Analysis: Piecing together the big picture for Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A full peek behind the curtain of Notre Dame spring football practice on Saturday produced intriguing, but often disjointed, impressions.

Just as Irish head coach Brian Kelly had anticipated his team to look with only three sessions left, including next Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBC Sports Network).

With 13 starters to replace from a 10-3 team that finished 11th in the final AP poll; an open quarterback duel to stoke and some schematic and strategic tweaks to implement, the objective this spring was not to concoct a finished product as much as it was to identify and explore possibilities.

“They work hard. Look, there’s a culture within the program that exists that they all understand, so that’s already here,” Kelly said after the 2-hour-plus workout in the Loftus Sports Center. “I think it’s more about the individuals accepting roles and stepping up to those new roles more than anything else.”

The most compelling of which is how sophomore Alizé Jones is evolving.

On Saturday, the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder from Las Vegas went through position drills with the wide receivers, not the tight ends — the position at which he grabbed 13 receptions last season but labored with the blocking aspects.

Lining up as a wide receiver, Jones was effective Saturday in intermediate routes, but spectacular on deep ones. Late in the practice QB Malik Zaire connected with Jones on a scoring play that exceeded 50 yards, with a cornerback, Devin Butler, giving chase.

“I think we’re trying to find where he can best impact our football team against Texas,” Kelly said referring to the primetime Sept. 4 season opener in Austin, Texas.

“Is it a hybrid player? Is it a W (outside) receiver? Is it a tight end? I think it’s apparent by what you saw today he’s a guy who can go down the field vertically. He can catch the football. He’s got to be a little bit better, more consistent with his hands. There’s no question about it.

“But he’s a big target. He’s physical and athletic, and he’s a guy we’ve got to try a find a role for. He can’t be a guy who’s in a rotation as the third tight end. That’s pretty clear. I think really right now just finding a place where we can get him in and get him on the field, because he’s a talented player.”

The following are the other sometimes-distorted, sometimes-distinct but definitely most pertinent impressions from practice No. 12 of the spring:

• The quarterback progress report: Junior DeShone Kizer and senior Malik Zaire split time Saturday evenly working with the first-team offense and the second-team offense.

Kizer largely showed more patience in the pocket, a better comfort level in the deep passing game, more proficiency in the two-minute drill and a more-consistent ability to find holes in the defense and exploit them.

Zaire was more comfortable throwing passes in the short-to-intermediate range than deep, got picked by Shaun Crawford in the two-minute drill, looked explosive in the zone-read running game than Kizer was, and made quick decisions — for better or for worse.

They both have the aura of a starter, but it’s an apples-to-oranges kind of comparison at this juncture. Ultimately, the decision who starts at Texas, and beyond, may come down to what the Irish coaches want the offensive identity to be.

Sophomore Brandon Wimbush, by the way, was impressive in his few opportunities.

• A nose for extremes: Toward the end of practice, nose guard Jarron Jones overpowered, then split, two offensive linemen and chased down running back Justin Brent for a loss in the backfield.

Earlier, he intermittently sat out some drills after collapsing to the turf and grabbing his knee in pain. It turned out to be a scare and not a re-injury of the MCL tear that kept him out all season, save a handful of snaps in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1.

It’s been that kind of spring for the 6-6, 315-pound fifth-year player — promise, sprinkled with steps backward, mixed with bursts of dominance, followed by question marks.

Junior Daniel Cage showed last season he could be a capable starting nose guard. But Jones’ height, reach and moves, even in tandem with Cage, changes the dynamic of the Irish defense.

That is if, he’s playing at max health and effort.

“I would say that Jarron is still playing a bit tentative, and I think he understands that he’s got to play with more confidence,” Kelly said earlier in the week. “And I’m confident that he will when the lights go on.

“But having said that, he’s going to be challenged. There are a lot of good players in there, and he’s going to have to really bear down and make that concerted effort to really challenge himself.

“We know he’s got some real unique qualities. His size, his ability to push the pocket. Those things are still there. I think a little bit some of his confidence has got to come back. And I think when it does, I think he’ll definitely be able to help us.”

• An expanding role: Shortly after poaching Drue Tranquill out of Purdue’s recruiting class and signing him in February of 2014, Kelly wasn’t sure whether the Fort Wayne, Ind., product’s future was at linebacker or safety.

It turns out the answer may be both — and more.

Saturday on consecutive plays, the 6-2, 225-pound Tranquill blew up a flat pass to tight end Durham Smythe with a jarring hit, lined up on the fastest player on the team — slot receiver Corey Holmes — and smothered him for virtually no gain on a short pass, and lined up as a pass rusher and hurried Kizer into an incompletion.

“I think the areas of development are in our speed package, working his pass rush technique,” Kelly said of Tranquill, technically the starting strong safety. “He’s obviously a very focused and studious kid. He wants to be as good as he can be, so he’s spent extra time on that in the last week to get better in the speed package.

“And I already saw a difference from last week to this week in just his pass rush. So how good can he be?

“We’re putting him in a role that allows him to do a lot of things for us. So he could impact the game, because we’re going to feature him in a lot of different roles.”

• Quick hits: Quarterback isn’t the only position where there’s an apparent embarrassment of riches. Third- and fourth-team running backs Dexter Williams and Justin Brent each impressed Saturday with big plays, including in the passing game. That’s been a recurring theme this spring for Williams. … The Irish secondary doesn’t have an answer for Torii Hunter Jr., the dominant receiver on the field. … ND’s offense showed a lot of two-tight end looks in the red zone, three if you count Alizé Jones in a wide receiver spot. … The Mike McGlinchey-Quenton Nelson combo on the left side of the offensive line looks like it could be elite. … Junior Jay Hayes showed a nice burst as a backup rush end. … Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan drew raves from Kelly after practice, and justifiably so. … Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght has surpassed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder when it comes to producing the highest decibels levels at practice.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Alize Jones (10) runs drills against Nick Coleman (24) during practice, Saturday, April 9, 2016 inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. (Tribune photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)