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Athlon breaks down the five storylines to watch as Notre Dame opens up fall practice.
Kickoff for the 2012 college football season is just around the corner. However, plenty of unanswered questions remain around the nation for every team. Injuries, quarterback battles and players that need to step up to make a run at the conference title will all be under the spotlight over the next couple of weeks.
Notre Dame's 5 Biggest Storylines to Watch in Fall Practice
1. Who takes the lead at quarterback?
If the Irish want to have any shot at topping last season’s win total (eight), they have to get better quarterback play. Tommy Rees led the team with 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns last year but ran into off-the-field trouble and is suspended for the season opener. With Rees sidelined for the first game, the focus of the quarterback battle will shift to redshirt freshman Everett Golson, sophomore Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Gunner Kiel. Golson is an intriguing talent, as his dual-threat ability would give Notre Dame a different dimension on offense. Hendrix played in five contests last year, throwing for 249 yards and one touchdown while also adding 162 yards and one score on the ground. Golson and Hendrix figure to have an edge over Kiel for the No. 1 spot, but the true freshman will have every opportunity to earn playing time. Even if a starter doesn’t emerge, it’s important for the coaching staff to get Golson, Kiel and Hendrix as many snaps as possible, as neither of the trio have a career start.
2. Will a receiver emerge as a clear No. 1 target?
There’s no doubt in South Bend that Michael Floyd will be missed. After catching 271 passes for 3,686 yards and 37 touchdowns over the last four years, Notre Dame will miss Floyd’s presence in the redzone and his big-play ability. The cupboard isn’t bare at receiver, as junior TJ Jones and seniors John Goodman, Robby Toma and Theo Riddick (who will play at running back and receiver this year) are capable targets. However, none are the go-to guy that Floyd was throughout his career. Freshmen DaVaris Daniels and Davonte Neal will factor prominently into the receiving corps and could be key contributors by the end of the season. Jones has been steady over his first two years in South Bend, but bigger things were expected of him when he committed to Notre Dame. Even if the catches are spread around the receiving corps, the Irish quarterbacks can lean on tight end Tyler Eifert. The senior is an Athlon first-team All-American for 2012. The Irish don’t necessarily need a true No. 1 receiver, but this unit needs Jones, Daniels and Neal to produce a few big plays and pickup where Floyd left off.
3. Can the Irish find answers in the secondary?
With three key players departing from the defensive backfield, Notre Dame will have a hard time replicating its 38th overall finish in pass defense from 2011. Cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton weren’t standouts, but both were multi-year starters. Stepping into the spotlight will be juniors Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood and most of their experience has come on special teams. Jackson was solid in the spring, putting pressure on Wood to solidify the other spot in the fall. Depth is thin in the secondary, as inexperienced sophomores Cam McDaniel and Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown will likely compose the backup spots at cornerback. The situation is a little better at safety, but Notre Dame must replace standout Harrison Smith. The good news is Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta are capable players and should help pickup the leadership void left behind by Smith.
4. Can Aaron Lynch be replaced?
At one point this offseason, Notre Dame had a strong case to be ranked among the top five defensive lines in college football. However, Aaron Lynch’s surprising decision to leave South Bend in the spring was a huge loss for the defense. Lynch was just scratching the surface of his potential, recording 33 tackles and 5.5 sacks last year. Despite losing a player of Lynch’s caliber, the Irish should still be solid up front. Sophomore Stephon Tuitt will likely slide into Lynch’s spot after recording 30 tackles and two sacks last year. Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore will man the other end spot, while 326-pound nose guard Louis Nix III will anchor the middle. The coaching staff is also excited about the potential of freshman Sheldon Day and sophomore Chase Hounshell. Although losing Lynch was a setback, Notre Dame’s defensive line has the pieces in place to be stout once again.
5. Playmakers on defense
With Aaron Lynch’s departure, the Irish not only need a big season from end Stephon Tuitt but also linebacker Ishaq Williams. The sophomore recorded only six tackles in 11 contests last year. However, Williams has the physical ability and talent to be an impact player on defense, and Notre Dame needs him to become one of the team’s top pass rushers in 2012. Junior Prince Shembo is also expected to help pickup the slack from Lynch’s departure. With concerns about the secondary, it's important for Notre Dame to find players who can get after the quarterback.
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