Analysis: Breaking down Notre Dame's priority list for the balance of spring football
SOUTH BEND — If outside curiosity drove spring practice priorities for Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly, then Phil Jurkovec’s every move would be front and center for the balance of the seven remaining sessions.
The reality is the 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore will exit the spring as Notre Dame’s No. 2 quarterback, same as what he was in practice No. 1 on March 2.
The coaching staff’s goal is to make him a better version of himself, capable of stepping in and winning games if something happens to incumbent starter Ian Book, not to overtake the 6-0, 208-pound senior, whose 11th career start remains on track to be Sept. 2 at Louisville.
The juxtaposition of the Book’s career-worst numbers Dec. 29 against the only top 45 defense he’s ever started against, Clemson, and Jurkovec’s size, mobility and superior recruiting pedigree help fuel fan-base visions of a Trevor Lawrence-type evolution in the quarterback room that isn’t happening.
That doesn’t mean something’s gone terribly wrong in Jurkovec’s career trajectory eight practices into his first spring in South Bend. What it does mean is the Irish coaches believe Book will also be a better version of himself when spring wraps with the 90th Blue-Gold Game on April 13.
As for Jurkovec, here’s the snapshot Kelly is seeing, with practice No. 9 of 15 set for Saturday.
“Improvement,” Kelly said. “He’s seeing the field a lot better.
“There’s a learning curve there for him. Consistency in throwing the football — he gets a little bit low with his mechanics. His elbow drops a little bit, and (he) has a tendency to push the football a little bit. He’s cleaning that up.
“That’s going to come with just repetition and (QB coach) Tommy (Rees) working with him. But he’s going to get there. We’re really high on him. It’s just he’s not at a championship level yet. You can win with him. We’ll get him to the point where he can play at a high level.”
Here’s a glimpse of what the top of Kelly’s spring to-do list might look like for the final seven practices:
Between last season and the first half of spring, grad senior Asmar Bilal has taken first-team practice reps at both inside linebacker spots and rover. And he is the only one of the eight spring hopefuls slotted at one or more of those positions who has ever started a college game at any of them.
He’s the closest thing to a sure thing when it comes to the linebacker level, and yet is still more curiosity than certainty.
Sophomore Shayne Simon has bounced inside and outside. Sophomore Paul Moala entered the mass position audition from the safety position group. The rest of the group has mixed and matched with them.
It’s an intentional Gong Show … for now.
In June more pieces will be added — freshmen Marist Liufau, Osita Ekwonu and JD Bertrand, and injured players Drew White and Jack Kiser. Before that happens, defensive coordinator Clark Lea needs to start building continuity and chemistry.
That’s not to say the linebacker/rover depth chart will be in ink when training camp starts in August, but there should be, by the end of spring, a strong sense of who fits where best and whom the coaching staff feels investing the bulk of the practice reps in come August makes the most sense.
Sorting out the secondary
This has more to do with backup and specialty roles than tinkering with projected starters Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman at safety, and Troy Pride Jr. and Houston Griffith at cornerback.
The nickel role still needs to be filled, and converted QB/RB/WR Avery Davis is getting the first look there. A healthy Shaun Crawford would be the best fit, but with three season-ending leg injuries in four years, is a 100 percent Crawford a reality?
Finding who the staff can trust to plug in a game at corner and safety, either because of injury to a starter or the desire to rotate personnel, is where the urgency is. Departed cornerback Julian Love’s absence in the Cotton Bowl is still a fresh reminder of how pivotal finding those answers can be.
There’s room for June-arriving freshmen to get involved and move up during training camp, especially at safety. There are only six on the roster, including freshmen Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon, which could open the door for a freshman position experiment perhaps (freshman wide receiver Cam Hart could be a fit).
Honing special teams
This is the last spring the 52-foot pitch in the Loftus Center roof in part dictates how much special teams work the Irish can get in early in spring practice before outside workouts are viable.
The new indoor facility, set to be finished this summer, adds another 24 feet in height to accommodate punts and kickoffs without tearing out chunks of the ceiling.
This spring’s place-kicking and kickoff duties might not be settled anyway until after preferred walk-on Harrison Leonard arrives in June, but the coaching staff can use the rest of spring to figure out how junior Jonathan Doerer might fare in that competition to succeed the school’s all-time leading scorer, Justin Yoon.
Early enrolled-freshman Jay Bramblett has a clearer path to the starting job at punter, so it’s more about development than it is about who else is on the depth chart.
Identifying the key personnel for the return teams and coverage units should and will also get plenty of attention.
Harnessing the emerging speed
Swift sophomores Lawrence Keys III, Braden Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Kevin Austin Jr. — along with junior Michael Young — have flashed often enough this spring to warrant consideration for a deeper receiver rotation in 2019. They’ve also convinced Kelly/ND to withdraw from the list of suitors for impending Virginia Tech grad transfer receiver Eric Kumah.
The potential of that group to have an impact on the passing game is tantalizing. The consistency hasn’t caught up yet.
“They have to just be more assignment-correct,” Kelly said.
For those who ponder what kind of position coach DelVaughn Alexander is, keep your eye on those five receivers and their development over the next seven practices, but the early returns are encouraging.
The solace in Notre Dame’s lopsided loss in its first trip to the College Football Playoff is there’s no doubt what separates the Irish from being truly competitive for a national championship.
Quarterback play is on that list, and Georgia in Athens in game 3 on Sept. 21 could present similar challenges to Book in terms of team speed and scheme.
So the approach this spring is to regularly test what limited Book on Dec. 29. Not on every snap, but enough to theoretically push his game to the next level if there is a next level, which the Irish coaching staff believes there is.
“Let’s slide in the pocket,” Kelly said. “Keep your eyes down the field and let’s make some plays down the field. I think he’s really worked hard to do that if somebody’s there. We’re not getting a lot of ‘take off and run’ from him.”
Interestingly, in the practice sessions open to the media, it’s been Jurkovec who’s done more of the deep passing. But Book has done enough, and at the appropriate times, to keep the clear separation between 1 and 2.
And keeping alive the idea there really is a higher ceiling to Book’s game.