Furthering Strengths

Notre Dame's power running game and varied front seven looks were instrumental in the team's 4-0 finish last fall. Both remain crucial elements as the Irish enter September 2011.

Asked in his initial press conference if the off-season allowed for self-reflection and/or second guessing, Irish head coach Brian Kelly opted for the former.

"That's all we do, so I could go on for a long time," he said of the coaching staff's internal evaluations since last season. "The Cliff's Notes version: whether we have odd spacing (3-4 front) or even spacing (4-3) in our defense, we can teach the fundamentals pretty well, because we were even (4-3 front) about 48 percent of the time."

And on the other side of scrimmage?

"We can control the clock in running the football," Kelly continued. "We don't have to be perceived as a spread offense that chucks it all over the field. I think we learned that about ourselves, that we can be those things if need-be."

Power Package

Two primary changes to last season's power package to which Kelly referred included the insertion of since-graduated senior Robert Hughes at running back, with current 5th-year senior Mike Ragone joining Tyler Eifert at tight end. Also part of the alignment was Duval Kamara, who exhausted his eligibility last December.

Ragone and Eifert return; replacing Hughes in the backfield is senior Jonas Gray, at least that's the plan in early August.

"I think we know that Cierre (Wood) is going to be able to do the things that he's shown. Now it's Jonas Gray. He's going to be the deciding factor for us," Kelly offered. "If he can give us the type of play that we think he can, it's going to lighten the load…"

Gray jockeyed between a No. 2 and No. 4 running back role last August; then finished with the lowest number of carries (20) of his Irish career – and was the definitive fourth back among a quartet of runners.

He's the default No. 2 at present with two freshmen, George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel, fighting for the No. 3 role. Notre Dame's upcoming padded practices will serve as Gray's launching point as a senior, though it's his September performance that will cement his status.

Could he ascend to the lead role?

"Jonas Gray is practicing as well as anyone on offense right now, and (Cierre Wood) has got his work cut out for him to be the starter," said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar.

"We're seeing a Jonas Gray that we've never seen before," he continued. "He's healthy, he's mentally into it and working exceptionally hard…but we need to see him in more live work."

(It should be noted, Molnar promotes constant competition from his ranks. Though he was specifically speaking of the quarterback battle, his ensuing comment speaks to the aspect of the sport on which he thrives as a coach):

"I like having multiple guys because competition brings out the best in football players. There is absolutely no doubt (competition is key) because let me tell you, when these guys are out on the field they're scratching and clawing and fighting every single down," he said. "That's the environment that coach Kelly tries to create. There's nothing guaranteed in life or on the football field."

Nearly as important to the team's power offense is a wide receiver that can block as well as did the imposing Kamara. He, in tandem with senior Michael Floyd, formed one of the best 1-2 perimeter blocking punches at the program since the Holtz era.

Wide receivers coach Tony Alford remains in search of a competitor that can ascend to Kamara's level in the running game.

"Theo (Riddick) does a good job; (Robby) Toma's a ‘little-bittie guy' but he bites at you; stays after you," Alford said.

(Note: Kamara towered over both Riddick and Toma by five and six inches, respectively, and between 20-45 pounds.)

"Goody (John Goodman) has to come along better in the blocking game," Alford admitted, adding, "(Sophomore) Daniel Smith has a big body so he has to be able to use that. We work on blocking a lot. We have two really good running backs in Cierre and Jonas, so we have to do our part at the second and third level, blocking and trying to create some runs."

Wood ripped off two touchdown runs of 39 and 34 yards last fall – the former marked the longest rushing score at the program since Ryan Grant scored from 46 yards out vs. Stanford in 2003.

He added runs of 28 and 26 yards in the season-finale vs. USC, both set up Irish touchdowns – the team's only touchdowns – in a 20-16 victory. Both were fueled by perimeter blocks from Kamara (the former) and tight end Tyler Eifert (the latter), who split wide and destroyed his opposing cornerback on Wood's 26-yard carry that sparked Notre Dame's game-winning drive.

(Eifert has the ability to take over an outside receiver's role in power sets again this fall. To that end the junior practiced often with Alford's receivers group last spring.)

Gray registered a career-best 36-yard jaunt vs. Utah last November. The senior has noted often he's more than a power option.

"I want to become one of those players that will hammer it in there; will wear you down, and then hit you with a home run," Gray said in April. "I want to be that type of guy."

Still without a score over three seasons and 75 highly dispersed career carries, if Gray proves to be the former, he'll get his chance at the latter.

Not quite 50/50

The team's even and odd fronts, to use Kelly's terminology, are a bit more convoluted, especially prior to the team's first padded practice.

But defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's base 3-4 front (used in an estimated 52 percent of the defense's 2010 snaps) would look approximately as follows:

Defensive Line: Ethan Johnson (DE) Sean Cwynar/Louis Nix (NG), Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE). Johnson, Cwynar, and Lewis-Moore are seniors, the latter pair with remaining eligibility through 2012. A redshirt-freshman, Nix is the team's summer surprise, dropping 25 unnecessary pounds to weigh in at a still-imposing 326 entering camp.

Linebackers: Darius Fleming (Cat), Manti Te'o (Mike), Carlo Calabrese (Will), Prince Shembo/Danny Spond (Dog). Shembo appears to have the edge over his classmate Spond, both of whom debuted as Dog competitors last spring. But the Irish have yet to don pads – a bit of a necessity when evaluating linebackers at a new position.

Defensive Backs: Robert Blanton (field) and Gary Gray (boundary) at cornerback; Harrison Smith at strong safety with Jamoris Slaughter or Zeke Motta opposite Smith (free safety).

The base 4-3 (used 48 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2010) features extensive possibilities and components, but the following is a basic overview with a few potential tweaks:

Defensive Line: Fleming (DE), Cwynar (DT), Lewis-Moore (DT), Johnson (DE). The team's depth at defensive end and outside linebacker would also allow players such as Steve Filer and Prince Shembo to "reduce down" from standing OLB to DE, (mirroring Fleming's alignment, here). In the 4-3, both DE align to the outside shoulder of the offensive (right and left) tackles. The nose guards are listed as defensive tackles simply denoting that neither aligns directly over "the nose" of the opposing center, but rather control gaps between the center and guards aligned to both sides.

Linebackers: Calabrese (boundary), Te'o, Shembo/Spond (field side). The field side linebacker, often referred to as the "strong side" aligns over an opposing tight end, or in modern football and in Diaco's defense, sometimes against opposing slot receivers.
Defensive Backs: Same as 3-4 listing above

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