Notebook: Notre Dame offense dials up competitiveness in spring practice

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s offense may have been more talented a year ago.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be better in 2018.

“There’s really better competition than we ever had last year, I can tell you that,” Notre Dame’s second-year offensive coordinator and tight ends coach, Chip Long, told a mass of media in the Loftus Center last week. “Last year’s team was special, but this year’s team was probably way more competitive overall as a group (from what) I’ve seen.

“That’s really, really, really made me happy.”

But will that competitiveness, and a new crop of contributors, be able to replace the production created by departing offensive standouts Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Josh Adams, Equanimeous St. Brown and Durham Smythe?

That group contributed to an Irish offense that tallied 6.3 yards per carry (3rd nationally), 269.3 rushing yards per game (7th), 34.2 points per game (24th) and 448.2 yards of total offense per game (27th) in Long’s first season at the helm.

The 2018 Irish will have to be more balanced offensively.

And, when it comes to attitude, they already are.

“Last year it was the O-line that really set the standard,” Long said. “Now it’s every position that’s really bought in to really playing physical, playing tough and competing every down. That’s what I’m most excited about right now, just the competitive level that all 11 guys have out there right now.”

The O-line shuffle

There are five positions on the Irish (or any other) offensive line.

But that doesn’t mean that only five guys will play.

It certainly didn’t last year, when since-departed Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand rotated sophomore Tommy Kraemer and true freshman Robert Hainsey at the right tackle position.

And, as spring winds on, Long isn’t opposed to embracing another rotation.

“I think we’ll have somebody established (at the vacant left guard position) by the end of the spring,” Long said last week. “I already have a pretty good idea. But someone might surprise you. Last year I had a pretty good eye going into fall camp and Robert Hainsey made me play him.

“That’s what I tell those guys. ‘It’s your job to make me play you.’ He did it, and if you do that I’m going to put you on the field somewhere. I like that, being able to have those rotations. If we have 10 deep that all can play, a lot of them will play.

“That’s one thing that I feel good about up front. We have 10 guys that I think we can play winning football with right now. That’s what made the competition even better.”

Many of those 10 competitors have already cycled in with the Irish starters this spring. In Thursday’s practice, Kelly and first-year offensive line coach Jeff Quinn unveiled a starting unit that consisted of left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Kraemer, center Sam Mustipher, right guard Alex Bars and right tackle Hainsey. Junior Trevor Ruhland has taken the majority of the starting reps at left guard this spring, however, with Hainsey situated at left tackle and Kraemer at right tackle.

Mustipher and Bars seem relatively set at center and right guard, respectively.

Beyond that, Long has an army of options — and plenty of time to tinker.

“I’m not a really big believer in, if a certain guy has been there a long time, that’s where he should be,” Long said. “I think that builds complacency. I want guys competing and to get our best five guys out there, especially up front. But there’s some good competition right now.”

Tracking the tight ends

Cole Kmet earned a pair of awesomes.

Maybe one for each sport?

“Awesome. Awesome,” Long said, when asked how his sophomore tight end and the Irish baseball program’s premier reliever has fared this spring. “It’s what I thought he’d be. What’s amazing with Cole, he’ll come in Sunday around 3 a.m. from baseball and be the first one at weights that morning at 6:30 and be doing a great job, and same thing at practice. Him and Alizé (Mack) are playing at an extremely high level.

“I really just have two (healthy tight ends) right now, with the injuries. But they’re playing at an extremely high level. And it’s the difference a year makes. Another year in the weight room with Cole, and you can see the benefits.”

Those benefits are more immediately apparent on the diamond, where Kmet has racked up 19 strikeouts, four saves and a lean 2.70 ERA in 23.1 innings pitched.

As for football, there’s little question the 6-6, 255-pound sophomore will improve upon the two catches for 14 yards he managed in 13 games last season.

To do that, though, he’ll have to steal some starting reps from Mack. The 6-5, 244-pound senior finished with 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown in 10 games last fall, though he was suspended for the program’s Citrus Bowl victory over LSU.

Mack — who was also ruled academically ineligible for the 2016 season — is starting again this spring, though his competition is limited because of injuries to tight ends Nic Weishar, Brock Wright and early enrollee George Takacs.

But is Mack really a different person/player, or is this just another spring mirage?

“There’s no question,” Long said. “He’s trying to take care of things off the field, and he knows he needs to perform. It’s his last year, and when that last year comes guys seem to wake up.

“He’s jumped in full bore. He’s doing a great job in the weight room and just being a great teammate right now.”

Avery’s versatility

Avery Davis is listed as a quarterback.

But that’s not all he is.

And, really, will he still be one for too much longer? The 5-11, 203-pound sophomore didn’t play last season and is currently a distant third on the Irish depth chart, behind Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book. Davis has caught passes and taken handoffs at times this spring, and highly touted QB signee Phil Jurkovec will arrive in June.

It’s unlikely Davis will see the field as a quarterback this fall.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t see the field.

“He’s extremely athletic,” Long said. “He’s just got to start learning the offense, and that will come as spring goes. But you can see what he can do and help us.

“I don’t need him on the sidelines signaling if he’s not the guy (at quarterback). So we’ll have a package for him and get him on the field.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long during Notre Dame football practice Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN