We’re roughly one week into fall camp, with the Irish finished with their first two-a-day practice on Friday. There’s been a little bit of everything so far: Injuries, departures, surprises, and position battles as camp gets under way.
Let’s take a quick swing through the offensive position groupings and get everyone up to speed.
The biggest story of camp will also be the defining position battle of the season. With Tommy Rees suspended for the season opener against Navy, the door is wide open for either the Everett Golson or Andrew Hendrix eras to begin. Early returns have been mostly neutral, though I’d be hard pressed to see a way that Everett Golson doesn’t end up the starter when the Irish take the field in Dublin. He’s just too intriguing of an athlete, with too diverse of a skillset not to give the first shot.
Still, contrary to what some fans suspect, it won’t be just lollipops and rainbows after the Irish offense rids itself of Rees. While the junior quarterback has taken mostly mental reps while head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin get Golson and Hendrix up to speed, Friday’s practice featured an openly fired up Kelly, who openly challenged someone to step up and take charge.
“You don’t have Tommy to bail you guys out,” Kelly said, according to a source. “One of you need to step up! We are going over there to win!”
While there’s no plan to use Gunner Kiel this season, the talented freshman has taken great strides since spring in his ability to grasp the offense. With better than expected speed and a big arm, Kiel still is on track to be the quarterback of the future.
It appears that the only thing that’s going to hold back senior running back Cierre Wood is some medical paperwork. After two days of red tape held up the Irish’s returning rusher, Wood is back and ready to lead a talented group.
The biggest news out of the running back depth chart has been the decision of Cam Roberson to retire from football after a debilitating knee injury made playing up to speed next to impossible. This outcome wasn’t entirely unexpected to Roberson or the coaching staff, but it’s always difficult to see an injury cut a career short.
Theo Riddick has impressed during his move back to running back, which interestingly might help him play the hybrid position better than he did when he was a wide receiver. George Atkinson presents another intriguing option, the biggest back in the depth chart while also possessing some of the most impressive speed in college football.
USC transfer Amir Carlisle is working back from a broken ankle suffered before spring practice. He’s an incredibly talented runner with blazing speed, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish plan on using the sophomore who earned immediate eligibility after filing for a hardship waiver.
It’s tough to imagine a scenario where Will Mahone works his way onto the field this season. With the depth in front of him, it makes sense to preserve a year of eligibility.
While Kelly has sounded confident that veterans John Goodman, TJ Jones and Robby Toma will anchor the position grouping, he’s made a point of throwing his talent trio of freshmen receivers into the rotation immediately.
Slot receiver Davonte Neal is almost a sure bet to contribute early and often, with the college-ready talent owning a solid grasp of football and an elite set of skills. Chris Brown might also find his way into the role of deep threat wide receiver, with the Carolina speedster being everything advertised after Kelly talked his ability up at Signing Day. Justin Ferguson also has great size, checking in at 6-foot-2, 195-pounds, and might work his way onto the field as well.
Davaris Daniels, after not playing during his freshman season, is the X Factor of the unit. He’ll likely get every chance to win a starting job, but even if he doesn’t he’ll be counted on to make plays and help a passing game that could be in a state of transition with a new quarterback likely leading the way this season. Getting something out of Daniel Smith would be a bonus for this staff, as the local South Bend product has struggled to stay healthy for most of his career, but possesses some red zone size that’s much needed at the position.
Senior All-American Tyler Eifert will undoubtedly be the leading man in the Irish aerial attack. But his supporting cast has taken a bump with the loss of junior Alex Welch. Counted on to be a part of key depth that’ll allow the Irish offense to be more versatile, Welch’s knee injury will in all likelihood cost him the season.
Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack are two intriguing sophomore prospects. Niklas’ size and athleticism are pretty unique. At 6-foot-7, 260-pounds, Niklas is a few hamburgers away from being an elite left tackle, but with good speed, solid hands, and an ability to run in the open field, the Irish might have another star tight end on the roster after moving Niklas from the defensive side of the ball.
That’s not to say that Koyack is a slouch. At 6-foot-5, 253-pounds, the sophomore is another massive athlete, and after a promising freshman season, expect Koyack to make a bigger dent in the stat sheet this season.
Jake Golic will slide into the rotation after Welch’s injury. It wasn’t too long ago that his brother Mike was considered nothing more than emergency depth, so there’s a chance that during his senior season, Jake will end up answering the bell if his number is called.
Braxston Cave looks to be on his way back from a difficult foot injury. The fifth-year center is one of the team’s emotional leaders, and has the potential to put together a very good season anchoring the offensive line. He has every chance to be the Irish’s best center since All-American Jeff Faine.
The left side of the offensive line looks strong with Chris Watt and Zack Martin anchoring the guard and tackle positions for the second straight season. With the departure of Jordan Prestwood, depth may be of some concern, where talented freshman Ronnie Stanley looks good, but not quite ready for primetime.
On the right side of the line, it’s looking like Christian Lombard has cemented the right tackle job with Mike Golic running with the first team at right guard. Sophomore Nick Martin will battle Golic for the job at guard, while Tate Nichols is the next man in at tackle. If there’s an injury among the starters expect Nichols to work in at right tackle, and the younger Martin to show some flexibility in his ability to kick inside or out.
The next generation of Irish offensive linemen still need to make strides during this season before Kelly or offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will feel comfortable inserting them into the rotation. Matt Hegarty, Bruce Heggie and Connor Hanratty all can provide depth on the inside of the line, while Mark Harrell has done a nice job in his first week, holding his own in one-on-one drills.