Notre Dame Football: 3 Spring Practice Battles to Watch in 2014
Brian Kelly kicked off spring football in unusual fashion on Friday, wisecracking that the local temperature was below zero when he started the car this morning to head to campus. It's a spring unlike any other in Kelly's 25 years of coaching, with the Irish pushing up their calendar for a variety of reasons.
Notre Dame will practice twice before spring break, then not again for two weeks. The Blue-Gold Game will be played April 12, finishing spring practice before Easter.
Even if snow drifts cover the Irish's practice fields, position battles are heating up inside the Loftus Center. With a roster filled with talented but unproven personnel, the next 15 practices will set the tempo heading into summer workouts.
Let's take a look at three position battles to watch heading into spring practice.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
After having Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta anchor the back of the defense, the Irish struggled to find consistency at safety in 2013. Notre Dame started five different players at safety, with Austin Collinsworth, Matthias Farley, Eilar Hardy, Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield all starting games.
Nobody graduates from this group, though there are additions and subtractions. The biggest surprise is the departure of Matthias Farley. After spending the better part of two seasons in the starting lineup, Farley will transition to cornerback this fall.
"We're going to give him an opportunity to play corner," Kelly said on Friday. "We think he could be a very good player, and especially a tackler, from an 'outside-in' position."
"He's really a good athlete. He can run. He's got good ball skills."
Transitioning to the defensive side of the ball is rising sophomore James Onwualu. A special teams standout as a freshman wide receiver, Onwualu brings a ready-made physique to the secondary, listed at 6'1", 215 pounds on the spring roster.
"That was a tough one for me, because he's so valuable offensively," Kelly said. "He's got great contact skills. He's a ferocious competitor. And I wanted to take a look at him because he's such a good player."
With Kerry Cooks now in charge of the entire secondary, watching how the safety battle plays out with be interesting. Rejoining the group is Nicky Baratti, the rising junior healthy after shoulder surgery. John Turner, after playing in all 13 games (mostly on special teams) last season, is listed as an outside linebacker.
Brian VanGorder's first order of business is getting more productivity out of this group. Under Bob Diaco, safety was one of the more mentally tasking positions on the defense, making the ability to read and react quickly difficult.
The Irish only had four interceptions on the season from safeties, with Collinsworth tallying one in each of the season's final three games. Getting this group to think less and react quickly is essential, and will likely determine who moves into the starting lineup heading into fall camp.
Austin Collinsworth, Grad Student
Eilar Hardy, Senior*
Nicky Baratti, Junior*
Elijah Shumate, Junior
Max Redfield, Sophomore
James Onwualu, Sophomore
*Denotes fifth year of eligibility available.
Everybody expected a crowded depth chart at running back heading into spring practice. But some roster revelations have started to give us a peek into the coaching staff's thought process moving forward. George Atkinson's relatively sudden departure wasn't the only thing to help provide clarity. Some position moves will do the same, resetting the stage at the position.
Seldom used running back Will Mahone is now listed as a wide receiver, sticking at the slot position after impressing there during 2013's fall camp. Amir Carlisle is listed as a RB/WR, with Kelly explaining that he'll spend time with the backs and the slot receivers, a transition many expected from the start of his career in South Bend, Ind.
That leaves a three-man race at tailback, with senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston. While McDaniel led the team in rushing last year, it was Folston who started to emerge as the lead back, carrying the load down the stretch after working through some lingering injuries. Injuries also allowed Bryant to save a year of eligibility, a redshirt confirmed by the spring roster after a meniscus tear ended his freshman season early.
Leaving the bowl game, Notre Dame looked like it had six backs competing for snaps, a logjam not entirely enviable. But a position switch for Mahone and some flexibility for Carlisle turns this into a three-back race...and a recruiting priority in the 2015 cycle.
Cam McDaniel, Senior
Tarean Folston, Sophomore
Greg Bryant, Sophomore*
Amir Carlisle, Senior*
*Denotes fifth year of eligibility available.
Saying goodbye to Zack Martin and Chris Watt won't be easy. The leadership that the veteran duo displayed last season had Notre Dame's offensive line playing the best it has in over a decade.
The left tackle and left guard jobs are open for competition. While there seem to be logical candidates to fill Watt's spot, the focus this spring will be on who steps in for Martin after four seasons starting at left tackle.
Brian Kelly talked about that on Friday, focusing on four candidates.
"Well, I think you start with those guys that are long enough to play out there," Kelly said. "We'd like to be a little bit longer. (Steve) Elmer, (Ronnie) Stanley, (Mike) McGlinchey, (Christian) Lombard. I think you start with those four guys."
Elmer spent the better part of his freshman season filling in at guard. Stanley spent the year starting at right tackle. McGlinchey is the team's most physically impressive candidate, while Lombard kicked inside to guard last year after spending 2012 at right tackle before a back injury ended his season early.
While Kelly doesn't buy into the prototype blind side protector, after never having to worry about Martin through four ironman seasons, Kelly was candid about testing people throughout spring practice.
"So long story short, most experienced, most athletic, you'd say it's Ronnie Stanley, immediately," Kelly said. "But most comfortable, and who's been on the left side? You go with the guys who have already been over there: Elmer. We'll probably go through the spring and look at both of those before we make that final decision."
The interior of the offensive line seems to be coming along nicely. Nick Martin is healing quickly from a knee injury and will go through all drills at center, though won't be cleared for contact. That will allow Matt Hegarty to build on his late-season experience, another incredible development for a player whose career nearly ended after suffering a stroke.
"Here's a kid who was almost ruled out of playing football," Kelly said of Hegarty. "Last year at this time, we had serious question marks about what his level would be here. Now we see him at workouts and he's leading and communicating."
In addition to McGlinchey, Hunter Bivin, Colin McGovern and John Montelus are all taking their redshirts off, giving the Irish their deepest offensive line of the Kelly era.
Christian Lombard, Grad Student
Nick Martin, Senior*
Matt Hegarty, Senior*
Conor Hanratty, Senior*
Ronnie Stanley, Junior*
Mark Harrell, Junior*
Steve Elmer, Sophomore
Hunter Bivin, Sophomore*
Mike McGlinchey, Sophomore*
Colin McGovern, Sophomore*
John Montelus, Sophomore*