Analysis: Positional breakdown of where Notre Dame stands heading into Blue-Gold Game

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune


The football equivalent of golf’s Stableford scoring system returns to Notre Dame Stadium Saturday for the 90th Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBCSN).

That means points awarded for things like sacks, three-and-outs and fumbles forced and likely a final score that looks like a bad basketball game (it was 47-44 last year).

Despite the vanilla schemes and over-rotating personnel for the spring finale, there should be some semblance of how 10th-year head coach Brian Kelly went about addressing the flaws Clemson exposed Dec. 29 in the College Football Playoff.

Fifteen spring practices certainly aren’t the end-all antidote. Progress must be made on the recruiting front — and is — and in August training camp as well.

Here’s a position-by-position snapshot on what that process looks like through practice No. 13 on Tuesday and how/if June arrivals alter the picture.

Quarterback: Incumbent starter Ian Book was coaxed to get out of his comfort zone and pick at what he wasn’t necessarily good at in 2018. That meant better accuracy on deep balls, better efficiency outside the pocket, better footwork under extreme pressure.

The upshot is a decidedly better version of the QB who finished 17th nationally in passing efficiency last season, with an agenda to keep pushing for more growth over the summer.

Backup Phil Jurkovec made the incremental progress that keeps his future looking promising, but more work is needed to make sure his present is as well, in case of an injury to Book.

Brendon Clark’s arrival in June will give the Irish a third-string scholarship quarterback and presumably someone to run the scout team.

Running back: Junior Jafar Armstrong looks the part of a No. 1 back that the Irish can’t afford to do without for a significant stretch, which is scary and encouraging all at the same time. Senior Tony Jones Jr. is a versatile No. 2 option.

New running backs coach Lance Taylor continues to sift through the other three options — sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister along with early enrolled freshman Kyren Williams — a process that will likely drag into August.

There are no reinforcements coming in June at this position.

Wide receiver: This is a position group that surged big time (and needed to) in part because of the dramatic improvement of returning starters Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, in part because of an influx of speed in the next wave of talent.

Junior Michael Young leads that group, but Kelly is convinced that outside receiver position on the wide side of the field will be a time-share, with sophomore Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins Jr., all in the mix. Lawrence Keys, backing up Finke in the slot, is another impressive sophomore.

So convincing was that group this spring that the Irish backed off on Virginia Tech transfer Eric Kumah, who ultimately chose Old Dominion as his next stop.

Two more receivers arrive in June, Cam Hart and Kendall Abdur-Rahman, but both likely will end up redshirting.

The recent verbal commitment of St. Louis standout receiver Jordan Johnson is big-picture significant.

Offensive line: Identifying former tackle Jarrett Patterson as a worthy candidate to succeed three-year starter Sam Mustipher at center, and the 6-foot-5, 300-pound sophomore accelerating into that role, put this position group ahead of the curve the entire spring.

The four returning starters all showed improvement, particularly junior Tommy Kraemer at left guard. The only suspense is who ends up as the top backups, with Josh Lugg’s experimentation at center rather intriguing.

All four freshmen at this position group are early enrollees, so the only possible significant addition this summer/fall would be a veteran inside presence of a healthy Trevor Ruhland.

Tight end: Junior Cole Kmet’s spring production has finally aligned with his long-time promise, so much so, the Irish offense will run through the tight end position more often in 2019, per Kelly. Classmate Brock Wright’s spring burst was a pleasant and welcome surprise.

There’s talent too in the two-man sophomore class, with flex tight end Tommy Tremble a wild card with a non-traditional size (6-3, 237) and skill set. The Irish didn’t recruit a tight end in the 2019 class, but have two already committed in the 2020 cycle.

Defensive line: The team’s strength going into spring is the strength coming out. The emergence of sophomore end Ovie Oghoufo and early enrolled freshman nose guard Jacob Lacey only add to that premise.

The push this spring was to get even better on the edge — turn QB hurries into actual sacks — and build depth on the interior. There’s strong evidence of both happening.

Defensive tackle Howard Cross III and defensive end Isaiah Foskey are two promising June additions. Defensive line coach Mike Elston expects to have rehabbing interior linemen Hunter Spears and Jamion Franklin back in the mix in August.

Linebacker: To be continued. Seriously.

That’s not to say there isn’t talent or depth or options. But there are few absolutes, which wasn’t totally unexpected. The latest player in the position group to flash a stretch of consistency and occasional brilliance is junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Injured players Drew White and Jack Kiser and June arrivals Osita Ekwonu, Marist Liufau and JD Bertrand add five more bodies this summer to the existing eight already entrenched in linebacker lotto.

Safety: This is the position group most likely to be impacted by June arrivals — specifically Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon — though certainly not at the top of the depth chart.

Senior Alohi Gilman, limited early in the spring, looks elite when he does play. Fellow senior Jalen Elliott continues to grow after a breakout season.

Converted cornerback DJ Brown and fellow sophomore Derrik Allen got plenty of snaps to impress as backups before big-time competition arrives in a couple of months.

Cornerback: The Irish coaches invested in sophomore Houston Griffith at the outset of spring as the player capable of stepping into the role vacated by boundary cornerback Julian Love. There has been more growth than growing pains, which is encouraging. But he’s far from a polished product.

This position group, led by Troy Pride Jr., will benefit greatly if rehabbing Donte Vaughn and particularly Shaun Crawford are healthy enough to contribute, but Kelly approached spring as if they wouldn’t be. Now after seeing Vaughn and Crawford recover this spring, Kelly said he’d be disappointed if they aren’t ready for the season opener against Loiusville.

The Avery Davis experiment, moved over from running back, now has a large sample size. The question is whether he’s a backup or a potential top option at nickel. Sophomores TaRiq Bracy and Noah Boykin are trying to push themselves into the mix.

Isaiah Rutherford is expected to be the more camera-ready of the two June arrivals.

Special teams: If this were a grading exercise, this facet of the team would warrant an incomplete. Judging freshman punter Jay Bramblett, for instance, by the quality of dents he puts in the Loftus Center ceiling seems a bit too unscientific.

Same goes for improving junior place-kicker Jonathan Doerer without a push from June arrival and preferred walk-on Harrison Leonard.

There are good enough athletes from 1 to 85 in the program to the point that significant improvement on coverage teams and returns should be expected and demanded.

Junior Jafar Armstrong (8) has established himself as Notre Dame’s No. 1 option at running back this spring.
Rover Jeremiah Owusu- Koramoah (30) has caught the attention of Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea (left) this spring.