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Which Notre Dame position groups promise the most spring intrigue? Here are five

  • 5 min to read
Syndication: Journal Sentinel

Wisconsin grad transfer quarterback Jack Coan (17) looks to be Ian Book's successor as Notre Dame's No. 1 QB.

Four springs ago, pending Clemson grad transfer defensive tackle Scott Pagano flirted with the idea of finishing his college career at Notre Dame.

Then he picked Oregon.

Suddenly the renaissance ND coach Brian Kelly was plotting after a humbling 4-8 season in 2016 seemingly had a gaping hole in it that only grew more ominous in the summer when prized interior defensive line recruit Darnell Ewell flailed at taking a seemingly clear path to a meaningful role as a freshman.

What else happened over the summer and into the fall of 2017 perfectly framed how spring practice should be consumed and interpreted.

It’s not about reaching conclusions as much as it is asking the right questions and beginning to vet them.

And being open-minded to experimenting, with both personnel and scheme, while understanding that surprises will happen.

In 2017, they turned out to be mostly pleasant surprises where Notre Dame needed them most.

Junior-to-be Jerry Tillery began a shift from puzzling prospect to eventual All-America defensive tackle and first-round draft choice, and Jonathan Bonner played the best football of his life after considering walking away from the sport.

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Grad senior Kurt Hinish (41) leads a deep and talented interior defensive line contingent in 2021.

Then there were two three-star recruits who enrolled in June of 2017 as freshmen, Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who far exceeded expectations and provided quality depth throughout the season up the middle.

Pagano, meanwhile, played in eight games as a reserve at Oregon in an injury-pocked season in 2017, making only two tackles after having been a part-time starter at Clemson with 92 career tackles there.

Interestingly, heading into 2021 Notre Dame football spring practice — exact dates still to be determined — the Irish interior defense line is the position group with the fewest questions.

Here then are the five position groups that are likely to create both the most urgency and intrigue.

Quarterbacks

It will be fascinating to see how reps are split among the five QBs, with zero significant college snaps among them in 2020, largely because the Irish need to find a clear No. 1 AND a clear No. 2 before they open the 2021 season Sept. 5 at Florida State.

Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan was a starter in 2019 before a foot injury derailed his 2020 season, and he would seem to have the inside track. But here’s a stat to keep in mind:

Of the six outgoing transfer QBs in the Kelly Era at ND who have completed their college eligibility, only Andrew Hendrix (Miami, Ohio) was able to win the starting job and retain it at his new school.

Syndication: Milwaukee

Wisconsin grad transfer QB Jack Coan looks to shake the rust with Notre Dame this spring after missing the 2020 season with a foot injury.

Two former five-stars — Dayne Crist (Kansas) and Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati) — were eventually beaten out, as were Everett Golson (Florida State) and Brandon Wimbush (UCF). Malik Zaire made two starts (Florida) in his final season and played in four games.

Vaunted mid-year freshman enrollee Tyler Buchner, meanwhile, also has some daunting history to overcome, not to mention transcending a lost senior high school season because of COVID-19 prompting fall sports to be canceled in California.

Since freshman eligibility was restored by the NCAA in 1972, only eight Notre Dame quarterbacks started at least one game during their respective freshman seasons, but none of them started the season opener.

In fact, Jimmy Clausen (2007) was the only one of the eight who started before game 4. Then-head coach Charlie Weis opted to start Clausen — in game 2 of what turned out to be a 3-9 season — on the road, against Penn State.

If Coan and Buchner turn out to be the No. 1 and 2 options in some order, how similar the offense will look when the two of them are taking the practice snaps is a mystery to unravel, given their divergent skill sets when it comes to running the ball.

Ultimately, the player who emerges at the top of the depth chart from Coan, Buchner, Brendon Clark, Drew Pyne and Ron Powlus III needs to be the one who can eventually upgrade Notre Dame in the passing-efficiency department (No. 43 nationally in 2020).

Top 16 nationally is a high bar, but a necessary one for an aspiring national title contender. Not only have each of the past four national champs and runners-up met or exceeded that lofty minimum, it’s somewhere no Brian Kelly QB at Notre Dame has been in his first 11 seasons with the Irish.

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Notre Dame freshman receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr. (3), here playing for Pickerington (Ohio) Central High in 2020, looks to make a strong first impression at ND this spring.

Wide receivers

Grad senior Avery Davis is the only wide receiver coming back with more than seven catches in 2020, but optimism comes from the collective speed boost that could come from the next wave.

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander has quelled some questions about his recruiting prowess in the past couple of cycles. Now comes the opportunity to do so when it comes to his ability to develop talent.

Three players to keep an eye one when it comes to that are sophomores-to-be Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts, along with mid-year freshman enrollee Lorenzo Styles Jr.

How players come back from injuries (notably Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III) becomes a major storyline, as does whether ND’s strongest offensive personnel groups will still comprise multiple tight ends over three wide receiver sets.

Offensive line

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Could Notre Dame center Jarrett Patterson (right) move to left tackle as the Irish look to retool their offensive line this spring?

As Jarrett Patterson continues to recover from a late-season football injury, the decision whether to move him back out to left tackle — where he started his college career as a backup — or keep him as one of the nation’s top starting centers becomes a pivotal decision in whether 2021 eventually looks like a rebuild or a reload in the fall.

Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has recruited extremely well since following exalted predecessor Harry Hiestand, so talent isn’t an issue in replacing four starters. The challenge is who fits where best and how they blend together.

Defining the best five overall and then fitting them into their strongest positions should be the goal this spring. Building chemistry can wait until fall camp.

Safety

Junior-to-be Kyle Hamilton has such a range of skills in which he can excel, new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has tremendous flexibility in how he wants to deploy those in a scheme he pledges to adapt around his new players’ talents.

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Versatile Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) gives new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman plenty of options.

Transfer portal U-turner Houston Griffith’s role thus becomes both compelling and pivotal in how he’s used as Hamilton’s sidekick. One of the selling points for Griffith to push away interested suitors such as Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida State was Freeman’s vision for the senior-to-be in his scheme.

There’s enough questions about depth beyond DJ Brown that both freshmen, February enrolled Justin Walters and June arrival Khari Gee, have clear avenues to impress and earn roles. Don’t rule out the possibility that one of the nine cornerbacks could get an audition as well.

Linebackers

The cornerback and defensive end groups have more challenges to sift through, but the linebacker group rises allure because of how many similarly suited pieces there seem to be at the position group.

With unanimous All-America rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah off to the NFL Draft, the highest-ceiling player among the 11 linebackers/rovers on the 2021 roster may very well be freshman Prince Kollie.

Yet that promise may or may not be enough to get him on the field with regularity in the fall. And he won’t be around for spring anyway. Nor will fellow newcomer Kahanu Kia.

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Middle linebacker Drew White (40) is the most seasoned of Notre Dame's large returning linebacker contingent.

Drew White, a two-year starter at middle linebacker and a productive one at that, would figure to be in line to start year No. 3. But the other two linebacker spots are wide open, and there could be some shifting between spots to reassess who fits best where.

At the very least there should be plenty of competition, which should make the entire position group better off for it.

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

Twitter: @EHansenNDI