Questions Aplenty, Answers Pending

The 2012 season's opening Q&A session with Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered too many questions without the possibility of August answers.

Predictably, the bulk of media questions directed at Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly in today's season-opening press conference involved the team's unsettled quarterback situation.

There's no doubt its compelling copy: there's a suspended returning starter, the nation's top recruit at the position, and two other guys...the two that are expected to battle for the bulk of the position's snaps when the Irish open in Ireland vs. Navy on September 1.

Along with QB queries were depth chart and injury concerns, the requisite forays into freshmen of note, and of course, important topics such as the eventuality of FieldTurf in the House that Rockne Built, and whether or not an oversized new podium in The Gug was ordered by the head man himself (it wasn't, he was looking to downsize).

But none of the questions, at least not for The Opening 39 minutes prior to a prompt from the head coach, involved the team's two givens: senior tight end Tyler Eifert and senior linebacker Manti Te'o.

"Did anybody get a media guide? I think they're on the cover," said Kelly of his stars. "Gosh, I was hoping to talk about those guys a little bit."

No such luck. The All-America tandem wasn't foremost in the media's mind because unlike the bulk of the 2012 Irish, there isn't a pressing Eifert/Te'o question that can be asked relevant to the outset of August camp.

Because like today's press conference, Notre Dame's season contains far too many questions in need of answers.

For instance:

#1 - Eifert, Wood, and ??

A purported weakness of the team's 2012 offense lies in the receiving corps, one without the presence and guaranteed production of record-setter Michael Floyd for the first time in the Kelly era. Conversely, Kelly & Co. enjoys a wealth of running back depth behind returning 1,000-yard rusher Cierre Wood, the team's unquestioned starter. Transfer Amir Carlisle, emerging sophomore George Atkinson, and senior runner-turned receiver-turned-hybrid Theo Riddick are all expected to push for playing time throughout camp.

"We feel very good about the depth. All of them have unique qualities. Its a group of players that, as coaches, we have to find ways to get them on the field and get them involved in the offense. We like the guys we have there; now let's see how this plays out on the football field."

Said Kelly of Carlisle who lettered as a true freshman last fall in Los Angeles: "I think if you take what he did at USC as a true freshman and now his summer workouts, he's an explosive player. Someone that can get big, chunk plays at the position. He's a kid that wants to be the best and he has a great makeup. He has a great desire to be 'the guy.' You love that when you have a number of really good players at the position, that he's not discouraged one bit. That he's going to come in and be the guy. You like that confidence and he has that in his ability. And again, he has a great burst."

The emergence of more than one of Wood's aforementioned trio of challengers would allow Kelly time to find depth among his varsity receivers. For two seasons the staff has lamented the need for six reliable game day targets. Whether four, five, or the target number of six emerge in 2012 remains to be seen. Opportunity, however, will knock throughout camp and in September when the bullets go live.

"With graduation, and I've seen this over 22 years," presents opportunities for others to step up and I think you'll see that," said Kelly. "I think you'll see some players that might have been in the shadows emerge and play big for us. We have a lot to make up for with the loss of Michael but we have some very capable players that can step up and provide us with the number of catches Michael had."

#2 - Who's Right of Center?

Senior left tackle Zack Martin is a dark horse All-America candidate. Senior left guard Chris Watt is a dark horse to finally wrest Martin's career-long control of the program's Guardian of the Year Award from his classmate's grasp. And 5th-year senior center Braxston Cave returns from injury to start for the third straight season of the Kelly era.

Unfortunately, an offensive line is made up of five, not three competitors, because the Irish front wall has few peers from left to center.

Asked if the right side of the line would turn its focus to finding two starters from a group of 3-4 players that stood out during the spring, Kelly noted: "To answer the question specifically, we'll keep moving people around because that next player in is going to have to have the ability to play more than one spot. But I think there is competition at that position (right guard and right tackle). At the guard position you're looking at Mike Golic who played a lot of center for us last year. 

"So you've got him and Nick Martin over at right guard.  (Christian) Lombard at right tackle.  But I think you're going to see Nick Martin maybe take some reps out there with Tate Nichols.  So I think there are three or four players on the right side that have to be interchangeable on that side of the ball."

Cave's return allows Golic to play guard, a development that gives Notre Dame four seniors/5th years up front.

"It strengthens us," said Kelly of Cave's return from November foot surgery. "Mike Golic did a very good job for us, but now if we can get both of those guys on the field, that makes us a better football team because we've got more experience.  Playing the center position is arguably one of the most difficult positions because you're looking at defenses, you're snapping the ball, and then you have to execute your own work.

"To have two guys that have gotten really good experience against some really good teams.  Obviously, Mike against Florida State, has played against some of the best defenses in USC.  So I think when you add him to the mix, having Braxston back allows us to be a better offensive line."

#3 - What happens if the other team throws the ball?

Notre Dame will debut a new pair of starting cornerbacks for the first time since 1998. Considering last year's dip in downfield pass coverage, especially at inopportune moments in Ann Arbor, Palo Alto, and Orlando, it would appear developing depth at the position is paramount as the season progresses and high-octane passing offenses from Brigham Young, Oklahoma, and eventually USC entertain the forward pass as a mode of transport vs. the Irish.

"Bennett (Jackson), Josh Atkinson, and Cam McDaniel, we saw a lot of them in the spring game, so those three young men have a good grasp of our system," said Kelly of the boundary cornerback spot.  "(They) understand what we want them to do, so we feel really good there.  Lo Wood, as you know played a lot for us.  Last year had an interception in a game (Wood returned his only career pick for a 57-yard touchdown vs. Maryland last November.) We feel really comfortable with him (at the field spot).  So you have four corners that have a lot of experience in our offense.

"Now they haven't played a ton, but that's what college football is about.  People graduate and it's the next guy's chance," continued Kelly. "We feel really comfortable with those four.  Jalen Brown has to continue to improve and emerge for us, and we've moved (freshman and former RB recruit) Keivarae Russell over to the defensive side of the ball to be our sixth scholarship corner. So we've got players over there on scholarship that we expect to contribute and make it a very competitive situation."

Kelly however noted that the true mark of the defense will be its play as a unit of 11, play-to-play, not simply its green corner competitors.

"I think it's unity. I think a solid 11," said Kelly of his top defensive priority in camp. "Clearly we're going to have two new corners, so getting them part of the unit so there is one heartbeat on that side of the ball is very, very important.  Certainly continue to build on last year.

"There were probably five or six plays.  If you take out and we make a play here, there is a different outcome to the game.  So our focus is eliminating those five or six plays as a unit.  So I think everything that you'll see out of our defense is how we get 11 guys.  Not that we've got to spend time on the cornerback position.

"Then getting the right mix on the field because we've got some pretty good depth and getting those players on the field.

That mix will look to achieve an element consistently missing from the program over the better part of the last five seasons: success.

"Any time you play a game that's worth keeping score, it's something that you want to win," said Kelly of what would define a successful season for his Irish. "So I think success for us is winning.  Everything that we do, on the field, off the field.  Successful businesses and organizations have their own internal goals, and we've got some internal goals. 

"But I know we'll be judged by wins and losses, and we know that. There are a lot of things that go into it that when we talk about success, we have some internal things that we keep within the house, but know full well that success is going to be judged by wins." Top Stories