Analysis: Beyond the heavy lifting, top takeaways from Notre Dame spring practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Matt Balis paced back and forth Saturday like he was putting out a fire with his feet.

The ritual took place out of bounds at Notre Dame’s fifth football practice of the spring, but within clear eyeshot of some of the biggest bodies and noxious dispositions on the field — a revamping Irish offensive line.

An unsettling stare did all the talking for Notre Dame’s still relatively new but already impactful director of football performance. The physical and mental toughness exhibited from perhaps ND’s most perplexing position group of 2016, Saturday in drills, was the kind of retort Balis sought.

For all the buzz and headlines the Irish strength and conditioning makeover has inspired over the past month, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly knew they’d eventually ring hollow if there wasn’t a tangible translation onto the field, beginning this spring.

As the Irish on Saturday hit the one-third mark through their NCAA allotted 15 spring practices, culminating with the Blue-Gold Game on April 22, the football gains from the grueling offseason program lead the list of most significant spring takeaways to date.

“As we know last year, seven of our eight (losses) came down to the fourth quarter,” Kelly said Saturday after practice, “and we lacked some of those components. I think we’ve done a great job in building that.”

What does that look like beyond more sculpted bodies and quickened 40-yard dash times?

For one, the end of Notre Dame’s two-hour and 15-minute practice looked as crisp and detailed as the beginning of it.

“Maybe if you’re lagging a little bit in those areas, (it gets) sloppy, guys get tired, people are on the ground,” he said. “Didn’t see much of that.”

What he did see a lot of was physicality in the running game, something that’s been at best intermittent throughout the first seven seasons of the Kelly Era, despite the presence of some elite offensive linemen, one of the most highly respected offensive line coaches in the country and some running backs good enough to have an impact at the NFL level.

The influence of Balis and his staff seems like the missing puzzle piece. But the test is in its sustainability.

Will the Irish players still be rejuvenated by the program in August or will they be worn down? Balis’ track record at his previous stops, most notably Mississippi State, suggests the formula shows up positively during the season.

Following are the other significant spring takeaways at the one-third mark of spring practice:

Investing in elite athletes

Sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, ND’s lone former five-star prospect on defense, gobbles up the first-team reps these days. In team periods, the two bodies starting across the neutral zone from him are future first-round NFL Draft choices Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, the latter ND’s lone former five-star prospect on offense.

This is not a recipe for perpetual shining moments for the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Ann Arbor, Mich., product, and it hasn’t been. What it’s designed to do is accelerate his growth.

The most condemning facet of deposed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s aborted regime was there wasn’t enough of this kind of investment. Too often the best athletes on defense were bystanders.

“The athleticism is obviously what stands out,” Kelly said of Hayes, whose high school experience was severely limited by injuries and a custody tug-of-war. “It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques. And this is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There are going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m OK with that as long as he’s learning.

“Here’s the great thing about it. He cares a lot and wants to get better. So we’re going to live with some of the mistakes.”

Smoothing the rough edges

Alizé Jones’ next chapter beyond academic ineligibility started this spring with third-team reps.

New offensive coordinator/tight ends coach Chip Long had seen enough old tape of Jones’ freshman season in 2015 to understand what a unique offensive weapon the now-junior tight end could become in the passing game.

But what quickened the heavy dose of first-team reps recently was 6-foot-5, 245-pound Jones doing the mundane, dirty work of blocking. Real blocking to the point of affecting a play, not leaning and pushing and going through the motions.

“Chip’s done a really good job of getting him fully engaged in everything that we’re doing,” Kelly said. “He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. And Alizé needs a little bit of that.”

And becoming well-rounded apparently hasn’t taken away from Jones’ longtime strong suit — catching the ball.

“He’s virtually uncoverable in certain areas of the field,” Kelly said. “I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent.”

The Elko Factor

The most amusing difference in the defense’s practices under new coordinator Mike Elko is the presence of large, rolling donut-shaped pads the Irish defenders must flatten and take to the ground during specified drills.

The pragmatic variations, though, are the ones that matter.

The two most divergent statistical differences between Elko’s defenses at Wake Forest the past three seasons and the ones at ND in those same years was the Elko teams’ ability to pressure the quarterback and force turnovers at a proficient level.

The Irish ranked 117th in sacks in 2016, their fourth straight season below 70th nationally, and a 104th in takeaways, the third time in four seasons they’ve been ranked in the 100s. Paired with an offense that’s going to go at a faster tempo than in the past, it’s imperative to coax turnovers so that defensive plays per game doesn’t increase proportionally.

So how does Kelly measure whether this current defense is making progress in that area when competing against a quarterback, in junior Brandon Wimbush, who doesn’t make many mistakes and what appears to be a rejuvenated offensive line?

“I can tell we’re already doing some things that we haven’t done in the past that are going to be reaping benefits for us,” Kelly said. “Defensive linemen are going to be batting down balls. I think you are going to see guys stripping the football, getting the ball out.

“It’s a little bit more difficult when you’re going against your own team. But they’re working on that in their individual periods. And it’s being coached in the meetings, which I like the most.

“The thing you’ll also see is that we’re not jumping. We’re not leaving our feet. We’re staying on our feet. We see it all the time in college football and the pros, guys leaving their feet and losing contain. I think just the fundamentals are being taught to a level where I know that we’re going to profit from that.”

Wimbush’s early splash

It’s not just the freakish strength of the arm, the sprinter’s speed, the adaptability to a faster tempo and a whole new set of run/pass options. It’s also that Wimbush already is showing signs of being a “glue” player.

When redshirt freshman QB Ian Book spotted classmate Tony Jones Jr., leaking out of the backfield and down the sideline for a long gain Saturday in practice, Wimbush was the first to mob his understudy with a congratulatory chest bump/hug combo.

In his first interview Friday as the presumptive starter, the Teaneck, N.J., product exuded equal parts confidence and humility. He also revealed that there are many voices and sources that’s he’s learned from while incubating behind Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer — including Zaire and Kizer.

But not the least of which has been new QBs coach Tommy Rees.

“I love him,” Wimbush offered. “I mean, I’m in the meeting room with him at least twice a day, between eight and 12 times a week. Obviously, he knows coach Kelly’s offense.”

The best piece of advice Rees, an ND QB himself from 2010-13, has given Wimbush about how to handle being the ND quarterback off the field?

“To be smart,” he said. “(That’s also) on the field too. That applies in every aspect of your life. To make the right choices, especially as a quarterback.”

Strength in numbers

Not only did former Irish offensive line standouts Zack Martin and Nick Martin take in practice Saturday, ND offensive line coach Harry Hiestand put them to work.

Zack was tutoring young right tackles Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer, the two redshirt freshmen who have emerged as the top two candidates for that open position, and backup left tackle Robert Hainsey, a surprise entry into the right tackle sweepstakes.

“Not saying he would unseat those guys,” Kelly said of the early enrolled freshman, “but he’s worth mentioning, because he’s had such a good spring — his maturity, his ability to really pick up what we’re doing as well as from a fundamental/technique standpoint.”

Also taking in practice were incoming freshmen O-Linemen Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons, both of whom arrive for good in June, and a gaggle of offensive line recruits, including John Dirksen, from Maria Stein Ohio, who became commitment No. 12 in the class of 2018 later in the day.

Nick Martin, meanwhile, worked with the interior offensive linemen, taking a special interest in sophomore Parker Boudreaux, ND’s social media king (58,500 followers) and the guy who once pulled a school bus in a video announcing his commitment to the Irish. ND is now training the one-time guard at center.

“Harry needs a lot of help,” Kelly said with a chuckle. “Why not put them to work right away? It’s great to see them back. I think more than anything else it sends the right message to all of our guys of, ‘We want to see you come back.’ ”

Squibs

• Early-enrolled freshman running back CJ Holmes sat out practice Saturday with his right arm in a sling. Kelly said Holmes suffered a separated shoulder, is most likely out for the rest of the spring and will undergo an MRI on Monday.

Redshirt freshman Deon McIntosh, who had been working with the wide receivers, went through running back drills Saturday with Holmes out.

• The Irish got a little special teams work in Saturday, specifically punt returns and punt coverage.

Wide receivers Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders, Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson all rotated in at the return spot.

Wide receiver Chase Claypool, cornerback Julian Love, safety Ashton White, running back Dexter Williams, safety Nick Coleman and cornerback Troy Pride Jr. were among the players used at the “gunner” positions in coverage.

• Williams twice turned an ankle in practice, the second time late enough in the session he did not return to action.

• Senior Drue Tranquill got some first-team reps at the rover position Saturday, with sophomore Devin Studstill moving up to replace Tranquill at strong safety.

• Redshirt freshman defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji did not participate in practice but was present. Junior linebacker Josh Barajas, reported to be out sick for Friday’s practice, was not present Saturday either.

Notre Dame freshman safety Isaiah Robertson runs a drill as defensive coordinator Mike Elko looks on during practice at the Loftus Sports Center on Saturday. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)