Analysis: Freshman Jacob Lacey stealing the show in Notre Dame spring practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Three springs ago, as a high school freshman, Jacob Lacey led his South Warren baseball team in steals and was used regularly as a pinch-runner.

Pushing 300 pounds on a 6-foot-2 frame.

In fifth grade, he had hit a home run that traveled an estimated 400 feet. Last spring the left-handed hitting first baseman from Bowling Green, Ky., led his team in homers (5).

He gave up the sport this spring to get a head start on his Notre Dame football career. The early enrolled freshman is still twitchy, still powerful, though, and it’s translated well to his interior defensive line position for the Irish.

To call the now 294-pound Lacey a “surprise” two-thirds of the way through ND’s 15 spring practices would be a disservice to his senior football season in which 43 percent of his 80 tackles last season went for losses. He also helped lead South Warren to a 20-16 upset over Covington Catholic in the Class 5A Kentucky state championship game.

But both his early impact, as a tag teammate to junior Kurt Hinish at nose guard, and his flashes of one of the highest ceilings in his position group put him at the top of the list of surging young players on the Irish roster roughly a week and a half before Notre Dame wraps up spring with the 90th Blue-Gold Game (April 13 at Notre Dame Stadium).

“He’s awesome,” starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa offered. “He was one of the shockers for me. Obviously, watching his tape in high school, he’d bully kids around. But typically, when you come to college, it’s different, because everybody’s trained.

“This man is strong. He’s stout. His hands are great. Powerful get-off. Violent kid. I think he’s going to be great for the program.”

And that’s great for a defensive line that has a glut of quantity and quality at the end positions but needed a player like Lacey on the interior to be a quick study.

Here are seven other surging, young players who are positioning themselves to impact the Irish eventually, if not sooner:

DJ Brown: The converted cornerback continues to shine in the passing game and make strides in the run game at his new free safety position. The 6-1, 192-pound sophomore is getting lots of reps with the first team as ND is limiting incumbent starter Alohi Gilman’s contact this spring.

If the season started tomorrow, he’d be the team’s third safety, though touted freshmen Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon arrive in June.

Jack Lamb: Beyond grad senior Asmar Bilal, the 6-4, 227-pound sophomore is the closest thing to an absolute in Notre Dame’s linebacker lotto this spring. He’s been especially effective in pass coverage.

Injuries had him playing catch-up last season, in the weight room and on the field, but he’s in the thick of the race to eventually replace Drue Tranquill as ND’s starting buck linebacker.

Tommy Tremble: At 6-3, 237, the sophomore tight end is an inch shorter and only eight pounds heavier than Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool.

He certainly doesn’t look or play like the other tight ends on the ND roster, and that’s to his advantage. Instead of trying to unseat spring standouts Cole Kmet (6-6, 255) and Brock Wright (6-5, 250), Tremble is trying to complement them.

“He’s extremely athletic,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said of Tremble, who’s often lined up detached from the line. “He can get out, off the zone read, and block in space. Very agile. There’s definitely a role.”

Paul Moala: The former Penn High standout and former Irish safety is well past the audition/experiment phase at rover and has settled into a position battle with junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

As long as sophomore Shayne Simon stays inside and battles for a rotation spot there, the 6-0, 210-pounder’s sure tackling and coverage skills will have him in play for a prominent role this fall.

Ovie Oghoufo: The 6-3, 230-pound sophomore was named the team’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year in December as a linebacker, though he dabbled in other positions as well in the 2018 practices.

There’s no more dabbling this spring. A player who weighed 207 pounds when he enrolled at ND in the spring semester of 2018, Oghoufo looks and plays now like a defensive end. If it weren’t for such a deep rotation at the position, he’d likely be a major part of it this season.

Instead he’ll likely get most of his game action on special teams and then be ready to step in when Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem all exhaust their eligibility after this season.

Jahmir Smith: He’s the second-smallest of ND’s five backs (207 pounds), but has been impressive with his strength inside.

Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. are the clear top two in the running back rotation, but the 5-11 sophomore is pushing for a role as a power back who can also be a reliable receiver. So far, he looks the part.

John Dirksen: The 6-foot-5, 310-pound sophomore doesn’t have the recruiting pedigree that the four early enrolled freshmen offensive linemen do, but Kelly cited Dirksen and classmate Cole Mabry, a left tackle, as two of the members of the sophomore class — regardless of position — whose winters in the weight room are best paying off this spring.

The freshmen — tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic, center Zeke Correll and guard John Olmstead — haven’t disappointed, but Dirksen has consistently been getting second-team reps behind returning starter Tommy Kraemer at right guard.

Notre Dame freshman defensive tackle Jacob Lacey has been one of the most impressive young players on the Irish roster through the first 10 practices of spring.
Notre Dame’s Jahmir Smith (34) runs a drill during the Notre Dame spring football practice Saturday, March 23, 2019 at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex Saturday, March 23, 2019.