SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Wednesday marks the start of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's football’s spring practice, a time when imaginations and expectations often run in uncontrolled directions.
It’s reasonable to be optimistic with a clean slate and time to improve. So as practice begins early Wednesday morning for the Irish, what should be expected?
No, we don’t know who the better quarterback will be, and we won’t know based on one two-hour practice session.
Still, the importance of spring ball isn’t to be understated.
“These next seven weeks now we begin to do a lot more of the building of 2015's football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.
Here’s what to expect.
Kelly is now in his sixth season in South Bend, and he already knows this spring will be different.
“This is the first time since I’ve been here where I feel like I can go into practice and I can bang around,” he said.
Oklahoma drills? Sure.
Tackling drills? Of course.
What would seem to be staples of a high-level football program have been delicacies in Kelly’s years. Oftentimes the Irish have had to work to reach the 85-scholarship limit. This year, it’s the other way around.
“It feels like for me that we've got the depth necessary to go and play football,” Kelly said. “I always felt like I'm tiptoeing around this roster in the spring because we're afraid over here or afraid over here.
“We can go play, really target some of the younger players in certain areas, let them get in there and get after it.”
There will be competition. Certainly, the highest-profile position battle is at quarterback, where Everett Golson and Malik Zaire are and will continue competing for snaps.
But healthy battles should litter the practice field, as Notre Dame has been able to continually land high-end recruiting classes and restock the depth chart. The focus, for now, is less on the starter and backup designation and more on overall depth and competition.
A few particular areas to keep an eye on, however, are left guard and linebacker. Kelly said redshirt freshman linemen and former blue-chip recruits Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars will compete for the left guard job, a two-man battle after the departure of possible fifth-year candidate Matt Hegarty.
At least seven linebackers will top the two-deep in the spring, and Kelly said it’s “a good problem to have,” pointing to the depth at middle linebacker, in particular. Defensive MVP Joe Schmidt is returning from injury, as is Jarrett Grace, who last played in October 2013 before suffering a broken leg.
Sophomore Nyles Morgan returns as well, while “Sam” linebackers James Onwualu and Greer Martini offer versatility. Early enrollee Te’von Coney backs up returning star Jaylon Smith at the weak-side spot.
“I think we offer more opportunities and a lot more flexibility in terms of whether we're three-down, four-down, whether we're nickeling out at the Sam,” Kelly said of the linebacker position. “One of them is not going off the field, and that is Jaylon Smith. That's a certainty. The rest of the guys are competing, and I think it's a pretty good situation.”
There aren’t any major position shifts at this point, but the Irish do continue to tinker with their roster, especially as they wait for next year’s crop of freshmen to arrive this summer.
Fifth-year candidate Chase Hounshell has switched from the defensive line to tight end and swapped out No. 50 for No. 18.
“Chase knocked down my door, wouldn't leave me alone, just kept coming back and saying, ‘Coach, I want to be part of this team. I have something to offer,’” Kelly said of Hounshell’s pitch.
Kelly said he told Hounshell, who has battled injuries throughout his career, Notre Dame didn’t have a place for him on the defensive line but would give him a chance as a physical, blocking tight end.
“Nothing has been decided,” Kelly said. “He's willing to go through spring and give it a shot, and we'll see where it goes from there. He's been a great teammate, great in the locker room. The guys really enjoy having him. We like his team‑first mentality, so we're going to give him a chance to earn a roster spot playing tight end.”
Senior C.J. Prosise’s position is a more important, yet still minor, shift to pay attention to. The slot receiver is cross training at running back, Kelly said, and has been in the running back meetings and will “get quite a bit of work at running back.” The 220-pounder excelled as a runner at times in 2014, most notably in the Music City Bowl victory over LSU.
It’s worth noting Notre Dame has just two scholarship running backs on the spring roster in juniors Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.
Again, caution is an operative word for the spring. All-Americans aren’t named in March.
But expect to see progress from the Irish after the first seven weeks of the spring semester were spent on the sheer physical aspects—strength and conditioning. These next seven weeks, Kelly explained, are more geared toward skill development, leadership and mental components.
A glimpse of practice should allow us to make some tentative guesses on who has progressed the most physically.
In terms of injuries, Kelly said sophomore safety Drue Tranquill (torn ACL) is a “nut” and would be practicing full contact if Notre Dame didn’t have a training staff. Expect Tranquill to do some lateral activities and maybe progress toward some drill work, Kelly said.
Grace is a wild card for the Irish. Before missing the final seven games in 2013, the middle linebacker was tied for the team lead with 40 tackles.
The fun begins Wednesday.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.