Spring Prospectus: Offense

A position-by-position rundown of the 2013 Irish entering spring ball...

Twelve wins, no losses, an historically outstanding, often heroic defense.

One humiliating defeat, a terrible month of bad press off the field, and an outstanding recruiting class nonetheless.

The above sentences summarize the 2012 season, on and off the field.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly yesterday took time to run down what's happened with his national runner-up Irish, since.

Quarterback

The transfer of former FOX Sports NEXT five-star Gunner Kiel (Click here) means Kelly and his staff are back to working with four competitors at the position, perhaps the new reality of the modern program.

"Clearly kids want to play, especially at the quarterback position," said Kelly admitting he hadn't given the number much thought. "At first glance you would think that five might be heavy in terms of scholarship quarterbacks.

"I think it's something that we have internal conversations about relative to what the right mix there is.  But for me to be definitive, I think it depends on what year those quarterbacks are.  You got a couple of seniors, you might be able to get away with five.

"I think really when you're recruiting, what are you looking for when you're recruiting at that position?  In other words, there could be some dual threat guys there. I don't want to put myself at, 'Hey, I'm never going to get to five.'  But that's a lot of quarterbacks.  I think circumstances in terms of class, where they are in the class, whether they're a guy that can maybe play multiple positions, have a lot to say in that as well."

As for the players on hand, Kelly noted of the competition behind incumbent Everett Golson: " I want them to push to be on the field.  I want them to go in knowing that Everett Golson has experience, but that's all he has.  It's your job to go out there and show us that you can be the starting quarterback, not to settle for being the backup.  When you're given your opportunity, to compete and keep pushing.

"If you back off at all, you don't want to be the starter, we can make that happen for you.  I want Tommy (Rees) to go out there and compete to be the starter.  I want (Andrew) Hendrix, Malik Zaire to go out there and compete."

"The development of Golson now will be consistency week in and week out," Kelly continued. "Getting us in the right protection.  Playing at a tempo and a pace that we can control the football game at the pace that we want to play at.  Just the next step in his development, which there's a lot of things that he's going to have to work on.

"He's already shown it.  He's been great to work with.  His attention to detail, absorbing all the things."

Part of the Golson plan involves a sturdier frame.

"He's 188 pounds.  I want him playing in that 190, 192, 193 range.  He's working at it.  He's stronger, there's no question. 

"That's got to be a big point of emphasis.  Take care of the offense, continue to develop as a quarterback, take care of yourself, make sure you're eating right.  He's a picky eater.  We've got to get him to eat better.

"He knows what he needs to do.  This isn't a message being sent out to Everett.  These are conversations I've had with him.  He's got to continue to put on weight and get that coat of armor for the fall."

Running Backs

Gone is two-time leading rusher Cierre Wood. Moving on too is last year's do-everything leading ground gainer and reliable pass-catcher Theo Riddick.

Enter the era of Atkinson, in this case George III.

"Probably the most pleasing thing with George, he sees his opportunity and he seized it," said Kelly. He's up 11 pounds to 217, and he's maintained that weight. Then his strength: he went from (bench pressing) five times 225 pounds to 19 (reps). He's done a great job of really taking care of himself."

"It's his time. Now, he's got some guys that are going to have something to say about that, as well.  We like that competition that we have at the running back position.

"Certainly…the things he has to do is obviously be a guy that can be on the field, take care of the football.  But he's really committed himself to being that guy. He did not participate in track and field because he wanted to be solely focused on being the number one back."

Atkinson is the only returning regular, though classmate Cam McDaniel played exceptionally well in mop-up duty last fall. They're joined this spring by redshirt-freshman Will Mahone (click here) and junior Amir Carlisle, the USC transfer who missed 2012 following March foot surgery and complications thereafter.

"We're starting to see him as almost 100 percent," said Kelly of Carlisle. "We saw some real exciting flashes from Amir."

Wide Receivers

Two starters, T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels, and a part-timer (Daniel Smith) return, as does the sophomore trio of Chris Brown, Davonte' Neal, and Justin Ferguson. Early enrollees James Onwualu and Corey Robinson have a leg up on their fellow pass-catchers coming to campus in the summer.

"Daniels, he needs to go and step his game up another level," said Kelly. "Chris Brown, T.J. Jones, all those guys.  We're looking forward to them elevating their game with great experience.  They all have had great experience.  It's nice to have a group of guys like that coming back.

Kelly offered one coaching tactic to help ensure Daniels' ascent in his third season with the program, second on the field.

"Just hit him over the head with a stick every day.  I mean, really, this is just a matter of him deciding he's going to do it.  He's capable of doing it.  He wants to do it.  We have to show him how to do it.  He knows he's the guy in the mix.  Sometimes it's a matter of maturation.

"He understands what we want from him because we think he can be great.  But he's got to move his game up to get there.  That's a process we're working on with him.  We've seen some good early signs.  I would be surprised if he didn't have a great spring."

Pressing the issue during winter workouts was the physically advanced freshman Onwualu.

"Strong, 215 pounds.  He can play with the veterans right now in terms of conditioning and weight training, going every rep," said Kelly. "We'll see when we put the pads on.  We're going into a different atmosphere relative to playing the game (in the spring) but he's been very, very impressive."

Senior Luke Massa rounds out the spring receiving unit. A converted quarterback, Massa tore his ACL last April but made it back to the field last fall in a blowout win over Wake Forest.

Tight Ends

The loss of all-time program great Tyler Eifert changes the position. No longer is it the offense's focal point, but with three promising returnees (Alex Welch, Troy Niklas, and Ben Koyack, all of whom can come back in 2014) and an early enrollee (Mike Heuerman) available this spring, Tight End U should continue to produce results.

"I think we're going to find out a lot more about that as we go through the spring," said Kelly. "We think we've got some players that can complement the offense across the board. I don't know that we have the kind of singular great players that we had last year (but) we've got a lot of really good players. 

"I've had great teams that have had great players across the board, then I've had great teams that have had individual players. I think that's work in progress for us to figure out.  The spring will allow us a better window towards that."

Leading the charge, at least as offered by the head coach, is a senior waiting to get his career off the ground.

"Welch has done a nice job," said Kelly. "He's going to be a veteran presence for us. Physical, in-line, point of attack, a weapon for us on the edge of our offense at the tight end position."

Welch missed 2012 due to an August camp knee injury. His surgically repaired ACL responded well through winter conditioning.

"Moving very well, in terms of his size, 246 pounds," said Kelly. ""He's a really accomplished pass catcher, too.  He can catch the football.  He's got really good hands.  I remember him at Elder High School when I was at Cincinnati.  I thought he was one of the best tight ends in terms of catching the football.  Now he's got some size to him."

"Our tight ends, 246 (Welch), Koyack is 261, Niklas is 259, and (Joey) Brooks is (6'6") 222. We're getting the kind of guys that can go in there and physically hold their own at that position."

Brooks is a graduating senior who sat out the 2012-13 basketball season for Mike Brey and is thus eligible to compete in college in 2013. Most expected a transfer from Brooks following his graduation from the University. Turns out, the transfer is from the hardwood to the gridiron.

"The kid has worked really hard. We like his attention to detail," said Kelly of Brooks, a walk-on at present as the program has reached its 85 scholarship limit including incoming freshmen. "Again, we're going to give him a fair opportunity.  He's an extremely athletic kid. Here is the bottom line:  he's willing to do whatever we ask him to do.  It will be fun to watch him go in there and compete and we'll give him an opportunity to do so."

Returning regulars Niklas and Koyack should have a chance to fend off the recovering Welch this spring, with August camp the tell-tale time.

"We're getting the kind of guys that can go in there and physically hold their own at that position," said Kelly. "Troy Niklas is up to 27 times (benching) 225; getting stronger every day."

That includes another newcomer.

"I'm really impressed with Mike Heuerman. "He's put on almost 15 pounds; he's up to close to 230 pounds. He's got a burst to him. He's going to be a really good player for us."

Offensive Line

The left side is set, with fifth-year returnees Zack Martin (LT) and his off-campus roommate Chris Watt (LG). Also inked as a starter is returning right tackle Christian Lombard, though the senior could shift inside if it behooves the unit as a whole.

And its a unit wholly focused on finding its new starting center after the loss of Kelly-era starter Braxston Cave.

"I think you have some crossover there.  I think that's going to kind of play itself out," said Kelly of Lombard specifically. "The first thing we have to do is find that center position, lock that position.  Now we have three guys that we feel are physically capable of playing that position.  I think that battle kind of takes itself as the primary battle."

The three competitors are a pair of juniors (redshirt-sophomores) Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty, as well as sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Mark Harrell. All entered college as high school tackles.

Hegarty is recovering from January heart surgery.

"I think any time you talk about blood flow, cardiac, all those things, those are terms that we all kind of become very cautious with," said Kelly. "We don't ever want to put somebody in a position where their life is at risk. I thought we did an incredible job of being on top of it. Our care was great. 

"Then his follow-up in wanting to be back out on the field, it takes two. His family was involved.  Really from a consensus standpoint, everybody was on the same page with this kind of serious condition. He had the best doctors. He had great follow-up. He took care of himself.  I just think it was everybody pulling in the right direction to get him back on the field, where he feels very, very confident that he can go every single day and not have to worry about his health."

Zack's younger brother, Nick Martin was the team's No. 6 offensive lineman on a five-man starting unit last fall while Harrell began to impress in bowl preparation and since in the weight room.

"Up 19 pounds to 305," Kelly said of Harrell. "We needed to get him in a position where he could physically contribute and be in a position to contribute this year."

The leading candidate at right guard appears to be Conor Hanratty, a junior and fellow 2011 red-shirt along with classmates Martin and Hegarty -- the remaining trio from what was a five player recruiting haul.

"Conor Hanratty, we have a lot of confidence in him that he could step in and play the guard position for us," said Kelly. "Then that gives us some flexibility that if we feel like maybe one of the other two guys doesn't stick at center can kick over to guard.

"I think you find the center first, then the rest kind of takes care of itself. Lombard could kick down (to guard). Maybe (Ronnie) Stanley is a right tackle. Maybe (Steven) Elmer.  There's great competition there.  We've just got to sort out the center position.  Once we do that, the rest kind of moves in line from there."

A 2012 first-year varsity competitor as a true freshman, Stanley has recovered from off-season elbow surgery after appearing in two games last September. Elmer is the line's lone early enrollee -- and a player who'll likely benefit greatly from it when a quartet of classmates arrive for summer school.

"Elmer is 317 pounds right now. He's put on a lot of weight since he's gotten here. He's a guy that physically we think can go in there and compete."

Note: Part II will review Kelly's overview of the defense heading into spring ball.


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