Analysis: The 10 Notre Dame players thriving in Brian Kelly's spring rebuild

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He professes to not have a depth chart — still — and sounds more like a coach summarizing practice No. 1 of the spring rather than what it really was on Friday, No. 10 of 15.

But Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly backs up his repetitive, sort of nebulous, rhetoric with consistency of action.

For instance, the music that has been a part of Kelly’s practices going back to his first season at ND, in 2010, has been all but eliminated.

“I think I need our coaches to be communicating with our players,” he explained. “I want them to be building relationships and trust with their communication. Music does not work well in that realm for us.

“We blare it pretty good in the weight room if you want to go in there,” Kelly added. “We don’t just puke. We do other things in there, too.”

For better or for worse, Kelly’s rebuilding job coming off a 4-8 season is happening from the bottom up. Fundamentals trump everything else in every practice. And they will continue to do so, apparently in sessions 11-14, leading into the spring finale — the annual Blue-Gold Game, April 22 at Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m.; NBCSN).

“It’s the layering effect of just continuously building the traits that we need with this football team,” Kelly said. “Each team has their own process. That’s ours.”

Reprogramming is a word you hear from the assistant coaches when they stop a drill in practice and make a player or an entire unit do it over again.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston, who presides over the position group with both the most question marks and perhaps the most gestating surprises, will stop to remind players of the reprogramming mode when they’re doing up-downs for glossing over a seemingly trivial detail.

It’s quite possible new director of football performance Matt Balis is doing the same during the suddenly intense pre-practice stretching sessions, but the severe rasp and intensity in his voice makes it difficult to be sure without subtitles.

How all this might translate into wins and losses in the fall asks for more guesswork than actual projection at this juncture. But there are individuals who have made significant gains this spring.

Here are the 10 players whose contributions were modest, minimal or non-existent in 2016 but who have surged in the team rebuilding process:

10. Julian Okwara: The 6-foot-5, 235-pound sophomore still looks thin for a defensive end, but his length, his burst and his moves give him a chance to impact the Irish pass rush as a backup to fellow sophomore Daelin Hayes.

9. Miles Boykin: There’s some redundancy in big receivers, with junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool taking first-team reps all spring, but the 6-4, 225-pound Boykin’s consistency and athleticism have pushed him into a relevant role in the receiver rotation.

8. Tommy Kraemer/Liam Eichenberg: The sophomores dueling for the starting right tackle spot are in a race of sorts to become more well-rounded. The 6-6, 313-pound Kraemer is an outright mauler in the run game, while the 6-6, 294-pound Eichenberg seems to have a more advanced learning curve when it comes to pass protection.

7. Nick Coleman: The former cornerback with sub-4.5 40-yard dash speed continues to progress in the needed areas of run fits and scheme to the point that it’s going to be difficult for anyone else on the roster to unseat the 6-0, 187-pound junior in the short term. Sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott continue to cross-train at both safety spots, with Elliott joining Coleman getting first-team reps on Friday.

6. Tony Jones Jr.: The 5-11, 224-pound redshirt freshman has been too good this spring to become a forgotten piece in the running back rotation. And he’s much more than a short-yardage specialist. His pass-catching, for one, has been outstanding.

5. Daelin Hayes: The investment in first-team reps perhaps before he earned them and the constant pairing him against future NFL first-round draft choice/offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey is starting pay off with tangible progress for the 6-4, 255-pound sophomore. There’s still much room from growth in terms of the nuances of the game, so he may surge up this list in August.

4. Alizé Jones: The 6-5, 245-pound junior tight end, coming off a season of academic exile, has made himself much more valuable by significantly improving his weakness (blocking) yet still providing freaky athleticism in the passing game. Because he can do both now, it’s more difficult for defenses to diagnose the offense’s intentions when Jones is in the game.

3. Chase Claypool: Yes, the the 6-5, 224-pound sophomore wide receiver from Canada still practices tackling for his special teams role on coverage units, but he has turned himself into a practice mismatch on offense, at least in one-on-one situations. And new offensive coordinator Chip Long isn’t shy about moving Claypool around to different roles and different places in the offensive formations.

2. Nick Watkins: Keep in mind, junior Shaun Crawford does not participate yet in drills that require contact, as he returns from Achilles tendon surgery. But Watkins is the defensive back you don’t want to get matched up with in a drill. The 6-1, 203-pound senior is fast, physical, fluid and confident coming off a season missed with a slow-healing broken arm.

1. Brandon Wimbush: Watching the presumptive No. 1 quarterback day after day, it’s hard to believe he was Notre Dame’s No. 3 option at the position while redshirting just a few short months ago. The chop one might expect to see from either a new quarterbacks coach, new offensive coordinator, new offensive structure or new, faster tempo hasn’t materialized yet for the 6-1, 226-pound junior.

Squibs

Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson, a spring sensation a year ago and a starter most of last season, continues to reside in the background this spring.

Kelly said Friday it’s because of a chronic hamstring injury that the 6-0, 180-pounder recently reaggravated.

“We are treating it pretty aggressively with anti-inflammatories,” the coach said. “He just hasn’t been right.”

• Backup safety Nicco Fertitta was held out of practice Friday, and spent it instead riding a stationary bike.

• Running back Josh Adams joined wide receivers Stepherson, Chris Finke, Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders fielding punts in Friday’s practice.

• With junior Justin Yoon resting a leg injury over the entire spring, senior walk-on Sam Kohler was kicking field goals during practice on Friday.

• Kelly said safety Spencer Perry, who announced his impending transfer on Twitter Thursday afternoon, will have no restrictions when it comes to which school at which he ultimately lands.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame's Brandon Wimbush runs drills during practice, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ