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March 22, 2011

Irish have good reason to be optimistic

Spring practice likely won't answer the biggest question surrounding Notre Dame football: Who's the starting quarterback?

Dayne Crist started the first nine games for the Irish last season before rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee. Tommy Rees replaced him and led Notre Dame to victories in each of his four starts.

Crist delivered better statistics, while Rees produced a better won-loss record.

Spring practice probably won't solve anything because of Crist's health status. Even though Crist should be able to work out on a limited basis, he probably won't participate in any contact drills.

This spring also gives Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's staff its first up-close look at true freshman Everett Golson, an early enrollee who is billed as the Irish's quarterback of the future. Golson's mobility may even allow him to serve as a change-of-pace quarterback as early as this fall.

Here's a look at where Notre Dame stands heading into spring practice.

QB Dayne Crist returns for Notre Dame, but he may not be the starter in 2011.
Coach: Brian Kelly
Last season: 8-5 overall. Beat Miami 33-17 in the Sun Bowl.
Spring dates: March 23-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (9): C Braxston Cave, QB Dayne Crist, T Taylor Dever, TE Tyler Eifert, WR Michael Floyd, WR TJ Jones, T Zack Martin, WR Theo Riddick, G Trevor Robinson.
Defense (8): LB Carlo Calabrese, OLB Darius Fleming, CB Gary Gray, E Ethan Johnson, E Kapron Lewis-Moore, S Zeke Motta, S Harrison Smith, LB Manti Te'o.
Special teams (2): K David Ruffer, P Ben Turk.

Positions of strength

It's a testament to the changing face of Notre Dame football that the Irish's biggest strengths this season are on defense instead of offense. Gary Gray and Robert Blanton give Notre Dame experienced cornerbacks who helped the Irish rank 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. Harrison Smith picked off seven passes last season -- four in the final two games -- and fellow safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta are solid. All-America candidate Manti Te'o leads a quality linebacker corps. Notre Dame returns each of its two starting offensive tackles from last season, including rising star Zack Martin on the left side. Biletnikoff Award contender Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick give the Irish two exceptional wide receivers, though the Irish lack depth in the receiving corps beyond those two. Floyd, though, was arrested on a charge of operating a vehicle while intoxicated Sunday morning, putting his Irish career in jeopardy. The school's disciplinary board would have the final say in Floyd's status, and if he is suspended for the season, wide receiver goes from a position of strength to a big question.

Help is needed

Notre Dame has questions in the offensive backfield. Cierre Wood (119 carries, 603 yards, three TDs) takes over as the main running back, but the Irish need someone to share carries with him. The most likely contender is senior Jonas Gray (20-100-0), a former Rivals100 running back who hasn't met expectations. Notre Dame also must decide on a starting quarterback, though Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees give the Irish two experienced contenders.

3 guys to watch

DE Aaron Lynch: This early enrollee was the nation's No. 28 overall prospect and arguably the best pure pass rusher in the 2011 recruiting class. Although Notre Dame returns both of its starting ends (Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore), coaches likely will find a way to get Lynch on the field in passing situations if he shows he can handle that role this spring. His speed could allow him to make an immediate impact, even if he isn't an every-down player.

NT Louis Nix: Although he was one of the highest-rated prospects in Notre Dame's 2010 recruiting class, Nix didn't play last season after reporting to campus out of shape. He spent the season remaking his body and refining his game. He heads into spring as one of the front-runners to replace the departed Ian Williams as Notre Dame's starting nose tackle.

OLB Prince Shembo: As a backup last season, Shembo showed flashes of big-play ability. He ranked third on the team with 4.5 sacks and delivered two sacks in a victory over Boston College. He heads into the spring as the favorite for a vacant starting outside linebacker spot.

The pressure is on

RB Jonas Gray: The No. 72 overall prospect in the 2008 recruiting class, Gray still is seeking his first career touchdown as he heads into his senior season. Gray hasn't rushed for more than 119 yards in any of his first three seasons, and he remains best known for two fumbles -- one that began a near-collapse against Navy in 2008 and another that led to a Michigan touchdown in a 38-34 loss to the Wolverines two years ago. Gray heads into spring practice knowing this represents his last chance to live up to expectations. He's the odds-on favorite to complement Wood at running back -- the Irish don't have many other options -- but Gary needs to prove he can handle that role.

The buzz

Notre Dame fans inevitably begin every season with plenty of optimism. This season, it may be justified. The Irish should be ranked in the preseason polls after winning their final four games last season, and an appearance in a BCS bowl is a realistic goal. The quarterback competition between Crist and Rees will garner plenty of attention this summer, but Golson may be the quarterback to watch this spring. Although his lack of height (he's generously listed as 6 feet) made him only a three-star prospect, Golson threw for 11,634 career yards and 151 touchdowns at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High. He seems like an ideal fit for Kelly's spread offense. The Irish also will get an early look at Lynch and five-star outside linebacker Ishaq Williams, potential future standouts on Notre Dame's defense. The biggest question for the Irish defense is finding a successor to Ian Williams at nose guard, though Sean Cwynar was capable while starting in place of an injured Williams over the final four games of the 2010 regular season. Floyd's status bears watching, as well.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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