March 18, 2015 - Dave Miller
Notre Dame spring preview
Follow @Miller_Dave Notre Dame opens spring football on Wednesday, as Brian Kelly begins preparing for his sixth year as head coach in South Bend. Fans of the Fighting Irish will almost certainly be focused on the quarterback position, as veteran Everett Golson looks to reclaim the starting gig after left-hander Malik Zaire replaced him in the regular-season finale against USC and started the team's 31-28 Music City Bowl win over LSU. We saw both signal-callers play against the Tigers in the postseason, but are Kelly and the Irish willing to employ a two-quarterback system in 2015? Let's take a look at the most intriguing storylines that will at least begin to play out this spring before bleeding into the fall. — The quarterback battle: Golson and Zaire will be at the forefront of spring and fall camp. Golson recorded 37 touchdowns but also 22 turnovers last year, while Zaire 'wowed' at times in Nashville against the Bayou Bengals. Kelly said on Tuesday that he is unsure of how long it will take to name a starter, but he noted that Golson has fully bought into competing for the starting gig after rumors surfaced that he would look to transfer and play elsewhere after graduating from ND in May. Kelly is looking for Golson to better protect the football, while he wants Zaire to sharpen his dedication and leadership skills in practices. Both will also be looking to improve their mechanics. — New-look offense?: Kelly was not happy with the team's production on offense last year, so Mike Sanford was brought in to be the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Sanford is considered one of the bright young minds in the college game, and he comes without having a previous link to Kelly, which was not the case when coaches such as Mike Denbrock, Matt LaFleur, Chuck Martin and Charley Molnar all landed jobs in South Bend. There is no doubt that the Irish offense needed a boost after a turnover-laden season in 2014. In his only year as OC at Boise State, Sanford directed the No. 9 scoring offense in the country, and it was a unit that was very balanced (the Broncos ranked 29th in rushing and 23rd in passing nationally). Sanford was also part of three Stanford teams that claimed BCS berths, so he comes with a winning pedigree. The only question is exactly how much control Sanford will possess once the new season begins. Kelly is expected to announce who will call the offensive plays sometime after spring practice ends. — Bryant strives for consistency: Greg Bryant arrived in South Bend with great fanfare, and the Irish would love to have a clear-cut No. 1 back emerge. The former five-star recruit is behind Tarean Folston on the depth chart, but Bryant will certainly have a chance to take on a greater workload. He has shown glimpses of explosiveness, but he must improve in pass protection and become a more patient runner. — Concerns at safety: Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate need to be much more consistent this fall if the Irish want to be a stout defense. Both possess very good physical traits, and the hope is that both of them think much less and rely much more on instincts in their second seasons under coordinator Brian VanGorder. Perhaps new position coach Todd Lyght will provide a spark as well. The duo showed flashes last year, but consistency is needed each and every Saturday. Other notes: — Kelly said cornerback KeiVarae Russell is progressing academically and hopes to be back in school in the summer, but he isn't sure if defensive lineman Ishaq Williams will be back. — The Irish have a great "problem" on their hands in the form of several starting-caliber linebackers. Joe Schmidt is returning from injury, and so is Jarrett Grace, who last played in October 2013. Jaylon Smith and Nyles Morgan are also back, as are versatile 'backers James Onwualu and Greer Martini. Ben Councell, who had a year of eligibility left, decided not to return for another season. — Kelly said he didn't know why Matt Hegarty has chosen to leave South Bend and play elsewhere after he graduates in May. Kelly said he expected Hegarty, who started 11 games last season, to start at left guard. Expect redshirt freshman Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars to now compete for the left guard job. — Cornerback Jalen Brown was not offered a fifth-year of eligibility. — Fifth-year candidate Chase Hounshell has switched from the defensive line to tight end and now wears No. 18. Hounshell has battled injuries throughout his career. — Slot receiver C.J. Prosise is getting a look at running back after showing well as a runner in 2014. Notre Dame has just two scholarship running backs on the spring roster. — Kelly is excited about the team's depth, so expect the Irish to go hard this spring throughout their 15 practices. Dave Miller, the college football editor for the National Football Post, is on Twitter @Miller_Dave.