors as of press time. Shembo, Fox, and McDonald could all pose a challenge to Calabrese should he fail to improve from last December.

Official position switches/departures: Senior Brian Smith will graduate in May.
Rumored position switches: Sophomore Prince Shembo, an impact CAT backup last fall, has reportedly received an evaluation inside, a logical move considering the presence of senior Darius Fleming as the starting CAT.
To consider: There's a glut of WILL competitors next to the MIKE, Manti Te'o. No further moves to the WILL are necessary, though at least two of the players listed above will be evaluated for a MIKE role behind Te'o. Freshman Jarrett Grace will begin as an inside ‘backer (MIKE or WILL to be determined) in August.

Final thought: I'd prefer to see Calabrese take the job and never look back, placing the talented Shembo in a nickel role where he wreaked havoc last November and (earlier) in Chestnut Hill in a win over Boston College.

Note: Position battles 6-10 will be published Tuesday morning.


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