Biggest Storylines Heading into Notre Dame's Fall Camp
With training camp a week away, the Notre Dame football season is finally upon us.
After a star-crossed 2013 season went awry in the spring with the surprise suspension of quarterback Everett Golson, Notre Dame fell short of their lofty goals as injuries struck All-American candidates Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix and chipped away at the offensive line.
But the 9-4 season is in the rearview mirror. And so is a lot of talent—Tuitt, Nix and captains Zack Martin, TJ Jones and Bennett Jackson are in NFL training camps, among the eight Irish players drafted.
Yet the cupboard is hardly bare in South Bend. Brian Kelly has plenty of talent, but the Irish are young and inexperienced.
That makes fall camp crucial, as an August 30 date with Rice is right around the corner. With Golson and a lot of young offensive talent back, expectations are once again sky-high.
Let's run through the biggest storylines heading into Notre Dame's fall camp.
Will Brian Kelly's Offense Score Points Like It Did at Cincinnati?
When Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly, they thought they were bringing in another offensive guru. At Cincinnati, Kelly's Bearcat offense finished in the top 20 in scoring twice, averaging over 35 points a game in two of his three seasons.
The Irish have yet to get close to that number in Kelly's four seasons in South Bend, getting to 28 points per game just once and only finishing in the top 50 once. But with depth and talent at every skill position, many believe this is the season that the Irish offense will explode.
With Everett Golson back on campus, Kelly finally has a quarterback who can physically handle his spread attack. With backup Malik Zaire, the Irish have another gifted dual-threat quarterback who won't need a specialty package built around his physical limitations.
From the moment Kelly arrived in South Bend, he's talked about moving the Irish offense at pace, using an uptempo attack that's helped power teams like Oregon and Auburn. It has yet to happen.
But with a reboot of the offense and a return to the spread concepts Kelly ran at Cincinnati and Central Michigan, Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock can finally pick up the pace to try and challenge opposing defenses, especially with the zone-read now an option.
After turning over play-calling duties to Chuck Martin the past two seasons, Kelly will return to the call sheet from the sidelines. But after leaning on the defense in his first four seasons, can the Irish offense finally pick up the slack?
Is Everett Golson Ready to Dominate?
The last time we saw Everett Golson take snaps that mattered, he was running for his life against Alabama in the BCS title game. In a one-sided loss to the Crimson Tide, Golson actually played one of his better games, completing 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards while throwing and running for a touchdown.
For as disappointing as Notre Dame's performance was on college football's biggest stage, the future looked very bright for the Irish with Golson at quarterback. Leading the Irish to an undefeated regular season, Golson did something very rare: win games while learning on the fly.
But sitting out the 2013 season threw Golson's career trajectory off course. And even though he spent much of the season training with George Whitfield, he came back to campus needing to learn and do more to be the quarterback Brian Kelly needed.
"He recognizes that in his first year here at Notre Dame he had training wheels on and we played to the strength of our defense,” Kelly told Jack Arute on SiriusXM College Sports Nation (h/t NBC Sports) this spring. "Then he took a year off, and then when he came here, he didn’t know as much as he thought he did. So that’s a real positive thing for a young man to come in and know that he’s got a lot more to learn as it relates to the quarterback position.
"He certainly has so much more developing to do. And I think that’s what he recognized. This isn’t just getting back to where I was, this is, boy, I need to get so much better."
Put simply, Notre Dame needs Golson to be the best player on the football field. Most people think he's capable. Now he's got to prove it.
Can Brian VanGorder Quickly Rebuild a Young Defense?
Brian Kelly surprised some people when he brought Brian VanGorder in to run his defense. VanGorder had spent the better part of the last decade in the NFL, outside of two short (and unsatisfactory) stints in college football: one season as head coach at Georgia Southern and one season coordinating Auburn's defense.
But after spending four seasons building the foundation of the Irish defense under Bob Diaco, Kelly thought VanGorder was the perfect man for the job.
VanGorder represents quite a contrast from Diaco. While Diaco stressed basic principles, VanGorder's system is built around aggression and attacking via scheme change. Spring was spent learning a new system and new positions for a handful of important contributors.
Kelly's gamble on VanGorder is the biggest roll of the dice of the offseason. Needing to replace five starters in the front seven, installing VanGorder's scheme-heavy defense, filled with sub-packages and pressure concepts, puts a lot on the plates of youngsters who will be contributing for the first time.
From a personnel perspective, Notre Dame lost quite a bit, with multiyear starters Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Bennett Jackson gone. So plugging some big holes and doing so in a completely new system adds an even greater degree of difficulty to the challenge ahead.
NCAA rule changes allowed VanGorder and the defensive staff to work with players this summer on playbook installation and X's and O's. We'll see if that extra time paid dividends as soon as camp opens.
Will One Running Back Emerge from the Pack?
The closest thing Notre Dame's had to a feature back under Brian Kelly is Cierre Wood, who carried the load for the Irish in 2011 before losing primary-ball-carrier duties to Theo Riddick (even Wood almost lost that job to Jonas Gray until Gray tore his ACL).
Last season, the Irish's ground game struggled, primarily because they opened the season trying to find carries for five different backs.
The depth chart has been whittled down. George Atkinson departed early for the NFL, signing as an undrafted free agent with the Oakland Raiders. Amir Carlisle was shifted outside to slot receiver. Only senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant remain at the position.
Fall camp will give us an idea as to how Kelly and Mike Denbrock plan on using this trio. And while some type of committee-based platoon could emerge, for the first time since Wood carried the load in 2011 there's an opportunity for a starter to emerge.
Folston has shown the ability to be an every-down back. Bryant stated his case during the spring game, finally healthy after a lingering knee injury forced a medical redshirt. Cam McDaniel led the Irish in rushing attempts and yards, and he isn't likely to give up those opportunities easily.
In the past, the offensive staff tried to situationally utilize each back, playing away from their weaknesses. In our limited viewings, both Folston and Bryant have the all-around game to render that unnecessary.
With a strong offensive line in front of them and a weapon at quarterback capable of running as well, the ground game is poised to explode. We'll see if it's one back carrying the load or another season of committee-based efforts.
Are Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell Truly Elite Defenders?
Both KeiVarae Russell and Jaylon Smith enter camp with lofty expectations heaped on their shoulders. We'll see if that's just preseason hype or well-earned respect.
Last week, we tackled the challenge in front of Russell. He'll face a Murderer's Row of wide receivers, as nine receivers on the Biletnikoff Watch List play the Irish this year. And with Bob Diaco's Cover 2 scheme gone in favor of Brian VanGorder's man-coverage base, we'll know pretty soon whether or not Russell is the elite playmaker the Irish staff believes they have.
In Smith, the Irish have an inarguable talent. After playing the drop-outside linebacker in Diaco's scheme last season, Smith has shifted inside to the middle of the action, giving him the opportunity to put up prodigious stats.
The fact that Smith is the team's leading returning tackler is promising. But considering he filled the stat sheet from a position that notoriously does things that stay out of the box score is a testament to Smith's elite skill set. (A year after Danny Spond made only 39 tackles in 11 games at the Dog linebacker spot, Smith's 67 tackles give you an idea how his athleticism added a new dimension to the job.)
Last week, we looked at Brian VanGorder's Georgia defenses to see if they could give us a clue as to how the Irish will attack opponents. Linebackers Tony Gilbert and Odell Thurman both put up big numbers on their way to All-SEC campaigns, a sign that Smith—who won't come off the field for the Irish—is in line for a 100-tackle season and the opportunity to make a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage.
One thing is certain: Notre Dame will need both defenders to play up to the hype. As the defense relies on a new generation, both Russell and Smith need to lead the way.
Can Youth Lead This Team into the Playoff Hunt?
Looking for veteran leadership to emerge in 2014? Keep looking. Notre Dame will win or lose based on the young talent on the roster.
Junior KeiVarae Russell is the team's most experienced defender. Seniors Everett Golson and DaVaris Daniels are expected to put a lot on their shoulders, but both have eligibility remaining after 2014.
The offensive skill on the roster is almost all young. Sophomores Will Fuller and Corey Robinson are X-factors at receiver, while second-year running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant both have star potential. The Irish need big contributions from this group and are unable to wait for the maturation process to take place.
Defensively, youth will get every opportunity to win jobs. Outside of veterans Austin Collinsworth and Ishaq Williams, talent like incoming freshman Nyles Morgan and sophomores Max Redfield and Cole Luke will determine Notre Dame's ability to take a step forward after a nine-win season.
Against a difficult schedule, the challenge is steep. But after strong recruiting classes, we'll see if a young roster can live up to the billing.