The 8 threads that matter most to Notre Dame football this spring

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The sight of linebacker Jarrett Grace, out of pads, out of drills, even out of the stretching lines at Wednesday morning's Notre Dame football spring practice was hardly the end of his stirring 17-month comeback.

More like a hiccup.

The fifth-year linebacker candidate, who hasn't played in a game since suffering four fractures in his right leg midway through season three, was held out of practice No. 5 of the spring and third in pads because of a concussion.

“Some typical spring practice ailments,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said of Grace, wide receiver Corey Robinson, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, defensive back Mathias Farley and walk-on defensive back Travis Allen — all bystanders Wednesday, for the first time this spring.

“Nothing that would keep anybody out for the remainder of the spring.”

And Kelly's addendum to Grace's status update: “He's been impressive.”

Most of the news a third of the way through the 15 allotted spring sessions, culminating in the closed-circuit Blue-Gold Game on April 18, is trending in an impressive direction. Here are the eight story lines that matter the most as spring practice moves into its next phase:

The quarterback situation lacks both drama and definition.

Both developments are welcome for Kelly at this juncture.

What he wanted to see from starting contenders Everett Golson and Malik Zaire was competitiveness, consistency and improvement, not necessarily separation at this point.

The only real definitive development on the depth chart concerning the QBs is that third-stringer and redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer has taken over for Zaire as the holder on place kicks.

“I like what they're doing,” Kelly said of his QBs. “They're working very well in the classroom. I like what Mike's doing with them.”

Mike is first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford. His emphasis on fundamentals over predecessor Matt LaFleur's approach that stressed learning concepts, is resulting in better ball security, fewer turnovers in practice per Kelly.

“Some of the fundamentals which we saw were exposed last year are the areas that Mike Sanford is really good at,” Kelly said. “There is that piece that was kind of missing.”

The linebacker situation does not lack drama, but it's good drama.

Grace's push to be a starter, Wednesday's absence notwithstanding, has created a possibility few saw coming — that junior-to-be linebacker Jaylon Smith could move back to outside linebacker. Could.

Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder confirmed Smith would cross-train at the weakside (inside) position he played for the first time in his life last season and strongside (outside), his natural position and one in which he'd likely slot into when his career moves to the NFL stage.

Last year's team MVP, Joe Schmidt, is cross-training at both of the inside positions, and Schmidt has experience playing the weakside linebacker as a reserve in 2013 before starting at middle linebacker most of last season.

Sophomore-to-be Nyles Morgan and true freshman Te'von Coney are both ascending, providing a safety net inside. Former wide receiver and safety James Onwualu remains the No. 1 option outside for the time being.

But …

“We show up here to compete every day, and the best players play,” VanGorder said. “And we'll get the best three linebackers on the field, however they line up.”

Right now that's Smith, Schmidt (albeit limited this spring by his own comeback from a leg injury) and quite possibly Grace, ND's starter at middle linebacker in 2013 at the time of his injury.

“First of all he's an intelligent player,” VanGorder said of the 6-foot-3, 253-pound Grace, the most powerfully built of the inside options. “And the most amazing thing is he's got no fear. Most guys coming off something like that would go out there and be a little bit apprehensive. Not him, not him. He's a fierce competitor.”

The kids are more than all right.

Notre Dame's four early enrolled freshmen — center Tristen Hoge, linebacker Coney, and defensive linemen Micah Dew-Treadway and Jerry Tillery all pass the eyeball test.

And they're drawing raves from their teammates and coaches, especially the 6-foot-7, 300-pound Tillery, who was originally recruited as an offensive tackle.

“He's a strong kid,” said center Nick Martin, who goes against Tillery in practice. “Just a natural football player. You can throw him out there, and even if he doesn't exactly understand the defense and what not, he's a natural player and can make some plays.”

But with each passing day, Tillery is gaining understanding of the defense. And with starting nose guard Jarron Jones recovering from offseason foot surgery, Tillery has surged to the top of the depth chart.

“Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery,” Kelly said. “Today in our 3-on-3 drill, you had a hard time blocking him. He just has a unique ability, at such a young age, to use his hands.

“Where we spend the first year and a half trying to get these kids to not drop their heads, be overextended, he can immediately shoot his hands and use his size to his advantage. I don't want to put him in the Hall of Fame. I'm so leery to talk about a freshman, but he's a unique talent.”

Rochell is rising.

The bells and whistles on VanGorder's defensive scheme should work much better this season than last, simply by having more experience (10 returning starters on defense), more familiarity with the scheme (it's no longer totally Joe Schmidt-reliant) and more depth in case of injuries.

But there are times, particularly against uptempo offenses, when the Irish defense is going to have to line up and generate pressure from its front four, without the help of schematic wrinkles.

The notion that VanGorder believes that 6-foot-4, 287-pound junior-to-be Isaac Rochell is not only ND's most-improved pass rusher but the defense's most improved player overall is significant.

Rochell's strength last year was his versatility and his ability to play the run. He had 2.5 sacks on a team whose leader (Romeo Okwara) amassed a modest four. But his 10 QB hurries led the team, and with his improved footwork and technique, some of those hurries could turn into sacks.

Rochell has company.

At least when it comes to toughness.

In his first five springs as ND's head coach, Kelly has had to hold back in line-to-line contact in the spring (and sometimes in practices within seasons), because there was either a shortage of bodies on the offensive line, on the defensive line or both.

Not this spring.

“You can work on so much more when you can go and really allow your big fellas to get after it,” Kelly said. “And that's really been the emphasis for us, is that toughness on both sides of the ball — offensive line, defensive line .

“You can talk about it all you want, but you've got to create those situations in live, padded opportunities. In terms of the preparation, it's the first time I've been able to prepare this way in developing that toughness.”

A noted beneficiary of the approach, per Kelly, is junior-to-be right guard Steve Elmer.

The best ongoing position battle may end in a tie.

And that's the left guard spot, where two redshirt freshmen with high ceilings are deadlocked.

Quenton Nelson (6-5, 325) and Alex Bars (6-6, 316) will probably play next to each other in 2016, when left tackle Ronnie Stanley heads to the NFL as a likely first-round pick, and Bars slides to tackle, but for now they offer Kelly contrasting skill sets.

“Quenton Nelson is extremely explosive, strong and can overwhelm a defender,” Kelly said. “Alex Bars is extremely efficient and technically so far above the normal redshirt freshman.

“So you have two guys — one that can physically at times be dominant and one who you think he's a junior. You turn on the film, it's going to be hard to make a call, because you like what they both do at that position. They're both going to see some playing time for us.”

The safety dance is now a happy dance.

The position overall will get an infusion of depth as sophomore-to-be Drue Tranquill's ACL rehab becomes complete, and Cal transfer Avery Sebastian and two freshmen arrive in June.

But for the first time in a while, Kelly likes what he sees at the top of the depth chart, specifically senior Elijah Shumate and junior Max Redfield.

Last November, each of them was demoted for inconsistent play before recovering and building momentum with strong showings in ND's 31-28 upending of LSU in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30.

“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or anytime during the season,” Kelly said. “We don't see the missed assignments.

“We see clearly two guys that have grasped a hold of what we're doing out there, so they've kind of settled into two very solid football players back there for us.”

There will be attrition.

Somehow, sometime before ND opens fall camp in August. That's when the roster has to be at the NCAA limit of 85 scholarship players.

Counting all the new additions and the repatriation of suspended players that number sits at 90 today.

ehansen@sbtinfo.com | (574) 235-6112 | @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery (99) is off to a strong start in his first handful of spring practices for the Irish, quickly ascending toward the top of the depth chart. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)