NOTRE DAME — Nothing extraordinary. Plenty of questions. Few firm answers.
Thank you, Notre Dame spring football. It was fun.
The real news from the not-so-spring-like practices at Notre Dame was there was no startling development. OK, there was one, perhaps.
When a 347-pound nose tackle rumbling for a two-point conversion out of the “Wildcat’’ formation is a headline, a PAT following the lone touchdown of the Blue-Gold Game, you know it’s a quiet day.
It was the lone “Ooooh, ahhhh” moment of the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, April 20.
Perspective is key, though. If last year’s scrimmage was truly indicative of how the season would pan out, George Atkinson III would have been the undisputed starting running back, Ishaq Williams would have been an All-American linebacker and Theo Riddick would have been the No. 1 receiver.
Forget the star-studded true freshmen coming in — for the Irish, spring practice and the Blue-Gold game boiled down to three storyline questions:
1. How good can Everett Golson become now after a full season as the acknowledged leader of the offense?
2. Who will emerge as the reliable, impact back?
3. Can the defense, particularly the front seven, maintain such a dominant presence?
Those are easy.
But what are the nagging issues?
Quarterback. Golson the passer was so-so in the Blue-Gold Game, but don’t read too much into that. The offense we did see was a neutered version of what Notre Dame will have in the fall. Though Golson insists he had an off-day, he has clearly emerged as a leader in the offense. He’s more vocal in the huddle, and he seems to have a better grasp of the responsibility on his shoulders.
Tight end. Troy Niklas isn’t going to run the types of deep routes that made Tyler Eifert so valuable, but with his size, he’s still a bear to cover.
Depth on the D-line and linebackers. Sheldon Day at end, Tyler Stockton at backup nose guard and Jarrett Grace at inside linebacker bring a ton of energy.
Middle linebacker Ben Councell also saw more reps as Dan Fox recovered from shoulder surgery and may work into the rotation this year. Grace won’t be a seven-interception Heisman candidate this year, but he has the motor, speed and vocal leadership to make him a successful heir to Manti Te’o.
Receivers. While Notre Dame hasn’t signed (and kept) a big-name receiver since Michael Floyd, T.J. Jones has continued last season’s emergence as the team’s top receiver. DaVaris Daniels has shown flashes of brilliance all spring and will be a crucial target once he works on his consistency.
Factor in the up-and-coming C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown, James Onwualu and a healthy Corey Robinson mixed with Carlisle and Niklas in a hybrid role, and Notre Dame has a deeper receiver corps than it may look on paper.
Running back. A healthy Amir Carlisle may be the answer and George Atkinson III and Cam McDaniel bring skills to the mix. But the every-down kind of back? Still up in the air. Plus, how will Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston factor into the rotation when they arrive in the summer?
Special teams. Kickoff and punt returns can’t be much worse than the past two years, so any improvement is noteworthy. There were punts in the spring game, but no returns, and no kickoffs during the spring game and with only four outdoor workouts, true assessment becomes tough.
Carlisle, Atkinson, Jones and safety Austin Collinsworth look like early favorites for the job, though none of them got to test their mettle in the Blue-Gold Game.
Kyle Brindza averaged a hair over 30 yards in his seven punts on Saturday, and Nick Tausch hit three of his four field goal attempts. Here’s hoping that Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck assumes punting duties and leaves Brindza to focus on kickoffs and field goals.
Cornerbacks. It’s been a quiet spring for two likely starters. KeiVarae Russell started 13 games as a freshman in 2012. He’ll be fine. Bennett Jackson is quickly recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
The next tier? Lo Wood missed the entire 2012 season and was held out of the scrimmage. Josh Atkinson looked vulnerable throughout drills and was flagged twice for pass interference in the Blue-Gold Game. Jalen Brown hasn’t played in a game.
Depth on the offensive line. Veteran lineman Chris Watt was out with a sore neck during Saturday’s scrimmage, so Ronnie Stanley got to take some first-team reps in his stead. Even though the Notre Dame defensive line is one of the best in the country, the offensive line was expected to hold stronger than the consistency of soggy tissues.
The defense racked up 10 “sacks” — a liberal number, since the quarterbacks were no-contact and referees signaled a sack every time a defender got within five feet of a quarterback — against an offensive line with a new center and not a whole lot of experience behind its veterans.