Notre Dame football: Never too early to peek ahead

ANALYSIS

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

During his Tuesday press conference, one of the questions posed to Brian Kelly about quarterback Tommy Rees included the word “legacy.”

Something like that typically means a senior’s career is winding down, which means a season is winding down, which gives a plausible reason to peel back the curtain on next year.

Don’t, however, expect Kelly to be tossing around specific thoughts on what next year’s team will look like, not with a BCS bowl berth in his crosshairs.

But that doesn’t mean those thoughts can’t come from the press box. Here are five that come to mind:

What will the defensive line look like?

The known is that defensive end/nose guard Kona Schwenke will be gone, and Kelly said this week that ND’s utility player along the line is catching the attention of NFL scouts. Schwenke has been a jack-of-all-trades for the Irish, filling in first for Sheldon Day at end and recently at nose guard for Louis Nix.

Nix, a senior, retains a fifth year of eligibility, but all indications are that he’ll enter the NFL Draft.

Stephon Tuitt, like Nix a projected first-round pick, is a junior and recently told the student newspaper that he will return for his senior year but later backpedaled and will evaluate his situation at the end of the year.

Is it out of the question that he comes back? Absolutely not, not with the track record Kelly has of players returning for their senior years at ND — including Michael Floyd, Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert. But would anyone bet a week’s salary that Tuitt returns? Didn’t think so.

If that’s the scenario, it leaves Day as the lone returning starter, with a number of players — none of them the caliber of Tuitt or Nix — figuring to battle for spots.

The two that immediately come to mind are freshman Isaac Rochell and redshirt freshman Jarron Jones, the two players listed this season as the backup ends. Of the two, Rochell has been more impressive.

Two players who are out this season with injuries also will factor into the equation — Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann. Hounshell, who hasn’t played since 2011 because of shoulder problems, is back practicing but will not play this year, which will preserve the possibility of a sixth year. Springmann, a top backup last year, suffered a knee injury in fall camp, and Kelly said recently that the sophomore is still early on in the rehab process.

Next year is when that the Eddie Vanderdoes transfer stings. Vanderdoes, who has played in all seven games this year at UCLA, has 29 tackles, including 3½ for loss and has half a sack. In short, he would have started next year at ND, and there’s a chance he would have this year.

Last year’s line was a strength of the team. This year’s, while not as stout, is improving.

What will next year’s look like?

How will the expected return of Everett Golson impact the offense?

Rees has played extremely well recently. He’s evolved into a leader. His name will appear in the school record books when he leaves.

But while it must be pointed out that Kelly and the staff have done a masterful job in getting a lot out of a physically limited quarterback, let’s also point out that Rees was ticketed to be Golson’s backup until the latter was suspended from school.

Golson was surging in the second half of last season, and his development had Irish fans salivating over what this offense could become under him, an accurate and improving passer who has the ability to keep alive plays that should have ended with sacks.

Golson will have rust to remove, but the fact that he’s spent a significant amount of time with QB guru George Whitfield Jr., will help. So too will spring football.

The left side of the offensive line will be rebuilt. TJ Jones won’t be around. There’s uncertainty in the running game — although the parts appear to be there.

Golson’s return will give Kelly more options with the offense. If you don’t think so, ask yourself this: Is it inconceivable that the Irish are unbeaten right now if Golson is the quarterback?

How does that running back rotation shake out?

This looks like one of those good problems to have. In short, good teams (i.e. Alabama and USC back in the day) have an abundance of backs. While it’s not to say that ND’s current crop of backs is akin to those groups, the Irish do have talent there.

It’s hard to imagine Cam McDaniel — a guy who has good vision, reads blocks well and simply gets yards — not being part of the equation. He’s a lot more productive than he is flashy, and production is what wins ballgames.

Tarean Folston has looked the part, and Kelly said he liked the way he ran in last Saturday’s win over Air Force. Yes, Kelly said, there are little things to clean up, but the coach was overall pleased.

With Greg Bryant redshirting, the need for a running back in the current recruiting cycle lessened. Bryant was one of the big-name members of the current freshman class, and he too figures to be a prominent member of next year’s rotation.

That leaves seniors-to-be George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle, both of whom have had opportunities, neither of whom has been able to seize.

Atkinson was in sweats at the end of last Saturday’s game, and Carlisle has seen his involvement decrease.

Atkinson had a season-high 18 carries in the Arizona State win, but in the two games since, he’s been handed the ball 14 times combined.

Since carrying 11 times in the Purdue game, a game in which he fumbled in the fourth quarter, Carlisle has had 14 total carries in the next five games.

Last year, the running game helped power the Irish offense while Golson found his way, and that running game included a lot of Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, with a sprinkling of Atkinson.

Is that the best answer — two workhorses and a home run hitter, like it was last year? Expect Kelly to be asked running back questions at least once or twice (a week) when next year begins to come into focus.

What does the inside linebacker corps look like?

The two current starters — Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox — are fifth-year seniors. The guy who pushed his way into a starting role — Jarrett Grace — suffered a broken leg last month. There are questions here, and the answers aren’t easy. And there don’t appear to be any Manti Te’os in the mix.

A return to health by Grace would provide an easy answer, and the recovery time is expected to be four-to-six months. Still, it was a major injury, and what the injury does to Grace’s speed won’t be known until he returns to the field.

Former walk-on Joe Schmidt has filled in admirably, most notably in the win over USC. This is a guy who had offers but chose to walk-on at ND, so he can’t be overlooked.

Senior Kendall Moore retains a fifth-year option, and it won’t be shocking if he’s back. He’s been mostly a special teams performer, but he would be an experienced option who would add depth, much like current fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton has done along the defensive line this year. His strength is in the run game, but a known and experienced player can’t be dismissed.

Among the current freshmen, redshirting Michael Deeb figures to be the best option inside with Doug Randolph possibly a candidate. And among the recruits, Greer Martini is the one most likely ticketed to play inside. The Irish remain in the hunt for Chicago-area standout Nyles Morgan.

Like the defensive line, this is a position that could use an infusion of talent.

Who’s the left tackle?

Zack Martin hasn’t been as close to perfect this season as he was in 2012, but he’s still one of the best left tackles in the country. And one who only has four more regular-season games in his ND career.

The current freshman class was considered heavy in tackles, and there are strong candidates to replace Martin.

The most obvious is Steve Elmer, the top reserve this season who moved in at right guard after senior Christian Lombard underwent season-ending back surgery. Elmer was one of the talks of camp and is progressing well.

Another option is to move sophomore Ronnie Stanley, from right tackle to left tackle. Stanley hasn’t been perfect, but he’s done well enough to retain his starting job, and he looks like a fixture along the line for the next couple of years.

Another option? Massive true freshman Mike McGlinchey — likely redshirting despite making the trip to Air Force — is a guy that figures to work his way onto the two-deep next year. He’s considered a guy with a high ceiling, and someone to remember.

Another stellar group of freshmen is on the way, and, unlike some of the other positions, there are strong and viable options here.

BWieneke@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @BobWienekeNDI

South Bend Tribune/JAMES BROSHER Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks with quarterback Everett Golson (5) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, in Norman, Okla. via FTP