SOUTH BEND — They have become like locusts, maybe even with a slight stench, since Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick’s benign and recycled comments in New York about conference contingency plans were given a fresh coat of lipstick a couple of weeks ago. The relentless buggers? Questions about the Big Ten, and all the fretting and panic attacks that go with them. Now first-year Irish head football coach Brian Kelly is fielding the “what ifs” en masse. “At the end of the day, you love the independent status as it relates to football,” Kelly said earlier this week, “being able to play on the West Coast and the East Coast and not always having to play those same destination stops. “I think it’s great for everybody. The fan base goes from coast to coast. If we could do that (stay independent), that would be a preference. But again, I’m a realist. We’re going to do what’s right for the university of Notre Dame.” I am a realist, too. That’s why the only “Big Ten” that matters in the hours before Notre Dame opens its first spring practice with Kelly at the steering wheel (Friday at 3:15 p.m. EDT) is the big/top ten people to watch during ND’s 2010 spring practice sessions. Here’s a peek:
- 1. Brian Kelly: To date, we have seen mostly the softer side of the new head coach - shaking hands, kissing babies, kissing hands, shaking babies (gently), showing up at as many Notre Dame sporting events as the Leprechaun. It’s not that any of that is pure window dressing or insincere, but it’s only one small facet of what Kelly brings to a program as the head coach. The spring will get us past Kelly’s style and into his substance - and how the Irish players are taking to it.
- 2. Dayne Crist: The junior-to-be quarterback and his surgically repaired right knee are the biggest factors in whether Kelly will be rebuilding, rejoicing or recoiling in the fall. Yes, Crist has completed a grand total of eight more collegiate career passes than running back Armando Allen (2) and nine more than punter Eric Maust (1), but Crist didn’t crumble while playing meaningful snaps against Purdue last season and his leadership isn’t some invisible intangible. You remember the things he does in that area before you remember his jersey number. The alternatives at QB are freshman (Tommy Rees), freshman (Andrew Hendrix), freshman (Luke Massa) and walk-on-turned-juco-transfer-turned-walk-on (Nate Montana) - and only two of them are on campus at the moment.
- 3. Nate Montana: Kelly is counting on the son of former campus icon Joe Montana to separate himself from the freshmen and use the experience he did get last fall at Pasadena (Calif.) City College to provide some stability behind Crist. Montana’s numbers as PCC were pedestrian, if not humbling - 31-of-88 (35 percent), 324 yards, two TDs and five interceptions. But remember, this is a QB who had limited playing time in high school, and his best football may still be ahead of him.
- 4. Cierre Wood: Yes, last year’s fifth-string running back who didn’t see the field in 2009 may be this year’s offensive surprise. The 6-foot sophomore-to-be is much leaner than the 220 pounds he lumbered into camp with last fall. He now fits the prototype of what Kelly likes in a spread-offense tailback. The fact that Kelly moved classmate Theo Riddick to slot receiver not only speaks to what Kelly sees as Riddick’s high ceiling at wideout, but to Wood’s at running back as well.
- 5. Harrison Smith: He is the loose screw on the Irish defense but hasn’t been able to translate his edge into consistent play at either outside linebacker or safety. He’s back for a second tour of duty at his recruited position (safety), and Kelly loves the way Smith took control of the defense in winter workouts. Looking for a player who might benefit most for the regime change? This might be it.
- 6. Bob Diaco: Kelly hasn’t flinched once since stepping into the bigger, brasher spotlight, but Irish nation is still keeping an eye on whether those with whom the former University of Cincinnati coach has surrounded himself can make the same seamless transition. Diaco is the new defensive coordinator, which is a little bit like being Sinead O’Connor’s hair stylist a couple of decades ago. His charge this spring is to take a team that yielded the most total yards per game in ND history in 2009 (397.8) and teach it a new scheme 3-4 - that, after his former team gave up 374.0 yards a game last season. Those in coaching circles say those numbers lie - or at least stretch the truth, that Diaco is one of the promising, young minds in the coaching business. He’ll be expected to prove that point well before Kelly can recruit to the new defensive system.
- 7. John Goodman: Now that the junior-to-be doesn’t have to worry about being the emergency quarterback anymore, he can focus on trying to step into soon-to-be NFL wide receiver Golden Tate’s vacancy. Sophomore Shaquelle Evans will push Goodman, if not push past him. Either way, it will be one of the more entertaining position battles this spring.
- 8. Jamoris Slaughter: The standout high school safety, converted to cornerback by former coach Charlie Weis, got a little taste of his natural position at the end of last season, with mixed results. The Kelly regime likes the move of 6-0, 185-pound Slaughter back to safety, and will continue the experiment in hopes of finding a starter to complement Harrison Smith.
- 9. Carlo Calabrese/Anthony McDonald/David Posluszny: OK, so this technically pushes the list past 10 ... but the real Big Ten isn’t numerically correct either. In any case, Kelly needs only one of those young linebackers to emerge and become a key physical presence in a backup role at inside linebacker. Of course, he wouldn’t mind if all three did.
- 10. David Ruffer/Nick Tausch: Tausch missed his first career field goal, a 28-yarder at Michigan, then nailed 14 straight to set the ND school record - as a freshman, no less. Then came missed field goals of 30 and 41 yards in a 23-21 loss to Navy on Nov. 7, and Tausch never saw the field again. The initial explanation was that a mysterious injury cropped up in pregame warm-ups the next weekend at Pittsburgh. The explanations got more vague thereafter. Still, Tausch connected on 14-of-17 field goals. If there’s a lingering crisis of confidence, former interhall star David Ruffer may get a chance to step in. While subbing for Tausch in ND’s final three games, the former high school golf standout made all five of his field goal attempts, including pressure-saturated 42-yarders against Pitt and Stanford. “The thing I like the best about this group? They get it,” Kelly said in summarizing the players he has inherited. “Nobody wants to made an example of, I guarantee you that. We did not lose one guy in this football program (to a transfer), whereas the last three programs (where Kelly took over), we had mass exoduses. So this group understands how important it is to jump on board.”
Staff writer Eric Hansen: firstname.lastname@example.org (574) 235-6470