Notebook: Clemson aftermath inspires Notre Dame spring shifts of Avery Davis, others

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly almost made it through a 45-minute press conference Friday without being probed about Notre Dame’s quarterback position.

Unless you count 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior-to-be Avery Davis, who played the position — at least in practice — now 2½ position switches ago.

Lessons learned from the 30-3 dismissal from eventual national champ Clemson, Dec. 29 in the College Football Playoff semifinals, helped drive a move that carries much more significance potentially than it might seem on the surface.

Former third-string quarterback, spring wide receiver audition and fourth-string running back starts Kelly’s 10th spring as ND’s head coach as a backup and/or insurance policy at cornerback?

Not if you’re looking, as Kelly is, at what the ceiling looks like if everything goes right. As it did with converted safety C.J. Prosise four springs ago or converted safety/rover Drue Tranquill each of the past two springs, or converted wide receiver Jafar Armstrong last spring.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, (but) we’ve been pretty good with being intentional with the (position) moves,” said Kelly, whose Irish kick off the first of 15 spring practice sessions, presumably indoors, on Saturday morning.

“These aren’t like, ‘Let’s just throw one out there and see what happens.’ I think he can be a really good corner. I think he can play at the next level (NFL) at that position.

“He’s got power. He’s got hands. He’s got a football acumen that’s really high. He’s excited. He wants to win, wants to help our football team. So we’ll give it a run and see what happens there.”

And it’s not the only one.

Nickel/safety Houston Griffith’s recalibration this spring as a full-time boundary cornerback is another corresponding move from the post-Clemson takeaway that the Irish need to get faster and deeper at the skill positions.

Kelly called the 6-0, 205-pound sophomore the most physically transformed among his defensive backs during winter workouts.

Another shift of note is moving tall and sinewy senior wide receiver Chase Claypool into the short side of the field. That serves two purposes — putting the 6-foot-4, 229-pounder in more scenarios where he’ll see one-on-one coverage and he can use his physicality more to his advantage.

It also opens up the wide side of the field to a mass audition of the fastest wide receivers on the roster to give the offense more big-strike capability and ideally stretch the field to open up other aspects of the offense.

That’s not to say the Irish don’t need to step up the flow of elite talent to South Bend at particularly the wide receiver and running back positions. But in the meantime, redistributing the best skill athletes on the team to take advantage of what ND does have makes sense.

Davis’ move leaves the Irish still with five running backs under new position coach Lance Taylor. In his one season as a running back and his first season not redshirting, Davis rushed for 70 yards on 22 carries and caught five passes for 30 yards.

With Dexter Williams headed to the NFL with his degree in hand, Kelly and Taylor must feel pretty good about the remaining running back group that has lots of question marks from the outside looking in and one newcomer in 5-foot-9, 209 early enrollee Kyren Williams.

“I look for great things at that position,” Kelly said of the five, none of whom has expiring eligibility in 2019 and three of who have four years left. “I can’t give you a sense of how all that’s going to shake out, but Jafar Armstrong has played at the position; Tony Jones — those two guys. Jahmir Smith looks great.

“We’ll see how they play with the football in their hands. There are some guys on scholarship, and we expect them to pick their play up.”

And if injury or circumstance requires more tweaking in August training camp at any of the skill positions, don’t be surprised to see more tweaking and moving.

“If you don’t get into those games, you can’t get better as a football team,” Kelly said, reflecting on the Clemson loss in December and the lopsided loss to Alabama in the 2012 title game. “And the margin and measuring stick is to win a national championship.

“The big difference is that in ’12, we couldn’t control the line of scrimmage. We were able to meet and, at times, control at the line of scrimmage (against Clemson). That’s a big difference. (Clemson’s) skill was outstanding. We have to continue to grow in the skill area, and that’s the next challenge for us to take the next step.

“We have to continue to grow. If we do that, we’ll win a championship.”

More moves

Kelly confirmed last year’s starting rover, grad senior-to-be Asmar Bilal, will move inside to buck linebacker, just as Tranquill did last spring.

And Darnell Ewell, who came to ND as a celebrated defensive line recruit, is back on the defensive line after the junior-to-be spent most of last season learning to play offensive guard.

“We’re just trying to find a space for him,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to find a role for him right now.”

It also provides some needed depth at a position group, interior defensive line, with only four healthy bodies this spring.

As for Bilal, there are plenty of bodies and those pieces around Bilal will move a lot in the spring as Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea probe different combinations together. They’re also committing to cross training several of the linebacker/rover candidates at multiple positions.

“It’s going to be mix and match for quite a bit until we get a sense of how this is going to shake out,” Kelly said. “I’d just sit back and get some popcorn. We’re evaluating and they (the players) are competing.

“We’ve got to give them time and reps to compete.”

Let’s not get physical

Six players, only one of whom is a potential starter, will be held out of at least the contact portions of spring practice. Even limited contact won’t begin until practice No. 3, on Thursday, when the Irish move from shorts and helmets to a half rack of pads.

“There may be some limited drill work that they can be doing,” Kelly said of those being held out.

That group comprises cornerback/nickel Shaun Crawford, in the mix to start at either spot if healthy, and backups center Colin Grunhard, cornerback Donte Vaughn, defensive tackles Jamion Franklin and Hunter Spears, and rover Jack Kiser.

Spears and Kiser are two of the 10 early enrolled freshmen already on campus.

In addition, Kelly said he’ll protect some of his established, front-line players by exposing them to less contact than usual. Safety Alohi Gilman, for instance, would fall into that category.

Sizing up the roster

Sometimes the most dramatic winter transformations involve body fat percentage and strength gains that leave the players weight virtually unchanged. Houston Griffith is a good case in point.

Sometimes, it’s quite the opposite.

Here some Irish players whose bottom line moved noticeably since the end of last season or — in the case of early enrolled freshmen — since they signed their National Letters of Intent in December.

On defense: End Jamir Jones up 12 pounds to 6-3, 257; nose guard Darnell Ewell up 10 pounds to 6-3, 340; linebacker Jordan Genmark Heath up 6 pounds to 6-1, 231; rover Jack Kiser up seven pounds to 6-2, 212 (also an inch taller); defensive tackle Jacob Lacey up 9 pounds to 6-2, 294; and rover Shayne Simon up 8 pounds to 6-3, 230; safety Jalen Elliott up 5 pounds to 6-1, 210.

On offense: Offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson up 10 pounds to 6-5, 300; wide receiver Braden Lenzy up 14 pounds to 5-11, 184; tight end Tommy Tremble up 9 pounds to 6-3, 237; running back Kyren Williams up 9 to 5-9, 209; tight end Brock Wright down 10 pounds to 6-5, 250; wide receiver Isaiah Robertson down 13 pounds to 6-2, 207; and wide receiver Michael Young up 5 pounds to 5-10, 190.

Captains on hold

Kelly wants to see his leadership candidates in action yet this spring before captains are named. He says that likely will be anywhere toward the end of spring practice in mid-April until early May, when spring semester exams take place.

Notre Dame junior-to-be Avery Davis will have a new position (cornerback) and new uniform number (4) when Irish spring practice starts Saturday morning.