Five hidden story lines for Notre Dame football heading into spring practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The gurgling of the Everett Golson/Malik Zaire blather will likely soon move past tolerable proportions into serious overkill as Notre Dame football kicks off spring practice Wednesday in quasi-spring-like conditions.

The cloaked reality is that there’s a better chance than not that Notre Dame’s mega-scrutinized quarterback situation remains undefined into the summer, especially given the expected offensive tinkering on the table as the Brian Kelly offense gets its first real infusion of outside ideas in more than a decade.

New offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford, the wild card in the evolution of the offense, will drive several of the spring story lines, not the least of which is how Kelly — ND’s sixth-year head coach — might redefine/reinvent himself in the offensive and big-picture mixes.

On the defensive side of the ball, the obvious counterpart to Golson/Zaire circus is how the sudden glut of talent at the inside linebacker positions shakes out, with Jarrett Grace’s 17-month comeback from a career-threatening leg injury suddenly becoming more real and more spectacular by the day.

The most intriguing tentacle of it is whether Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Grace and early-enrolled freshman Te’von Coney give second-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder pause to consider moving junior-to-be Jaylon Smith back to outside linebacker.

For an 8-5 team returning 18 starters, tied for the most among the 65 Power 5 schools, there is an abundance of loose ends, unanswered questions and potential surprises lurking on a roster still projecting well over the NCAA-mandated limit of 85 scholarships.

Here are the five most significant under-the-radar spring threads being suppressed by Quarterback-apalooza:

• Who is Notre Dame’s next pass-rush threat?

Senior-to-be defensive end Romeo Okwara led the Irish in sacks with four in 2014, a third of what Stephon Tuitt produced in the title-game run of 2012. Just 1.5 of Okwara’s modest total came over the last 10 games.

The next two players behind Okwara in the sack standings weren’t defensive linemen. They were linebacker Jaylon Smith and nickel back Matthias Farley, each with 3.5.

For Notre Dame’s defense to approach its early-season effectiveness from 2014, the Irish must at times be able to manufacture its pass rush from its front four. That’s clear from both ND’s end-of-the-year national ranking in team sacks (74th out of 125) as well as its standing in pass-efficiency defense (84th) and third-down defense (79th).

That pushes edge players such as Okwara, sophomore-to-be Andrew Trumbetti, and redshirted freshman Jhonny Williams squarely into the spotlight this spring.

Isaac Rochell blossomed into a force against the run at end and proved just as effective when flipped inside, but he does not project as an elite pass rusher.

The Irish are still hopeful exiled senior end Ishaq Williams can rejoin them in the summer and evolve into an edge standout, but the former outside linebacker, with one career sack, is still an unknown in that role and also must pass through the NCAA’s re-entry criteria.

Bo Wallace was the lone pass-rusher signed in February, but at 6-4, 215, he’s probably a year away from being able to help.

• Will Jerry Tillery’s move to defense pay off?

The 6-foot-6, 310-pound early enrollee from Shreveport in January became the first Louisianan to be added to the Irish roster as a scholarship player in 16 years after making a big splash a few weeks prior by telling Kelly he would like to start his career on defense.

The sheer numbers don’t match Tillery’s ambition. There are four dedicated offensive tackles on the 2015 roster and a couple of guards who could move there in a crisis. But there are more than 10 bodies to climb up and over to get playing time at one of the two interior defensive line positions.

The Irish coaches, though, wouldn’t have agreed to the move if they didn’t feel Tillery, an elite offensive prospect, wasn’t capable of pulling it off. And with projected starter Jarron Jones still recovering from offseason foot surgery, Tillery will get more of a chance to separate from the gaggle of unproven candidates behind Jones and senior standout Sheldon Day.

The best of the rest in that category might be Jay Hayes, a sophomore who unredshirted late in 2014 when Day and Jones went down with injuries. Kelly is also high on Jonathan Bonner, a freakishly athletic 6-3, 269-pound redshirted freshman who was on a trajectory to play in 2014 during an impressive August before becoming overwhelmed with the complexity of the defense.

Those days apparently are over.

• Is Quenton Nelson the missing piece on the offensive line?

No position group on the 2014 Irish team was more perplexing than the offensive line, expected in preseason to be the one area that didn’t warrant fretting over.

Despite some extremely talented pieces — led by future first-round draft pick Ronnie Stanley — and adequate depth, there were way too many holes and way too much inconsistency. It was the hidden quotient in Everett Golson’s turnover-itis in the second half of the season.

A September shift, that saw four members flip to new positions, helped but didn’t solve the issues.

Fifth-year candidate Matt Hegarty, who started 11 games at center last season, has voluntarily dropped out of the mix after he was told he would be moved back to guard and wouldn’t be guaranteed a starting spot there.

His impending transfer adds further confirmation that 2013 starting center Nick Martin will be returning to his old position, after torn thumb ligaments prompted his move to guard last September.

That leaves an opening at left guard. Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s philosophy is to play the best five linemen regardless of position, and all five of last year’s starters were high school tackles and in the mix early to remain so at ND.

Quenton Nelson, who redshirted as a freshman last season, could very well emerge there, though there’s plenty of competition.

The athletic 6-foot-5, 325-pounder is the lone five-star prospect among ND’s deep well of line talent, though his biggest claim to fame since joining the Irish was to help Notre Dame beat LSU, 25-19, in a hot chicken wing eating contest in Nashville, Tenn., prior to ND’s football win over the Tigers there in the Music City Bowl.

Junior-to-be Colin McGovern may pose the stiffest challenge for Nelson’s on-the-field ascent.

• Who helps ND perpetuate its “Tight End U” rep?

Freshman Alizé Jones figures to provide some Tyler Eifert-esque, stretch-the-field capabilities once he arrives in June.

Even then, Jones and the four returning tight ends bring a collective total of one career catch for seven yards into 2015, for a program that has produced a steady stream of high NFL draft picks/All-Americans over the past decade.

Junior-to-be Durham Smythe (6-5, 242), the possessor of that lone career catch, is purported to be the most complete of the four returnees at this juncture. Sophomore-to-be Tyler Luatua (6-3, 260) may be the most intriguing.

He was a darling of August training camp as a strong blocker who was comfortable lining up as a quasi-fullback if called upon. Then ND went away from that virtually all season, only to resurrect that role in the bowl victory over LSU.

There, Luatua thrived and was instrumental in ND being able to establish a power running game against the nation’s No. 9 overall defense.

Injuries have kept junior-to-be Mike Heuerman (6-4, 225) from having an early impact. A year in the weight room should give redshirted freshman Nic Weishar (6-4, 237) more momentum to compete for playing time.

Even if Jones is as impactful as expected, there’s no one on the roster quite like Luatua, and it will be interesting to see if new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford finds value in that.

• Is it Max Redfield’s time?

The former five-star safety prospect would like to become a former enigma this spring.

Kelly doesn’t have a lot of other polished/healthy options this spring if the 6-1, 198-pound junior-to-be doesn’t achieve the latter.

Redfield’s talent, though, is breathtaking. He can outrun mistakes. He’s intelligent and driven. But where’s his head?

The only thing that rescued him from a late-season demotion was injuries to other players. That said, ND’s second-leading tackler in 2014 (68) played markedly better against LSU, with 14 career tackles in the season finale.

Perhaps new defensive backs coach Todd Lyght is just the person to help Redfield press the reset button.

If he can, the Irish secondary — with deposed cornerback KeiVarae Russell on track to return in June — could be elite next fall.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame defensive end Andrew Trumbetti (69) will be one of the young players asked to provide a pass rush for the Irish in 2015. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)