That was the case for Notre Dame in its Sun Bowl preparation last fall and it will be again for this year's assumed date in the Champs Sports Bowl (December 29 in Orlando). Regardless of the team's destination, Irish head coach Brian Kelly and his staff will have the opportunity this month to evaluate more second and third string players than at any point since August camp.
Some of the team's December Stars will prove crucial to next fall's efforts (Louis Nix was a player Kelly noted stood out last bowl season). Andrew Hendrix was another Kelly/staff player of note last December, though he took longer to find relevant scrimmage snaps while three more (Cameron Roberson, Daniel Smith, and Kendall Moore) remained a year away from prime time for various reasons (major injury, lingering injury, competition).
As Christmas approaches, the team will return its focus to the task at hand: winning, but the bulk of bowl practice 2011 should offer a heavy dose of second string competition with at least a handful of the combatants seeing increased field time in Orlando.
In the first of two columns on the subject, we examine those that can appear and/or play a key role in the bowl matchup. Part II will feature players withheld from action or that played sparingly this fall.
#1 QB Andrew Hendrix vs. Tommy ReesThe fans' choice is clear and for the first time this season it makes more sense than the alternative. Rather than six days and three practice sessions afforded in-season, Andrew Hendrix would have nearly 15 practices and three weeks to mentally prepare for his first collegiate start.
His second half relief effort last week at Stanford showed three truths:
- Ample work remains
- He can take a hit
- Hendrix is a competitor that can make throws and extend plays, not to mention gain yardage when its there via the rush
Handing over the reigns to the more athletic Hendrix for a full bowl season and contest – assuming he managed the actual game well – would allow Kelly, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, and the rest of the staff its best evaluation of Hendrix in competitive action. They've already seen that from Rees.
The pair could then join redshirt Everett Golson in a three-way battle next spring.
#2 Running Back George Atkinson vs. Cam McDanielAs projected here prior to the USC contest, the pair that Notre Dame "needed to play" earned a combined 0 carries. One of the two freshmen could use at least 5-6 more in the Bowl Game, but Wood will still carry the load on the 29th.
The freshmen duo will undoubtedly do the same in the weeks leading up to the contest as Wood earns well-deserved respite and recovery time after a long season. One of the two should enter the bowl game as the clear-cut No. 2 – if only for that single contest – in an effort to assimilate to competitive game conditions vs. a non-Service Academy defense.
Because neither is expected to start next season, and both would have to battle an incoming freshman or two for the job should Wood go down next fall, a change-of-pace runner would be ideal for the occasion. In that respect, the competition between GA3 and McDaniel might be closer than most think.
#3 – Insurance for EifertI don't expect Tyler Eifert to leave for the NFL as a true junior, but he did carry a heavy workload this season, and could likely benefit from a tag-team partner, both in Orlando and next fall.
Either freshman Ben Koyack or redshirt-freshman Alex Welch could use work more than three yards downfield. Both appear capable of running and catching – it'd benefit the staff to see that reality vs. someone other than the pair's teammates.
#4 – Cornerback TrioRegardless of Notre Dame's cornerback recruiting haul this February – and it's slated to be impressive to say the least – either sophomore Bennett Jackson, classmate Lo Wood, or freshman Josh Atkinson will start a football game at some point next fall; possibly two of the trio, conceivably all three.
Departing seniors Robert Blanton and Gary Gray will again play the bulk of the bowl game snaps; neither will see much time in December practices – the best of the trio above should find time on the corner on game day, allowing Blanton to move inside to cover the slot receiver. It's a natural progression to get the future on the field, and as of the last three contests, it appears Jackson has gained the edge (he played extensively on the corner vs. Stanford as Blanton and Slaughter were charged with tracking the Cardinal tight ends).
#5 – Dog Days aheadWhat happened to sophomore ‘backer Danny Spond? Due to coverage deficiencies on the perimeter, the Irish defense was forced to resort to five defensive backs often in 2011, and when it didn't, its Dog linebacker du jour was generally exposed vs. the modern passing attacks (four receivers/tight ends that can run and catch).
With both the Cat (Darius Fleming) and Dog positions in question entering Spring 2012, it seems Spond – a player that earned field time in the first half vs. Michigan before injuring his hamstring – should receive a look. Spond was lauded for his coverage skills prior to the season and though he's not as strong against the run as is starter Prince Shembo, he'd be an upgrade as a coverage option vs. the flats and short zones.
If he shows well through December and at times in the bowl matchup, the staff could reexamine a move for Shembo to the Cat position – it's not one that should be handed to sophomore-to-be Ishaq Williams without the benefit of competition.
Note: Part II will examine players withheld from action this season or those that played sparingly due to talented veterans at their positions.