Heading into spring practice, there were a lot of unanswered questions. Who will start along the offensive line? Which back would emerge? Which receivers would step up? What about quarterback? And that's just on offense.
There were many questions on defense as well. Did we learn much from spring? I think we did, but not as much as I'd like. Lou Holtz used to say: "If you can't name a starter, you essentially have two backups." Is that the situation for the Irish in a few positions? If so, that won't be a positive heading into the season, but there is plenty of time to fix the problems.
At offensive line I think we learned quite a bit. It's clearly obviously that Paul Duncan, Michael Turkovich, John Sullivan and Sam Young are going to start. It didn't appear anyone challenged these four at their respective spots this spring. While that is good news, hopefully some depth can be added behind them.
The other guard spot seems wide open. I watched all three of Dan Wenger, Matt Carufel and Eric Olsen in the spring game. All three looked very solid against the run, but all three struggled at times against the pass, especially Carufel, who had a very difficult time staying with Trevor Laws. To his credit, many guards will struggle with Laws this year, and Olsen and Wenger didn't have to face Laws much, but someone will have to step up in this spot to form a solid line. I liked what I saw in all three of those players in the running game. All three were very phyiscal. I'll also add I was impressed with transfer Thomas Bemenderfer. He's a good football player who I expect to see on the field next year. All four should add considerable depth for the Irish for years to come.
I know it's only a spring game, but I was encouraged by the running lanes I saw. I was not encouraged by the pass protection as it looked like every five-step drop ended in pressure or a sack. This must improve before the season, and it likely will.
At receiver, they are what they are, as Weis once famously said. They're an average group right now. How do I know that? Weis has a very hard time telling us who, if anyone, has stood out. There are no leaks from practice that "X player has been tearing it up in practice." We heard plenty of that about all four running backs. I didn't hear much positive at all from the bushes at receiver. Someone will have to emerge to compliment Grimes. Someone will, but will this unit be able to make plays next year? This could really hamstring the offense if they struggle.
At running back, the competition appears to be wide open. That can only be a good thing as all four are outstanding prospects. This is one position I'm glad Weis will struggle to name a starter as all four should see time next fall. One will eventually emerge, but the competition will make all four better players. I'm very excited about Notre Dame's running backs. You should be, too.
We all knew what to expect at tight end heading into spring, at least with John Carlson. I was very pleased with what I saw from Konrad Reuland. He'll give the Irish another legitamite pass threat, but he's also phyiscal in the running game. He'll need to get stronger this summer, but he should develop into quite a player for the Irish. He could develop into a bigger, quicker version of Anthony Fasano when all is said and done. Having two solid tight ends might off-set some problems at receiver.
On defense, I think we learned some very positive things. The most important thing we learned is that Corwin Brown's defense will be well-coached, they'll be aggressive, and they will hit you. And more importantly, when they hit you, you'll go down. Just watching one spring game you can see a noticable difference in fundamentals and attitude. I'm not certain how talented this unit will be, but they'll play very hard the entire game.
Trevor Laws should be unstoppable against most teams this year. This new-look defense is the perfect fit for Laws. It will be his audition for the next level, and it sure looks like he's taken that to heart. He looks to be in the best shape of his life, and I expect big things from him.
It's the other two positions I worry about. I firmly believe Patrick Kuntz and Dwight Stephenson are going to give it everything they have every time they're out on the field, but I do worry about them being undersized. Can they take the pounding of 50 snaps? Can Kuntz handle 50 snaps being double-teamed on every play? I just don't see that happening. I mean no disrespect to Kuntz, I love his fiery attitude. He's just undersized to play noseguard.
That means the Irish will have to build some depth here. What concerns me is the way the second team O-line was handing the second string D-line in the spring game. All those running lanes Junior Jabbie found came at the expense of the second team D-line.
At times both Chris Stewart and Derrell Hand showed me they could handle the pounding inside and be successful. However, at times they got pushed off the ball rather easily, as did everyone else playing with the second unit. With Stewart and Hand it's probably more technique than anything. You have to remember that Stewart has essentially had 10 practices at noseguard. Hand hasn't had many more than that. Hopefully both will develop nicely because the success of the defense could be hinging on their development. If both could develop, the Irish could then move Kuntz outside and give him some relief from the constant pounding inside.
I was encouraged by the linebacker play. While I didn't see a lot of passes successfully defended, I did see guys ending the play the second the ball was caught. I was somewhat concerned with pass coverage heading into spring because a few backers haven't had much experience in pass coverage. I thought all did a pretty good job in coverage in the passes thrown in their area.
I've already made my feelings known on Toryan Smith, who I think is going to be outstanding. He has cat-quick reflexes and just finds the ball quickly, and his pass coverage was very nice on Saturday. Joe Brockington will have a hard time keeping his spot if Smith continues to play like he did.
I think the Irish will be fine at outside linebacker. I think both John Ryan and Scott Smith did a nice job against the run. I was very impressed with Anthony Vernaglia as a pass rusher and in pass coverage. I expect you'll see a number of guys playing along the outside, and all will have roles. Adding Kerry Neal to the mix will only add to the depth at this position.
I'm also pleased with the secondary play. I really was pleased. I've heard a lot of good things about Ambrose Wooden this spring. He seems very focused and in the best shape of his life. Terrail Lambert appears to have held off the challenge so far from both Darrin Walls and Raeshon McNeil. I think ND has four very good corner prospects in those four players. I can't remember the last time I could say that. Hopefully Walls and McNeil aren't satisfied with a nickel or dime position and continue to push the starters as it will make them all better players.
Fans at the spring game got to see a glimpse of the vast potential of David Bruton. I keep saying he's the most athletic player on the team, and he showed it on his nice return on Saturday. Bruton's "getting it" will be important for the Irish this year. If he can get it, Zibby can play closer to the line of scrimmage and help out with the run. Bruton's development will be key. We already know what to expect from Zbikowski now that he's healthy.
My big concern this year? Yes, the kicking game. Why? Because I expect the Irish to be in a lot of close games this year. Notre Dame won't have the offense to blow many teams out, so even against weaker competition, they'll struggle to put them away. This will allow a lot of lessor teams to hang around, and the kicking game could be the difference in many games next season. I can't stress enough how important this could possibly be next year. I think Weis knows this as well.
The Irish should be fine at punter. Geoff Price should have another great year and seems to have added some touch to his punt placement. I was also impressed with what I saw from Eric Maust.
But it's the kicking game that concerns me. Both Burkhart and Whitaker have been inconsistent from what I hear, and neither has shown a real powerful leg. Hopefully adding Brandon Walker to the mix will push all three to get better.
But what about quarterback? I think Weis already knows who is in his final two. My guess is he already knows who is his No. 1. It's all window dressing at this point. My guess is we won't know the final verdict until three weeks into fall camp. Regardless of who eventually wins the job, Irish fans should expect that he'll struggle, sometimes mightily at times. There is plenty of evidence to suggest a first-year quarterback will struggle. Irish fans need to expect that. The starter, no matter how talented he is, won't look like Brady Quinn out there next year. The best we can hope for is he executes the offense, doesn't make too many bad plays, and makes some great plays now and again.
The Irish will be a work-in-progress next year for most of the year, but I think towards the end of the season we'll really start to get a look at the future of Notre Dame football. And I think that future is pretty bright.
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