Piecing together Notre Dame football's evolution as spring practice resumes

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A piece of Notre Dame’s football future, Jhonny Williams, traversed the 24 miles from his home in Berrien Springs to get a peek at ND’s football present on Wednesday morning.

At times, the defensive end recruit, roughly three months away from enrollment as an ND student, might have thought he was looking at the Irish practice session through a kaleidoscope.

Practice No. 3 of the 15 this spring, and the first after a two-week, spring break-induced hiatus, is still all about the disjointed little pictures that may not have a cohesive look until August, given that it’s possible that as many as six eventual starters are either not on cam-pus yet or have been thrust into mostly spectator roles this spring because of injuries.

It’s also a scrambled image because there are wholesale installations of new schemes taking place on both sides of the ball — not merely tweaks — and that special teams work is carving out a larger share of practice time than ever before at this stage of spring for head coach Brian Kelly than at any time in his career.

From a depth chart standpoint, it’s more about auditioning players — especially on defense — for different roles than it is about establishing a clear pecking order. At least no one slid down a notch because of overindulging during spring break.

“I think they all did what I asked them to do,” Kelly said after practice. “I didn’t see anybody on social media. I didn’t see anybody on Snapchat, putting pictures out there at 2 o’clock in the morning, talking about their escapades in South Padre Island or wherever they may have been.

“I think they got away, which is what we wanted them to do. I think they enjoyed themselves, but they also knew that when they came back here, that we were going to challenge them. … I didn’t feel like we took a step back in any fashion.

“Now, our timing was off today, clearly, especially on offense. But I went in there with low expectations in terms of where we would be there today from that standpoint.”

The bar is still high in every other facet. Here are a half-dozen players whose individual journeys this spring bear watching over the final 12 spring sessions, resuming with practice No. 4 on Friday and capped by the annual Blue-Gold Game on April 12 at Notre Dame Stadium:

• Everett Golson, quarterback: The senior-to-be continues to put distance between himself and No. 2 Malik Zaire in what Kelly originally was selling as an open competition.

Even with the two-week layoff and working with a still largely unfamiliar group of receivers around him, Golson continues to evolve impressively, not the least of which is noticeable zip on his passes.

The intrigue at this point becomes what kind of runner he will be, with a new scheme and roughly 20 pounds more muscle on his 6-foot frame than in 2012, and how that might impact ND’s traditional running game.

Golson ran for 298 yards and six TDs on 94 carries during the national title game run two seasons ago. The Irish ran in the negative numbers last year with QBs Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix plugged in during Golson’s season-long suspension for academic mis-conduct. (Rees just happened to be in attendance Wednesday as he readies himself for Thursday’s Pro Day.)

“I can’t tell you how much it allows us to help our running game, but more importantly, take some things that the defense wants to do and really exploit (them),” Kelly said of Golson’s mobility. “It really changes what they can do from week to week.

“We’ll get to the point where we’ll really want them to bring some pressures against us — with a quarterback of that nature. It tends to slow defenses down a little bit, because you have that running threat with a quarterback.”

• Jaylon Smith, outside linebacker: Smith mastered the most unforgiving position (drop linebacker) in ND’s old defensive scheme as a freshman by season’s end, but it was still possible for innovative offenses to mitigate his impact because of the limitations of the position itself.

New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has gone beyond redefining the position. He’s toying with sliding Smith inside in certain defensive sub packages. And it’s not out of the realm of possibilities Smith will funnel into the pass-rush equation at times as well.

“We’re overloading him, quite frankly, with a number of different looks,” Kelly said. “We don’t want offenses to know where he is. We’re going to play him in a number of different positions. He could be inside, outside — but we’re moving all over the place.”

• Romeo Okwara, defensive end: The fact that the raw 6-4, 258-pound junior-to-be is still only 18 years old (and will be until June), screams for a redshirt year. But his potential and ND’s needs in what appears to be a growing commitment to a 4-3 base defense are screaming louder.

The player who saw action at both outside linebacker positions and at emergency nose guard in the old scheme, and whom Kelly really wanted to try on offense at tight end at one point, is running No. 1 at defensive end and bookending with former fellow Cat line-backer Ishaq Williams.

Former ends Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones have consistently lined up inside during the media windows at practice thus far. The next snaps the front seven takes in a 3-4 look, at least publicly, will be its first.

The first-team linebackers at this point are Smith, senior-to-be Joe Schmidt and fifth-year senior Kendall Moore.

Players currently on the roster produced just three of ND’s anemic sack total of 21 last season, so Okwara’s adjustment to his new role could have a lot to say about a potential renaissance in that department.

“I think we’re really in that process of developing his skill set as an edge player,” Kelly assessed. “And that’s going to take some more time. He’s certainly athletic enough, he’s strong enough. He’s really a strong kid in the weight room, and we’re now trying to take that almost-innate ability and really transfer that as a football player. And he’s not there yet, but we’re making the progress with him.

“So we’ll need all of spring. We’ll need all of preseason camp, but our expectations are that, when we line up in the fall, we’ll get there with Romeo as a player that really can impact the game.”

• Max Redfield, safety: If Kelly had a frustration with the old defensive scheme it was that it seemed to favor older players over younger ones, no matter the talent level. That kept former five-star safety Redfield fermenting rather than evolving most of the 2013 season.

Kelly finally pushed Redfield into the starting lineup for ND’s 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers, and Redfield is now pushing himself to stay in that starting alignment. On Wednesday, the 6-1, 194-pound sophomore-to-be and fifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth were the No. 1 safeties, with Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell as the top-level corners.

“I don’t think there’s any question with his athletic ability,” Kelly said of Redfield, who had 12 tackles, primarily son special teams, in 2013. “There’s still a learning curve there in terms of what we’re doing defensively, but he’s such a talented athlete that it’s so hard to look past his athletic ability, even though he’s chasing the No. 2 (receiver) in the flat when he’s got the deep middle.

“That’s why you’re coaching. You’ve got to get Max Redfield ready, and we’re going to get him ready.”

• John Turner, safety/linebacker: In his first two seasons at Notre Dame, the 6-1, 217-pounder from Indianapolis had just four inconsequential tackles to show for his time and little hope for improving upon that in the future.

VanGorder rewrote Turner’s job description this winter, making him a smaller linebacker rather than a big safety, though his new opportunities are coming in ND’s sub packages rather than a regular gig.

Still, Turner turned heads on Wednesday. Now, whether he becomes the flavor of the week or something more enduring remains to be seen, but his niche role gives him a real opportunity to be the latter.

“I’ll go back to his recruitment,” Kelly said. “We got to see him workout for us for 30 minutes, and we loved his skill set. He’s long and athletic, and it wasn’t translating very well (into playing time) for whatever reasons.

“We think that with the position that we’re looking at him right now, it seems to be clicking a little bit for John. Coach VanGorder really likes what he’s doing right now, and for whatever reason, sometimes a change does a guy good. He may be the beneficiary of that change.”

• William Fuller, wide receiver: With leading returning receiver DaVaris Daniels in academic exile until June, the lithe sophomore-to-be is taking advantage of the increased reps that have come his way.

Fuller had a modest six catches as a freshman in 2013, but the 6-foot, 171-pounder averaged 26.7 yards a catch with a long of 47 yards. He’s already snatched up TJ Jones’ vacated No. 7 jersey and is playing inspired football in his new uniform.

“(With) that kid, it’s just a matter of how far he wants to take his talents,” Kelly said of Fuller. “Weight room is going to be huge — getting stronger, attention to detail, all the things that great players need to do. But he’s a pretty good one.”

Squibs

• Kelly suggested that sophomore wide receiver-turned-safety James Onwualu might actually be given roles on both sides of the ball if he can handle the load.

• Junior-to-be Ronnie Stanley continues to garner high marks for his play at left tackle, stepping in for four-year starter Zack Martin. Stanley started at right tackle as a redshirt freshman last season.

• Junior-to-be C.J. Prosise and senior Amir Carlisle were sharing most of the work at slot receiver Wednesday, and both have impressed Kelly through the first few practices.

Carlisle played primarily at running back last season, his first season of action after transferring from USC. His role, however, shrank as the year went on and freshman Tarean Folston became more of a prominent part of the running attack.

• Starting guard Christian Lombard missed the final team periods with a sprained wrist. Conor Hanratty was the beneficiary of the extra work.

• All three practices to date have been held inside at the Loftus Center. Wednesday’s was the first of the spring where the players were in pads.

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller, (7) moves on the snap against cornerback Rashad Kinlaw (26) Wednesday at spring football practice in the Loftus Center. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)

Because of a conflict with Notre Dame's Pro Day, Notre Dame football beat writer Eric Hansen will not be holding his live chat this Thursday. The next live chat will be Thursday, March 26, at noon EDT.