Analysis: Beware the inevitable distortion as Notre Dame sets sights on spring practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The cautionary tale for more than a decade when it comes to overindulging in the raw sights and stats from Notre Dame spring football remains Junior Jabbie.

Who is now “Abraham” Jabbie, according to a fairly incomplete LinkedIn profile.

As Irish head coach Brian Kelly kicks off his 10th set of 15 spring practices next Saturday, March 2, the fifth-leading rusher (35 yards on 10 carries) on the losingest ND team ever (3-9, 2007) still resonates.

The now 34-year-old Parlin, N.J., product’s claim to infamy, by no fault of his own, was somehow snagging offensive MVP honors in the 2007 Blue-Gold Game. That after spending three years of relative inactivity as a defensive back for the Irish and before he transferred to first FCS Delaware then Division II Edinboro (Pa.) to continue as a running back.

Recruited by Tyrone Willingham in his final full cycle as ND’s head coach and largely ignored by coaching successor Charlie Weis, Jabbie did manage to coax six years of college eligibility out of the NCAA, finishing in 2009.

Actually, you don’t have go that far back to find a mirage — or a plethora of them. And the spring distortion can work both ways.

For instance, Julian Love, a consensus All-American in the 2018 season for the Irish, was getting burned semi-regularly in coverage last spring, because he was trying to turn seemingly every pass thrown his way into an interception.

Safety Alohi Gilman, while aggressive and confident, was exposed at times while learning the ND defensive scheme last spring. Fellow 2018 starting safety Jalen Elliott was playing himself into an afterthought.

Leading rusher and redemptive feel-good story Dexter Williams last spring was trending toward a head case even before he learned of his impending four-game suspension for the fall. Left tackle Liam Eichenberg was a picture of inconsistency.

And the eventual team MVP, Ian Book? His intermittent misreads at the line of scrimmage had him treading water as the No. 2 quarterback.

Perhaps the most misleading spring experience of the Brian Kelly Era belongs to former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer four years ago. So infrequent were the meaningful snaps for him and so bungled were the few he got in the 2015 Blue-Gold Game, Kizer himself had to be convinced from bailing from football all together to chase a baseball career.

On the flip side, there are plenty of spring success stories in the Kelly Era as well — sustained ones.

All of which means that the bottom line in spring isn’t about optics. When done right it’s a mixed agenda of exposing your own weaknesses, refining and evolving, sorting out a tangled positional depth chart, position experimentation, and schematic tweaking.

Remember, growth can be ugly.

The following is a position-by-position thumbnail on what needs to get accomplished in the 15 sessions that culminate with the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 13.

• Quarterback: With Brandon Wimbush set to battle for the UCF QB job starting March 4 and incoming freshman Brendon Clark not arriving until June, there’s plenty of reps to go around for incumbent starter Ian Book and sophomore prodigy Phil Jurkovec, the latter of whom moves up to No. 2.

For Book, the goal is to find out what the senior’s next level looks like and to push him in that direction. Think deep passing game, better accuracy outside the pocket and/or under pressure. For Jurkovec, it’s about continuing to refine a mechanical makeover of sorts and getting a better feel for the Irish offensive scheme.

If he can push Book to new heights along the way, all the better.

• Running back: A new position coach, Lance Taylor, adds another layer of intrigue as does the early arrival for freshman Kyren Williams. Be open for surprises on a depth chart that could have some fluidity to it through August, and perhaps beyond. Versatility, elite speed and durability will play well in this six-way competition. Last spring’s upstart, former QB Avery Davis, is a dark horse worth watching.

• Wide receiver: Impending Virginia Tech grad transfer Eric Kumah is visiting this weekend as he shops for his next home. But even if he ultimately selects the Irish, he wouldn’t arrive until June.

Taking a look at Chase Claypool on the short side (boundary) of the field makes some sense to open up an audition for some of the fastest (yet most inexperienced) receivers on the roster as well as surging sophomore Kevin Austin and junior Michael Young to test a different dynamic than the Irish employed last season.

• Offensive line: If Trevor Ruhland is ready to take over as Sam Mustpher’s successor at center, this is the position group on offense that should look most like a finished product. Ruhland has some promising understudies, including redshirted freshman Luke Jones and early-enrolled freshman Zeke Correll.

Even with returning starters on the right side, there is plenty of room to improve on technique and chemistry on that side of the line.

• Tight end: Junior Cole Kmet, who logged six innings in four relief appearances in the Irish baseball team’s first six games, becomes the centerpiece of this position group.

Fellow junior Brock Wright will get a chance to show if his receiving game is catching up with his blocking, while redshirted freshmen Tommy Tremble and George Takacs get a reveal of their very different skill sets for the first time.

• Defensive line: Defensive end is going to be the strength of the 2019 team, both at the top of the depth chart and because of its depth. The interior D-line, however, will have two new starters and likely limited depth.

Early enrollee Jacob Lacey has an opportunity to impress and progress into the playing rotation.

• Linebacker: There’s quantity, even with early enrolled freshman Jack Kiser out for the spring after February shoulder surgery, and more quantity on the way in June.

Determining the quality in a rebuilding position group, it appears, starts with moving incumbent rover Asmar Bilal inside to buck (weakside) linebacker and filling in around that move. Expect the competition to spill over into August training camp.

• Safety: The next step in what has been a dramatic and successful position group rebuild is establishing the kind of depth that would allow defensive coordinator Clark Lea to feel comfortable with rotating out returning starters Elliott and Gilman on occasion.

There’s plenty of talent in the sophomore class that should get that opportunity in the spring before five-star prospect Kyle Hamilton joins the mix in June.

• Cornerback: The offensive run Clemson went on with All-American Julian Love sidelined in the first half of ND’s 30-3 CFP semifinal loss on Dec. 29 underscores the urgency in finding a long-term answer the Irish didn’t have in the short term two months ago.

Senior Troy Pride Jr., now anchors the group. With Shaun Crawford still rehabbing from a season-ending knee injury and Donte Vaughn rehabbing from shoulder surgery, sophomores Tariq Bracy, DJ Brown and Noah Boykin have a chance to earn trust and meaningful reps. Bracy is the most experienced of that group.

Crawford, when healthy, is a difference-maker, but with three season-ending leg injuries in four years, no one is sure how well he’ll rebound physically this time.

• Special teams: Weather typically keeps the Irish indoors for much of spring and the kicking game not fully active, but junior kicker Jonathan Doerer might have to brave the elements in order to get an inside track before touted walk-on Harrison Leonard arrives in June, looking to succeed all-time leading scorer Justin Yoon.

Tyler Newsome’s freshman heir apparent, Jay Bramblett, is already on campus with a clear path to the starting punter’s job.

If there’s going to be a “gong show” for return candidates, that won’t happen likely until very late in the spring.

Senior Chase Claypool (83) emerged from a fog of inconsistency his first three years on the ND campus to put together a stellar spring.