College football seasons change, but the pre-spring questions remain largely the same. Who's in? Who's out? Who'll star, then fade? Who'll thrive and later survive?
Irish Illustrated tackles two handfuls of pressing questions pertaining to the winter months before another dozen (or perhaps about 100) more precede the spring, summer, and fall.
1.) Which coaching responsibilities will be tweaked?
Knock me over with a feather: At no point since Notre Dame's November swoon did I expect head coach Brian Kelly's staff to return intact. It appears it will for the third time in his six seasons (2010 and 2012 as well), but four of the previous five (save for 2012) included tweaks in responsibility. What moves, if any, will be announced when Kelly convenes with the media on National Signing Day?
-- 2014 answers: In addition to adding Brian VanGorder (DC) and Matt LaFleur (QBs) to the staff, Mike Denbrock (WR/Passing Game Coordinator) was elevated to offensive coordinator and Bob Elliott began to coach the outside linebackers rather than safeties.
2.) Who'll round out the recruiting class?
Running back Dexter Williams is the consensus best bet, along with purported silent wideout pledge Equanimeous St. Brown, but the Irish need, and remain in the market for, multiple safety prospects.
3.) Who won't be able to go?
The winter session, aka, "Surgery Season" annually claims a handful of victims. Notably out of contact this spring are linebacker Joe Schmidt, nose tackle Jarron Jones, and safeties Drue Tranquilll and Nicky Baratti, while others will likely be officially identified in the next two weeks. The unfortunate reality of a medical scholarship alleviation likely awaits at least one Irish competitor as it has in each of the last three off-seasons.
-- 2014 answers: Defensive end Tony Springmann, safety Nicky Baratti, offensive lineman Nick Martin, and linebackers Ben Councell and Jarrett Grace all missed spring ball due to previous surgeries. Among the quartet, only Martin returned to his pre-injury form, with Councell also contributing. Springmann's career ended as a result of a back injury. He missed the 2013 season and subsequent spring due to knee surgery.
4.) Who'll move positions?
Spring depth is a concern at running back, cornerback, and safety -- movement, both among and to the defensive backfield, seems inevitable. In terms of position versatility, current starting sam linebacker James Onwualu takes the cake, while expected 5th-year seniors Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle have already served at multiple positions for Notre Dame.
-- 2014 answers: Matthias Farley (safety to CB/nickel), James Onwualu (WR to S/LB), and John Turner (S/LB) were the notable moves among myriad other tweaks as a result of a change in defensive fronts.
5.) Who'll exit stage left?
AKA, It Happens Every Spring: off-season transfer(s) from Notre Dame (and any major college program) are inevitable, and it's a reality the Irish program has endured in every season dating back to 1980, whereafter I stopped researching.
-- 2014 answers: Cornerback Rashad Kinlaw was dismissed/transferred in early April while slot receiver Will Mahone was dismissed/transferred following a summer incident near his home town. The 2013 spring session included transfers by 2012 recruits Gunner Kiel, Davonte Neal, and Justin Ferguson while 2012 saw the exit of Aaron Lynch. The list is continuous...
6.) Who among the group will make great strides in winter conditioning?
7.) Who'll enter and exit spring with a chance to start at quarterback?
Everett Golson's pending decision(s) impacts third-string redshirt-freshman DeShone Kizer more than it does Malik Zaire, at least through semester's end. Expect the first truly open quarterback battle since off-season 2011 (Dayne Crist vs. Tommy Rees) to be waged between Golson and Zaire inside the Loftus Sports Complex over the next three months and perhaps beyond.
-- 2014 answers: A two-man pecking order seemed obvious to those paying close attention with Golson leading Zaire. That lead increased over the summer months and in early August. It has since been lost...
8.) Which senior will emerge as a spring MVP candidate?
Recent iterations include John Goodman (pre-2012), T.J. Jones (2013) and Joe Schmidt (2014). Current seniors-to-be that are likely to thrive this off-season include Hegarty, Martin, and Chris Brown, who was a markedly better player in November/Decemeber than September 2014.
-- 2014/Previous answers: Joe Schmidt took the reigns at Mike linebacker last winter and never looked back, not only starring in the spring but until he was felled by injury last fall. The same was true for Jones in 2013 (spring MVP to fall MVP) while Goodman enjoyed what was easily the best season of his Irish career after a standout spring.
9.) Which early enrollee will make a lasting impression?
Candidates include linebacker Te'Von Coney (joins a deep unit), defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway (ditto), offensive lineman Tristen Hoge (I sense a theme) and offensive tackle/defensive line prospect Jerry Tillery.
-- 2014/Previous answers: Defensive end Andrew Trumbetti benefitted greatly from early enrollment last January, playing a key role throughout 2014. Prior early enrollees of immediate impact during the Kelly era include Steve Elmer, James Onwualu, and Corey Robinson (2013), Sheldon Day (2012), Aaron Lynch (2011) and T.J Jones, Tommy Reees (2010).
10.) Will the spring "placeholder" carve a fall niche?
Cornerback Keivarae Russell is expected to return and if/when he does, he'll start. That leaves junior Devin Butler (a potential safety) and sophomore Nick Watkins in his stead this winter and spring. The emergence of either through April would allow for a major role in a thin, top-heavy defensive backfield next fall.
With mike linebacker Joe Schmidt out, ample opportunity exists for sophomores Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, not to mention recovering (projected) 5th-year Jarrett Grace. The same is true for sophomore nose tackle Daniel Cage in place of Jarron Jones and for every potential safety candidate on the roster as Tranquill and Baratti rehab from fall surgeries.
-- 2014 answers: All-America candidate KeiVarae Russell manned one cornerback spot while sophomore Cole Luke seemingly kept warm the spot to be occupied by forthcoming transfer Cody Riggs. Luke ended up replacing the suspended Russell instead, then developed into a Top 10 Irish performer in 2014.
11.) Who'll be the spring surprise that fades when the bullets go live?
It Happens Every Spring, Part II. With the winter and spring roster not close to the fall's scholarship total, it's inevitable that a future backup play the role of necessary spring starter. In other words, don't hold dear to your first Irish Illustrated spring practice report this March. The only certainty, is change...
-- 2014 answers: Sam linebacker John Turner exited spring ball as the purported starter. That changed in the off-season as Turner instead served as a special teams starter on all four Irish run teams but did not receive a snap from scrimmage in a competitive game situation.
12.) What about Bryant?
Sorry, force of habit. But while we're on the subject, is Year 3 (off-season #2) the one in which Notre Dame's powerful, compact runner makes the leap from prospect to proven commodity? Greg Bryant's potential ascent remains the offense's most compelling storyline as Kelly enters his most important season to date in South Bend.