Kelly hasn't received big numbers from his quarterbacks in his two seasons at Notre Dame, and the spring focus for the Irish will be on finding a guy who can consistently produce at the position.
It's a four-man battle royal at quarterback. There's returning starter Tommy Rees, who has a good grasp of the offense but can't seem to avoid mistakes (22 career interceptions). There is sophomore Andrew Hendrix, who played in five games last season and showed more as a runner than as a passer. There is redshirt freshman Everett Golson, who is short (he's listed at 6 feet) but athletic and was highly productive in high school in Myrtle Beach, S.C. And there's true freshman Gunner Kiel, a strong-armed early enrollee.
|Coach: Brian Kelly (3rd season)
Last season: 8-5
Spring practice dates: March 21-April 21
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season):
Offense (8): C Braxston Cave, TE Tyler Eifert, WR TJ Jones, T Zack Martin, QB Tommy Rees, WR Theo Riddick, G Chris Watt, RB Cierre Wood
Defense (7): LB Dan Fox, E Kapron Lewis-Moore, S Zeke Motta, T Louis Nix, LB Prince Shembo, S Jamoris Slaughter, LB Manti Te'o
Special teams (1): P Ben Turk
In addition to searching for a quarterback, Kelly and a revamped coaching staff will be looking for a new go-to receiver and doing some spackling on a line that lost two starters.
Defensively, it's all about improving the secondary. The Irish had just eight picks last season and allowed 23 TD passes. And that was with experienced corners. There are no experienced corners on this season's roster; indeed, the likely starters are juniors who never have started a college game, and there is no proven talent behind them. The starting safeties look fine, but depth there is a huge question as well.
The biggest problem: The secondary. Notre Dame lost both starting cornerbacks along with potential first-rounder Harrison Smith at safety. That makes the secondary the team's biggest spring problem – and that was before four-star early enrollee Tee Shepard bolted barely two months into his college career. Notre Dame's secondary wasn't great last season, and it's hard to imagine it coming close to that productivity this season. Juniors Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson are the favorites at cornerback, but neither has started a game. They need to prove they can handle the job this spring. Fifth-year Jamoris Slaughter could be great at safety and senior Zeke Motta is talented, but there's little quality depth behind them.
On the spot: QB Tommy Rees. Rees, a junior, enters spring ball with no job security despite starting 16 games the past two seasons. The Irish offense foundered almost all of last season, cratering in the Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State. The Irish since have changed offensive coordinators. Look for Notre Dame to change quarterbacks, too, even if that change doesn't happen until the season. Rees doesn't have the athletic ability to extend plays and doesn't have the arm strength to throw deep (one 40-yard completion last season). Without WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame probably needs a new quarterback to make the offense go.
On the verge: WR DaVaris Daniels. He arrived at Notre Dame as more of an athlete than a wide receiver. After a redshirt year spent in the weight room and learning the position, Daniels - the son of former NFL defensive lineman Phillip Daniels - should be ready to contribute. The Irish return just four touchdown catches at the receiver spot and lack a game-breaking athlete. Notre Dame needs Daniels to at least partially fill that role as a deep threat who can go up and get jump balls. He has the bloodlines and the potential to do it.
General overview: Kelly won't go a day during spring practice without being asked about his quarterbacks, but don't look for him to definitively answer. There's too much ground to cover with Rees, Hendrix, Golson and Kiel. What Kelly can get accomplished is letting new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin put his fingerprints on the offense. Martin has talked about being more vertical in the passing game and adding more power to the rushing attack. With a shuffled offensive staff (not a single coach returns in the same position as last season), installing the system might be more important than picking the players who run it.
For in-depth coverage of Notre Dame athletics, go to IrishIllustrated.com
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- Brian Kelly
- Tommy Rees