Notre Dame Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Irish This Spring
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — One thing was certain heading into the spring: There would be a whole lot of newness surrounding Notre Dame football.
Gone were coordinators Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco. In were Mike Denbrock and Brian VanGorder.
Gone were a host of established senior starters as well as three juniors who departed South Bend early for the NFL draft.
Two months later, we've learned a lot. We’ll focus here on five key takeaways from the spring.
These aren’t necessarily the most important things we learned—we already knew we’d find out quite about VanGorder’s new defense, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly had made it clear in late January that Everett Golson and Malik Zaire would compete for the starting quarterback job.
Those were obvious. We were going to learn about those situations no matter what, and they’re still ongoing.
So, with that, here are five nuggets of new knowledge we have following spring ball.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Greg Bryant Should Contribute
It seems somewhat clear now after the second-year running back shined during the spring. He earned praise from coaches and teammates and performed well in the Blue-Gold game, racking up 95 yards on 12 carries— and breaking off a 51-yard, juke-laden scamper in the fourth quarter.
However, Bryant’s role was far from clear—at least to outsiders—at the beginning of the spring.
He was coming off a freshman season in which he played in three games and none after Purdue in mid-September. He rushed a grand total of three times for 14 yards before having a right knee procedure.
Fast-forward to March, and Kelly raved about what Bryant contributes to the backfield.
“This kid’s powerful. He’s a powerful back,” Kelly said on March 22. I think he brings that presence to our run game.”
But Bryant—as well as fellow running backs Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston—showed the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways.
“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,” Kelly said after the spring game on April 12. “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.”
Bryant, in particular, had a “really good spring,” according to Kelly.
“He's a physical kid, and he's fun to coach,” Kelly said after the game. “He's full of energy, he's got a smile on his face and he loves to play the game.”
The Irish Still Have the Ability to Play 2 Tight Ends
When Troy Niklas declared for the NFL draft, the Irish were left with Ben Koyack as the only returning tight end with any experience.
Second-year players Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman were both coming off freshman years in which they didn’t play at all.
Through spring ball, Smythe emerged as someone who can readily contribute in 2014.
“I really thought that Durham Smythe had a really good spring,” Kelly said after the Blue-Gold game. “He's an in‑line blocker. I think he's accomplished in the sense that the game comes pretty easy to him and as an in‑line blocker from a technique standpoint, he picks up things very well. Got good hands, body awareness and he's got good size.
“I really think he's going to be a key contributor for us in the fall.”
Denbrock offered a similar sentiment in the week leading up to the game, saying people should pay close attention to the Belton, Texas, native, praising his blocking and route running.
While Denbrock said Notre Dame hasn’t delved into the specifics of how often they’ll be in two-tight-end sets, he did note, “It’s always going to be part of our package.”
Joe Schmidt Will Have a Significant Role
Like Bryant, it could have been easy to forget just who Schmidt was before this spring began. A former walk-on who eventually earned a scholarship, Schmidt appeared in all 13 games last season, but totaled just 15 tackles.
However, Schmidt really seemed to take quickly to VanGorder’s new defense and it became increasingly difficult to send the Orange, California, native to the sideline for significant periods of time.
“Right now he can't come off the field,” Kelly said after the spring game. “His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively, he's absolutely integral to what we're doing.”
On multiple occasions throughout the spring, VanGorder also praised Schmidt’s knowledge, which he pitted against that of football players anywhere.
“He’s just uniquely bright, I’m talking to the professional league and all,” VanGorder said.
Such an elevated comprehension of the defense also puts Schmidt in a position to lead.
“Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense,” Kelly said. “There's no one probably that has the kind of leadership and understanding of our defense than Joe has right now.”
Though he does have his physical limitations—Schmidt is listed at 6’0.5”, 230 pounds—the linebacker figures to still have a key role on the defense.
“Joe is not 255 pounds, and if the game is a downhill iso game, we're going to have to be cognizant of what his shortcomings are,” Kelly said. “But right now, as a communicator, as a leader on our defense, he's emerged in the spring.”
1 Starting Spot on the Offensive Line Appears Up for Grabs
Throughout the spring, Mike McGlinchey was slotted as the first-team right tackle and Steve Elmer was positioned at left guard.
However, Kelly mentioned twice during the spring that those spots aren’t set in stone.
Kelly said Elmer could bump out to right tackle, opening up the left guard position and making McGlinchey the “swing guy” as a valued reserve. That would leave the likes of Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty or even a “ready” freshman to battle for the starting spot at left guard.
Denbrock said in late March that Ronnie Stanley figures to be the left tackle, Nick Martin should return to center and Elmer will likely start somewhere.
If we add graduate student Christian Lombard—when he returns from the wrist injury that prematurely ended his spring—to that trio, there’s one position left.
Regardless of how it shakes out, Denbrock knows he has options.
“I think offensive-line-wise, one of the great things that [offensive line] coach [Harry] Hiestand has is some versatility with the athletes that we have there and the opportunity to have some really quality depth,” Denbrock said.
Max Redfield Finished Strongly
Entering the spring, it wasn’t entirely clear how much Redfield would play in 2014. Sure, he was positioned with the first-team defense as one of the two safeties. And, sure, he constantly drew praise for his natural ability.
But as ESPN.com’s Matt Fortuna wrote, there always seemed to be a caveat with Redfield’s raw talent. We kept hearing about the learning curve.
Redfield appeared to find his way as spring practice wore on. Asked what he thought the defense was able to accomplish this spring, Kelly had a telling answer after the Blue-Gold game.
“We accomplished a lot in the sense that, first of all, Sheldon Day played a cameo role today, Jaylon Smith, Max Redfield, a lot of those guys got in and got out early. So we feel like we've identified some of our really legitimate playmakers,” Kelly said.
Kelly added that Redfield closed out the spring season trending upward.
“Max Redfield has had a really good back end of the spring,” Kelly said. “Probably the last seven practices, [he] has really stepped his game up and his knowledge of what we're doing has been really good.”
Earlier in the week, VanGorder said Redfield has “improved tremendously” over the course of the 15 practices.
“He’s got a long way to go there as he gains comfort in the position, but I think the comfort of the position is really growing right now,” VanGorder said.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.