Notre Dame Football: 5 Observations from Spring Practice in South Bend
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — One-third of the way into Notre Dame’s spring season with five practices in the books, media members have been allowed to view three practices, including all of Saturday’s two-hour session.
It’s early, yes. Position battles will be won, rotations will be reworked and players will certainly develop, but let’s take a look at some early observations from the spring practices we have seen.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Everett Golson Has More Zip on the Ball
Naturally the center of the spring discussion, Golson’s return has been picked apart and analyzed in a variety of ways. How has he evolved from his sophomore season as a quarterback to an undefeated regular season and the BCS National Championship Game?
One thing is apparent from watching Golson in practice: He throws harder—much harder.
Golson packed on 15 pounds in his time away from school. He now throws with the laces, and he’s firing lasers around the field. Even right after the first spring practice on March 3, the difference was palpable to those tasked with defending him.
“Everett looked awesome,” Irish senior cornerback Matthias Farley said after practice. “In the one-on-ones, he was throwing the ball so hard, it was like, ‘Wow, he is throwing the ball hard.’”
Wide receivers and other defensive backs have noticed the change too. During Saturday’s practice session in the 11-on-11 drills, for example, Golson threw off his back foot while on the move outside the pocket and still grooved a pass to junior wide receiver Chris Brown.
More velocity won’t necessarily translate into being a better passer—accuracy will still be essential, obviously—but the added zip gives Golson the ability to attempt more throws that a weaker quarterback might not try when there’s a small window in which to throw.
Offensive Skill-Position Players Are Big on Raw Ability
What the Irish running backs and receivers lack in past production, they make up for in natural ability and upside.
Let’s start at running back where sophomores Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant have displayed the talent many expected to see from the 4-star recruits coming out of high school.
Folston made his mark as a freshman, racking up 470 rushing yards, 401 of which came in the final six games of the season. While Irish head coach Brian Kelly describes Folston as smooth, Kelly raved Saturday after practice about Bryant’s power. Bryant’s force has been on full display thus far with the 5’10”, 204-pounder exploding through holes.
“Power. Power. Just power. That word,” Kelly said. “I think he brings that presence to our run game.”
The wide receivers bring similar natural ability to the mix, which will be needed to replace the production of top departed targets TJ Jones and Troy Niklas. Among a deep group of returnees, juniors Amir Carlisle, Brown and C.J. Prosise and sophomore Will Fuller have flashed their skill, and sophomore Corey Robinson’s hands are arguably his greatest asset.
One other name to keep an eye on: Justin Brent. The early-enrollee freshman is listed at 6’2”, 204 pounds and has already shown an impressive mix of strength and explosiveness.
Kyle McCarthy Could Be the De Facto Safeties Coach
The former Irish safety joined the staff this season as a graduate assistant, but he’s already taking on a very specific role: working with Notre Dame’s deep stable of safeties.
In his spring-opening press conference, Kelly expressed the faith he has in McCarthy to take on a larger role.
“When we interviewed him and I interviewed him, he's a guy that can stand on his own two feet in front of a room, and he can coach,” Kelly said Feb. 28. “And even though he's labeled as a graduate assistant, we feel like he's a guy that can really go back there and coach at a high level.”
Sure enough, when Notre Dame broke off into individual position drills Saturday about 15 minutes into practice, McCarthy alone was leading the safeties while defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks was with the cornerbacks.
It’s only one portion of one practice, but expect McCarthy to continue to lend his expertise to the Irish safeties. It will be interesting to see what becomes of this position group, which is among the deepest on the team.
Graduate student Austin Collinsworth and sophomore Max Redfield have been working with the first-team defense, but senior Eilar Hardy and juniors Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti are experienced. Sophomore James Onwualu has also seen reps as both a safety and linebacker (in sub packages) after switching from wide receiver to safety this spring.
As a fifth-year senior in 2009, McCarthy led the Irish with 101 tackles and five interceptions, following up his 2008 season, when McCarthy started all 13 games at strong safety and tallied 110 tackles, to become the first Irish defensive back to reach the century mark in a single season.
Expect to See a Deep Rotation of Backs and Receivers
Last year’s production in the receiving game came primarily from the trio of TJ Jones, Troy Niklas and DaVaris Daniels, who combined to account for 67 percent of Notre Dame’s receptions and 71 percent of the receiving yards.
This year, the production could be distributed much more evenly. We already discussed Brown, Carlisle, Prosise, Robinson, Fuller and Brent, who have all seen reps with the first-team offense this spring, and Notre Dame also has sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. and the possible return of would-be senior DaVaris Daniels.
Folston and Bryant look to be too talented for either to get squeezed out of the running game, and we can’t forget about senior Cam McDaniel, who was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2013 after amassing 705 yards on 152 carries.
The rotation could very well look like the breakdown last year when McDaniel, George Atkinson and Folston all logged at least 88 rushes.
Consistency Is Key for Kyle Brindza
When asked about special teams, Brian Kelly laid it out pretty bluntly last week after practice.
“I don’t know if you’ve watched us, but we haven’t been very good in special teams,” he said.
But while solid play has been missing in certain areas of special teams, at least one man has done his job. Senior Kyle Brindza handled both kicking and punting duties last season. He drilled 20 of 26 field goals (76.9 percent) and averaged 41.1 yards per punt.
We got our first glimpse of Brindza kicking Saturday. The 6’1”, 236-pounder opened practice by connecting on field goals from as far as 42 yards out with his kicks unsurprisingly sailing high above and past the goalposts. That and more has come to be expected from Brindza, who has made a school-record four field goals of at least 50 yards in his career.
Heading into his second season as the top kicker and punter, the Canton, Mich., native is striving for consistency even though he’s already third in school history for most career field goals with 43. Brindza was 23-of-31 (74.2 percent) on field goals as a sophomore.
“I’ve been focusing on consistency, not just on football but in my everyday life,” Brindza said. “If you have a consistent trait, you’re going to be able to go into football and have a consistency. But it’s also, with that consistency, being able to push yourself a little bit more. So it’s focusing on the next level each day.”
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.