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Five questions about Notre Dame football as it enters the summer months

From the burgeoning quarterback battle to talented incoming freshmen, Notre Dame has a lot to examine during the summer months.

Posted on April 15, 2014 at 9:17 p.m.

NOTRE DAME — The Blue-Gold Game has come and gone, and with it the last public look at Notre Dame's football team until fall camp.

While the April 12 scrimmage gave viewers a glimpse of what to expect come August, several gray areas will need to be cleared up over the summer.

Five questions as Notre Dame enters four months of summer:

1. Who will emerge as a team leader?

It was obvious with Manti Te'o, Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta in 2012, but less so in 2013. The Irish will field another young squad this year and head coach Brian Kelly said leaders have yet to distinguish themselves.

"I don't think we have anybody yet that is bringing others around with them," Kelly said after the Blue-Gold Game. "They are really focused on themselves right now."

Two safe predictions are linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt. The latter, a one-time walk-on, earned praise from Kelly throughout the spring.

"Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense,” he said Saturday. “Right now he can't come off the field. His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively, he's absolutely integral to what we're doing."

Smith, on the other hand, endorses himself as a leader of the pack. The sophomore-to-be started all 13 games in 2013 and hopes to enhance his presence on the field.

"I’m taking that challenge on,” Smith said Saturday. “I don’t want to be looked at as just a sophomore. I want to be a leader on the defense, on the team. That’s what I’m going to do and it’s going to be an honor. It’s going to be great."

2. What's next for Everett Golson and Malik Zaire?

There's a lot of excitement surrounding this position right now, but Kelly had relatively lukewarm assessments of both quarterbacks after the Blue-Gold Game.

"I thought there was some development there in terms of where they were at times in the spring," Kelly said.

He added that Zaire slipped into his inconsistent habits during one season and that Golson's pocket presence "was OK. He's still got a ways to go there."

On a bigger scale, no matter who the starting quarterback is come Aug. 30, he will need to be more lethal in the red zone. The Irish ranked a paltry 77th in red zone offense last year and scored touchdowns in only 53 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard-line.

"We don't have some of those prolific defensive players on the field that we've had over the last few years," Kelly said. "We have to be more proficient offensively. We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country. We can't go down to Florida State and hope to win 10-7. We're going to have to put some points on board."

Kelly said both quarterbacks are taking "500-level" classes in terms of the offensive scheme and reading the defense.

"It’s hard, it’s made for some tough meetings, but I think it’s really good teaching in the spring," Kelly said. "I’d rather be teaching in those meetings rather than (it being) easy."

3. One player to keep on your radar?

Offense: Running back Greg Bryant played with a massive chip on his shoulder throughout the spring, and expect the same attitude come fall.

Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock echoed how powerful the second-year freshman looked in the spring. Bryant punctuated those comments by breaking away on 51-yard run during the Blue-Gold Game, finishing the day as Notre Dame's leading rusher (12 carries, 101 yards).

"He's a physical kid, and he's fun to coach," Kelly said. "He's full of energy, he's got a smile on his face, and he loves to play the game."

Defense: Schmidt is the obvious answer here, but another name on the radar is defensive end Romeo Okwara. He came to Notre Dame as a 16-year-old freshman who didn't quite fit anywhere in the defense.

Now as a junior, Okwara has converted to the defensive line from outside linebacker. He registered three "sacks" (quarterbacks were not in live contact) during the Blue-Gold Game, earning praise from Kelly.

"I think we found a role for Romeo, one that I think we feel a lot more comfortable where he is." he said. "He's got to do a good job of taking care of his body and keeping up the weight up and doing those things."

4. Which incoming freshman will make an immediate impact?

Expect linebackers Nyles Morgan, Nile Sikes and Greer Martini to enter the fray immediately. Kelly loves Schmidt's football mind, but has himself admitted that Schmidt isn't the ideal athlete to patrol the middle of the field. As one of the biggest names in the 2014 class, Morgan in particular may break away from the pack.

Defensive tackle Jay Hayes could help fill the void Stephon Tuitt left behind. Quenton Nelson, Notre Dame's sole five-star signee in the class, should be competitive among the injury-torn offensive line.

5. Will linebacker Jarrett Grace be cleared for the fall?

One way or the other, Grace's health will shape the middle of the field. 

Either way, we'll know in about three weeks. Grace underwent a second surgery in March to insert a stabilizing rod into the leg he broke last fall. Grace's status for the 2014 season hinges on a progress report in early May.

If he's healthy, the starting spot will be his to lose. If he isn't, the Irish will fall back on the mental talents of Schmidt and the physical, unpolished talents of Morgan, Sikes and Greer.


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