Notre Dame Football: Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—We’re closing in on the Blue-Gold Spring Game, meaning it’s an appropriate time to take stock of various position battles.
There’s obviously still the caveat that we’re roughly five months away from the season opener and things will undoubtedly change but let’s take a look at what we’ve learned so far and try to understand how things look right now and how they could look come Week 1.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Ever since Brian Kelly cautioned in late January that he wasn’t ready to “hand everything over” to senior Everett Golson, there’s been much discussion about a supposed quarterback competition between Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire.
While Golson has taken the majority of the first-team reps in practices open to the media, Zaire has flashed his dual-threat ability and expressed supreme self-confidence when he spoke with reporters about who will start the season opener.
Kelly recently said he doesn’t think Golson is feeling comfortable yet within the offense, especially considering he’s throwing to a completely different group of pass-catchers than he did when Golson quarterbacked the Irish to an undefeated regular season in 2012.
“It’s really like he’s working with a whole new cast of characters in that sense,” Kelly said March 22. “It’s going to take some time.”
On Saturday, however, Kelly said Golson is “starting to get a better feel for them.”
It should take time, just as it will take time to officially name a starting quarterback.
“It’s always about finding that consistency at that position. It’s just going to take some time,” Kelly said of tabbing a starter. “I don’t have a timetable on it. I’ll know when it’s running the right way and it’s smooth and it’s not there yet. It will be.”
While Zaire has the raw ability and confidence, it’s difficult to envision him leapfrogging Golson to become the starter when the Irish take the field Aug. 30 against Rice.
The receiver position is seemingly wide open, with none of the top three targets from 2013 currently with the team—T.J. Jones graduated, Troy Niklas entered the NFL Draft and DaVaris Daniels is suspended for the spring semester.
The leading returning receiver is junior Chris Brown, who tallied 15 receptions for 209 yards and a touchdown last season. After him, no other receiver recorded double-digit catches.
Brown has drawn praise from offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock for being the “steadiest force” on a day-to-day basis when it comes to understanding his role, and Kelly raved about sophomore Corey Robinson for always doing what’s asked of him.
In addition to those two and Daniels, who is expected to return, there’s a still a large group of potential contributors, from freshman Justin Brent to sophomores Will Fuller and Torii Hunter Jr. to junior C.J. Prosise to senior Amir Carlisle.
As we’ve discussed before, the distinction of starter might not matter as this position, as it’s reasonable to expect many, if not all, of the above receivers to contribute.
As of now, though, Brown and Robinson have certainly impressed the coaches on the outside, as has Fuller, while Prosise and Carlisle have looked solid in the slot.
We’ll group the entire offensive line together because Kelly has reiterated throughout the spring that he’s more interested in putting the best five guys on the field than focusing on the specifics of, say, a left tackle versus a right tackle.
From what Denbrock and Kelly have said throughout the spring, junior Ronnie Stanley, sophomore Steve Elmer and senior Nick Martin, once he returns from the torn left MCL suffered Nov. 23 against BYU, figure to be part of that five-man contingent. Stanley has worked at left tackle and Elmer at left guard throughout the spring, and Martin almost certainly slots back in at center.
Graduate student Christian Lombard has started 20 games in the past two seasons but back problems ended his 2013 campaign early, and Lombard suffered a dislocated right wrist a few weeks ago and had spring-ending surgery March 20. If and when Lombard returns to full health, it’s hard to see the two-year starter bumped back to the second unit.
Senior Matt Hegarty has filled in for Martin at center and fellow senior Conor Hanratty has replaced Lombard at right guard. Sophomore Mike McGlinchey has been at right tackle throughout the spring.
One other option is Hanratty earning a spot at guard, freeing up Elmer to fight for a tackle position.
There are a lot of bodies at the safety spot and still quite a bit to be sorted out. During the spring, we’ve seen graduate student Austin Collinsworth and sophomore Max Redfield take the majority of the first-team reps.
Kelly and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have praised Redfield’s natural ability, but it always seems to come with a caveat, as ESPN.com’s Matt Fortuna writes.
Still, Redfield was a 4-star recruit and ESPN’s No. 23 overall player in the nation coming out of high school in Mission Viejo, Calif., and it’s hard not to see him building off the starting nod he received in the Pinstripe Bowl and running with it all the way to a starting safety spot.
Collinsworth started 11 games in 2013, junior Elijah Shumate started four and senior Eilar Hardy started two. They’re all in the mix for playing time, as is junior Nicky Baratti, who played in all 13 games as a freshman in 2012 before missing last year with another shoulder injury.
Sophomore James Onwualu has switched from receiver to safety, but he figures to have a longer learning curve. It’s also worth noting senior Matthias Farley, who is now listed as a cornerback after starting 19 games at safety in the past two seasons, could likely help out if needed.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow@MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.