The return of Notre Dame football is mere days away, culminating Saturday when the Irish take on the Temple Owls in South Bend. With this first part of my three part season preview series, I will take a look at the offensive unit that Notre Dame will field in 2013.
2013 will be a season of transition for Brian Kelly and his team, and no area of the team makes that more apparent than the offense. Gone from last year’s undefeated (regular season) National Championship finalist team are starters QB Everett Golson (dismissed from the university due to undisclosed academic issues); RBs Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick (NFL), TE Tyler Eifert (NFL), and C Braxston Cave (NFL), among others.
The loss of Golson especially will be tough to overcome. The redshirt freshman didn’t exactly light the stat sheet on fire in 2012, completing just 58.8% of his passes for 2.405 yards and 12 TDs, and only throwing 6 picks, while adding in 298 rushing yards and 6 more scores on the ground. And the unit as a whole ranked only 54th in total yards and 78th in scoring. But you could see flashes of what could be a special player in Fighting Irish football lore. All of that is for naught however, as the offense now lies in the hands of one Tommy Rees.
Yep, the same Tommy Rees who replaced Dayne Crist in the 2010 season and the same Tommy Rees who himself was replaced by Golson last year. The same Tommy Rees who looked like he could be a decent option at QB at times, and at others looked clueless with poor decision making that resulted in bad turnovers (not that any turnovers by your QB are “good”). In 2011 – the only year he played in all 13 games – Rees completed 65.5% of his passes for 2.871 yards and 20 TDs against 14 picks. That, however, was not a good enough performance for Brian Kelly, who named the raw Golson as starter in 2012.
We know that the defense is going to be stout again in 2013, but the fate of the offense may just depend on the unsteady hands of this very same Tommy Rees. So how does the offense grade out? Well, to begin with, the Irish will bring back just four starters – WR T.J. Jones, OT Zach Martin, and Gs Chris Watt and Christian Lombard. We already know that Golson is gone for the year, and the skill positions will all feature young and/or inexperienced players (get used to reading that word). We will look at the offensive depth chart, position by position, to determine the greatest strengths and weaknesses (backup players in italics).
Quarterback – Tommy Rees, (Sr.); Andrew Hendrix (Sr.)
We’ve already covered the issues that Rees has had in prior years. There’s a reason Golson was chosen over him to be the starter last year. Though raw, Golson had talent and more upside than Rees does, or any of the other quarterbacks from last year. But that doesn’t matter now. Rees is the starter until he proves otherwise. As long as he can keep the turnovers in check, and manage the game intelligently, the Irish offense has a shot to be decent. Not great, but decent. Hendrix is a big question mark, having thrown a total of 44 passes his entire career (completing 23). If Rees goes down with an injury, or proves to be ineffective, things could get ugly quick.
Running backs – George Atkinson III (Jr.); Amir Carlisle (Jr.)
If last season was any indication, being the top back on the depth chart means very little when it comes to work loads for Brian Kelly. Last year, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and Atkinson all split carries, combining for 2,020 yards on 355 carries (5.7 ypc) and 14 TDs. Expect the same kind of time sharing to occur again in 2013. Atkinson, Carlisle, and highly ranked incoming freshmen Greg Bryant, Jr. and Tarean Folston will all likely factor into the mix, depending on performance and game situations. Atkinson and Junior Cam McDaniel are the only returning backs who carried the football for Notre Dame. Atkinson carried just 55 of those 355 times, but managed to average 7.1 yards per run, including a 56 yard TD against Navy. If Atkinson and the younger guys can mesh well behind a strong offensive line, this could be one of the stronger units on offense this year.
Wide Receivers – DaVaris Daniels (Jr.), Chris Brown (So.), T.J. Jones (Sr.); Daniel Smith (Sr.), James Onwuala (Fr.), Corey Robinson (Fr.)
The wide receiver spot is basically in the same situation that running back is in. A young unit with a solid, experienced veteran (T.J. Jones) surrounded by a cast of talented but inexperienced players. Last year, T.J. Jones was one of the better playmakers for Notre Dame in the passing game, catching 50 balls for 649 yards and 4 TDs. Tommy Rees will have to rely heavily on the converted running back’s ability to get open in space a lot to keep the chains moving. DaVaris Daniels did manage to haul in 31 passes himself last year, but only played in 8 of the teams 13 games. After that, you have a sea of unknowns: Chris Brown, James Onwuala, and Corey Robinson have yet to play any meaningful game time, and Daniel Smith has played in all of 6 games his entire career. Needless to say, its going to be a learning experience for this unit. But if Jones can keep making plays and drawing coverage his way, it might help the younger guys get open and start doing some damage themselves.
Tight End – Troy Niklas (Jr.); Ben Koyack (Jr.)
Poor Troy Niklaus. He’s got a lot to live up to following the stellar career of now Cincinnati Bengal TE Tyler Eifert. Can he be the next in a long line of stud Irish TEs? Only time will tell, but my initial reaction is hesitation. We just don’t know much about him yet. Last year he played in 9 games but managed just 5 receptions. As a matter of fact, all the tight ends on Notre Dame’s roster this year have a total of 10 catches combined for their careers. Now, obviously playing behind Eifert had a lot to do with that, but it still screams of inexperience (a word being thrown around a lot this article, if you haven’t noticed). That doesn’t mean that these guys can’t be good, it just means based on what we do know right now, we shouldn’t enter the season expecting a lot from them.
Offensive Tackle – Zack Martin (Sr.), Ronnie Stanley (So.); Mike McGlinchey (Fr,), Steve Elmer (Fr.)
Notre Dame got extremely lucky when Zack Martin opted out of last year’s draft, especially considering that the offensive line’s other stalwart, C Braxston Cave left (Cave signed as an undrafted free agent with the Browns). Martin brings size (6′ 4″ 308 lbs) and experience, which is something Tommy Rees is going to need to protect his blind side. Ronnie Staley also brings bulk (6′ 6″, 318 lbs) but has – wait for it, wait for it – inexperience. The sophomore out of Las Vegas could have some issues against the likes of Michigan, Oklahoma, USC, and Stanford. Behind the two starters are a bevy of freshman, so if the injury big bites, it could cause some problems in the passing game.
Guard – Chris Watt (Sr.), Christian Lombard (Sr.); Hunter Bivin (Fr.), Connor Hanratty (Jr.)
Guard is the strongest area of the entire offensive unit. Both starters bring experience AND size (Watt weighs in at 321 lbs, Lombard at 315). Lombard has played in or started in every game since 2011 (26 total not counting bowl games), and Watt has played in or started every game since 2010. These guys are going to be key to getting the run game going. Expect the offense to run the ball up the middle often with Atkinson and the other playmakers early and often. Again, if injuries hit, there could be a dip in performance, with the top backups having played in a total of six games. But these two guys have been resilient their whole careers, so there’s no reason to think it will be an issue in 2013.
Center – Nick Martin (Jr.); Matt Hegarty (Jr.)
Martin (younger brother of OT Zack Martin) played in all 13 games last year, but mainly on special teams. Hegarty saw action in 9 games as a back-up last year. Needless to say the “I” word that we’ve discussed in most of the other position groups will apply here as well. They both have decent size (Martin at 295 lbs, Hegarty at 300), so that should help when paired with the elite starters at guard. However, there are too many unknowns at this point to make a decent comparison to last year’s starter, Braxston Cave.
Overall, too many young guys with a lack of real game experience could make the offensive side of the ball tough to watch early on. I again want to stress that this in no way should be construed to mean I believe the unit won’t improve and that I don’t think they’ll be able to move the ball and put up points. But I can’t really give a decent grade to a group that, at this point, just has too many question marks attached to it. If the playmakers that the offense does have (Rees, Atkinson, and T.J Jones) can produce while helping the young guys coming along faster, obviously that’s going to be a huge boon for the growth of the offense. Even then, I would still have a hard time seeing them being better than last year’s so-so performance, and may even take a step or two back.
Overall Grade: C-
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