Notre Dame: Five burning questions for fall camp

Notre Dame: Five burning questions for fall camp
July 31, 2014, 11:45 am
Share This Post

We're under a month until Notre Dame lifts the curtain on the 2014 season against Rice, and the Irish begin fall camp in Culver, Ind., on Monday.

Spring practice gave us a decent indication of the direction in which Notre Dame is heading in 2014, but a few key players were injured in March and April and only two members of the 2014 recruiting class enrolled early. With that in mind, there are still plenty of questions to be answered in August:

1. Who plays quarterback?

It'd be a surprise if Everett Golson doesn't break in the artificial turf at Notre Dame Stadium as the team's starter Aug. 30 against Rice. While coach Brian Kelly declined to name a starter during or after spring practice, all signs point to Golson being the guy this fall.

That doesn't mean Malik Zaire won't push Golson for playing time, but the sophomore hasn't taken a snap at the college level while Golson quarterbacked the Irish during 2012's run to the BCS Championship. Golson has all the tools to be a great quarterback under Kelly and while Zaire's time will come, it's unlikely to be this year.

2. Who's healthy?

The big question mark here is Jarrett Grace, who underwent two operations on a broken leg suffered last October against Arizona State. Kelly said in June that Notre Dame's training staff was being "very aggressive" with Grace's recovery, but couldn't say if the senior inside linebacker would be cleared for activity come August.

If Grace winds up being healthy — maybe not right at the start of the season, but at some point — he'll provide a nice boost of skill and experience to Notre Dame's linebacker corps.

[MORE: Notre Dame unit preview: Linebackers]

Based on Kelly's comments last month, expect defensive lineman Tony Springmann, center Nick Martin and linebacker Ben Councell — all of whom suffered knee injuries in 2013 — to be ready to go for fall camp.

Offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley underwent a minor procedure to clean some things up in his knee in June but wasn't expected to miss much time during summer workouts. And safety Nicky Baratti injured his right shoulder in April's Blue-Gold game, though he's expected to wear a harness and play through the discomfort this season (previously, Baratti had a pair of surgeries on his left shoulder).

3. What kind of defense can we expect?

Notre Dame likely will continue to mix three- and four-man fronts, but the indication coming out of spring practice was more 4-3 than 3-4. But whatever base defense Brian VanGorder deploys, it'll have a much different game plan than in years past under Bob Diaco.

VanGorder's defense features a greater emphasis on aggression, so we'll see more press/man coverage from Irish cornerbacks and more blitzing from sub packages. The upshot, if all goes well: More turnovers and more sacks. It may mean the Irish defense gives up a few more big plays than it did under Diaco, though an increase there probably was inevitable after Notre Dame's defense was among the best at limiting plays of 20 or more yards over the last few years.

4. How does the offensive line shake out?

Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand didn't sound too concerned about the lack of cohesiveness from his unit during spring practice, and that was to be expected — after all, Zack Martin and Chris Watt left for the NFL and Christian Lombard was injured in March.

Heading out of April, the first draft of Notre Dame's offensive line, from left tackle to right, looked like: Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer, Nick Martin, Christian Lombard, Mike McGlinchey. But there's some flexibility there if Hiestand doesn't think McGlinchey, a sophomore who redshirted last season, is ready.

[RELATED: The five most important players for Notre Dame in 2014]

Elmer could slide back into his natural position at right tackle, while Matt Hegarty — who played well in place of Martin at center last year — could slide into a starting role as a guard. Conor Hanratty could take over at left guard, too, pushing Elmer to tackle and McGlinchey out of the starting lineup.

The flexibility isn't a bad thing — it's an indication of how far the depth of this unit has come from 2012 — but expect Hiestand to settle on a concrete starting five about midway through camp.

5. Which freshmen can make an impact?

The obvious answer here is four-star inside linebacker Nyles Morgan, who could get an early chance to prove himself if Grace isn't ready for the early part of the season. Rated as the fifth-best inside linebacker in 2014's recruiting class, Morgan has the ability to play right away as a true freshman. As Kelly put it on signing day: "There's still some competition there that he's got to get through, but his skill set, it's pretty easy to see. That's what a Mike linebacker looks like."

Beyond Morgan, any of Notre Dame's incoming defensive linemen could see playing time this fall. Defensive end Andrew Trumbetti arrived early for spring practice and impressed coaches with his athleticism, while tackles Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes and Pete Mokwuah all have a chance to pass upperclassmen on the depth chart in a 4-3 look.

On offense, freshman receiver Justin Brent got his feet wet during spring practice and could see a few balls thrown his way. And while Notre Dame would prefer to redshirt its four incoming offensive linemen, there's an opportunity for a guy like five-star tackle Quenton Nelson to slide into a starting role if there's an injury along the line at some point.