Spring practice is done and we've got a shade over three months until we're thrown even so much as a practice report. That means we have 13 weeks to parse, dissect, and beat to death every conceivable question that still exists after the spring. Here's what I'm still mulling over after a full week to reflect upon the Blue-Gold Game.
Has Dayne Crist Really Made Significant Strides?
All spring practice reports that came out of the Loftus Center echoed the sentiment that Dayne Crist was much more comfortable with the offense. The logical result of that comfort level rising would of course be a noticeably more poised and confident Crist in the spring scrimmage.
Unfortunately, that's not what fans saw.
Many of the same problems that plagued him last fall (like bouncing balls short of open receivers) reappeared last Saturday. His final stat line was subpar (5-of-11 for 34 yards) and there was little that happened on the field that suggested significant progress had been achieved.
You can blame the weather and you can dismiss the poor performance as insignificant, but the fact remains until he shows a leap in consistency on the field there will be questions surrounding whether he can get the job done.
What Role Will Aaron Lynch Play?
A fun one to ponder! There's no question Aaron Lynch's stellar performance was the biggest story of the spring game. He blew by offensive linemen with a combination of speed, quickness and strength that Irish fans haven't seen in quite some time.
There is no doubt he will make an impact come fall, but the big question is how? The Irish have two multi-year starters (Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson) plugged in at the end positions of the 3-4 and the likelihood of Lynch displacing them on the lineup card seems slim. At the same time, Lynch is such a prodigious talent that it's going to be borderline impossible keeping him off the field.
Smart money says that on every clear passing down, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will unleash Lynch on the opposing offense. Will that be it though? Will he pick up his responsibilities and learn the nuances of the position quick enough that he'll push for playing time on every down? Could he do the seemingly unthinkable and just completely bump one of the upperclassmen from the starting lineup?
There are plenty of questions pertaining to Lynch this fall. Irish fans will certainly enjoy sitting back and watching them get answered by No. 19.
How Many Games Will Michael Floyd Miss?
The big question after the season was whether Notre Dame would get Michael Floyd back for his senior season. Entering spring practice it became whether or not Floyd would even get the chance to make good on his pledge to play another year for the Irish. Finally, we've arrived at the final question: when will he be allowed to return?
The Irish offense is a different animal with Floyd on the field. He's a gamebreaker that defenses must account and game-plan for on every snap. Without him there isn't a player on the Notre Dame roster that strikes fear in the opposition.
Notre Dame's disciplinary arm is not preventing Floyd from playing any games; if or when he returns is completely up to head coach Brian Kelly. Will the head coach hold him out for one game, multiple games or will he determine he's paid his dues and doesn't require any missed playing time?
That's a giant question that will hang over the team's head until the moment it's announced he's eligible again.
Who Will Win the Punting Job?
After a maddeningly inconsistent sophomore campaign (understatement), Ben Turk entered the spring with a bit of competition from freshly enrolled Kyle Brindza. Both kicked well in the spring game (Brindza averaged 42.7 per kick; Turk 40.0), but who will ultimately win this battle?
Turk has a bevy of experience and has gotten better and better at getting the ball away quickly, he just has tendency to mix in at least one god-awful punt each game amongst his good ones. Brindza has a booming leg but that's only half the battle—something to which former punter Geoff Price can attest.
Will Turk fulfill his promise and seize the job or will Kelly choose to turn over a new leaf at the position? This job is the incumbent's to lose, but it's definitely something worth monitoring moving forward.
Can Cierre Wood Handle the Load at Running Back?
Wood did a phenomenal job filling in at starting running back once Armando Allen was lost for the season. He tag-teamed with Robert Hughes to give the Irish an effective running game that had been lacking for years.
Now the starting position is all Wood's, but he doesn't have Robert Hughes as a battery mate. Jonas Gray moves into the backup role, supposed to play thunder to Wood's lightning, and behind them is only an incoming 3-star freshman. The Irish are extremely thin at the position and there are serious questions as to whether Jonas Gray can be an effective and consistent complement to the starter.
What this means is that Wood must shoulder the majority of the load. Will he be able to handle it physically? Can the Irish lean on him for 15-20 carries per game and not have to worry about him getting too banged up? Those are things Armando Allen was unable to do—whether Cierre is able to will be a huge question this fall.
Can Prince Shembo Hold Off Danny Spond at DOG Linebacker?
Prince Shembo burst onto the scene in the later stages of the 2010 season, registering 3.5 sacks once his role grew thanks to injury problems among the linebackers. He was employed primarily as a pass rusher, put in on obvious passing downs to attack the quarterback.
This year he's slated to start at the DOG outside linebacker position, but he's not going to hold onto it without a stellar effort. Fellow classmate Danny Spond is hot on Shembo's heels for the starting spot and after a stellar performance in the Blue-Gold game; it may be down to the bitter end before a decision is reached.
This is a perfect example of the benefits of accumulating depth. In years past, the Irish have been forced to put all their eggs in a single player's basket and hope he effectively filled a starting role. Now they have two viable options that have both done an outstanding job in their first shot at earning a job on the first unit.
Will Shembo be able to hold off the hard-charging Spond? It's a tough question, but chances are they'll both be seeing plenty of playing time regardless of who wins the label of "starter."
How Expansive a Role Will Hendrix and Golson Play?
There's a very high probability that the starting nod at quarterback will go to either Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees. However, Brian Kelly has been very explicit saying that one of his young, mobile quarterbacks will see time each game as a change of pace. The big question is how much time will it be?
Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix both present a different set of skills than Crist and Rees. While they're equipped with strong arms and are perfectly capable of slinging the ball around, Golson and Hendrix are running threats that add a completely new dimension to the Irish offense.
Finding a way to work them into games without disrupting the flow of the "normal" offense is going to be extremely tricky. Will they be used to kick-start the offense when it's struggling? Will Kelly only insert them in red-zone situations to keep the opposing defense unbalanced in the shadow of its own goalposts?
Many fans have the winner of the Golson-Hendrix battle pegged as the "future" of the ND quarterback position. It will be extremely interesting to monitor just how successful they are in their limited playing time and how quickly that future arrives if they find great success.
How Will Brian Kelly Use Theo Riddick?
After converting from running back to slot receiver the spring Brian Kelly arrived, Theo Riddick encountered some speed bumps at the beginning of the 2010 campaign. There were some drops in the Purdue and Michigan games, but for the most part he was a ghost and many speculated a move back to the backfield was imminent.
Then against Michigan State Riddick busted out. He snared a game-high 10 catches for 128 yards and exhibited just how dangerous a weapon he was capable of being out of the slot receiver position. Injuries derail the second half of his season, but he seemed poised to grow into his role as threat in Kelly's spread offense with another spring practice under his belt.
Then Armando Allen and Robert Hughes graduated. The Irish struck out in recruiting the highly touted Savon Huggins, Cameron Roberson was lost for the season and Jonas Gray was banged up. At one point in spring practice there was a single healthy scholarship running back on the entire roster (C. Wood).
Would Riddick be shifted back to running back due to the attrition? Brian Kelly certainly did his part to fuel the flames when he said in an interview this spring that the move was an option they were considering.
Ideally, Riddick has found his home at receiver, but will necessity send him back to his original position? Is an alternative a steady dose of jet sweeps from the slot? He's one of the most dangerous threats on the offensive side of the ball right now so it will be very interesting to watch exactly how Kelly chooses to utilize him come the fall.
How Balanced Will Brian Kelly's Playcalling Be?
Many of the Irish faithful were delighted to see Brian Kelly's shift in offensive philosophy down the stretch of last season. Once Tommy Rees took the reins in the Utah game, Notre Dame relied on a much steadier dose of running plays instead of the aerial assaults they'd launched in the first nine games of the season.
The reasoning behind Kelly's decision to adapt was a desire to relieve some of the pressure from the true freshman and put the onus more on the hogs up front. The offensive line responded and exceeded most fans' expectations, clearing the way for the most productive Notre Dame running game in what seemed like ages. In fact, it was the bruising ground attack that spurred the game-winning drive against Southern Cal when the Irish were completely unable to move the ball through the air.
Now that Dayne Crist is once again healthy and Tommy Rees has an entire year in the offense under his belt, will Kelly go back to the pass-first offensive persona or stick with the more balanced attack that was so effective in the final four games? There's a big chunk of Notre Dame nation crossing their fingers hoping for the latter, but Kelly's history seems to suggest he'll be much more interested in airing it out.
Which direction will he go? It's a question that can't be answered until we see with our own eyes on September 3.
Who Will Get the Starting Nod at Quarterback?
Here's the biggest question on every Irish fan's mind: who will take the field and be behind center the first offensive series of 2011? Both had mediocre-to-poor spring games, which helped maintain the status quo of a cloudy picture.
The arguments for both sides have been stated and restated, then rephrased and restated again. We're perfectly aware of the positives and negatives both bring to the table with a nice sample size to judge the accomplishments and shortcomings of each. Rehashing them here would be redundant.
Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees will answer this question on the practice field this August. Who will be more consistent day in and day out? Who will show more progress over the course of the next four-plus months?
While it may be frustrating to fans that they can't pinpoint the clear choice at this point in the game, it's reassuring to know that Brian Kelly gets to choose between two capable quarterbacks that have both proven they can effectively run the offense. This is a sharp contrast to the 2007 disaster where Charlie Weis was essentially forced to pick his poison between four quarterbacks who had never taken a meaningful snap.
The 2011 situation isn't necessarily an ideal one, but it certainly could be worse.