Analysis: Position tinkering drives growth, intrigue as Notre Dame hits halfway point of spring

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A year after incessant catch phrases and seismic philosophical changes colored a transformational spring for the Notre Dame football program, both the mantras and the foundational morphing have been more subtle this time.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been significant growth.

Roughly halfway through the allotted 15 practices and heading into a mini-hiatus for Easter until next Thursday, the Irish have produced a mid-spring snapshot consistent with head coach Brian Kelly’s main objective — addressing and attacking the weaknesses of a 10-3 football team.

That means less install and more polish. Less talk about culture and more talk about cultivating depth and a more advanced understanding of scheme on both sides of the ball.

However, the main source of intrigue, surprisingly, has come from position switches.

And in practice No. 7 on Thursday, there were three more players who were getting an experimental look to add to the 9 1/2 others that seem permanent. (The half? Quarterback Avery Davis’ new slash role: QB/wide receiver/running back/possible kick returner.)

One half of last year’s starting right tackle tag team, junior Tommy Kraemer, was lining up Thursday in former All-American Quenton Nelson’s vacated left guard spot. Impressive early-enrolled freshman cornerback Houston Griffith was working with the safeties.

And a starting safety from last season, senior Nick Coleman, was working at nickel.

The moving of pieces around was much more prevalent early in the Kelly Era than in recent years, and served him well. Of the 96 players Kelly signed between 2010 and 2014 who didn’t eventually transfer as underclassmen or were dismissed from school, 40 percent of them made at least one position switch.

Three of the biggest stars on last year’s defense have shifted this spring — Jerry Tillery from nose guard to defensive tackle, Te’von Coney from buck linebacker to middle linebacker, and the most dramatic, Drue Tranquill from rover to buck linebacker.

“I’d hate to say he looks natural, but it’s come easy to him,” Kelly said of the grad senior Tranquill, who two seasons ago was playing strong safety. “Sometimes it’s a hard fit for someone who plays on the edge moving inside with his reads. It’s been really good.”

The other dominant theme at mid-spring?

The lack of movement — or even the hint of it — on the quarterback depth chart so far. In fact, incumbent senior Brandon Wimbush continues to regularly draw praise from Kelly and other members of the coaching staff as making significant strides in evolving as a passer.

“Brandon has made some progress with his accuracy, his consistency,” Kelly said Thursday. “He did a great job in period 13 today, where we added a little chaos to the situation, where he went through his progression and checked it down to his back for a touchdown. So, good poise and presence in the pocket.”

Here then are the pertinent trends/people to watch over the final eight sessions that conclude with the 89th-annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 21:

Offensive line shuffle

The corresponding moves of taking a look at the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Kraemer at guard were auditioning junior Liam Eichenberg at left tackle and sophomore Robert Hainsey at right tackle. In the first third of the spring, Hainsey had been getting the No. 1 snaps at left tackle, Kraemer the No. 1s at right tackle and Trevor Ruhland and Josh Lugg sharing reps at left guard.

Of all the left guard options, Kraemer may have the best potential to be the most Quenton Nelson-like — eventually. He’s a mauler in the run game whose pass blocking inside would benefit from not having to operate on an island.

The two established starters from last year’s Joe Moore Award-winning unit, center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars, both look like they’ve made a jump in proficiency.

Safety dance redux

In 2017, the moves in spring to fortify the fragile safety position were almost a default to the lesser of evils. In 2018, the Irish are starting to play to strengths.

“I can see that the safety position is going to be more productive for us,” said Kelly, who got zero interceptions from that position group last season, the first time that’s happened at ND in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present).

“Even the kids who played last year are playing better at the position. Now you add some competition with Alohi (Gilman), Jordan Genmark Heath, I think that has changed the look back there a little bit in terms of that competition.”

Griffith, a 6-foot, 196-pound IMG Academy product and top-rated overall recruit in 2018 per (No. 43 nationally), only adds to it, as likely will fellow freshman Derrik Allen when he arrives in June.

“We think we’re in a plus situation at corner, where we can afford to do that,” Kelly said of the Griffith experiment. “We like his contact skills and his ability to play the ball in the air.”

The more the safety position group can advance this spring, the better a veteran defense with 10 starters returning has a chance to be a dominant one, maybe even “2012 good.”

Rush hour finally returns?

Since the 2012 Irish defense, that fueled a run to the national title game, finished 22nd nationally in sacks, Notre Dame has gone 96th, 74th, 75th, 117th and 83rd nationally in the five seasons that followed.

The early returns in spring aren’t just about the Irish getting better production out of projected starters Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes, but that there are waves of edge players who are doing the same, led by Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem.

Associate head coach Mike Elston presided over the 2012 defensive line, and he is relentless in practice when it comes to prodding this group to the next level.

“How many sacks did you get last year?” he barked when one of the D-linemen performed a drill improperly on Thursday, to which the answer was zero. “Well, then, let’s go.”

Meanwhile, Tillery’s position move in part is designed to get last year’s team sack leader (4.5) even more opportunities. And so far, it’s playing out that way.

A pitch for consistency at QB

Of the five key metrics that national champs tend to excel in (total defense, rush defense, rush offense, turnover margin and pass-efficiency), the one in which the Irish were furthest removed statistically in 2017 was pass-efficiency (101st as a team).

The worst in the 20-year BCS/Playoff Era was a No. 37 standing by the 2007 LSU titlists. Only four of the 20 ranked lower than 20th. The same number of champs finished first in that category.

Which takes us to Wimbush’s recent spring break working vacation.

Not a new concept for him for him to work with someone outside on his own time and on his own dime.

This time, though, a member of the team involved in working with Wimbush was Tom House, a 70-year-old former Major League pitcher and pitching coach and the man who happened to catch Hank Aaron’s historic 715th home run in the Braves bullpen 44 years ago.

House, who has a Ph.D. in sports performance and psychology, has tutored the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Alex Smith, Matt Ryan — and Tim Tebow. A big allure of House and the 3DQB team is their motion analysis technology in fine-tuning QB mechanics.

"It's not what my eyes are seeing. It's what the cameras are seeing,” he told NFL Network. “It's not what we think we see. It's what is actually being done."

Wimbush worked most directly with 3DQB’s Taylor Kelly, a former Arizona State quarterback.

“I know Tom House and what he does,” Brian Kelly said. “Taylor works for Tom, and I felt if we were going to do something outside the network, I would prefer it be with that group. (Wimbush) agreed, and I think has benefitted greatly from their work with him.”

Kelly and the Irish coaching staff were allowed by NCAA rules to help set up the goals and specifics for the training.

“We have similar language, so we talk similarly in terms of what we see,” Brian Kelly said, “so there was some initial conversations in terms of, ‘OK, how are we going to teach this? What are going to be the coaching points as it relates to footwork, delivery, exercise training?’

“And there was a connection there that I’ve always had with that group. When he comes back, (ND QBs coach) Tommy (Rees) links into that. And we continue that work and development.”

Early-enrolled freshman cornerback Houston Griffith is getting his first look as a safety this week in Notre Dame football spring practice. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)