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Spring practice preview: Notre Dame

Competition all around for Fighting Irish as coach Kelly begins first spring in South Bend. Dave Miller

Print This March 27, 2010, 09:03 AM EST

Notre Dame Fighting Irish
2009: 6-6

Notre Dame opened spring practice on Friday with a new face of the program and without quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate — their two bright spots in an otherwise disappointing 2009 season. It may be fitting that the two stars are gone, however, as new head coach Brian Kelly is determined to change the culture in South Bend. The pro prospects of skill players will be the least of Kelly’s concerns, and he wants his players focused on the task at hand at all times: winning.

“Their attention to detail is not where it needs to be,” Kelly said Tuesday, following a speaking engagement. “Their discipline is not where it needs to be. They need to care about themselves and their football players a lot more. I'm tired of hearing about the next NFL player coming out of Notre Dame, quite frankly.”

The focus and discipline that Kelly expects out of his players will be practiced throughout spring camp, with competition between every player at each position providing the perfect means to an end. At the end of spring, Kelly will know which players are up to the challenge of meeting his high expectations.

The Irish, however, should already be aware of Kelly’s championship standards after the March 5 meeting on the practice field in the snow — at 5 a.m. — and again on March 17.

When Kelly reiterated that every player on the roster is competing for a starting job, he meant it — and that includes expected starting quarterback Dayne Crist. But Crist should be up to the challenge, and he’ll be aided by the fact that his recovery from ACL surgery is going well, which Kelly confirmed on Tuesday. Crist, a sophomore who is the only experienced signal-caller on the roster, is ready to stave off his competitors this spring — especially knowing that Kelly has no problem shuffling quarterbacks in and out. It worked at Cincinnati, and Kelly would make it work in South Bend.

At this point, however, Crist doesn’t have to concern himself too much with ND’s depth at quarterback. Early enrollee Tommy Rees, who along with wide receiver Tai-ler Jones and cornerbacks Lo Wood and Spencer Boyd are already on campus, will definitely get his share of reps, particularly in contact drills as Crist will most likely be off limits as he completes his recovery. But as talented as Rees is, Kelly would love to see junior walk-on Nate Montana push Crist because of his experience at junior college. Wide receiver John Goodman may even take some snaps under center during drills. Once summer arrives, however, ND will receive reinforcements in the form of signees Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa, along with potential position-switchers Derek Roback and Danny Spond. With the quarterback position crucial in Kelly’s offense, whoever is under center for the opener in September will assuredly be the best prepared of the bunch.

While depth under center may not be on display this spring, the backfield will be loaded with talent. The question is how much Kelly will try to establish a consistent rushing attack. Because he wants both Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood on the field at the same time, Kelly moved Riddick to slot receiver to play opposite Michael Floyd. Wood, however, will likely have to earn backup reps with Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray as Armando Allen will return as the primary tailback. Of course, keep in mind what Kelly said about competition — all positions are essentially open.

“It's important to get our playmakers on the field,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. “We also have to open up space for (running back) Cierre Wood. We believe (Riddick) has the ability to catch the football at the line of scrimmage and make big plays for us, and it gets Cierre Wood into the football game. It has a double-pronged effect.”

Since the spread is ideal for backs who can create in space, Allen and Wood should be the most successful if given the opportunities to carry the rock. While Allen has the talent to be a go-to guy, he has yet to break off a run of 30-plus yards in his career. Can he finally deliver on his potential?

The value of wide receiver Michael Floyd can’t be overstated, as we saw — as good as Golden Tate was — just how much the Irish missed Floyd when he went down last year. But without Tate opposite him this season, Floyd will need his fellow wideouts to step up. Riddick could be a poor man’s Tate, but Shaquelle Evans and Deion Walker’s development will be worth monitoring this camp as the team heads toward the annual Blue-Gold Game on April 24. Evans didn’t have much of an impact last season after being a highly ranked recruit, but he’s one of the more physically gifted receivers on the Irish roster. Walker arrived in South Bend in the same class as Floyd but hasn’t seen the field too often — and his chances of making an impact may be running out with Goodman and the incoming freshmen ready to seize their opportunity.

As much as the discussion around Notre Dame centers on Crist, the rushing attack and the new offensive scheme, the Irish are going nowhere unless the defense is shored up — and in a hurry. New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco arrived with Kelly from Cincy, and the 36-year-old’s task will be to retool a defense that ranked 86th in the nation in total defense (398 ypg) and 89th against the run (170 ypg) in 2009. While Diaco will bring the 3-4 scheme to South Bend, he stresses that improvement will be achieved because of discipline and accountability more so than X’s and O’s.

Last November was not kind to the Irish, as Navy, Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Stanford ran all over the defense to slowly, yet methodically, kill off the Charlie Weis era. Without a more stout rush defense in the fall, Kelly will know exactly how Weis felt every Saturday.

With nose tackle being the most pivotal part of the 3-4, all eyes will be on Ian Williams. He was a backup nose tackle in the 3-4 in ‘07 and showed promise but did not excel at defensive tackle in the 4-3 the last few seasons. Diaco will look for him to lead a revamped effort on the line, which includes Ethan Johnson and promising end Kapron Lewis-Moore, who could emerge as a household name in the fall.

Linebacker Manti Te’o is already a household name, and the sophomore should excel even further in the new scheme and anchor what could be the strongest part of the defensive unit. In the opening practice on Friday, Te’o was calling out Diaco’s signals to fellow linebackers Brian Smith, David Posluszny and Darius Fleming. Keep an eye on outside linebacker Steve Filer and inside linebacker Anthony McDonald, as well, as this athletic group has really seemed to embrace the change in schemes.

While the secondary was hit hard by graduation, most Irish fans will not complain. New blood, particularly at cornerback, will be a welcome addition, and Harrison Smith will finish his ND career at strong safety — which should allow him to use his athleticism to make plays. Keep an eye on free safety Jamoris Slaughter, too, as he tries to crack the starting lineup.

With all the banquets and press tours behind him, Brian Kelly finally gets his chance to see his Notre Dame roster up close this spring, and there are plenty of storylines to get any Fighting Irish fan riled up months before an actual game is played. With competition being the buzzword at Irish camp, ND Nation should not expect any let up. And if there is, it will simply be “next-man-in.”

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