Analysis: The 8 Notre Dame players with something to prove as spring football resumes
SOUTH BEND — It was five practices into Brian Kelly’s first spring as Notre Dame’s head football coach nine Marches ago when he finally made use of the school’s indoor facility, the Loftus Center, for the first time.
He did so both begrudgingly and temporarily.
Once a couple of flecks of lightning had passed through the area, Kelly marched his first Irish team back out into a downpour for the balance of practice as future ND quarterbacks Andrew Hendrix — a soon-to-be June arrival as a freshman — and Gunner Kiel — a high school sophomore at the time —stood in the rain and watched the continuing culture shock unfold.
Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, eager to soak in some ND football but apparently not the raindrops, opted to meet Kelly in his office later in the day instead.
Four practices earlier, in session one, Kelly had sent his team outside in shorts on a day where long underwear would have defined dressing for success. Principle easily trumped pragmatism at the time.
“We’re 15-21 the last few years,” Kelly said then, perhaps omitting the 2008 Hawaii Bowl win from his mathematical formula.
“There’s no bruised egos. Everybody knows where this thing is at. Again, we’re not coaching to be nice. We’re saying, ‘Here is where we are, here is where we have to go.’ We’re not beating you with a stick. We have a long way to go, and they get that.”
Fast forward to Kelly’s 10th spring, and he’s more into receiving the messages in the spring than sending them, now that there’s a culture in place.
The following are the eight players with something to prove and messages to send when spring practice resumes Tuesday — with session No. 4 of 15 — after an 11-day hiatus.
Jafar Armstrong, running back: The junior-to-be has a lot of the same skill set that made fellow position-switcher C.J. Prosise the surprise of spring four years ago. A chronic ankle injury suffered at the end of October halted Armstrong’s 2018 evolution.
ND’s third-leading rusher in 2018 had just two carries for six yards combined in ND’s regular-season finale with USC and playoff semifinal with Clemson. And he went without a reception through the month of November.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound former wide receiver, though, has the opportunity this spring to establish himself as ND’s No. 1 option in the running game. Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long love Armstrong’s toughness and endurance. By the end of spring, they need to love his consistency too.
Kevin Austin, wide receiver: The prodigy in the now-sophomore wide receiver class last season as a freshman is still trying to square off-the-field issues with Kelly, making the 6-2, 210-pound Floridian a bit of an afterthought early in spring.
Even as his classmates, particularly Braden Lenzy, are surging into relevance, Austin has the talent to become an integral part of the Irish receiving rotation in 2019 if he can convince Kelly that his maturity issues are behind him.
Josh Lugg, offensive guard: At times last offseason, the now 6-7, 310-pound junior looked ready to surge into a starting role, but he eventually became a utility fill-in at guard and tackle in 2018.
Long and O-line coach Jeff Quinn are letting Lugg focus on one position this spring — guard — to help him build confidence and a skill set strong enough to make him a top option at the position in the event of injury to starters Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks.
Michael Young, wide receiver: Halfway through his college career, Young has a modest 11 receptions but still plenty of promise.
He started spring with the 1s, opposite Chase Claypool and with slot receiver Chris Finke. But he’s got more legit challengers than any other penciled-in offensive starter. And that will only get more intense if impending Virginia Tech transfer Eric Kumah lands with the Irish this summer.
Kelly and Long want to get more speed in the Irish offensive lineup. Young can certainly provide that. What he needs to shows is consistent production.
Houston Griffith, cornerback: Kelly gushed earlier in the month about now much the sophomore dramatically improved his strength and speed over the winter. And the Irish head coach rewarded Griffith by moving him back to cornerback — right where he started last spring as an early enrollee.
Griffith had eventually shifted to safety and showed plenty of development at that position before being shifted to nickel out of necessity when Shaun Crawford went down days before the 2018 season opener. It was never a comfortable fit.
If the season started today, Griffith would be the starter at the boundary cornerback position. In the final 12 practices of the spring, he needs to keep the momentum going as the Irish build depth behind him and No. 1 field corner Troy Pride Jr.
Jordan Genmark Heath, linebacker: The converted safety was good enough last season to take No. 2 reps in practice at buck linebacker, but the now 6-1, 231-pound junior rarely got to show it off in games.
With Drue Tranquill moving on to the NFL and fatherhood, the native Swede seemed to have the inside track to move to the top of the depth chart, but defensive coordinator Clark Lea decided to shift rover Asmar Bilal inside to compete at the buck position.
Sophomore Jack Lamb could also rise up and challenge for the top spot, so the balance of spring is a critical window for Genmark Heath to remind the coaching staff why they moved him to linebacker in the first place.
Derrik Allen, safety: By far Notre Dame’s biggest safety, the 6-2, 220-pound sophomore follows a somewhat enigmatic freshman season with what should be a defining spring.
It’s stunning that a player of Allen’s pedigree didn’t at least carve out a special teams niche in 2018. He is getting every opportunity this spring, though, to reshape early impressions and lock down the backup spot at strong safety behind Jalen Elliott before freshmen Litchfield Ajavon and five-star free safety Kyle Hamilton arrive in June.
It’s still not out of the realm of possibility that Allen could eventually evolve into a rover or linebacker. Again, his play this spring could catalyze that move or quash it for now.
Jonathan Doerer, kicker: Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer and career accuracy king on field goals, Justin Yoon, moves on without a clear successor at place kicking or kickoffs.
Doerer has experience at kicking off and adequate leg strength to do so, but he has trouble with directing the ball and hasn’t shown the mental edge that Yoon had.
Doerer is relatively untested in game conditions when it comes to place-kicking. He went 5-for-6 on PATs and made his only field goal attempt, a 30-yarder against Navy.
Preferred walk-on Harrison Leonard arrives in June and will challenge Doerer on all fronts.