Notre Dame Football: Grading Notre Dame's Post-Spring Depth Chart
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Between practices open to the media and Saturday’s spring game, we’ve had quite a few opportunities to check out the Irish in person.
We’ve been able to see a lot of different players in a variety of roles. With that in mind, it’s a good time to evaluate the current depth chart coming out of spring ball.
Just so we’re all clear on the guidelines used to grade the squad, incoming freshmen aren’t considered as of now, and neither are defensive back Cody Riggs and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels.
Our letter grades are based on the premise that a “C” is average, and that an average team is roughly around .500.
Away we go.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Malik Zaire shone on Saturday, and while Everett Golson didn’t have the same level of success, he still held his own and didn’t commit any turnovers.
It can be easy to forget the inexperience factor with both quarterbacks, as Zaire has yet to play in a regular-season game and Golson was a redshirt freshman in 2012, and even then, Tommy Rees was needed on multiple occasions to rescue the Irish. The point is that both quarterbacks are still relatively young and, though they can both wow at any given time, they’re still learning.
With just these two scholarship quarterbacks, the position is thin, at least until 2014 signee DeShone Kizer joins the squad.
This might be Notre Dame’s strongest position group on the entire roster. Between senior Cam McDaniel and sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, the Irish have three legitimate options as runners, pass-catchers and blockers.
The trio combined for 28 carries for 166 yards and one touchdown Saturday, and the backs also totaled eight receptions for 85 yards.
“I thought you saw it today, that all three facets, running the football with some toughness, getting on the perimeter, pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the Blue-Gold Game. “I thought they hit all three facets of what we've really worked hard on this spring, and I thought that they really checked the boxes on all those three.”
It’s not that there isn’t enough depth. There just isn’t anyone who has stepped up to the front of the position.
Kelly did say Saturday that the receivers showed more consistency than they did at times throughout the spring, but it will take more than one spring outing to convince us the unit will perform consistently.
Though it’s a young group, there’s still plenty of upside, whether in the form of sophomores Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and Torii Hunter Jr., juniors Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise or senior Amir Carlisle. The raw talent and potential is enough to boost the receivers slightly above average.
No Niklas? No problem?
Even after losing the physical specimen of a tight end to the NFL draft, the Irish look solidly situated once more.
Senior Ben Koyack emerged as the 2013 season progressed, and he has carried that into this spring, to the point that, a few weeks ago, Kelly referred to Koyack as the pass-catcher who would be most likely to settle the offense down when it needed a play to be made. The senior notched three grabs for 35 yards Saturday.
Behind him, the Irish have a pair of sophomores in Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman. Kelly said Smythe had a “really good spring” and has progressed nicely as an in-line blocker. He also drew compliments from Kelly for his hands, body awareness and size.
“I really think he’s going to be a key contributor for us in the fall," Kelly said.
Heuerman is farther away, as Kelly said the Florida native must become more consistent as a receiver and add more weight to his 225-pound frame.
We don’t know what exactly it will look like, but there are enough proven contributors here to assume the line won’t miss too much of a beat despite the losses of Zack Martin and Chris Watt.
Senior center Nick Martin should return to anchor the line, and between sophomore Steve Elmer, junior Ronnie Stanley and graduate student Christian Lombard, Notre Dame likely has four-fifths of the starting unit decided.
Still, there are enough questions about new starters and former starters in new positions to drop the offensive line down a peg from last year’s group.
We could see a variety of players—Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty and Mike McGlinchey headline the competitors—in the final starting spot, wherever along the line that may be.
With Martin and Lombard currently injured, the group is thin at this point, but that shouldn’t be a problem in the fall, when the Irish add four 2014 signees and two preferred walk-ons, according to Kelly.
We’ve seen plenty of Sheldon Day through the first two seasons of his career, so we know what to expect there. Plus, Kelly said Day is Notre Dame’s best on-the-ball player and called him a “handful” from his defensive tackle spot.
After Day, though, there’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s still unclear what to expect from senior defensive end Ishaq Williams in 2014, and we’ve only seen junior defensive tackle Jarron Jones sparingly through the first two years of his career.
Even as recently as last week, the group looked enigmatic. But we received some clarity Saturday from Kelly, who named junior defensive end Romeo Okwara—along with linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Max Redfield—as the top defensive players in the tier below Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback KeiVarae Russell.
“I think we found a role for Romeo, one that I think we feel a lot more comfortable where he is,” Kelly said. “He's got to do a good job of taking care of his body and keeping up the weight up and doing those things. But I think those three guys in particular [are in the next tier].”
The defensive line is in good shape behind the quartet of Okwara, Jones, Day and Williams. Seniors Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell and sophomore Isaac Rochell have all played regularly at points in their careers.
Linebacker could be the toughest position to grade, a combination of the multiple defenses and sub packages—which have safeties lining up, effectively, as linebackers—and injuries.
First things first: Jaylon Smith is a huge strength for the Irish. Kelly called the sophomore Notre Dame’s best off-the-ball player, and Smith’s shift to the inside could be an enormous boost.
“It puts that guy next to all the things that you can do defensively, and so that was really in the decision more than anything else, just to get him in a position where we can activate him at any time,” Kelly said.
Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have spoken glowingly about Schmidt during the spring, and he’ll have a large role, as well. Junior John Turner came on strong early in the spring, and he and players like graduate student Kendall Moore could have specialized roles, one of Kelly’s big takeaways from the spring.
“What Brian [VanGorder] has done is he has found players that maybe have not played a lot of football for us, that can have roles in assisting and helping our defense,” Kelly said.
The biggest questions in this group revolve around the recoveries of seniors Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell. Councell is closer to returning from his knee injury than Grace is from his recent stabilizing surgery.
Throughout the spring, we knew there was plenty of depth among the safeties. But we didn’t know who would emerge from that group.
Now, it sure looks as if Redfield has established himself at the position. Kelly mentioned how Day, Smith and Redfield all got in and out early Saturday, and the head coach added they feel they’ve identified some of their “really legitimate playmakers.”
Kelly said Redfield, in particular, finished the spring strongly.
“Probably the last seven practices, [he] has really stepped his game up and his knowledge of what we're doing has been really good,” Kelly said.
Earlier in the spring, defensive backs coach Kerry Cooks said graduate student Austin Collinsworth and Russell were on a different level from the rest of the secondary.
The Irish also have plenty of experience in senior Eilar Hardy and junior Elijah Shumate, and Nicky Baratti played as a reserve in 2012 before missing last season due to injury. Baratti, who has had two surgeries on his left shoulder, injured his right shoulder Saturday and did not return to the game. Kelly did not have any further updates.
Still, it’s a deep group with loads of experience.
Junior KeiVarae Russell is Notre Dame’s most experienced defensive player with 26 career starts, and he’s been widely praised by players, coaches and media alike throughout the spring.
So the Irish are set on one side of the field (Notre Dame’s cornerbacks, by the way, will stick to a side this year after serving as either the field or boundary corner in years past).
We’ve seen sophomore Cole Luke opposite Russell this spring, and Luke is smooth and talented. But he’s inexperienced, as are the cornerbacks behind him on the depth chart.
Fellow sophomore Rashad Kinlaw was dismissed from the team a few weeks ago, thinning the group even more.
But between Russell, Luke and senior Matthias Farley, who will likely man the slot at times in addition to other spots in the secondary, Notre Dame should get by.
He may not have shown it Saturday, but senior Kyle Brindza seems poised for a big final season. He has a huge leg and plenty of confidence in it, and Kelly should be confident in Brindza too.
The senior is enough to carry this unit, but should Brindza go down with any sort of injury, there’s no proven security blanket waiting in the wings in the way kicker Nick Tausch and punter Alex Wulfeck were last season. Sophomore John Chereson, a preferred walk-on, is the only other kicker or punter currently listed on Notre Dame’s spring roster.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.