Analysis: Challenges beyond Notre Dame's QB question

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As the euphoria continued to escalate Tuesday night in the aftermath of Notre Dame becoming the first outsider to hogtie an SEC West team since last Jan. 6, reality about what 2015 might look like for the Irish largely stayed away from the absurd and surreal.

As in, no one’s selling “Glendale or Bust” T-shirts on eBay or Craigslist in ND colors. … Yet.

For those thoroughly grounded in reality, Glendale, Ariz., is the site of next year’s college football national championship game.

And Brian Kelly, as he begins his sixth year as Notre Dame’s head football coach, is saturated in it. The 31-28 conquest of No. 22 LSU Tuesday in the Music City Bowl at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., severely shifted the offseason mood, but not the quantity or the depth of his offseason challenges.

In fact, it may have added one more to the already lengthy list: Can a two-quarterback system work long term?

On Tuesday, it was a flash of brilliance, with sophomore Malik Zaire taking home bowl MVP honors in his first collegiate start, and senior Everett Golson complementing that performance with poise and precision.

Together they knocked LSU out of the No. 1 spot nationally in pass-efficiency defense to No. 3, and out of the top 10 in total defense, sliding from 8 to 11, with 449 total yards from the Irish offense. That’s 134 more than No. 1 Alabama amassed in four quarters and an overtime period against the Tigers, Nov. 8 in Baton Rouge, La.

Over time, though, a QB time-share can go toxic. Even when it works, most coaches use that option reluctantly. And Urban Meyer, the last coach to win a national championship with a QB tag-team (Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida) eight seasons ago, was ready to pull the plug every week through that season.

“It was not something we went into the season planning, because we really didn’t know what we had with Tim,” Meyer, now at Ohio State, said in a 2011 interview with the South Bend Tribune when Kelly was contemplating a two-QB system that season and consulted Meyer about it.

“You don’t know until you get into the game atmosphere, and (Tebow’s) value we learned rather quickly. So it evolved throughout the course of the year.

“It was a very fragile situation and very unique, where if you don’t have character guys that are playing that position, you can see where it could become a locker room issue or become a chemistry issue.”

Yes, Golson could elect to transfer in May — with a Notre Dame degree in hand and without having to sit out a season, because of the grad school waiver rule.

And don’t think ND’s most recent opponent, LSU, or its next, Texas on Sept. 5, wouldn’t become markedly better teams if he explored that option and landed there.

His history, though, suggests just the opposite, that he’ll do whatever it takes to get better and that he’ll fight for his position.

For both Golson and Zaire that means becoming more of a complete QB. Golson must become more comfortable and adept at running read option, and turnovers must become a rarity. Zaire has to become a more refined passer and more consistent in everything he does on and off the field.

Whoever gets there first will have the upper hand in August. All Kelly can do as a coach is be fair, give each QB a real opportunity to prove himself, and not worry about potential bruised egos or transfer possibilities.

Massaging the competitive fires at quarterback into something that actually benefits both players and the team won’t alone raise ND’s trajectory next season.

Here then are the four players whose upcoming offseasons could allow Kelly and the Irish to dream big:

1. Jaylon Smith, linebacker

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound sophomore moved out of his comfort zone on the perimeter for the good of the team this season and into the heart of the Irish defense at weakside linebacker.

How unselfish was that?

Long term, potentially millions of dollars’ worth, because outside linebackers in the NFL tend to get drafted higher and make significantly more money than their inside counterparts.

“Outside linebacker, where he was playing as a freshman, is his best fit in the NFL and his best fit next year in college,” said NFL draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com.

“You want to turn that speed and athleticism loose off the edge, and rush the passer and blitz. And I think it’s fair to say that Jaylon Smith is as physically talented as any player Notre Dame has had in 10-15-20 years.

“He is a freak of an athlete. He has early first-round potential, but probably not as an inside linebacker. There are exceptions — Patrick Willis, Luke Kuechly — but by and large, it’s just not a position teams are going to want to invest in that heavily. And I just think he’s got a much higher upside as a player outside.”

Kelly has waffled recently about whether the coaching staff will take a look at that in the offseason. But the reality is the dearth of healthy/experienced/difference-makers types at inside linebacker, which prompted the move inside in the first place, may reverse itself this offseason.

Freshman Nyles Morgan showed significant growth in December. Team MVP Joe Schmidt should return to form at least by June, if not sooner.

Fellow freshman Greer Martini showed promise in a reserve role and incoming freshmen Te’von Coney and Josh Barajas could be ready to provide depth right away.

Then there’s Jarrett Grace, a starter until midway through the 2013 season. The four fractures he suffered on Oct. 5 that season threatened to truncate his career, but suddenly his comeback found some juice in August.

Meanwhile, the Irish got just 24 tackles from the outside linebacker position, more than 40 fewer than Smith had as a freshman. In fairness, the schemes are different and the strongside linebacker this season was typically the one taken off the field when ND went to its nickel packages.

2. Max Redfield, safety

The sophomore, who lived through a November demotion, in part because viable alternatives vanished, remains a player with All-America potential but also with a propensity to make second-string mistakes.

Both were on display in Tuesday’s Music City Bowl. At least one missed assignment by Redfield resulted in a long LSU touchdown, and you could argue two, but he had 14 of ND’s 57 tackles in the game and finished as ND’s second-leading tackler on the season with 68, behind only Smith.

Of the four safeties ND lost at varying points in the season — Austin Collinsworth, Nicky Baratti, Eilar Hardy and Drue Tranquill — only Tranquill is a safe bet to return to challenge either Redfield, strong safety Elijah Shumate or both.

The rest of the safeties will be incoming freshmen or, less likely, players moved from another position.

Redfield has the athleticism and the intelligence. It’s about growing up, and his time starts now.

3. Nick Martin, offensive guard

After a year of mostly underachieving, the Irish offensive line more than rose to the occasion against LSU on Tuesday.

The official numbers were staggering — 5.2 yards per carry in the run game that produced 263 yards on the ground, zero sacks for only the second time this season and zero QB hurries, though the official stat keeper must have had his/her eyes closed on the Golson pass to Will Fuller in which Golson hurriedly unloaded the ball before taking a vicious hit to the ribs.

Tuesday’s performance should have been the rule and not the anomaly, and that’s one reason why, with a healthy right hand next spring, Martin should move back to his former center position.

If left tackle Ronnie Stanley pushed away the temptation to enter the 2015 draft with two years of eligibility left, the Irish could be dominating at this position group in 2015. If he does leave, and he has until Jan. 15 to decide, Kelly is convinced redshirting freshman Alex Bars is ready to shine.

Offensive lines, though, are only as good as their weakest links, so four standouts don’t necessarily equate dominance or even competence. Still. there are enough options to not only put out a strong starting five, but to have solid Plan Bs in place.

Martin, one of the most respected voices in the locker room, must provide the push to turn that potential into performance.

4. Greg Bryant, running back

The thing that strikes you when you meet this sophomore running back is that he knows he could have taken an easier path academically and to early playing time, and that he relishes pushing through the adversity to have a shot at long-term goals.

He doesn’t just have five-star talent. He has five-star maturity and perspective to go with it.

The reality, though, is one of Notre Dame’s five best athletes is in an auxiliary role. Still. But the person in best position to change that is Bryant.

And all he needs to do for a template is look at one of his best friends on the team, fellow running back Tarean Folston.

Last offseason, Kelly challenged Folston to take over the depth chart at running back, and Folston did so by significantly improving his receiving skills and his pass blocking. If Bryant wants to turn it into more of a tag-team, he has to become a complete back.

And that starts with him putting the extra work in this offseason.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith moved out of his comfort zone in 2014 but still earned All-America recognition. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)