Backfield Battles

They begin most offensive snaps offset or side-by-side, and their work in tandem this spring and next August will determine Notre Dame's offensive fortunes in the fall.

It's a four-man competition for one backfield spot, though unless two of the players show regression, or one of the less-experienced pair proves otherworldly, you can probably cut that contest's number of combatants in half.

The other backfield slot likely belongs to last year's breakout ‘back…but it takes two, sometimes three to tango at the position in today's game.

Notre Dame's quarterback and running back are at the forefront of Brian Kelly's offense, and their duties following every snap lend life, deception, and when it's clicking, balance, to the head coach's spread attack.

The triggerman is of course the key, and either Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees expected to emerge as the lead candidate when the spring session concludes. Now Kelly, the ultimate taskmaster and teacher of collegiate quarterbacks, will receive a helping hand, or in this case, lens, in his evaluation process over the next three weeks.

"We have to do a great job of evaluating all the quarterbacks," Kelly said following the team's first practice Wednesday. "We've got depth, we've got (players with) the ability to run this offense. We want to be able to evaluate all the things that they do and to make this a real competition, so we have to look at every area of their decision-making.

And that's where the program's diminutive helmet-cam enters the equation.

"What the helmet-cam allows us to do is really track the eyes of the quarterback through his progressions," Kelly said. "If he's staring down a particular receiver, you're going to see that. If he's (conversely) moving through his progressions, you're going to see that, so it's just another teaching tool for us during this (spring) period. When you have the opportunity to really evaluate each one of them individually with this camera, I think it's going to be a good tool for us."

Crist wore the camera on Day One, and according to Kelly, never noticed it was there once practice began (the camera does not include a mic). Rees will likely wear it Friday or Saturday, with Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson rotating usage as well over the 15-practice spring.

"We had heard about the University of Colorado putting a camera together," Kelly offered. "We had done some of our own work at the AFC Convention, and there were a couple of vendors talking about putting something together. I said the only way (it will work) is it has to be lightweight, it has to be portable, I don't want to drill anything into the helmet, it has to be something easy to remove from the helmet, and easy to download."

Offensive coordinator and co-QB tutor Charley Molnar was excited to get his first post-practice look from the helmet-cam vantage point as well.

"I'm really excited to use it. We're always looking for an edge and always trying to find another tool," Molnar said. "One of the things now, as we progress with our players and how they develop – their eye control is so important, ‘Where are your eyes on this play?'

"As coaches we specifically know where there eyes should be on every single play (at the outset), and then where their eyes should move to. Now we'll be able to really see if his eyes are going to his proper keys."

Kelly noted that its "another teaching tool," but that tool will be a small part of the development process and overall competition, one that began on the Loftus Center turf Wednesday morning.

"Very similar to last spring, he took a lot of reps today," said Kelly of the rehabbing Crist. "He's so much further along in the development end (compared to last spring). He did a good job today. It's going to be fun, the process of (competition) vs. the rest of the quarterbacks."

The younger pair of Hendrix and Golson predictably dominated the media's inquiries.

"They competed pretty well," Kelly said of his untested duo. "Andrew's got such a strong arm; it really stands out in everything he does. Again, we want him to throw it to our team, not the other team.

"With Golson, he feels comfortable in the shotgun; you can see that right away. But obviously it's going to have to be a tailored package; he's not going to be able to run everything that we do (this spring).

Pecking order

The Irish are alarmingly thin in the offensive backfield this spring with just a trio of competitors augmented by standout walk-on runner Patrick Coughlin. (Coughlin should get plenty of practice reps and again be heavily involved in scrimmages, including the Blue Gold game.)

At present, junior Cierre Wood is the top dog; senior Jonas Gray his unproven backup; and sophomore Cameron Roberson the pair's understudy.

Wood (whom I didn't watch yesterday), reportedly carried himself differently in Spring Practice No. 1 than in previous sessions.

"Singularly I'd say confidence," Kelly said of a notable change in Wood's approach. "He did it on the playing field (last year); I think he carried that over.

"The biggest carryover is what he's doing in class," Kelly continued. "He was not a strong student in his first year here. He's really changed (academically). I guess that's probably maturity and confidence coming together.

"It's that confidence, he understands how to do things and he'll be a very, very important part of what we do."

Gray remains the other key cog, a player of whom Kelly noted both Tuesday in his press conference and again Wednesday after practice, possesses "all the tools" with the likely exception of a mandatory trait for any successful athlete.

"You just want consistency out of him, Kelly repeated. "We're going to demand it, I'll tell you that. For Jonas it's the consistent approach; focused. He can't have a million things going on in his head. He has to really focus on football. We'll get him there."

Not quite there, at least entering the spring session, is the 2010 offensive scout team MVP, Roberson.

"Not yet," Kelly responded when asked if the sophomore was ready to compete for field time. "He's going to need a lot more time just learning the offense and the nuances of protection because really we didn't give him much of a chance to learn (last year). Now, he's going to get a lot of work, because we're not going to grind out Cierre and Jonas because they've got to play a lot of football for us.

"If (Roberson) takes hold of those things, then maybe I can answer that question a little more definitively at the end of spring."

If the 2010 season is any indication, Roberson's contributions will be needed sooner rather than later over the upcoming 13-game grind. Top Stories