Notre Dame Football Mailbag: How the Irish are addressing what Clemson exposed

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The Clemson aftertaste to an otherwise sweet 12-1 uprising for the Notre Dame football program in 2018 won’t seem to go away.

It’s reflected in quite a few of this week’s questions, 10 weeks after the fact. Nothing wrong with that, actually. The coaching staff asked itself a lot of the same things and is addressing them as well — first through winter workouts and recruiting, and now in the 15 allotted practices in the spring.

A sampling of just that was in the analysis I published Thursday on the web, taking a look at the five significant developments offense three practices in. The Irish now hit pause for spring break, returning to practice March 19 with session No. 4.

We’ll continue with the Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live Chat/Mailbag next Friday anyway and every Friday through the conclusion of spring practice.

Without further blather, your questions, mixing in the topical with the post-Clemson-themed ones:

This Guy from Twitter (@ndbay05): In honor of the Avery Davis and Jarrett Patterson position moves, what position change was the biggest surprise or most dramatic in your time covering the Irish? Also which move has worked best in your opinion?

Eric Hansen: A couple of qualifiers here: I’m only going to use Kelly Era recruits, not the guys he inherited from the Weis Era. And there are really two kinds of position switches — subtle, like offensive tackle to guard; and more radical, like safety to wide receiver.

A little background, 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. That pace has slowed down in recent years, but it’s still part of what Kelly does well as a coach.

The biggest surprise to me was James Onwualu going from wide receiver to outside linebacker. He had actually started four games at wide receiver as a freshman in 2013 but showed an aptitude for defense with his six special teams tackles that year. Now with the San Francisco 49ers, he’s heading into his third NFL season as a linebacker.

The most successful of the subtle kind were moving five-star offensive tackle prospect Quenton Nelson to guard shortly after his arrival at ND and moving five-star outside linebacker prospect Jaylon Smith to inside linebacker out of necessity after his freshman season. It should be noted that Smith probably could have been an All-American at running back or safety as well.

There are three radical moves that rate as the most successful for me, two of which were players who moved twice.

I’d put KeiVarae Russell’s move from running back/slot receiver hybrid when he arrived in the summer of 2012 to cornerback at No. 1. He was a kid who actually dogged it in cornerback drills in high school so they wouldn’t move him there, then became a starter as a freshman at ND on a team that played for the national title that season.

No. 2, I would say C.J. Prosise from safety to wide receiver to a 1,000-yard rusher at running back, followed by the morphing of Drue Tranquill from safety to rover to inside linebacker.

Tim from Williamsport, Pa. via Twitter: Who will be the QB of our defense, with Drue Tranquill moving on? Go ND!

Eric Hansen: This requires more clairvoyance than analytics, since the linebacker competition is so wide open. Typically, you’d lean to experience, and Asmar Bilal would be the choice based on that. But he’s playing a new position (buck linebacker), and I’m not convinced yet of his mastery of the scheme, let alone his new position.

I’m going to go with a wild card here. I’ll say sophomore Bo Bauer at middle linebacker fills that role, with safety Alohi Gilman helping with the back end of the defense.

Mike from Rochester, N.Y.: Hi Eric, I really appreciated your answer on how ND will get down to 85 scholarships. Great research on that. My question: Do you see the Avery Davis move to cornerback happening because too many of the other backs are ahead of him or concern about the existing talent at cornerback, or combination of both?

Eric Hansen: I think it’s driven by Notre Dame’s need to spread what elite speed and athleticism it has around to create quality starters and quality depth. In the Clemson aftermath, recruiting also becomes a potential long-term answer to that challenge, but this works in the short term.

The drop-off from Julian Love to the next man in the CFP semis was seismic. That can’t happen if/when the Irish reach the playoff again. Brian Kelly went as far to say he believes Davis has NFL potential at his new position. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea is ecstatic to get him on defense.

He’ll be in a much better position to help the team on defense than he would have as a third or fourth option as a running back.

Matt from Augusta, N.J.: What are your thoughts on ND being over the scholarship limit and talk of a grayshirt. When is the last time, if any that a ND player was grayshirted? Also does this show a change in Notre Dame’s thoughts/use of their scholarship limits. I remember Alabama grayshirting, and ND fans thinking it was wrong. Did we overrecruit? Or did we just like Marist Liufau so much to not offer, no matter the numbers. I will also say it’s nice to see that a player is willing to wait to be part on the team. Times changing, huh? Thanks again Eric, love your coverage and availability to the fans. Go Irish.

Eric Hansen: Matt, thank you. For those unfamiliar with the term, grayshirting is when a school and a signed prospect make an oral agreement that he not go on scholarship until after what would have been a prospect's first college season.

I think the ND coaching staff would take some issue in calling it grayshirting, because the intent is not to overrecruit and then run off players on the existing roster. It’s an attempt rather to have a contingency in place in case their calculations regarding roster management weren’t as precise as they’d hoped.

The fact that ND’s coaching staff was so transparent with a couple of recruits in the 2019 class lends credibility to how they are presenting the situation.

Now directly to your question, it’s really been the last two recruiting cycles in which Kelly has made the exacting precision of the roster an utmost priority. Too often the natural attrition of a program left Kelly below the scholarship limit of 85. And when you want to compete with the elite programs, those players from 71 to 85 can make a difference, especially if you have a run of injuries.

So in modern times, there hasn’t been a grayshirt, and the coaching staff is confident Liufau won’t be No. 1, but all parties are prepared in case it does happen. Times are changing, and with the right approach, it’s a good thing.

Tom from Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi Eric, with the latest cold-weather blast it is a good thing that we have indoor facilities for spring ball. A couple of questions:

1) I imagine that the nutrition staff plus the strength and conditioning staff monitor each kid pretty closely to help them reach their ideal weight and fitness level so that they can perform at their best. I am puzzled that a kid like Darnell Ewell has added 10 pounds and is 340. I know we fans spend a lot of time discussing a player who has not played yet but because of his high ratings coming out of high school and his potential to help plug gaps in the run defense, there was a lot of anticipation. I understand moving kids around to fill needs in a particular group like going from defensive line to offensive and back to defensive line. My question is are they really doing everything to help kids like this so that they might be able to play and contribute to the team in some fashion? Are there other players like Isaiah Robertson that fall into this same yo-yo situation?

2) I think that Sam Mustipher was a very underrated player for the Irish after a rough start to his career. I think that he will be missed a lot. With Jarrett Patterson working at center for now is that the long-range plan for his position or just temporary? Will the other players who were slotted for that position be able to get some work in before spring ball is over? I would hate to go into fall camp with uncertainty at the center position.

Thanks for keeping us informed and finding those Irish news nuggets that we appreciate. Go Irish!!

Eric Hansen: Tom, the good news is we are in the 40s today and will have a high of perhaps 60 sometime next week. Not quite global warming, but we’ll take it.

To your first question: I absolutely believe the support staff and the coaches put players in a position to succeed on and off the field. I wrote about some of the sports science developments that help monitor sleep, help prevent injuries, help accelerate recovery in my piece on a day with Brian Kelly heading into the 2017 season. Position switches are another branch of that. Even with that commitment, not every prospect is going to be successful, just like in life.

As far as the center position, redshirted freshman Luke Jones will get some work there this spring as will early enrollee Zeke Correll, two young players the staff is very high on. Trevor Ruhland and Colin Grunhard will get back in the mix as their health allows. It may not sound like it, but it’s a deep position group.

Patterson’s move from left tackle to center is not being viewed as an experiment, but rather an investment in a player the Irish coaches believe can be a starter in 2019 and for years to come.

CG from Dayton, Ohio: Hi Eric, how do you see Chase Claypool's development to this point? I expected him to take some time to develop as he transitioned from Canadian to American football and faced significantly better competition. But with his skill set, size, and athletic abilities I anticipated him becoming a dominant receiver. Do you expect him to take the next step and become the go-to guy for Notre Dame in his final year? Can he be an elite receiver?

Eric Hansen: A little background, at least Chase didn’t have to adjust to new rules when he came to ND, since British Columbia is the one province in Canada that plays the U.S. version of football rather than using the Canadian Football League rules and field size. The step up in competition, though, was significant.

For Claypool, his evolution as a player has been tied to maturity/focus issues. He’s had trouble sustaining those. Since the bowl game, he has not had that problem. His first three practices this spring have offensive coordinator Chip Long excited, something I wrote about on Thursday. If he keeps it up, I think you’ll see the high-ceiling player so many expected.

Bruce from Dayton, Ohio: Hi Eric. Thanks for doing these Q-&-As, I like the new format. A couple of questions for you. What is your opinion on Derrik Allen? If he is not a backup this year at safety and in line to start next year, would a move to rover be better for him? I'm thinking he has size to play rover and eventually Shayne Simon will move inside to linebacker, following the path of Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal. Your thoughts please. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Allen is a sophomore-to-be who redshirted last season without playing in a single game. It was surprising to me that he did not contribute on special teams at the very least.

At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he’s the biggest safety on the roster. That’s actually slightly bigger than three of the four players on the rover depth chart right now (including June arrival Marist Liufau).

This is a critical spring for Allen if he wants to remain at safety. I think the preference from the coaching staff was that he’d playing closer to 210, and that didn’t happen. But if he can make it happen at 220, so be it.

If you look at the depth charts, with Houston Griffith committed to cornerback, there’s actually a clearer path to being a future starter at strong safety than there is at rover, provided the incoming freshman safeties, either Kyle Hamilton or Litchfield Ajavon, don’t leapfrog him.

Patrick from Fort Wayne, Ind.: Eric, Derrik Allen, Shayne Simon and Noah Boykin were all big-time recruits in the 2018 class. Where are they in terms of making an impact in 2019? I don’t hear much about Allen and Boykin.

Eric Hansen: I just addressed Allen, so let’s focus on Simon and Boykin. Simon’s broader knowledge of the defensive scheme, combined with his talent and drive, have him as the favorite to be the starting rover when Notre Dame opens the season. That’s not in ink, but it’s trending in that direction.

Boykin has to get more physical. At 6-1, 179, he’s the second-lightest cornerback on campus. The goal this spring for him should be to play well enough for the coaching staff to trust him in a game and carve a niche on special teams. He needs to be ready to challenge for playing time when Troy Pride Jr., Shaun Crawford and Donte Vaughn move on after this season.

Ken from Pensacola, Fla.: Eric, how’s the ND Insider coming along? And can ND have another 12-win season or do you feel ND will lose at least two or more games this coming football season?

Eric Hansen: Based on where the Irish are in this moment, I think 9-3 is realistic. If they find resounding answers at linebacker, running back, cornerback and the interior defensive line, then the ceiling of what’s possible goes up.

We are working on the ND Insider Magazine, primarily in the planning stages, as we speak. It’s due to be published in late June to allow us to include all the post-spring developments that separate ours from a lot of publications out there that lack that kind of information. Thanks for asking.

Jeff from Cleveland, Ohio: Eric, speed at the skill positions is crucial in order to compete against the likes of Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. Who are key guys at running back, wide receiver and defensive back with the speed to either blow by or keep up with the speed demons in the top programs?

Eric Hansen: I touched on this via the offense in yesterday’s analysis. Remember, it’s not just speed, but the blend of speed and strength. If you’re a 4.3 40-yard dash wide receiver but you’re not strong enough to beat press coverage, then your speed does you no good.

Developing players who could help in the areas you asked about include wide receivers Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins; running back Kyren Williams (still need more speed at this position group) and defensive backs Avery Davis, Houston Griffith and TaRiq Bracy. Again, I’m not addressing the more established players, such as Troy Pride Jr.

Mark from Dade City, Fla.: Hello Eric, would you explain how ND is allowed to offer an academic scholarship to JD Bertrand in lieu of a football scholarship?

Eric Hansen: The oversimplified answer is Division I athletes who are offered that loophole have to meet these criteria: Be in the top 10 percent of the high school graduating class; achieve a cumulative high school GPA of at least 3.50; score 1,200 or higher on the SAT, or ACT sum score of at least 105.

There are other layers of compliance, but those must be met to even consider it. And remember in Bertrand’s case, this is a contingency, not an absolute at this point.

Stan from Chester, Va.: Who, besides Georgia at Athens and Michigan at Ann Arbor, do you think poses the biggest threat to an undefeated season this fall? And do you think that if the Irish beat both of those teams, their shot at the playoffs is a lock? And the big question of the day is: Do you think that Tom Rees is a promising QB coach or does he fall short of the mark?

Eric Hansen: Remember, we’re still learning about the opponents, and even then there are schedule surprises (Syracuse and USC come to mind in 2018). I would include the road game at Stanford in the final regular-season game in that group you mentioned as difficult challenges.

If the Irish beat Georgia and Michigan, but lose to Boston College and Navy, there's no way they’re in the playoff. I do think there are scenarios in which an 11-1 Irish team could make the playoff, but they’re both remote and convoluted at this juncture.

I think promising is a good word to describe Tommy Rees at this stage of his career. Brian Kelly was willing to take on some on-the-job training as a trade-off for traits Rees had that Kelly valued, including his knowledge of what it’s like to be an ND quarterback on and off the field.

Sean from Greensboro, N.C.: Eric, thanks for keeping us up to date. It seems every time I turn around Nick Saban is hiring a former head coach as an ”analyst.” How many is he allowed to have? What are the rules about this? Or is this just Nick pushing the envelope? Thanks. Yours in BBQ.

Eric Hansen: OK, now I’m hungry. Support staffs in the FBS at this time are unregulated. That goes beyond analysts, of which Alabama listed having 13 in the 2018 season. As long as there are no limits, each school is free to invest as much as it wants, but keep in mind these support staff members can’t recruit, nor can they perform any on-field coaching functions.

Thomas from Marco Island, Fla.: Thanks for providing some insight into the ups and downs of ND football.

Q 1. Do you think Phil Jurkovec is ready for the big stage?

Q 2. Do you think he can replace Book by midseason?

Q 3. Do you REALLY (sorry for the caps) think the defense can be good enough for the Final Four after losing Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill and Julian Love?

Eric Hansen: A1: From a confidence standpoint, I do. He has to get more comfortable with the playbook and its nuances as well as playing chess, so to speak, at the line of scrimmage. A2: I don’t think he will. A3: Not at this time. Check back with me in August.

Dev from LA: Hey Eric, I was curious about the legitimacy of Chip Long’s interest in Alabama. Was he just exploring all his options? Or if they had offered him the same position would he have actually left? It’s confusing, because that article came out where he basically said he wouldn’t ever leave.

Eric Hansen: I don’t think he said, “ever.” But his intention was to be at Notre Dame certainly in 2019. Sometimes an offer comes out of nowhere. It happens to good coaches all the time. You should always listen if you’re an assistant coach, I believe. Sometimes it will simply confirm that you are where your heart is.

Chip characterized the meeting as simply exchanging ideas with Nick Saban about how to run an offense. Was that all they talked about? Probably not, but the upshot is he is still in South Bend.

Can Notre Dame junior Avery Davis’ shift to cornerback be an impactful position switch for the Irish?