Analysis: Plenty of 'what-ifs' — and the good kind — heading into Notre Dame's offseason

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

More relevant and perhaps more real than some of the mirages that are an inherent staple of the annual Blue-Gold Game are the what-ifs that emerged from the 89th rendition on Saturday.

In this instance, the good kind of what-ifs, that is if they come to fruition.

“We know that we’re not a finished product at this point,” Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly said after the 47-44 Blue victory that used a contrived scoring system in the spring finale at Notre Dame Stadium that distorted and inflated the final score.

“But their work ethic has been great. Their attitude’s been great. It’s a close team. They really care for each other, so there’s a lot of really good things moving forward.”

Perhaps the one that could make the most impact in the Sept. 1 season opener with Michigan — and beyond — has to do with the burgeoning safety corps, Kelly’s No. 1 headache at the start of spring practice and a professed strength coming out of it.

It’s a combination of significant improvement from some of the returnees, especially junior incumbent starter Jalen Elliott, and an infusion of new talent, with another shot of that coming in June with Georgia high school standout Derrik Allen.

Specifically, the most intriguing what-if heading into the offseason: What if freshman Houston Griffith and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman could play together?

Once the coaching staff shifted prodigy Griffith from cornerback to free safety mid-spring, the early enrolled freshman and Gilman were working at the same position. But late in the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, they were on the field together.

By August that may be ND’s best starting combination, with Elliott, 2017 starter Nick Coleman — now working a lot at nickel — Devin Studstill and Allen comprising a rotation good enough and deep enough that the coaching staff was able to move surging sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath to buck linebacker.

Gilman had six tackles and forced and recovered a Michael Young fumble inside the Gold 10-yard line on Saturday, and Griffith had three tackles.

“Gilman wasn’t a big-time recruit, but that’s only because people didn’t see him,” offered CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “I think he could really have a breakout year this fall.

“And Houston Griffith is a bona fide star-in-the-making, with his bloodlines, confidence and athletic ability. He’s got really loose hips and a kid who’s really quick in transition. He just has the natural instincts to be a big-time guy.”

What if Notre Dame’s best option at rover in September was a spectator Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium?

Senior Asmar Bilal (4 tackles, including a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup), and sophomores Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (1 tackle) and Isaiah Robertson (2 tackles) shared the reps Saturday, as they have been all spring.

But they left the door open for June-arriving freshman Shayne Simon to challenge them in August training camp, not that he wouldn’t have potentially burst through it anyway, even with stronger and more consistent showings from them.

The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Simon took in the Blue-Gold Game in person as did seven other members of the later-arriving freshman class: wide receiver Braden Lenzy, quarterback Phil Jurkovec, tight end Tommy Tremble, safeties Allen and Paul Moala, defensive lineman Ja’mion Franklin and cornerback DJ Brown.

“Not only is he a Notre Dame kind of kid, he’s built like a future NFL player and is really good right now,” Lemming said. “I thought he was one of their biggest catches in the 2018 class.

“Athletically he’s ready. Intellectually he’s ready. It comes down to how quickly he picks up (coordinator) Clark Lea’s defense. Long term, the talent is certainly there for him to become an All-American at Notre Dame.”

What if the offensive line really doesn’t miss a beat in the transition from Harry Hiestand to new O-Line coach Jeff Quinn?

Saturday’s performance was a mixed bag from the newly minted No. 1 alignment of left tackle Liam Eichenberg, left guard Alex Bars, center Sam Mustipher, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey.

But keep in mind two things: It’s a group that’s worked together for roughly a third of the 15 spring practices, as Quinn tinkered with different combinations. and last year’s eventual Joe Moore Award-winning starting line and its backups gave up 11 sacks in the spring game, three more than Saturday’s starters and backups did (with very liberal rules for a sack in each game).

More disturbing on Saturday were the multiple illegal procedure penalties.

The encouraging news is that those close to the program believe Quinn is providing the same level of attention to detail in practices and exacting the same high standards that Hiestand delivered in his six seasons with the Irish.

That’s a good start for a unit that needs the summer to gets its chemistry right.

What if Julian Okwara is able to coax his weight from the 230 pounds he played at this spring to 250?

The 6-foot-5 junior defensive end heads into summer as Notre Dame’s best pass rusher but too light to be an every-down player and down 10 pounds from last year’s weight.

At 230, Okwara is one pounder heavier than wide receiver Chase Claypool and three pounds lighter than linebacker Drue Tranquill, the former safety and rover whom many wondered if he was big enough to play inside linebacker.

“He’s a lean guy that works his tail off and burns a lot of calories,” ND defensive line coach Mike Elston said of Okwara. “He’s got to take in more than he burns, and he’s committed to that right now.

“We went him big. I tease him, when he’s under 230, he’s a fifth-round draft pick. Above 230, he’s a fourth-round pick. Above 235, he’s third round. We’re trying to get him up to where he can be a first round draft pick.”

Okwara, whose older brother, Romeo led the Irish in sacks in both 2014 and 2015, had 1.5 sacks among his three tackles Saturday and he hurried QB Brandon Wimbush into his only interception of the day.

“Julian uses his hands. He gets off blocks. He’s violent with pass rush,” Elston said. “He’s productive.”

What if Chase Claypool, Dexter Williams and Alizé Mack fall in love with consistency?

Their numbers from the Blue-Gold Game help illuminate that best-case scenario.

Despite being demoted to the second team for the game, junior Claypool led all receivers with six catches, 151 yards and 2 TDs. Senior Mack led the tight ends with four catches for 37 yards, and senior Williams — second team Saturday and for the latter part of spring — was the leading rusher with 117 yards on 11 carries and a TD.

If you hear Kelly using the phrase “working on the traits” with any of them, it’s a bad sign. and that happened with all three of them last season at different junctures. Mack among them avoided that phrase this spring.

Consistency in effort, performance and maturity from all three of them is what could turn a balanced ND offense into a dynamic one.

What if incoming quarterback Phil Jurkovec is as good as advertised?

Quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees wants the June-arriving freshman to prepare in the coming weeks as if he’s going to be the starter Sept. 1.

“You want somebody that has the fire, has that competitiveness,’’ said Rees. “Now whether he’d actually be the starter is a whole ‘nother conversation.

“What you don’t want is somebody coming in thinking, ‘I’m a third-stringer. I’m a backup.’ You want somebody who’s going to attack each day. The mental aspect is always the most important.

“It’s the first thing to get going. I’m excited to get him here, excited to bring his competitiveness, his energy to the room.”

If nothing else, he pushes incumbent starter Brandon Wimbush and “quarterback 1B” Ian Book in the fall to get better. and the two did get better in the spring.

Rees is convinced that whenever Jurkovec’s time eventually comes to rise to the top of the depth chart, the western Pennsylvanian’s game will translate to the increased speed at the college level and the bright lights of Notre Dame.

“I think figuring out if a quarterback can handle the bright lights is easy,” Rees said. “You get in and get to know the kid and his persona. and you get to know his background.

“He was the freshman on varsity, starting and becoming an all-league player. He goes into every opposing gym (in basketball), and they’re booing him and talking smack to him, because he’s a Notre Dame football commit. He deals with that on the football field as well.

“All those things you can see the mental makeup and the fortitude he had to handle adversity. He gets hurt (in his junior season), and comes back to lead his team to 16-0 and a state championship.

“His family is so strong and so close-knit. There’s such a deep care there. You know he’s been brought up the right way and able to handle those things.”

ehansen@sbtinfo.com Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Chris Finke (10) gets brought down by Alohi Gilman (11) during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold spring football game, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.