Analysis: Five football developments to watch for at Notre Dame this spring

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s a cloak of surreality sort of built into college football spring practices, and especially spring games, that implores for some kind of decoding.

As Notre Dame on Wednesday embarks on the eighth such ritual under head coach Brian Kelly with the first of 15 spring sessions, be wary of the superficial developments that can’t be checked and balanced until real opponents are introduced this fall.

What is both real and stunningly positive, however, following a 4-8 season and heading into spring, are two significant developments:

• The Irish players have embraced a new standard and new leadership in the strength and conditioning program.

Typically, every new strength coach anywhere gets a honeymoon-esque bounce, especially from those on the outside looking in.

The consistently ringing endorsements for new Irish director of football performance Matt Balis from players at former coaching stop Mississippi State, though, support the affirming rumors, rumblings and social media posts from ND players of tangible progress in the first couple of months.

• Notre Dame not only retained six long-time 2018 verbal commitments through months of P.R. turbulence, it added five standout prospects in a 10-day flurry in February and collectively has assembled the No. 3 recruiting class nationally in the current March snapshot, per Rivals.com.

Perhaps more significantly, the Irish are well-positioned to make that ranking stand up over time provided the on-field results in the fall sync up with forecasts of a bounce-back year.

Not too be understated is how new defensive coordinator Mike Elko has factored in.

He’s been able to sell his vision for the Irish defense to elite prospects so far, and he appears to be a strong and efficient evaluator of talent, with ND getting offers out and relationships built much earlier in the recruiting cycle than in previous years of the Kelly Era.

To build on that momentum, here are the five developments Kelly and Co., must check off during the next 15 spring practices, culminating with the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 22.

Passing on a prolonged quarterback derby

It’s only fair sophomore-to-be Ian Book gets meaningful reps during spring under the premise that DeShone Kizer’s former job as ND’s No. 1 option at quarterback is truly open.

But Kelly overplayed that hand last season when he prolonged the Kizer-Malik Zaire battle all the way into the second half of the season opener with Texas.

Kizer, clearly the stronger of the two options once bright lights came on, Friday at the NFL Combine admitted he obsessed over winning that battle when he could have been building chemistry with a largely rebooted offensive roster in 2016.

The sooner a clear No. 1 emerges — and presumably it will be junior-to-be Brandon Wimbush — the quicker the 6-foot-1, 225-pounder can establish timing and leadership and all the other things that will make the new offensive flow in August training camp and beyond.

Finding quality among the quantity

The fact that Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston and his reunited position group weren’t able to figure their way out of an Escape Room in the allotted time last month during a team-building exercise can easily be forgiven if ND can shed its recent reputation for being soft in its defensive front.

The last time the Irish ranked higher than 70th nationally in rush defense or 75th in sacks was during its 2012 run to the BCS National Championship Game.

The misconception is the Irish lack the bodies to compete at that position group. But by the time the four freshmen D-linemen arrive in June, that number will swell to 18 — 19 if impending Clemson grad transfer Scott Pagano eventually settles on South Bend as his landing spot.

Pagano visited ND over the weekend. And if he returns permanently, the 6-4, 295-pounder from Honolulu would start at the top of the 19 on the roster as the most complete among them.

ND must approach this spring, though, as if Pagano will go elsewhere and that the freshmen will need incubation time, even though defensive tackle Darnell Ewell projects as an early contributor.

It is Elko’s and Elston’s job to identify and develop difference-makers.

The good news is both coaches are adamant the Irish have enough talent to get that done this spring. Three players to watch along those lines are three sophomores-to-be whose playing time and contributions were both modest in 2016 — Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem.

Touching the ceiling

The intrigue when it comes to ND’s offensive line trying to evolve past an underachieving season in 2016 involves its right side, where sophomores-to-be Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg lead the challengers to reshuffle the lineup.

But the left side, featuring two future NFL first-round draft choices, must make a pronounced step forward in the spring as well.

Left tackle Mike McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson enjoyed the lofty draft projections based more on potential that consistent production. Each pushed away the allure of the 2017 draft to come back to ND to work on their shortcomings under offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

It’s a coupling that should be dominant instead of promising at this stage, and spring should be the time to start to see that transition.

Stabilizing the safeties

That Elko continues to prioritize adding safeties to ND’s 2018 recruiting class when there are already 10 on the roster with no expiring eligibility does point to the fact that those 10 bodies are now spread over three positions (with the new rover) rather the two.

Reading between the lines, however, it’s also a not-so-subtle message to some of the safeties on the current roster to step up their games or get overtaken by younger players.

Those three positions, perhaps more than any others on the roster, will see the most experimentation in terms of who fits where the best.

Out of the gate, it’s expected that senior-to-be Drue Tranquill will get the first shot at being the No. 1 option at rover, sophomore Jalen Elliott will shift from strong safety to free and head that depth chart, with 2016 starting free safety Devon Studstill shifting to strong safety.

The return of Tight End U

The ideal scenario to give new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense maximum octane would be the ability to be able to move seamlessly between wide receiver-heavy formations and those loaded with tight ends.

The Irish have quantity at both positions, and there’s hints that quality shouldn’t be a problem either.

The return of junior-to-be Alizé Jones from academic exile alone is a huge boost to a tight end position group that has put together the two least productive seasons since 2001 in back-to-back years (20 catches in 2015, 12 in 2016).

Jones has hinted at a surname change on social media, though ND continues to list him as Jones and not Alizé Mack for the time being. He also contributed a catchy hashtag (#tictoc) that’s been adopted as sort of an offseason battle cry for the Irish players.

But his skill set — wide receiver speed in a tight end body — gives Long a toy in his offense that most other teams can only dream about. A positive for Jones and the Irish is that he was able to practice last season, even though he wasn’t able to play in games, so the rust factor should be minimal.

Early-enrolled freshman Brock Wright brings a balanced skill set (blocking/receiving) unusual for a young tight end, which should also bolster the eventual six-man position group.

And Kelly has been impressed with what grad-senior-to-be Durham Smythe has accomplished this offseason.

NOTRE DAME SPRING PRACTICE SCHEDULE

Wednesday, March 8: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Friday, March 10: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Wednesday, March 22: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Friday, March 24: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Saturday, March 25: 11:45 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Wednesday, March 29: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Friday, March 31: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Sunday, April 2: 11:45 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Wednesday, April 5: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Friday, April 7: 7:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m.

Sunday, April 9: 11:45 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Wednesday, April 12: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Wednesday, April 19: 7:30 a.m. – 9:45 a.m.

Friday, April 21: 8:15 a.m. – 9:15 a.m.

Saturday, April 22: Blue-Gold Game: 12:30 p.m.

After a year incubating as a redshirt in 2016, junior-to-be Brandon Wimbush is ready to pursue the status as Notre Dame's No. 1 quarterback this spring. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)