Notre Dame Football: Position-by-Position Spring Practice Preview
Notre Dame begins spring practice on Monday. An earlier start than any other in Brian Kelly's 25 years as a head coach, the Irish will get two official sessions in before the university takes spring break, then complete their final 13 session culminating with the 85th annual Blue-Gold game on April 12.
After a 9-4 season didn't fulfill expectations, the Irish begin their work towards 2014 trying to make amends. They'll have new coordinators on both sides of the football with Mike Denbrock now organizing the offense (Kelly will call the plays) and Brian VanGorder in charge of the defense.
Both coaches will be tasked with getting talented, but unproven, personnel ready to compete.
"As I look at it, we are a talented football team, but inexperienced in a number of areas," Kelly said on Friday. "And it's our job to get those inexperienced players ready to play, and this is the time to do it."
Let's take a look at the Irish's position groups as we head into spring.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
Everett Golson finally returns to the field after a semester away from the program. The starting quarterback for the 2012 team, Golson leads a depth chart with only Malik Zaire behind him until freshman Deshone Kizer joins the team this summer.
It's an important spring for both players. For Golson, it's making up for lost time and putting last season in the rearview mirror. He'll have the opportunity to talk with media members Monday after practice. Then it's on to the task at hand: Leading the Irish.
Brian Kelly spoke about his goals for Golson during his intro to spring press conference last Friday:
"What we're working on with Everett is just consistency. I think if you look at, you know, the watch words for leadership, I think the first thing is compete and I've already answered that question. He's a great competitor.
"I think the second thing is consistency. Well, he hasn't shown that yet, right? So we're working on that consistency end of things. The third thing that I look for is great communication, and we're doing a really good job of communicating on a day‑to‑day basis.
"And the fourth thing is being coachable. I think those four things are what I look for from every one of our players, and I like where we are in that process with Everett right now."
As important as this spring is for Golson, it's even more critical for Zaire. After sitting behind Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix last season, Zaire is just a snap away from being the Irish's starting quarterback.
"Huge, huge spring for Malik Zaire. Huge. He's got to step up," Kelly said. "He's got to show a maturity level in terms of leadership, taking over the offense, and he's got to practice as if he's the starter.
"He's got to practice with a vision of him being the starter against Rice, and that's the way he's going to be evaluated every single day."
A very crowded depth chart at running back provided its first hints at clarity when Notre Dame released its spring roster. Amir Carlisle, who took the team's first carry of 2013 against Temple, was listed as a RB/WR. Will Mahone, a rising junior competing for playing time, was listed as a slot receiver.
That leaves just three backs to compete for the starting job. Senior Cam McDaniel, the team's leading returning rusher, is joined by sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant.
Brian Kelly talked about the decision to add some positional flexibility to Carlisle and Mahone, hinting at the logjam that needed clearing.
"You know, we've got a good stable of backs there, and I'm just trying to get guys reps," Kelly said.
The reps taken this spring will be fascinating to watch. Folston emerged as the team's best running back down the stretch. McDaniel proved to be the most trustworthy of the group, carrying the load for the team, even if statistically he was the least explosive.
The wild card in all of this will be Bryant. A knee injury short-circuited his freshman season. Given a medical redshirt to restart his eligibility, Bryant's goals are far more ambitious than your average freshman.
With a running quarterback threat, the ground game should add another dimension this season. The ability to move at tempo should help as well. After underachieving at this position in 2013, there's optimism that both Folston and Bryant are stars in the making and that the position can become one of the strengths of the team.
With DaVaris Daniels spending the semester back home in Chicago, spring practice will be about Everett Golson establishing some familiarity with his wide receivers. Nine of the team's top 10 pass-catchers from 2012 aren't on the roster right now, so these 15 practices will essentially add a chemistry class to this group's academic pursuits.
Chris Brown is now the veteran of the group. He has the lone catch by this group from Golson, a beautiful 50-yard bomb against Oklahoma. For C.J. Prosise, Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, Torii Hunter Jr. and early-enrollee Justin Brent, it'll be a critical spring.
Brian Kelly announced that James Onwualu was shifting from wide receiver to safety this spring. That's likely a sign that Kelly's comfortable with in the depth chart, even if it's much thinner than you'd ideally want.
Robinson showed flashes during his freshman season, catching just about everything thrown his way. Will Fuller led the team in yards per catch. Hunter drew raves from Kelly after practicing with the team during bowl preparations.
Even early-enrollee Brent sounds like he has the making of someone special as well, as long as he can catch up mentally.
"Brent is physical, he just looks like an upperclassman. He has a problem with right and left right now," Kelly quipped. "So once we get left and right figured out with him, we're going to be good with him. He looks great and he's doing great things for us."
Daniels is on pace to return this summer, with the exiled receiver telling CBS Sports that he'll be back and that Kelly sees him as the team's top receiver.
But until he returns, it's up for the young depth chart to find their way without him.
The Irish's offensive plans took a hit when Troy Niklas decided three seasons were enough in South Bend. Notre Dame's hulking tight end decided to declare for the NFL draft, essentially rebooting Scott Booker's position group and likely returning Brian Kelly's offense back to its spread roots.
With Niklas, the Irish were set to have two veteran tight ends, with senior Ben Koyack among the best backups in the country. Now Koyack will step into the starting lineup as the only player on the depth chart with any playing experience.
With Alex Welch deciding to play out his eligibility with Chuck Martin at Miami, it'll be Koyack and a group of first-year players. After redshirting in 2013, Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe will be counted on to play key minutes.
Neither have the bulk Kelly wants to be an attached tight end, with Heuerman's spring weight listed at 225 and Smythe's 242. So that job will fall on Koyack's shoulders. He may not be as large as Niklas, but Koyack's no slouch at 6'5", 261 pounds.
Inexperience certainly doesn't mean a lack of talent. Koyack rebounded last year after a difficult sophomore campaign in 2012. He's got the chance to continue "Tight End U's" run of players to the NFL, but a position group that looked like a strength will now be another one with question marks.
The injury woes that hit Harry Hiestand's offensive line in 2013 will now benefit this group, with the potential replacements for Zack Martin and Chris Watt getting opportunities to see the field early that will pay off this season.
The best laid plans certainly went awry last year, with only Martin and Ronnie Stanley lasting the season. But the injuries developed depth that'll now compete this spring for starting jobs.
Injuries allowed Conor Hanratty, Steve Elmer and Matt Hegarty to see the field—three players that'll factor heavily into the position battles taking place. That trio, along with some talented young players taking off redshirts, will make for an interesting spring.
Assume Stanley returns to the starting lineup. Whether that's at left tackle or right remains to be seen. Fifth-year player Christian Lombard enters spring healthy, capable of playing tackle or guard after starting at both positions in 2012 and 2013.
Nick Martin returns to practice after suffering a late-season knee injury, though the center won't take part in contact drills. That gives Hegarty another chance to work with the No. 1 unit. Hegarty could shift outside to guard as well, joining Hanratty in an interesting battle along the interior.
After playing as a true freshman, Elmer is one of the team's five best linemen. But spring will be spent finding a permanent home for him after shifting inside and out in 2013. Rising sophomore Mike McGlinchey also looks like a potential left tackle, with the hulking 6'7.5", 300-pounder the perfect prototype.
Highly touted redshirts John Montelus, Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin will also compete for jobs.
For the first time since joining the staff, Harry Hiestand will have plenty of depth during spring practice. But it could look like musical chairs as the Irish try and find the right starting five to protect Everett Golson.
Notre Dame will need to replace two starters along their three-man defensive front, with both Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt looking like first-round draft picks. That's no easy task, and Brian Kelly knows it.
The Irish will experiment with three and four man fronts this spring, as much a personnel decision as new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's preference. Kelly talked about the small tweaks VanGorder will implement, though the edict will largely be the same.
"I think at first glance, the birds are going to line up the same way. Generally speaking, it's going to look like what it's always looked like," Kelly said. "I think you'll see Coach VanGorder's personality come out a little differently than Coach Diaco's. But again, it's going to be a three‑down, four‑down, hybrid of both of those defenses working together."
After filling in for Nix down the stretch, Jarron Jones will get the first shot to play nose guard. Jones has added five pounds, checking in this spring at 6'5.5", 310 pounds. With Tony Springmann still working his way back from knee surgery, there doesn't look like another option at the nose until reinforcements come this summer.
Fifth year senior Justin Utupo might have the heft to play defensive tackle, though he's undersized at 6'0.5", 290 pounds.
Who supplies the pass rush from this group will be a big question. We've already expressed our belief that Sheldon Day can do his part, and the Irish head coach agrees.
"We think Sheldon Day can give us a guy who can give us a pass rush and we have to find another guy or guys who can bring some pressure," Kelly said.
We'll see if Chase Hounshell can contribute, finally healthy after two shoulder surgeries. Isaac Rochell comes back after playing as a freshman. Jacob Matuska takes off the redshirt as well. Early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti will get a chance to compete as well.
Ultimately, Kelly sounds genuine when he says he's not completely worried about how the Irish get a pass rush next season.
"That's not my biggest concern," Kelly said. "We're going to have enough ways in our sub‑packages that we're going to be able to find ways to bring pressures that we have not been able to bring him before."
All four starting linebackers that entered preseason camp last year are gone. Returning is one emerging star, one late bloomer and a whole lot of question marks.
The emerging star is Jaylon Smith. After a rock solid freshman season, Smith is the top playmaker on the Irish defense and an All-American caliber player. Brian Kelly talked about Smith's evolution, and how he wants to see Smith not only excel, but make the players around him better.
"That's the next thing that we'll be working with Jaylon is to bring some guys with him," Kelly said. "The Larry Bird rule that I use all the time is, make others around him better. He's not there yet, but that will be the next stage for him."
Also needing to take the leap forward is senior Ishaq Williams. Stuck behind Prince Shembo for the last three seasons, Williams has been mostly anonymous after heading to South Bend with massive expectations.
Williams will have the first shot at the Cat linebacker job, and at 271 pounds is capable of putting his hand on the ground as well.
"He's a different guy than he's ever been since I've been here," Kelly said, sounding confident in Williams' emergence. "I'm not saying that that's going to translate into 12 sacks and he's going to be an All‑American, but he's a different guy than at any time since I've been here.
"He's one athletic, big dude, and we've been waiting and waiting and waiting... We'll see. It's early. I'm going to be very cautious but I'm cautiously optimistic."
Behind that duo, not much is known. Perhaps that's why veteran assistant Bob Elliott is shifting to outside linebackers coach, helping with the position group as Brian VanGorder works with inside players while also coordinating the defense.
Competing at outside linebacker will be Romeo Okwara and Anthony Rabasa. Neither has made much of an impact thus far, though Okwara seems like a player on the verge of big things. Former safety John Turner will play the field side outside linebacker, supplying depth as Ben Councell recovers from a torn ACL.
How the Irish handle inside linebacker will be interesting. Jarrett Grace is still slowly recovering from a leg break suffered against Arizona State. He'll be ready for fall, but won't participate this spring. Fifth-year player Kendall Moore returns after four seasons as a backup, finally the next man in. Former walk-on Joe Schmidt will compete as well, with Doug Randolph adding another body at inside linebacker.
Rising sophomore Michael Deeb is looking like potential starting material after saving a year of eligibility last year. He's a good bet to slot into a starting job, at least until freshmen reinforcements hit campus this summer.
Only Bennett Jackson departs the secondary. But it's Kerry Cooks' job to get more production out of the back end of the Irish defense. Notre Dame needed four interceptions against Rutgers to get to the middle of the pack nationally, with the lack of takeaways making the margin for error far too thin for the Irish defense.
KeiVarae Russell returns for his third season at cornerback. He played the best game of his season against Rutgers and could be the closest thing the Irish have to a shutdown cornerback since Shane Walton.
Finding a starter to play across from him will be interesting. Florida transfer Cody Riggs joins the Irish this summer, but Brian Kelly shifted Matthias Farley to cornerback this spring, after spending the better part of two seasons starting at safety.
Rising sophomore Cole Luke will fight for the boundary corner job as well, joined by Devin Butler when his shoulder heals. Irish fans will see Rashad Kinlaw for the first time this spring after redshirting in 2013. Kelly said that four corners would likely play, so, doing the math, it's Kinlaw's job to fight his way into the rotation, with veterans Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown on the outside looking in as well.
Hardy's shift outside adds some clarity to the safety position, but it certainly doesn't solve things. Max Redfield's ascension into the starting lineup against Rutgers likely means the coaching staff thinks he's ready for the job. Austin Collinsworth played solid football for the Irish, intercepting passing in each of the season's final three games.
Elijah Shumate is hoping to put an injury-plagued sophomore season behind him. He's a better athlete than Collinsworth, but hasn't proven as reliable. And the wild card of the group might be former wide receiver James Onwualu, who transitions to the defensive side of the ball this spring.
The unit will be under the tutelage of Kerry Cooks, with the former co-defensive coordinator now tasked with coaching both cornerbacks and safeties.