Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Looking at what-ifs, jumbo packages and RB recruiting

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Welcome to the final edition of the Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live Chat/Mailbag for the spring.

Notre Dame's spring football practice sessions conclude Saturday with the 90th Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBCSN).

If there’s enough interest and if I can handle the technology rush, we’ll do a Facebook Live chat next week. Stay tuned for details.

In the meantime, for those who want to catch up on the mailbags that you missed, we’ve archived them at

On to this week’s questions:

Shaun from Austin, Texas: Eric, first, thanks for all your reporting, columns, chats, mailbag, and insights.

You may have noted this since the Clemson game, but the recent Luke Jones transfer news triggered a thought.

I flashed back to the Clemson game, when ND lost cornerback Julian Love. I seem to recall that LAST spring, many-time ND starting cornerback Nick Watkins opted to grad transfer. My thought was, if the 85 (scholarship) numbers were not an issue last season, would Nick have stayed at ND?

Further, would Nick have entered the Clemson game instead of Donte Vaughn, who we later learned was playing hurt?

Eric Hansen: First, thank you for the compliment and for being a part of the new chat/mailbag format.

Nick Watkins’ transfer was not set in motion because of the tight scholarship numbers. In fact, the coaching staff would have loved if Watkins had elected to stay on for his fifth year.

What did prompt Watkins to take a grad transfer was Troy Pride Jr., overtaking him late in the 2017 season as a starter and Watkins’ inability to move back up the depth chart in the spring of 2018.

At that time Shaun Crawford was healthy and surging, making Watkins ND’s fourth cornerback option. He really wanted a chance to be a starter, so he left — with his ND degree in hand — to go to Houston.

There, he was a part-time starter in his home state of Texas.

Had Crawford’s ACL given way in April and not days before the 2018 opener with Michigan, could Watkins’ decision have been different? Quite possibly. And yes, when Love went down against Clemson, having Watkins take his place would have been the right option.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric, hope you are well as we close another spring season.

Interesting article the other day on the linebackers and a couple of the safeties and where they fit in.

With ND working to get as much speed as possible on the field on defense, do you think that safety Derrik Allen will ultimately wind up at rover? It sounds like he is getting too big for the safety positions.

Also, have you heard anything from offensive coordinator Chip Long about the possibility of using a jumbo package of Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet, Brock Wright and Tommy Tremble inside the 10-yard line? Especially, splitting one of those receivers out wide by himself to force a mismatch?

The other three in a trips formation could be effective running behind them or using some kind of slant pattern to rub off the defensive backs trying to get through those big bodies. Thanks for all of your great articles and keeping us up to date on ND football. Go Irish!!

Eric Hansen: Tom, thank you on all fronts.

To your questions. You are overestimating how open Chip would be with the media when it comes to nuances of his offense. He likes to stay general/generic.

What I can answer is whether I think it’s something he would consider based on both his first 26 games as Notre Dame’s offensive play-caller and what we saw in the many practices that were open to the media this spring.

A few thoughts come to mind. First, I like the way your mind works on this stuff. Being able to pivot at the line of scrimmage from pass to run and run to pass is important in the red zone, and your concept takes that into account.

But with similar personnel — including a 6-foot-4 receiver with a breathtaking vertical leap (Miles Boykin) — we didn’t see a lot of it last season. The way Claypool has played this spring, perhaps that will shift Long’s thinking.

In your scenario, I would swap out the 6-3 Tremble for the 6-2 Kevin Austin Jr. I think Tremble is much more dangerous in space than he is in close quarters. I think Austin, with a great vertical leap and long arms, is really good in both scenarios. Austin is a willing and able blocker, too.

The Derrik Allen situation is interesting. Brian Kelly told me in December that Allen's future position will be determined largely by what he does with his body this offseason. From the practices we've been in this spring, he does not look fluid enough to stay at safety at 6-2, 220. If he changes his body, then perhaps it makes sense to say the course. If not, he'll join the crowd at linebacker/rover.

Dave from Granger, Ind.: If Notre Dame were to make the College Football Playoff again this season, what five headlines would you have written in the South Bend Tribune during the 2019 season?

Eric Hansen: In no particular order:

• Jafar Armstrong eclipses the 1,000-yard rushing mark

• Ian Book ignores the Heisman Trophy chatter

• Julian Okwara closes in on Justin Tuck’s single-season sack record

• Special teams really are special in 2019

• Te’o, Smith wowed by current Irish linebacker corps

Tom from Lansing, Mich. Eric, thanks for providing this opportunity for ND fans and alumni to keep up with the Irish.

I've wondered why more teams don't, on kickoffs, pop the ball over the front line and to about the 35 and have it bounce around and possibly recover it. It seems like a better chance to recover than the traditional onside kick and doesn't concede so much yardage if the attempt fails. Plus, the chance for a return is small.

Please comment. I'm starting to get nervous about the field goal kicking. The listed starter had trouble keeping kickoffs from going out of bounds, not the kind of thing that inspires confidence in accuracy. Your thoughts? All the best, Eric. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Tom, thank YOU. Usually the return teams have layers of personnel at various depths, and so if you decided to pop it over the front line, it would be really easy for someone on the next line to simply call for and execute a fair catch.

Then there’s no chance to recover the kick, and you’ve given away some valuable field position.

As far as junior place-kicker Jonathan Doerer, we did see some improvements in his accuracy over the last couple of practices. How he performs in the Blue-Gold Game Saturday may tell us more about how sustainable that improvement is.

Preferred walk-on Harrison Leonard arrives in June to provide competition both kicking off and on field goals/PATs.

Pat from Evergreen, Colo.: Is Shayne Simon disappointing or surprising the coaches with his potential at Mike (middle linebacker)? He was recruited as the future at Rover and it may have seemed natural for him to move to buck eventually. But Mike this soon? Is he not as athletic as the coaches expected? Or is he such a stud that he has emerged as the future at Mike?

Eric Hansen: Pat, on Thursday I asked defensive coordinator Clark Lea specifically about Simon and the move away from playing rover. Here is his response:

“We felt like early in the spring, as much as we liked what he was doing to the field (at rover), his physique, his body type — just when you look at him physically and how he’s grown, we don’t want to put limitations on him.

“He’s still in his first year, so where that frame will continue to grow and (playing in) tight spaces for him allow him to play physically and fast. So we see him as a factor in the box right now.

“He slid in to play some mike for us, just as a way to get him some experience and get him reps. Obviously, he’s a guy who can do both. His experience, even last year playing a little buck, will help if we need to slide him over and will help us do that.”

So no, I don’t think the coaching staff sees him as a disappointment but rather a player who is growing into a different position.

NDfootballfan3 from Twitter: Coming out of spring, how would you rate your level of confidence for this team compared to last year’s team?

Eric Hansen: I think confidence is pretty typical in the spring, because there’s no game in the immediate future and there’s a lot to feel good about when spring practice is done.

As far as the coaches, I think there’s more confidence that the offense is going to be the strength of this team rather than the defense.

Skip from Houston, Texas: What is the status of recruiting top running backs? Thanks.

Eric Hansen: I am more peripheral to the recruiting info, so I asked our recruiting writer, Carter Karels, to help me with this question.

Here is his response: Notre Dame is looking to sign two running backs in this class — a speed back and a power back. Their most-prized speed back, and overall running back, is Chris Tyree. It's a three-man race for him between ND, Oklahoma and Alabama. He's taking an official visit to Oklahoma for its spring game this weekend.

Offensive coordinator Chip Long is recruiting Tyree more than running backs coach Lance Taylor is. Tyree visited for the Dec. 15 junior day and also on March 23.

Steve Wiltfong, recruiting director for 247Sports, put in a prediction this week for Tyree to eventually commit to Notre Dame. I checked with his high school coach on that. He thinks Tyree's decision still comes in June, which is interesting. Tyree's official visit to Notre Dame is June 21-23. That's the last official visit he's eligible to take this summer.

Tirek Murphy looks like the most likely among the bigger backs to commit to ND. He also visited on March 23 and got to know Tyree. ND is very much atop his list, and he hopes to take an official visit for a game this fall.

There are a few more options — JuTahn McClain, Kyle Edwards, Marshawn Lloyd — that are still in the mix. ND likes AJ Henning as a wide receiver now. Reggie Love, another target, committed to Illinois recently.

As of now, Tyree and Murphy look like the top two targets. Don't sleep on Lloyd, though.

Houston cornerback Nick Watkins returned to his Notre Dame roots March 20 for ND's Pro Day at the Loftus Center.