Everett Golson may be listed as a senior, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly said a learning curve still exists for the reinstated quarterback. With Golson back after a semester absence last fall and new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock at the reins, the senior signal-caller has had his work cut out for him. "What we're doing offensively this year is new math for him," Kelly said Friday morning. "I knew there was going to be a learning curve there and I knew he was making really good progress from that standpoint. He's met those expectations." While Kelly said Golson has also met his off-the-field expectations (taking care of his academics and being a good teammate), the fifth-year coach has not assured Golson of the starting gig when Notre Dame opens against Rice on Aug. 30. Sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire has been battling Golson this spring a season after redshirting. While many expect Golson to be under center in the fall, Zaire — and Kelly — have refused to hand Golson the keys to the offense. Kelly said both quarterbacks need to work on 11-on-11 situations this spring. "We're trying to run as much 11-on-11 real football during our spring as possible because our quarterbacks need that," Kelly said. "They've got to communicate, they've got to be able to take control of the offense. So we're trying to put them is as much of a control position and those are the things he needs to work on." Focus on the red zone Kelly said the Irish worked a lot on red zone execution during Friday morning's practice. "A lot of red zone today, getting an opportunity to work on some specific things within our overall installation and development," Kelly said. "Certainly for our quarterbacks, being able to take care of the football in that area is absolutely crucial, as we saw last year, at times, how that was not an effective area for us." In 2013, the Irish offense ranked 77th in the nation in red-zone offense, scoring on 36 of 45 (80 percent) opportunities. Notre Dame settled for field goals on 12 of those trips. Former quarterback Tommy Rees threw interceptions on four red-zone chances, including three times in the final five games. The Irish were 2-2 in games when they turned the ball over in the red zone in 2013. In 2012, Golson was picked off three times in the red zone but only once in the final nine games of the season. "Red zone is an area we have to be more effective and efficient in, a major emphasis for us the last couple of days, particularly today," Kelly said. Notre Dame was indoors at the Loftus Center for practice Friday morning after going outdoors twice this week. Temperatures were in the 40s with light rain and heavy fog. Kelly said being outdoors this week was better for red zone drills and gave the Irish opportunities to work on punt returns. "We did a lot of punt work with fielding balls, catching balls, spent a little bit more time on that and we got some red zone work in there," Kelly said. "You just get better special awareness outside with the back of the end zone and certainly catching punts outside." More pressure on defense Under former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the Irish relied on a defense that gave up yards but not points and rarely forced turnovers. But with new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme in place, Notre Dame will look to attack more and force more turnovers. "I think what coach VanGorder and I want to create there is we want to create more pressure for the quarterback," Kelly said. "We want them under more duress. From that standpoint, maybe the net gain there is turnovers but I think if they're making bad decisions and throwing the ball away, we're gaining downs in that respect, too." The Irish ranked 103rd in the country in turnovers forced with 17. In the previous three seasons, Notre Dame forced 23, 14 and 25 turnovers, respectively. Notre Dame also struggled to get to the quarterback in 2013, recording just 21 sacks. "We're moving in a new direction for our defensive personnel," Kelly said. "It's coming and they're making progress in that regard but it'll take us some more time." Injury updates Senior linebacker Jarrett Grace was using one crutch to walk after undergoing a second leg surgery in the last year. Grace had surgery on March 28 to insert a rod into the leg he broke against Arizona State in October. "Early indications are very positive," Kelly said. "We're cautiously optimistic about where he is. … He's just got a good, positive attitude about it and there's not a better kid that you would want to root for in terms of coming back from the kind of injury that he had." He finished 2013 with 41 tackles (including one for loss) after appearing in seven games and starting three. Kelly said the Irish were also trying to reintegrate sophomore cornerback Devin Butler (shoulder), senior defensive lineman Tony Springmann (knee) and Nick Martin (knee) into the program. "These guys are on the cusp of getting closer so we're trying to reintegrate those guys into work that we see that we can get them back into," Kelly said.
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