SOUTH BEND —A year after spoon-feeding by necessity while remaking and reinstalling the revised offensive and defensive playbooks, this run of spring football practices for Notre Dame has been more about testing than building.
With the quarterbacks, that means keeping the play scripts away from them, so they don’t have hours to study and diagnose their reads and progressions. Instead they have to think and process in the moment, more similarly to game conditions.
For the entire offense, there’s more practice periods with unrelenting pressure from the defense, more two-minute offense drills, more unexpected situations thrown at the players in which they have to fight through adversity without coaching advice.
“(It’s about) figuring out pieces,” second-year offensive coordinator Chip Long said Thursday. “Who’s gotten better this offseason? Who we can count on?
“When it’s game 8, when guys are getting banged up, who’s going to be able to get through that grind? That hurt us last year. So that’s been the biggest emphasis for me.”
Eleven practices into the allotted 15 this spring — with the finale Blue-Gold Game set for April 21 —here are the most catalyzing figures on the offensive side of the ball:
• Liam Eichenberg: The 6-foot-6, 308-pound junior from Cleveland, Ohio, has always had the pedigree. And now apparently he has the fire to go with it, which helped boost him to the top of the depth chart at left tackle this week and likely for good.
“He’s just getting more and more confident every day,” Long said. “He’s going to be a young guy, so he’ll make some mistakes. But he’s finally turning it loose and playing hard all the time.”
That, and long arms and overall size gave him the upper hand over 6-5, 291-pound sophomore Robert Hainsey, who auditioned at left tackle earlier in spring.
The standard for left tackle play at Notre Dame is formidable. On April 26, All-American Mike McGlinchey is expected to become Notre Dame’s third starting left tackle in succession to eventually evolve into a first-round NFL Draft pick, following Ronnie Stanley, and Zack Martin before him.
Eichenberg’s surging play this spring has also allowed the coaching staff to set the other four offensive line positions. In pencil still, grad senior right guard Alex Bars moves to left guard, to give Eichenberg a more experienced player next to him to help him transition to a starter.
Grad senior Sam Mustipher is a constant, returning at center. The two players who time-shared the right tackle position in 2017 will play next to each other if the lineup holds — Hainsey at right tackle and junior Tommy Kraemer sliding inside to guard.
“We’ve got about eight guys right now who can play winning football,” Long said, citing sophomores Josh Lugg and Aaron Banks, and senior Trevor Ruhland as key backups.
“Most places I’ve been you’ve had 6 or 5 ½ guys. It’s nice to have this depth. We’ve just got to get them more mature up front, and that just comes with time.”
• Avery Davis: The 5-11, 203-pound sophomore quarterback/running back/wide receiver had a stretch of practices strong enough to at least earn him Flavor of the Week status. Then he upped his game again significantly to the point that Long is convinced the multi-position experiment will be both impactful and enduring.
“He’s really kind of surpassed my expectations.” Long said. “Really, this last week he’s probably been the most explosive player on our offense that we’ve had.”
The other “slash” player on offense, running back/wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, has had his progress diluted by injuries. Both players redshirted last season as freshmen while focusing on one positon.
“He’s scoring a lot of touchdowns,” Long said of how Davis’ buy-in was going. “That always helps.”
• Alizé Mack: The senior tight end’s peak days usually come with a caveat. This spring, he has strung so many good practices together, there seems to be less of a need for a reminder about his history of inconsistency.
Last season, for instance, only two of Mack’s 19 catches on the season and 12 of his 166 receiving yards came over the last seven games of the season, capped by a suspension for the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl.
“He hasn’t had a bad day yet,” Long said. “As long as he concentrates on just daily devotion to his craft, all the things he wants will come his way.”
And sophomores Cole Kmet and recently cleared for contact Brock Wright have been impressive, particularly two-sport standout Kmet, who garnered his sixth save of the season earlier this week at Michigan State for the Irish baseball team.
Grad senior Nic Weishar, limited by recovery from shoulder surgery this spring, and freshmen Tommy Tremble and George Takacs will add depth in fall camp. But the three healthy tight ends this spring are hinting at a position-group renaissance, especially Mack.
“It’s his senior year — you don’t get another senior year,” Long said of the impetus for Mack’s mental shift. “So it’s time to decide what kind of player you want to be, what kind of legacy you want to leave, if this game is important to you. And it is important to him.
“I’m extremely proud of his growth. He understands what he has to do daily, so he can stay at that level of performance.”
• Brandon Wimbush: Head coach Brian Kelly, Long and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees all continue to dance around questions of whether separation exists between senior QB incumbent Wimbush and junior challenger Ian Book.
However, reading between the lines and watching the disproportionate No. 1 reps that have gone to Wimbush, certainly tell a story.
“Ian struggled a little bit early in the spring,” Long said. “He’s come on as of late. Brandon has been really solid. My biggest thing for him is under the lights when people are around.
“And that’s why we’ve been extremely hard on him situationally with the football, trying to create that as much as possible. He’s definitely better locating the ball. He’s more confident. He and I can talk football so much better now. So that excites me.”
So do healthy running backs, who can — among other things — help expand a passing game that finished 101st nationally in team passing efficiency.
“We couldn’t use that part of our offense (in 2017),” Long said of backfield passing threats, “and it hurt us.”
So did the lack of aggressiveness by the wide receiver corps last season, something that Long has seen a reversal in so far this spring.
“Their (the QBs’) confidence is growing, because everybody in the skill positions is making contested catches. I think last year you could count on one hand how many one-on-one contested balls we made.
“This year it’s been good seeing guys laying out and making plays for the quarterbacks. And that builds confidence for everybody on the offense. That’s been a big deal for this last week and a half for me.”