Posted: 8:47 a.m. Wednesday, April 10, 2013
By Eric Murtaugh
Notre Dame will take to the field today for the 10th practice of spring and in just 11 more days the team will participate in the Blue-Gold Game. So technically this is more of a three-quarter's review, but whatever.
It's been a really quiet spring this year (on the field at least) which is frustrating for many but often times better than the alternative with a ton of question marks and the beat writers seriously doubting what the answers are at various positions as they get short glimpses during practice.
So give thanks and rejoice for a program that is quite healthy even with some guys banged up across the roster. Today, I'll give my general thoughts on each position through spring so far and talk about some of the surprises we've seen and focus on a couple position battles that have popped up since mid-March.
We're officially transitioning to the era of Everett Golson leadership and it has to bring most fans a lot of comfort and hope. The distraction of Gunner Kiel is gone (not totally fair to call Kiel a distraction, I know) and this is fully Golson's ship to steer for the next 3 years.
The most important thing this spring was for Golson to find some added maturity and leadership and judging by the comments made by Brian Kelly it appears that Everett has made great strides here in addition to being one of the performers standing out in practice.
Not much to report about Rees or Hendrix as they apparently settle in to the backup positions.
We've seen some glimpses of freshman Malik Zaire and the main talking points with him seem to be his thick lower body (he's got a big butt and thighs, people) and his somewhat slow ball delivery. Oh yeah, and he's a lefty---how many unsuspecting Irish fans are going to be surprised by this when the spring game rolls around? Anyway, I'd imagine that Zaire is more worried about being accurate with his throws and that's fine for now. With more development he should be able to speed up his throwing motion.
Running back has had some good chunks of news beginning with George Atkinson III holding off everyone as the 1st team running back. I'd be the first to admit he probably doesn't have this spot on lock down but it's encouraging to see some positive news of GA3 improving and growing in to a role as a primary ball carrier.
The story of spring so far is Amir Carlisle's ascension as the electric athlete ready to explode on the scene in terms of "Whoa, the coaching staff is raving about this guy and it's not Charlie Weis blowing smoke up our you know what!" Plus, of course Carlisle also broke his collarbone and has been reduced to running around in non-contact drills for the rest of spring. The big question we're all asking is if Carlisle's role is primarily at running back, as a hybrid player, or basically a full-time slot receiver. Given his size the safe money appears to be as a hybrid. I'd say with the departure of Davonte Neal that Carlisle could be a full-time receiver but I'm certain the coaching staff is much too determined to get him carries out of the backfield and not just limit him to a bunch of jet sweeps. Then again I really wouldn't have an issue putting Amir in to a Rocket-like role, would you?
Elsewhere at running back junior Cam McDaniel has thwarted off redshirt freshman Will Mahone for reps on the 2nd team offense with the gap between them likely being rather large. McDaniel could be a candidate to move to the slot but the staff appears determined to keep him at running back for the time being. I know a lot of people are going to write CamMac off (small white guy at running back?) but I wouldn't underrate this kid's ability to make an impact.
Judging by Kelly's recent comments on Mahone he's not shooting his way up the depth chart anytime soon. As expected of course so that's not too revealing.
Until we see a ridiculous 4,000+ yard passing season without the use of many tight ends and running backs with pass catching skills I will remain convinced Brian Kelly will utilize a small group of receivers. With the defections of Neal and Ferguson and plenty of other players to throw the ball to outside of the wideouts I think this will be the case for 2013.
For sure it's great news that three young players in C.J. Prosise, Corey Robinson, and James Onwualu have really turned some heads this spring and if they are really going to play decent minutes this fall those odds have improved dramatically as they make waves now instead of in the middle of August. All I'm saying is take the above 4 receivers and then add 3 experienced tight ends, 2 or 3 running backs, and suddenly there aren't many catches to go around. So you can point to me as the guy saying 'slow your role' with Prosise, Robinson, and Onwualu but it's still encouraging to see them doing well right now.
Of note, Chris Brown suffered a hamstring injury the severity of which hasn't been made public yet. Hopefully he's fine but if it's a long-term injury one of those young players will almost be forced in to a regular role in 2013.
There seems to be no doubt that Troy Niklas is officially TE No. 1 right now. In the first couple practices it was mentioned that Hercules was playing attached to the line and both split out wide although Kelly has since said his role will be primarily attached to the line and not the next version of Tyler Eifert. That's probably a good idea as Niklas should be focusing on improving his blocking (where he has the body to destroy some fools) and get his feet wet as the primary receiving target at his position in the short-to-intermediate passing game.
If you recall from our '13 recruiting class roundup post on the tight end's I said I was little more high on Smythe than Heuerman (by just a sliver) because I thought the former would be a little bigger. Right now Heuerman is listed at 218 and I can't see how he steps on the field in the vicinity of that weight.
The reports out of camp seem to indicate that Ben Koyack is being used in a less traditional role (he was seen catching a screen on the latest practice video for goodness sake) to take advantage of his pass catching skills. Meanwhile, Alex Welch has fully recovered from his knee injury and has been receiving some high praise from the coaching staff. These are all good things for a unit that needs to play well right out of the gate against Temple.
Notre Dame has been on a quest to find 2 new starters this off-season and the front-runners right now are Nick Martin (center) and Connor Hanratty (right guard) both playing the entire spring with the 1st team. A lot of work remains but if you're spending the entire spring as a starter the odds are quite high you'll be trotting out there with the 1st team against the Owls from Philadelphia.
At any rate, the beat writers are signalling that the staff really wants to get Stanley healthy before spring ends, but I think that has more to do with building depth than it does Heistand & Co. looking for Ronnie to grab a starting spot. Heading towards the end the spring here are my odds on the possible line combinations outside of Zack Martin and Chris Watt anchored on the left side:
Realistically, it's only Stanley or Hegarty who have a shot at moving in to the starting lineup. Stanley still isn't quite 100% from his elbow surgery and it appears Martin has been able to fight off Hegarty at center for now. The consensus from those close to the program is that Nick Martin is the 4th best linemen right now regardless of position and he'll be a starter whether Hegarty ultimately turns it on at center or not.
Freshman Steve Elmer has looked quite good in practice videos and has received strong reviews from both coaches and press alike. That should ease our worries for the future when Zack Martin departs for the NFL. I know everyone hates playing freshmen offensive linemen but Elmer is the rare recruit who could benefit from seeing some minutes this year so that he steps in to a (possible) starting role next year with some experience.
Beyond the season ending surgery to Chase Hounshell there hasn't been much news to report from the defensive line. Stephon Tuitt is making his way back from hernia surgery and the starting front (Tuitt-Nix-Day) has been playing really well. The coaches seem especially high on Sheldon Day and it's looking like he's going to be the primary starter at the vacant defensive end spot come this fall.
Perhaps the only interesting position battle is Justin Utupo getting some work ahead of Jarron Jones at defensive end. This could be a case of the staff rewarding Utupo for putting on weight, working hard, and playing well or it could be the staff trying to light a fire underneath the talented redshirt freshman. Glass half full or half empty? Either way many thought Jones had the size and talent to challenge Day for the starting defensive end spot and that doesn't appear to be happening right now.
In my opinion the best news of the spring so far is Jarrett Grace apparently living up to his Werewolf nature and looking to lock down the Mike linebacker spot vacated by Manti Te'o. After a few spring practices Kelly mentioned that there might be several bodies used at both inside linebacker spots, but lately it's been strictly Grace at Mike and Calabrese at Will.
Of course when Fox returns from injury in August that will give the staff some flexibility but it looks like Grace has made a lot of progress toward being the main guy at Mike.
Another interesting battle taking place behind the scenes a little bit is preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt taking reps at 2nd team Will linebacker ahead of Anthony Rabasa. Even the coaching staff realizes Schmidt's lack of size (listed at 6'0" and 226 pounds) but they love his smarts and remember he was a great player at Orange County powerhouse Mater Dei. Not to ring the alarm bells too loudly but Rabasa has had a heck of a time finding a home on defense and moving up the depth chart. He still has plenty of time in his career but I hope things start to click for him soon.
With Danny Spond out with a head/neck injury recently that's allowed Ben Councell to get some reps with the 1st team at Dog linebacker. That's a bit of a worrisome injury for Spond who has a concussion history and suffered a semi-hemiplegic migraine last year as well---hopefully it's not serious. There hasn't been much information about Councell in Spond's absence but he's one of those fast/athletic/rangy players that could really add a new dimension to the defense---even with Jaylon Smith coming in at the same position this summer.
With Bennett Jackson out for spring it's allowed a couple players the opportunity to step up and run with the 1st team. Lo Wood appears to be the biggest beneficiary of this situation with Jalen Brown in the mix as well. While it looks like Wood could be the first corner off the bench, Brown is seeing a lot of time in nickel coverage. This will be an interesting dynamic to watch going in to the fall---I really like Brown's size and physicality but all signs are pointing to a determined and improved Lo Wood.
Not much else to talk about nearing the end of spring except perhaps that it looks like junior Josh Atkinson is running a distant fourth among the healthy corners right now.
It's flown under the radar a little bit for whatever reason, but sophomore Elijah Shumate has been taking 1st team reps at safety with Matthias Farley for the entire spring. That's kind of a big deal.
To me that's pretty significant and could mean Austin Collinsworth might struggle to find a starting role this season and also that super recruit Max Redfield is going to have a hard time replacing either Shumate or Farley in August.
There's been almost no updates on the status of the punting game nor how Brindza and Tausch are battling out as the placekickers on the roster. Recently the punt return men included Prosise, Carlisle, Jones, and Collinsworth. We'll probably have to wait until August to get a clearer sense of what's going on in the return game.
As we enter the final days of spring practice I'm going to go out on a very short limb by saying that we have a really good idea of what the starting lineup is going to look like for 2013. Outside of running back and slot I think the coaches have a good sense of who they can depend on as starters come August.
Share your thoughts and opinions on how spring practice has unfolded!