Subzero temperatures and a fresh batch of snow hit South Bend again in a winter that won't end. But spring practice is here anyway.
Notre Dame took to their new synthetic turf inside the Loftus complex for two practices this week, kicking off workouts earlier than Brian Kelly can ever remember. With new coordinators on both sides of the ball, Everett Golson back on campus and some position battles that might need more than spring to sort, let's take a run through our Week 1 spring practice stock report.
All Eyes on Golson
Everett Golson addressed a horde of media on Monday, his first official comments since returning to campus. To say that he looked like a new man would be completely accurate—Golson's carrying 15 more pounds of muscle on his frame than he played with in 2012.
He also showed the added maturity many hoped he'd gain when he was forced to step away from campus after an academic Honor Code violation, which Golson acknowledged came from cheating on a test. After battling shame and embarrassment as he watched his teammates play without him last season, Golson has come out a better man.
"I regret it in a sense, but I think it allowed me to grow so much," Golson said Monday. "My maturity level is completely different now. I had some time to sit back and really think on what I did and how I can move forward from that. I think I’m a different person because of it."
With the past addressed, spring practice will be critical for Golson as he turns into the leader of this offense. Gone are nine of the team's 10 leading receivers from the 2012 team. Also graduated are team captains Zack Martin and TJ Jones, leaving a leadership void that'd be best filled by the team's quarterback.
On Monday, Golson talked about his teammates' and coaches' open arms, not to mention the student body and his professors already embracing him. That's made the transition back easy.
"I don’t feel the pressure," Golson said. "I feel it’s more of a platform for me. That’s where I want to be. I want to have that leadership role to lead these guys to victory."
VanGorder's Defense a True Wild Card
We spent a whole lot of time talking about Brian VanGorder's new defense and what it means for Notre Dame. What we didn't talk about is the installation process and how that turns spring practice into another classroom for Irish defenders.
Forget the different terminology. Multiple players are learning new positions. New responsibilities are breathing new life into careers in South Bend.
Former walk-on Joe Schmidt seems to be one of the early beneficiaries of VanGorder's potential transition to a 4-man front. Schmidt lined up with the first team defense at inside linebacker in the team's opening practice.
"I’m trying to set the pace and do everything I can to make us the best defense in the country or the best defense we can be," Schmidt told BlueandGold.com. "I’m definitely comfortable in that role. It’s something I’m trying to do right now."
At a shade over six feet, Schmidt's lack of height kept him from excelling in Bob Diaco's 3-4 system. But Schmidt's speed and ability to track sideline to sideline could give him the inside track over veteran Kendall Moore and rising sophomore Michael Deeb.
While access has been limited, UND.com's practice reports have featured impressive work by Chase Hounshell and Anthony Rabasa, two senior defensive linemen who have yet to make an impact in their careers in South Bend.
Hounshell has had two major shoulder injuries derail his career. Rabasa has mostly been a tweener, not quite big enough to play defensive end in Diaco's system and not quite long enough to be an outside linebacker. He's bounced around but looks like he'll settle in at defensive end.
With sub-packages and exotic twists, specialty personnel could go a long way to replacing some key contributors from last year's defense. While it's been tough to say goodbye, the new system has been rejuvenating.
"We miss them. They were awesome," Schmidt said of Diaco's departure and the veterans who have graduated. "They were a part of our brotherhood, but now it’s a little bit different dynamic. Different faces and different guys in a leadership role. It’s been a fun winter workout and start to spring."
Two Weeks Away Can Be an Eternity
In Brian Kelly's 25 years as a coach, he's never had a spring schedule quite like this. So after two practice sessions, the Irish will break for two weeks, with the university going on spring break.
Nothing good even happens from a coach's perspective when his players head to warm climates and blow off some steam. But Kelly's trusting his team to take advantage of the break from school, but also stay prepared, as there is plenty of work to be done.
"I'm okay with them leaving. But they also know, we don't have a lot of guys that if you look across the board, really, and say, 'That's my position and nobody can beat me out,'" Kelly said. "We don't have that. Last year maybe we had it and the year before.
"But they know that they better be ready to come back, ready to go. We knew what our schedule was about a month ago, so they know what they needed to do. They get away from the university, but they have to be sharp when they come back."
If any profession knows how to turn lemons into lemonade, it's coaches. So instead of looking at this break as a momentum killer, it's a great opportunity to self scout and evaluate.
For Kelly and VanGorder, it's an opportunity to evaluate their installation. For Mike Denbrock, it's a chance to connect with his play-caller and boss. New quarterback coach Matt LaFleur can catch his breath as he refines coaching points for Golson and Malik Zaire.
So while hitting the brakes and sending your team to Temptation Island isn't necessarily ideal, it's something Kelly understands comes with the territory.
"That's one of the things that you've got to do when you trust your team," Kelly said. "That they understand how important it is for them to get some time away, but be ready to go when they come back, as well."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
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