Irish commence spring session Friday

Local weather forecasts project a continuation of the coldest, snowiest winter in South Bend since 1978, but that won't stop Notre Dame from embarking on the fifth spring practice session of the Brian Kelly era this week when Notre Dame's head coach opens the 2014 season with an introductory press conference Friday, 10 a.m. (ET).

As with each of the last three seasons, most of Notre Dame's 14 practices will be held in the morning, 7:30-9:30, before most students attend classes.

Notre Dame's players begin non-padded practices on Monday, March 3, and after holding two-hour sessions Wednesday and Friday thereafter, will go on a 12-day hiatus for the university's annual Spring Break. Friday is the first day which the Irish can don pads after the mandatory two-practice assimilation.

The Irish resume their spring session on Wednesday, March 19 and will hold another 11 practices through Wednesday, April 9 before the 85th annual Blue Gold Game kicks off on Saturday, April 12 at 12:30 (ET).

Media will have access to portions of five practices plus the opportunity to view and report on a full practice Saturday, March 22.

Kelly will be available to the media following six practice sessions while coordinators Brian VanGorder and Mike Denbrock are slated for three. Selected and/or requested players will speak on five separate occasions.

A New Era

Five players remain from Brian Kelly's initial Irish squad, the 2010 crew that began 4-5 but rallied for a 4-0 finish.

Fifth-year seniors Kendall Moore, Christian Lombard, Austin Collinsworth, Luke Massa, and Justin Utupo serve as the lone holdovers from Kelly's initial recruiting class.

For the first time since Kelly took control of the program for spring 2010, Notre Dame returns just one quarterback, senior Everett Golson, with collegiate experience.

The 2010 squad ranks (and likely always will) as the group with the least returning experience under center. Junior Dayne Crist had appeared in just three contests and had thrown a total of 20 passes prior to his first spring session under Kelly.

Thereafter, the 2011 team boasted a combined 13 starts and more than 20 games played from Crist and sophomore Tommy Rees while the 2012 team featured 16-game starter Rees, Andrew Hendrix (six games played) and redshirt-freshman starter Everett Golson. Last year's Irish included the veteran Rees and his classmate Hendrix.

Joining Golson for spring ball 2014 is redshirt-freshman Malik Zaire. The pair is expected to receive a near 50-50 split on snaps for the session's duration.

Incoming freshman DeShone Kizer will serve as the team's third scholarship quarterback, joining the Irish program this summer.

Overloaded vs. Overworked

Answer: Wide Receiver and Inside Linebacker.

Question: Where are the Irish blessed with ample talent? Where are they conversely deficient this spring?

Two position groups with disparate spring goals. For new offensive coordinator and receivers coach Mike Denbrock, finding the right mix of young talent among junior Chris Brown, redshirt-sophomore C.J. Prosise, sophomores Corey Robinson, James Onwualu, and Will Fuller, redshirt-freshman Torri Hunter, Jr., and early enrollee Justin Brent seems an enviable task.

Each brings speed or quickness or ball skills or physical prowess to the table. Most bring more than one of those traits. Each has shown glimpses of future stardom be it as a pass-catcher (Robinson/Fuller) runner after the catch (Prosise), downfield threat (Brown, Fuller), blocker (Onwualu), chain-mover (Robinson), or special teams contributor (Onwualu and Prosise).

Add to the mix Hunter, the 2013 Scout Team Player of the Year, and the athletically-gifted Brent and the line behind suspended senior DaVaris Daniels is one filled with promise and potential.


Robinson (right) and Fuller will challenge for starting roles

On the opposite side of scrimmage, no position group better illustrates the second phase of the Brian Kelly era than the inside linebackers.

Manti Te'o (39 starts under Kelly), Dan Fox (32), and Carlo Calabrese (26) combined to start 97 of a possible 104 games at two inside linebacker spots over the last four seasons. 2010 senior Brian Smith (4) and 2014 senior Jarrett Grace (3) held down the fort in the remaining 7. Smith is long gone and Grace is out of the picture -- at least in terms of contact -- this spring after suffering a broken bone on October 5 against Arizona State.

Grace told reporters in December that doctors explained he'd begin to "feel athletic" by the spring -- four breaks in his lower leg have delayed the healing process.

Without Grace, and without incoming five-star freshman Nyles Morgan, the spring session features but a trio of scholarship competitors: 5th-year senior Kendall Moore, senior and former walk-on Joe Schmidt, and redshirt-freshman Michael Deeb.


5th-year senior Kendall Moore

Among the trio: zero starts and a handful of meaningful scrimmage contributions in competitive contests. Moore has been a special teams starter for three seasons but spring 2014 represents his first real shot at a leading role.

In addition to Morgan, incoming freshmen Greer Martini and Nile Sykes join the position group this summer. It's nonetheless likely Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will look to evaluate current roster members as inside 'backers this spring.

Backup outside linebacker Ben Councell was a popular candidate among fans but the senior tore his ACL on November 2 in a win over Navy. Though Kelly deemed Councell far ahead of schedule, spring contact seems unlikely, and imprudent. Also oft-referenced by message board pundits as a candidate for the role is junior Romeo Okwara, but his future (and skill set) seems set as a hybrid defensive end/outside 'backer.

Redshirt-freshman linebacker Doug Randolph lost most of his first season to August shoulder surgery. A dynamic high school pass rusher, Randolph worked inside during his brief stint as a healthy competitor during the 2013 training camp. It seems logical he'd serve as a fourth scholarship player inside this spring as a final determination on his slotting (inside or out) could be made thereafter.

Senior defensive end Anthony Rabasa worked at inside linebacker as a redshirt-freshman in 2011.


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