Spring Wrap: Irish backfield

Who took a step forward? Who might have fallen back? What we know now, what we think we know, and what questions remain.

What We Know

-- The Irish quarterbacks and running backs should be able to handle attrition, with solid backups throughout…

-- Both should rank among the top four position groups on the 2014 squad, with potential prime time starters and backups that are solid (running back) and intriguing (quarterback) at worst…

-- Everett Golson is likely the starter, but Malik Zaire is probably closer to that status than many of us (I'll speak for myself, at least) considered. He's a playmaker.

-- For those that dismiss Golson, consider he was the crucial difference-making offensive player in real life wins over Oklahoma and Pittsburgh. Saturday's Blue Gold game means no more to the Irish coaching staff than any full-contact scrimmage from the spring. Zaire showed well in a scrimmage where he couldn't be tackled and the defense was purposefully as plain as possible, with walk-ons and third-string players defending his offense.

-- Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston are the future of the Irish backfield. Good luck turning that dynamic tandem into a trio in 2015. But for 2014, it's a three-headed monster, and Cam McDaniel will play a crucial role. In good health, he'll receive 100 carries, minimum. (For the sake of reference, that's more than George Atkinson received last year and twice as many as Atkinson received in 2012 when Theo Riddick had 190 and Cierre Wood 114.)

-- The running backs can catch passes out of the backfield. Notre Dame will again have a screen game in 2014, though none of the group offers the mismatch that Riddick did vs. defenders in 2012.

-- Golson still struggles to complete simple throws, but I believe this is a product of his approach. In other words, he wasn't missing those vs. Miami in 2012, or USC, or Purdue. It's nonetheless sobering that the Irish senior appeared (as a personal observation) indifferent to the competitive nature of Saturday's contest.

Zaire was fully engaged, looking to be the game's best player, and he accomplished that goal.

What we think we know

-- Notre Dame's quarterback will receive quality protection from his lone runner. The entire trio appears capable in pass protection (McDaniel proved it last season as well). And in this case, both quarterbacks can escape and create -- running backs don't need to stone blitzers as much as contain them. Of note, Amir Carlisle was the team's best runner in pass protection last fall. He can still be used as such, motioning into the backfield from the slot, which would allow the running back to release.

-- Golson's inability to win every day (a Bob Diaco motto that applies to the greats such as Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert), must be maddening to Kelly and the Irish staff. Diaco once noted that 2012 senior standout Zeke Motta was perfect "not only when he watches film or when he hits the practice field, but when he wipes down the kitchen counter."

I think it's safe to assume Golson leaves some stray crumbs.

-- Zaire is the best athlete -- that likewise possesses the ability to throw -- at the position for Notre Dame since Jarious Jackson, a two-year starter for Bob Davie (1998-99) who incidentally would dominate in today's spread attack…

-- Golson is a far more polished passer than is Zaire, though that won't show on the Blue Gold game tape…

Far more.

-- Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston are more dynamic than McDaniel, but McDaniel's ability to consistently turn 1st and 10 into 2nd and 6 and thus 2nd and 6 into 3rd and 1 should not be overlooked as the Irish offense takes on four teams it should beat in September. Not giving away plays will help the quarterback settle in.

-- As the team's lone runner, Bryant and Folston could gain 1,200 yards. Neither will be the team's lone runner, and that's good for the health of the backfield in November and beyond.

Lingering question

Why can't Notre Dame enter a season secure in its triggerman?

It's a question Kelly tackled Saturday following the team's final spring scrimmage:

"I would like to have one quarterback, because they both can run the offense. So this is not about having one offense for one quarterback and another offense for the other," Kelly said. "You know, we should be, as coaches and myself, personally, I should be able to figure this thing out and we should be able to get our players in a position where we can have a starting quarterback.

"So I've been doing it long enough that I would hope that I can figure it out come time to play Rice."

I concur…

-- There are no lingering questions at running back. It will be sorted out in September, and probably again in October. Until then, the Irish have three starters and can win with each or any tandem therein.

Spring Star -- Greg Bryant

Zaire was the spring game's star, but Bryant was the name that surfaced most often from the staff and that showed well in media practice viewings.

It'd be far better for Notre Dame if the star was a quarterback, but Bryant appears as advertised: tough to tackle, ferocious, and yet dynamic in the open field.

The most intriguing aspect: I'm not sure he's any better than Tarean Folston.

Spring Step Back-- None

Golson is the common choice because of another ho-hum Blue Gold game, but that was predictable (in fact, it was predicted in the pre-game podcast).

Golson might have treaded water, but there was no chance Kelly would name a starting quarterback, even if he had easily been the spring's best player, in April. (Roster management 101.)

Notre Dame has five players among its quarterbacks and running backs and it's highly likely each will greatly impact the 2014 season. No help is on the way for next fall (DeShone Kizer is a near-certain redshirt for multiple reasons), and none is needed.

What you see is what you get, and it's an enviable view.

Note: Join Dave Berk and me for a podast later this afternoon detailing every aspect and every player within the 2014 Irish backfield this spring.

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