SOUTH BEND — Growing up in Sweden, Notre Dame sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath relied on YouTube videos to gently introduce him to the art of playing defensive back.
His first taste of playing linebacker this week was more of a crash course — literally and figuratively. The good kind of crashes. Which is why the sudden position switch experiment will continue.
“We think that his size, his instincts, his physicality merited an opportunity to look at the (buck linebacker),” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday at the conclusion of practice 12 of 15 this spring.
Genmark Heath, who played his high school ball in San Diego once his family immigrated, is the largest of the safeties currently on the Irish roster, at 6-foot-1, 211 (June-arriving freshman Derrik Allen will top that, at 6-2, 215).
Kelly said if all goes well and Genmark Heath can work his way into the two-deeps at linebacker, senior Asmar Bilal can focus solely on the rover position and not have to cross train between the rover and the buck linebacker position.
Reading between the lines, it also means that beyond junior Jonathan Jones the depth at the inside linebacker positions might be a bit underwhelming, and the depth at strong safety may be surging.
As a safety and special teams player, Genmark Heath collected 16 tackles as a freshman in 2017 and was playing in some high-leverage situations on defense in ND’s 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over LSU on Jan. 1.
“This late in spring, it’s about giving us a sense of what he can do close to the ball,” Kelly said. “We like his contact skills. We like his instincts for the football.”
But Kelly needs to see more before he deems the move permanent.
“I’m not a guy who likes to move guys just to move them,” he said. “We have a plan, and the plan would be if he could take that position over and let Asmar stay out at the rover and focus on that, that would be the ideal situation for us.”
Speaking of switches, Kelly’s resplendent smile when asked about freshman cornerback Houston Griffith’s mid-spring conversion to free safety almost made the words that spilled out of his mouth shortly thereafter unnecessary.
So did the 6-foot, 196-pound early enrollee’s Saturday practice reps. His tackling, his savvy, his confidence were all apparent on virtually every play in scrimmage situations.
But is he assignment-correct?
“Yep, yep, yep,” Kelly began, hardly able to contain his delight. “Yeah, he knows what he’s doing
“You never know until they get here, and then you put the pads on them … he’s got instincts, knows the game. He’s going to be a real good player here.
“How that ends up, whether he’s a starter or a backup, he will play football for Notre Dame this fall, no doubt.”
They’re called chaos segments in practice, and the inspiration for them was Notre Dame’s chaotic 41-8 loss to Miami (Fla.), Nov. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.
“How we didn’t handle (it) and I didn’t prepare our guys for handling (it),” Kelly said.
And, most importantly, how not to repeat it on the road in 2018.
What that looked like Saturday was the Irish defense having to try to stop the Irish offense with 10 players instead of the full complement of 11.
Earlier in the week in practice, the offense had two plays to convert a fourth-and-1 but had to use a soccer ball to do it.
If the unit being tested fails, there’s extra, punitive running involved.
“Sam Mustipher had to snap it and (QB) Brandon Wimbush had to catch it,” Kelly said of the soccer ball drill.
“No one knows when they (chaos segments) are coming during the practices except me. I don’t even tell the coaches. I want them to have to adjust in the moment too, including the play-calling.”
If grad senior Alex Bars’ move to left guard sticks, as expected, it will be the third different position in which he has started in the past three seasons.
Bars was the starting right guard in 2017 and the starting right tackle in 2016.
“He doesn’t care if he’s in a right-handed stance or left-handed stance,” Kelly said of the move prompted by the desire to put an experienced player next to emerging first-year starting left tackle Liam Eichenberg.
As for Eichenberg, Kelly said the difference between the player who faded in the three-way battle for starting status at right tackle last August and the one who has seized the starting left tackle spot this spring is above the eyebrows.
“You could see he didn’t play with the kind of confidence that he needed to,” Kelly said. “Emotionally he’s in his comfort level and his zone now.
“He would jump offsides easily, miss an assignment easily. I think that’s maturity. ‘I think it’s my time now and I’m ready for it.’ So I think a lot of it is more mental than physical.”
There were plenty of eyes on the offensive line at practice Saturday, including former Irish All-America lineman Aaron Taylor and all four members of the June-arriving freshman O-line class — Jarrett Patterson, Luke Jones, John Dirksen and Cole Mabry.
Some sharp reaction elsewhere to the new NCAA rule regarding kickoff returns wasn’t shared by Kelly.
On Friday, the NCAA announced that its Playing Rules Oversight Panel had approved a new rule allowing the receiving team to fair-catch the kickoff inside the 25-yard line and have it result, essentially, in a touchback and be brought out to the 25-yard line.
“It’s not going to be as big of a deal as many people have alerted that it might be,” Kelly assessed. “I don’t know that you’ll see that much fair-catching left and right, because (Kickers) are just going to bang that ball into the end zone.”
That’s opposed to pooch kicks, which tactically won’t make much sense anymore.
Tight end Cole Kmet missed Saturday’s practice to join the Irish baseball team on its road trip to second-ranked N.C. State.
On Friday night, he earned his seventh save of the season as the Irish rallied for a 12-8 victory over the Wolfpack. The left-handed reliever pitched two innings and did not allow a baserunner while striking out two.
Four of his seven saves have come against teams currently ranked in the Baseball America Top 25: the No. 2 Wolfpack, No. 7 Clemson, No. 9 Florida State and No. 19 LSU.
On Saturday, in a 12-2 loss to N.C. State, Kmet collected his first collegiate hit — as a pinch hitter — in his third collegiate at-bat.
Fellow sophomore Brock Wright was the beneficiary of Kmet’s football absence, as ND had only two healthy scholarship tight ends available on Saturday.
“He’s put himself in position to be a solid player for us after shoulder surgery,” Kelly said of a procedure that kept Wright from full contact in the early part of spring. “And I say that, because that doesn’t happen easily.
“Guys come back, they’re hesitant. They’re not fully engaged in it. He’s picked up and I think put himself back in a position where we didn’t even know he had surgery.”
• Spring sensation Avery Davis — a sophomore working at quarterback, running back and wide receiver — was getting first-team reps at receiver on Saturday.
• Punter Tyler Newsome started the spring as ND’s holder on place kicks, but Saturday it was quarterback Ian Book doing the holding.
• Sophomore Josh Lugg, who auditioned for a starting spot at left guard earlier in the spring, was moved to left tackle to back up Eichenberg.
• Senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush had an extraordinarily productive and accurate day throwing the football.