After long layoff, Notre Dame gets back to spring football business
SOUTH BEND — If Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly was paying attention to his Twitter feed, he already knows his top option at quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, spent at least part of his spring break in work mode.
With George Whitfield Jr.
As Irish spring practice resumes early Wednesday morning after a 12-day hiatus, Kelly will soon discern if the time spent in San Diego with the self-proclaimed quarterback engineer at Wimbush’s expense evolved the junior’s game or not. But at least Wimbush’s mind-set was in the right place.
The two sessions of spring practice that preceded the school’s spring break, March 8 and 10, were tone-setters in terms of the themes Kelly wanted to lather up his team with and feed to the media, like “grit” and “process.”
Pragmatic matters, like position battles and installing new offensive and defensive schemes, take over starting with practice No. 3 overall on Wednesday, and the first to be staged in full pads.
Wimbush’s spot, junior Josh Adams at running back and the two future high-round draft picks on the left side of the offensive line — senior guard Quenton Nelson and grad senior tackle Mike McGlinchey — are the rare spots where there’s perceived separation between the 1s and the 2s on offense.
On defense, there appears to be even fewer locked-down starting spots and one shocking depth chart surprise — junior Nick Coleman, who struggled at cornerback in 2016, getting first-team reps at free safety.
The Irish practice three times in the next four days on their way to their NCAA allowable allotment of 15 this spring, capped by the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 22. Ongoing construction on the Campus Crossroads project will cap the attendance at 25,000.
The annual Notre Dame Coaches Clinic overlaps the Friday and Saturday practices. Among the guest speakers are former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich, new Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck and NFL Hall of Fame general manager Bill Polian, father of ND special teams coordinator Brian Polian.
NFL coordinators Matt Patricia (defense, Patriots), Pat Shurmur (offense, Vikings) and Mike Sullivan (offense, Giants) are also on the featured speaker list.
On the off day for practice, Thursday, Notre Dame stages its Pro Day. It’s the NFL Combine-style test-and-drill-fest for ND’s draft hopefuls before NFL scouts and personnel types.
Nine such players will be participating either in some or all of the tests and drills, including ND’s three NFL Combine participants, quarterback DeShone Kizer, and defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell.
Joining them will be long snapper Scott Daly, running back Tarean Folston, cornerback Cole Luke, linebacker James Onwualu, safety Avery Sebastian and tight end Chase Hounshell. Hounshell spent the 2016 season, his sixth in college, as a grad transfer at Ohio State.
The intrigue has been who will Kizer throw to in his drills beyond Folston and Hounshell? Notre Dame’s only draftable wide receiver, Torii Hunter Jr., opted to play minor league baseball.
It appeared a new rule recently approved by the NFL and the American Football Coaches Association might provide Kizer with a larger pool of receivers. Underclassmen who would be eligible in the next draft cycle (2018) are now able to participate in their school’s Pro Day, with the number of underclassmen at each school not to exceed five.
Adams and junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown were on a tentative list as well as some non-receiver options such as McGlinchey and Nelson.
But there’s a hitch in the new rule. The NCAA’s added this layer to it: If an underclassman participates in Pro Day, they must forfeit one day of spring practice. That price was too high for Kelly to stomach, and so the underclassmen will simply cheer on their former teammates.
As for Kizer’s Plan B? It's still fluid, but Corey Robinson, Jonas Gray and possibly Amir Carlisle appear to be aligning to supplement Folston and Hounshell.
Robinson gave up his final season of eligibility and served as a student assistant coach in 2016 after suffering multiple concussions. Gray’s last appearance on an NFL roster was with the Jacksonville Jaguars last August, eventually being moved to their injured reserve list before being cut outright.
Carlisle signed with the Arizona Cardinals last spring as an undrafted free agent but did not make the final roster.
Although Kizer’s draft stock remains mixed according to analysts, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock continues to keep the two-year Irish starter as his No. 1 QB prospect in the draft.