Spring Wrap: Offensive Observations

IrishEyes offers the first of several spring wrap-up columns. Monday morning's focus – the Irish offense.

Evaluation Every Day

One of Brian Kelly's promises at the beginning of the spring session was that his personnel would be under constant evaluation. That approach was evident in every practice and post-practice interview and remains the key ingredient for Kelly and his staff prior to September 4.

Win, lose, or win big, Kelly will extract every ounce of ability from the majority of the athletes in his charge next fall. Those that can't translate their given skill set to the field of play will fall by the wayside.

"Well, today for us was an opportunity to take all that work relative to the weight room and conditioning and apply it to the actual game itself, because as you know, you can look good, you can run fast, you can do all those things; can you play the game of football?"

Kelly added that the balancing of talent on the Blue and Gold squads allowed him to "find out who of those guys have that innate ability to play the game."

"Today was a good evaluator for us relative to all our players and finding out more about them. It's the first coat of paint for us. This is a process that we're entered into, and we know that this is not (the) destination for us."

Talent Dispersal – Tailback Trio

Senior Armando Allen remains the team's most complete back. He'll keep his starting job and barring injury, lead the team in rushing yards, attempts, and likely receptions for a running back. But Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood both represent more explosive, tantalizing options, and the duo will factor heavily into September's results.

While Allen remains the team's best runner through the hole, he's a distant third in terms of his innate ability at the second level of the defense. Both Gray and Wood pick and choose a bit too much at the line of scrimmage but they're dynamic at/after the first cut (Allen's lack of balance in the open-field is puzzling). Wood looked especially smooth in the open field while Gray possesses both quick feet and power, but its his natural forward lean (and low pad level) that results in yards after contact (and generally an extra yard or two "during" the tackle).

"I would say that the running back position is one that I feel really good after this game about the depth and the ability of that position," Kelly stated.

Each of the trio reportedly has a nice pair of hands (I have video evidence regarding Allen and Gray, while Wood offered that tidbit about himself post-game Saturday. Elaboration on Wood and his self-confidence deserves its own column.)

Wood, incidentally, appears to be the goal line back of choice at this juncture.

Quick Observation: There will be no feature back in 2010. Look for a trio reminiscent of Julius Jones, Tony Fisher, and Terrance Howard in terms of tailback workload next fall.

Ragone's Performance: Fool's Gold or Portent?

The senior tight end wouldn't be the first spring star to completely disappear when the bullets go live in September. And to be fair, I have no clue if Kelly, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, and tight ends coach Mike Denbrock can work Ragone into the offense on a consistent basis in 2010.

But for the first time since arriving on campus in 2007, I feel the perpetually recovering Ragone is ready.

"My confidence has always been high," Ragone admitted post-game, "But catching the ball today really helped me improve. If they throw the ball, I'm going to catch it. I'm just going to keep working hard and doing what Coach Kelly asks.

While former head coach Charlie Weis' offense was deemed tight-end friendly (and NFL-friendly, considering the pro exploits of Anthony Fasano and John Carlson) no backup tight end ever topped 9 receptions in a single season under Weis.

Ragone's production will vary greatly from game-to-game, because Kyle Rudolph simply won't come off the field. But the redshirt senior has fought his way back into the mix, and if Kelly's level of angst regarding his receiving corps isn't alleviated, you could once again see the two-tight end formation as part of the Irish attack.

"Ragone is a tough kid," Kelly noted. "He's going to help us, he's going to move the chains for us and do some things that allow us to get into two tight ends, as well. He's very important in terms of what we're going to be doing in the fall."

Floyd to Slot?

Perhaps the most intriguing post-game comment was offered by the head coach regarding the team's best player.

"As you know, we've had 48 hours to work with Michael Floyd at a brand new position. He worked in the inside slot receiver position where he worked the entire spring on the perimeter."

When asked if the Floyd move was "significant" Kelly admitted the action was two-fold.

"Evaluating," he stated of the move's primary purpose. "I wanted to go through the spring and kind of find out the best rotation. We moved Duval Kamara to the backside receiver position, so we're still trying to find out what that best rotation is."

Of relevance is the apparent lack of a leader in the slot (paging Golden Tate…). Practice viewings suggested we'd see Kamara serving as a second big target (with Rudolph the first) for Crist inside. My guess is that will still be a primary option throughout August. Regardless, Michael Floyd will be the main man. X, Y, F, Z, backside, slot, split end, flanker…put him somewhere and call it want you want, he'll get the football and reemerge as the college game's best wide receiver.

Evans Emerging? Aside from the recruiting evaluation of others and high school highlight videos, I hadn't seen much from Shaq Evans to suggest future stardom. And his first offering Saturday was a dropped, well-thrown seam pass on the Gold team's first series.

But following that early error, Evans started to show flashes of what his former coach likely noticed last August and what this staff will harness over the next three seasons: Evans isn't ridiculously quick or fast or strong, or blessed with tremendous hands or imposing physical prowess…but he possesses enough of each attribute to do some damage in the college game.

I saw him snare a crossing route seemingly out of his reach. I saw him make linebacker Dan Fox miss (whiff) in space with an effortless cut and full-speed acceleration. I saw him run through arm tackles, and as noted earlier this spring, Evans is every bit of his 6'1" 205-pound listing.

He might not win a starting role heading into the fall (Evans does not strike me as a top-notch practice player), but he could emerge as the team's second best wide receiver by season's end. He'll be a player, but the proverbial light is still flickering.

The Monkey Wrench

Julius Jones, Ryan Grant, Arnaz Battle, Anthony Fasano, Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, Brady Quinn, Rhema McKnight, Darius Walker, John Carlson, Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph…and just 70 wins with 52 losses over a 10-year span.

All the pretty horses can't, and won't, overcome inconsistent play up front.

Kelly's first OL is a work in progress but the head man likes his prospects heading into the summer. "I think we're pleased with the progress that we've made. We've got to be able to run the football. If you've got three backs like we have, you've got to put the best five guys out there that can run the football for you, too," Kelly offered.

"I thought we made some good progress this past week on the offensive line. We're still moving guys around. Andrew Nuss played a lot at right tackle today. We want to get him in a competitive situation. Chris Watt took a little bit at center. So again, we're not there yet, but we're moving in a position where we think we've got eight to ten guys that we know can play winning football. What we want is five guys that can play championship football."

The Irish haven't shown consistency (regardless of opponent) in the running game since 2000 and haven't been at a championship level on the ground since before the end of the Lou Holtz era.

Though Kelly & Co. readily admit their affinity for the forward pass, the real possibility of a quarterback group that includes a still-recovering Dayne Crist, a walk-on, and three freshmen exists next September.

The men up front and the aforementioned trio of ‘backs might need to carry the load a bit more than expected, at least in the early stages of the season.

After all, there's one element of the game Kelly enjoys much more than the passing game – Winning.

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