SOUTH BEND — The back-to-back catches summed up the battle that occurred between Notre Dame’s two positions groups with the least returning experience and most pending questions.
Junior-to-be cornerback TaRiq Bracy (5-foot-10, 180 pounds) defended Kevin Austin Jr. (6-2, 210) and Javon McKinley (6-2, 215) as well as one could with that size discrepancy. Yet both receivers managed to haul in difficult jump ball passes from quarterback Ian Book over Bracy downfield.
Bracy and his fellow Irish corners struggled to contain Austin, McKinley and speedy receiver Braden Lenzy — even when defending well for their standards. The latter trio was among the best performers in Notre Dame’s first of 15 spring football practices, an unpadded session with light contact at the Irish Indoor Athletics Center on Thursday.
Undermanned and out of sorts, the Irish corners recorded zero interceptions and only a couple pass breakups combined in all settings. Notre Dame’s most experienced and proven corner, Shaun Crawford, saw limited action because of a hamstring injury.
Sophomore Isaiah Rutherford, who redshirted last season, intermingled with Crawford as the first-team field corner. Notre Dame’s other inexperienced sophomore corners, Cam Hart and K.J. Wallace, also entered the mix. Normally a field corner, Bracy played out of position at boundary (short side of the field).
Notre Dame’s receivers benefited.
After missing last season with a university-imposed suspension, Austin could never prove the rave reviews he received from teammates last year correct until now. His first practice looked like one of a No. 1 receiver with a wide-ranging skill set.
Austin’s most impressive attributes were his hands and big-play ability. Beyond his 50-50 catch against Bracy, Austin also completed a one-handed grab on a low pass across the middle. He created separation on deeper routes and flashed a suddenness that made him a popular target on short and intermediate throws.
Consistency, physicality and catching the football were among Lenzy’s biggest hindrances early in his career. He experienced little trouble in those areas and looked to be a more polished product. Most of his catches were on intermediate routes — a rarity in his niche deep threat role last season.
McKinley used his wide catch radius to win most of his matchups. He bested early-enrolled freshman Caleb Offord, Crawford, Hart and Bracy in 1-on-1 action and was a reliable target during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 settings.
Book’s solid outing helped stage the success for those receivers. He started slow in scrimmage settings, completing mostly short, high-percentage throws. Then Book began to challenge Notre Dame’s No. 1 defense deep and won most of those matchups — most notably on the aforementioned throws to Austin and McKinley.
Tight end Tommy Tremble’s best play of the day came on a deep strike from Book. Needing to sneak the ball between multiple defenders, Book timed Tremble’s post route perfectly for a deep touchdown.
A completion on an out route from Lenzy required Book to lift the ball over the head of athletic rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s outreaching arms. He also provided enough heat on the throw to connect with Lenzy before Notre Dame’s secondary converged on the ball.
No contact or pass rush allowed Book to deliver these throws without being pressured, but the way he squeezed the ball through tight windows left an impression.
Sophomore Brendon Clark garnered second-team quarterback reps ahead of early-enrolled freshman Drew Pyne, who saw little competitive action. Clark impressed on a few throws, particularly on a deep pass to McKinley. Pyne showed his accuracy, quick throwing release and anticipation in drills but struggled to add zip on throws.
Safety D.J. Brown intercepted Clark and Pyne. Brown jumped on a route from graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek before picking off Clark’s ill-advised pass down the seam. Throwing behind his mark resulted in Pyne’s pass being bobbled by tight end George Takacs and dropped into Brown’s hands.
Junior safety Houston Griffith impressed with his two pass breakups against Book in 1-on-1 action — one intended for tight end Brock Wright and the other meant for Tremble. Little came Griffith’s way in scrimmage settings because of his tight coverage.
Owusu-Koramoah looked like the best athlete among Notre Dame’s linebackers — and by a wide margin. He continued to move like a dynamic linebacker capable of staying on the field for third downs to cover instead of one in need of being displaced by an extra defensive back.
Limited contact and no tackling made judging running backs, linemen and linebackers difficult. The offensive and defensive line also did not do the traditional 1-on-1 pass protection/rush that pits both position group against each other.
Notre Dame’s practice featured nine new additions, two graduate transfers in safety Isaiah Pryor (Ohio State) and Skowronek (Northwestern), and seven early-enrolled freshman: Pyne, receiver Xavier Watts, defensive linemen Rylie Mills, Alexander Ehrensberger and Jordan Botelho and cornerbacks Ramon Henderson and Caleb Offord.
Pryor impressed at first glance. He looks lengthy and muscular at 6-2, 199 pounds. Skowronek outperformed Pryor from a production standpoint but struggled catching the football. He dropped a couple passes and scooped the football toward his body on harder throws at times.
Botelho told the Tribune he was 6-3, 230 pounds in December. He has since gained 18 pounds. The Honolulu Saint Louis School product still looks like he has room to grow physically at weakside defensive end and brings the quickness to play linebacker, if moved to the position.
Mills and Watts moved well during drills. Ehrensberger, Henderson and Offord didn’t stand out much. Offord returned kicks during special teams drills, though.
Offense lining up
The following groups were used when Notre Dame’s offense went through its tempo drill early in practice.
No. 1 offense: quarterback Ian Book, running back Jafar Armstrong, wide receivers Kevin Austin Jr., Lawrence Keys III and Braden Lenzy, tight end Brock Wright, left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Josh Lugg, center Jarrett Patterson, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey. Running back C’Bo Flemister also rotated with the 1s.
• Kraemer (knee) and Hainsey (ankle) did not participate in 11-on-11 action. Notre Dame’s No. 1 offensive line during scrimmage work comprised Eichenberg (left tackle), Colin Grunhard (left guard), Patterson (center) and John Dirsken (right tackle). Tight end Tommy Tremble rotated with Wright during 11-on-11.
No. 2 offense: quarterback Brendon Clark, running back Jahmir Smith, wide receivers Javon McKinley, Avery Davis and Ben Skowronek, tight end Tommy Tremble, left tackle Andrew Kristofic, left guard Hunter Spears, center Zeke Correll, right guard John Dirksen and right tackle Quinn Carroll. Running back Kyren Williams also rotated with the 2s.
• John Olmstead (right guard) and Cole Mabry (right tackle) worked with the 2s during 11-on-11 settings.
No. 3 offense: quarterback Drew Pyne, running back Mick Assaf, wide receivers Micah Jones, Kendall Abdur-Rahman and Xavier Watts, tight end George Takacs, left tackle Cole Mabry, right tackle Max Siegel, center Colin Grunhard, right guard John Olmstead and right tackle Quinn Murphy.
Defense lining up
The following groups were used when Notre Dame’s defense took the field.
No. 1 defense: defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji, defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and nose guard Kurt Hinish, mike linebacker Drew White, buck linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath, rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, field cornerback Shaun Crawford, boundary cornerback TaRiq Bracy and safeties Kyle Hamilton and Houston Griffith.
• Ovie Oghoufo saw most of the work at weakside defensive end during 11-on-11 action, replacing Hayes. Isaiah Rutherford (field corner) split time with Crawford as the starter during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 work.
No. 2 defense: defensive ends Ovie Oghoufo and Justin Ademilola, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola and nose guard Jacob Lacey, mike linebacker Bo Bauer, buck linebacker Marist Liufau, rover Paul Moala, boundary cornerback Cam Hart, field cornerback Isaiah Rutherford and safeties Isaiah Pryor and D.J. Brown.
• Isaiah Foskey received action as the No. 2 weakside defensive end during scrimmage settings.
• Offensive linemen Aaron Banks (foot) and Dillan Gibbons (foot), wide receivers Jay Brunelle (shoulder), buck linebackers Shayne Simon (knee) and Jack Lamb (hip) and defensive tackle Howard Cross III (undisclosed injury) were limited to sideline work.
• Skowronek (ankle), Crawford (hamstring), Hart (shoulder), Hainsey, Kraemer, Hayes and Carroll were also considered as limited participants. Wide receivers Joe Wilkins (strep throat) and Isaiah Robertson (academics) did not practice.
• Austin, Keys, Williams, Offord and Wallace rotated as kick returners during special teams drills.