Behind the Scenes

Starting quarterback, starting field cornerback, starting Dog linebacker, starting right guard, punt returner…these position battles have dominated spring, summer, and Irish fans' conversations since last season ended. Today's feature instead focuses on five other pushes for playing time that will mold the Irish roster now and through 2013.

Somewhere between August 16 and August 26, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly will announce his starting quarterback for the team's season opener vs. Navy. He'll likely include said starter is the team's projected triggerman for the entire 2012 season.

But its an underlying decision that follows that will have a major impact on the team's structure and near future.

Who's No. 2?

Under the radar questions like these are asked and answered below.

Today's edition focuses on the Irish offense.

#1 -- WR, How many, how often?

Kelly and his staff have expressed the desire to go six-deep in their game day rotation at receiver, with seven "on the varsity" for practice week. Though its partly the result of a top tier tight end's presence for the duration of the Kelly era (either Kyle Rudolph or Tyler Eifert), rarely in his two seasons have the Irish featured more than four receivers in competitive contests, and never have more than four been heavily involved in such a matchup.

That should change this season with uncertainty throughout the position.

The team's four spring contenders are givens for ample playing time: John Goodman, T.J. Jones, Robby Toma, and DaVaris Daniels. At present, most have the initial trio as the team's starters, but with the redshirt-freshman Daniels possessing the highest ceiling, both in '12 and beyond.

It likewise seems unlikely slot receiver Davonte Neal won't carve out a niche behind, or in tandem with the reliable Toma in the slot. Can either of Neal's classmates, Chris Brown or Justin Ferguson, breech the game day six as well?

Its also necessary that junior Daniel Smith find a way to produce, both because of his status as the biggest target (6'4" 215-220) on an otherwise smallish group, and for his future at the program.

The initial guess here is that five will see major minutes, and just six will play until injuries take a toll, opening the door for another freshman on what is at present a painfully thin group.

#2 -- Wood, Riddick, Atkinson, Oh My...

The 2011 running back tandem of Cierre Wood and since-graduated Jonas Gray ranked as the program's best since the tail-end of the Bob Davie era, the 2000 season that ended with an Irish Fiesta Bowl berth.

That time frame could be relevant again as Davie's backfield featured three runners: Tony Fisher, Terrence Howard, and Julius Jones as key contributors. Though Gray is gone, it seems likely senior Theo Riddick or sophomore George Atkinson is capable of filling a secondary role, the "1A" to Wood's #1 status.

Could both see enough carries and/or touches to give the program its first three-headed monster in the backfield since the turn of the century? And if so, does that allow for the consideration of a redshirt season from sophomore Amir Carlisle, who missed all of spring ball with a broken foot following his January transfer from USC.

Four runners would be superfluous in Kelly's offense (if each remains upright), and an Atkinson/Carlisle tandem entering 2013 would set the Irish up for 2-3 more seasons (Carlisle thus eligible through 2015 should he not appear in '12).

#3 -- Tight End Trio

The tight end depth chart is similarly stocked: All-America Tyler Eifert at the top -- he'll split wide away from the line just often enough to allow for a "12th starter," either junior Alex Welch or sophomore Ben Koyack as a dual-threat whose main job is to serve as an in-line blocker and occasional check-down target.

But if that's truly the role of the secondary tight end, as defined by Kelly during the early portion of the spring, shouldn't the physically imposing Troy Niklas, last year's special teams star, one-time starting linebacker, and late-season pass-rusher in the dime package, do the heavy lifting at scrimmage?

Niklas missed the end of spring with what was reported by Notre Dame as a concussion, though another Irish-dedicated website has surmised it could be a migraine-related condition -- neither is ideal for a blocking tight end looking to hammer opposing 'backers and defensive ends with his shoulders and helmet for four months.

Three tight ends will likely play plenty; I don't see room for a fourth on a consistent basis.

#4 -- OL, Who's Next?

From left to right, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, either Mike Golic or Nick Martin, and Christian Lombard appear to be the team's starters as the Irish enter training camp. The runner-up in the Golic/Martin battle will be the first off the bench, with Golic having the added benefit of starting center experience, albeit during a downturn for the team's offense, last November.

But of the sextet, only Cave and Golic are certain to move on after the season. Zack Martin would need a national breakout year to forgo his fifth season, as would Watt. Its unlikely either would choose to do so as both would improve their professional stock with another season of work and development at the college level.

That means only the center position is open for 2013, and the player working there over the last 8-10 months is redshirt-freshman Matt Hegarty. Its been a tough transition for the former four-star tackle prospect, but there's light at the end of the tunnel -- he'll likely battle for the starting role next spring.

That leaves classmates Jordan Prestwood (LT behind Z. Martin) and Conor Hanratty (LG behind Watt), as well as Lombard's junior (redshirt-sophomore) classmate Tate Nichols (RT) champing at the bit for playing time, not only this fall but still as projected backups entering spring ball 2012.

Lombard and Nick Martin must seize their starting opportunities in August and throughout the season, because there's plenty of talent among the junior/sophomore classes that won't patiently await playing time through 2014.

#5 -- Wither No. 3 QB?

The quarterback quartet is, at present, ideally staggered in terms of eligibility:

Tommy Rees has 2 years
Andrew Hendrix 3
Everett Golson 4
And early enrollee freshman Gunner Kiel 4/5.

In a perfect world, Kiel would redshirt in 2012 and each of those above him would progress in their development and remaining eligibility. But is it a perfect world if Kiel spends his entire season on the Scout Team learning the other team's plays? It didn't appear to help Hendrix in 2010 or Golson last fall, both far behind Rees, the only regular member of the varsity over the last two seasons, in their assimilation to the offense entering the spring.

More important, what happens when Golson and Hendrix can no longer be referred to as peers, or on even ground? One will move ahead of the other in the pecking order, just as Rees did ahead of Nate Montana (and Hendrix) in 2010. Both players could move ahead of Rees, or one could fall behind the Rees et al down to third string.

Unless Rees is deemed No. 3, it seems Golson, or especially the older Hendrix, would need both a heavy dose of patience and humility to remain the good soldier and hope for a shot at the starter or backup role as the season progresses.

But in Brian Kelly's spread offense, and considering the treatment of the team's quarterbacks to date, it would behoove whomever is deemed No. 3 to keep his head down and work, because there's a guaranteed injury and/or ineffectiveness issue to plague one, if not both of the two players deemed QB1 and QB2.

Of course, if Kiel proves to be second-best option between August 4 and mid-September, all bets are off.

Kelly's delicate and/or direct handling of the quarterback situation -- the backups, not the Game 1 starter -- between next week and the New Year, is the top storyline for the season…the 2013 season.

In the interim he must find a quarterback that can win and lead his squad for three months, not two or three games. Top Stories