Analysis: Tackling Notre Dame spring football's biggest unfinished business

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A buoyant Brian Kelly, after practice Thursday morning, bounded into a room filled with media on a day when he wasn’t required to.

In the course of a short casual conversation, the Notre Dame head football coach revealed, among other things, he and offensive coordinator Chip Long at the end of the month would be playing golf at Augusta National, site of this weekend’s Master’s Tournament.

“So who you’ve got today? Players?” Kelly asked of the interview agenda.

“Coordinators,” came the answer.

“Whatcha going to ask them?” he said with a playful smile.

“Linebackers,” came the response.

To which Kelly dropped his head and lowered his eyes in mock disconcertment.

What his real reaction looks like to that line of questioning in mid-August is what really matters. And how he and defensive coordinator Clark are able to answer those queries at that time probably affects Notre Dame’s ultimate bottom line in 2019 more than any other dangling conundrum leftover from spring.

“We are, to a man, better equipped, better skilled from where we started,” Lea said Thursday after of the last of the 14 practices that precede Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBCSN).

“We’re still a work-in-progress and have a long way to go, but slowly but surely the picture’s clearing up. And Saturday will be an important part of that, but it’s still really, really early.

“And so we’ll keep this movement going through the summer and into the fall. And hopefully by the time we’re lined up against Louisville, we have a unit we think can play at a high level.”

The Cardinals are ND’s Sept. 2 season-opening opponents, on the road, and owners of the nation’s eighth-most-inept scoring offense among the 129 FBS schools last season.

New Mexico 12 days later in the Irish home opener is also a lower-tier offense (85th). Georgia in week three on the road is decidedly not (14th).

So the sense of urgency to put forth absolutes that are lacking in April won’t be so in August. And right now, the only one of those is grad senior Asmar Bilal, the returning starter at rover who will be starting at a new position on Sept. 2 — either buck linebacker or, more likely, middle linebacker.

The two players who occupied those positions last season — Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney — will be drafted into the NFL in a couple of weeks. They helped the Irish post their best defensive numbers — including 13th nationally in scoring defense — since the Manti Te’o-driven 2012 team.

Lea, though, sees the value in a protracted exercise of mixing and matching this spring and position experimentation, processes that has essentially whittled eight healthy candidates down to six — Bilal, sophomores Jack Lamb, Paul Moala and Shayne Simon, and juniors Jordan Genmark Heath and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

And among the two injured players and three June arrivals at the position group, early enrollee Jack Kiser — a rover who underwent surgery on his left shoulder in February — may be the one most capable of rescrambling the depth chart eventually.

“There’s every reason Jack Kiser can be a factor and can push those guys,” Lea said of Owusu-Koramoah and Moala. “He’s got to get healthy. In his time here when healthy, he was really impressive with respect to his movement skills, his work ethic. He was kind of studying overtime and really learning two positions in the classroom. He was looking at rover and buck.

“He was trying to maximize his time here, because that’s why you early enroll. That light may go off 2-3-4 weeks into the season, and we don’t need to close our eyes to that. We need to give him chances.”

Some other glimpses that hint at progress — 6-foot-4, 227-pound Lamb’s prowess in pass coverage at buck linebacker; Simon’s move inside dictated by his current size (6-3, 230) and likelihood to keep growing and not a failure at rover; Owusu-Koramoah’s expanding skill set.

Lea’s big-picture read at this point is that the “multiplicity” — as he calls it — of his core group can eventually turn into a strength. And the fluidity up, down and sideways on the depth chart, shouldn’t be interpreted as a red flag.

“Am I pleased with our level of execution right now? No,” he said. “We have a long way to go, but the potential’s there. We’ve got to keep working at it.”

Beyond the linebackers, some of the most intriguing unfinished business on defense this spring are sophomore Houston Griffith stepping in for All-American Julian Love at the boundary cornerback, , sophomore Derrik Allen’s evolution at safety and the evolution of the nickel position.

• Lea on Griffith: “Houston has things that he’s really good at as corner and things that he’s still getting a feel for. And part of our experience in the spring is we go against a really good quarterback and some really talented receivers.

“So I think he’s still learning physically how he presses, how he plays off-man, what his transition points are, when is that cushion broken, how do I more effectively transition from a pedal to a turn position?

“Those are the finer points that at times don’t always come naturally and have to be learned. Sometimes, as a corner, those are learned by the ball going over your head. That’s part of life.

“For me to yell at Houston for a deep ball is like me being a fan. I need to give him the information he can use, and as coaches we need to give him the information he can use to learn and develop from snap to snap.”

• Allen, like Griffith, was a highly recruited and highly rated member of the 2018 freshman class. Unlike Griffith, he didn’t see the field as a freshman.

Allen reported for spring ball at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, by far the biggest of ND’s safeties and a size that’s not going to help him push his way into the safety rotation, per Lea.

“In just talking about modern offense, safeties have to be able to play almost like corners at times. For him to be a rebuilt 215 or in that range — where he’s cut down body fat and built back muscle and it feels like he’s explosive and fast and twitchy — those are the things you’re looking for.

“You don’t necessarily put everyone in a box of what their weight range should be, but you’re just being mindful of how they look while they’re playing. But those positions you have to cover space as a safety.

“And if you’re not covering spaces, we can’t just rotate a guy in the box all the time. That’s why we have linebackers. And so he needs to continue to work his body so athletically and in terms of being explosive and rangy is in his best positions.”

• The player with experience and success at the nickel is grad senior Shaun Crawford, but three of his four college seasons — including 2018 — ended before mid-September with a serious leg injury. And this spring he still hasn’t played in a single contact period, though he is expected back full speed come August.

Converted quarterback/receiver/running back Avery Davis has gotten most of the work this spring at the nickel. Starting safety Jalen Elliott has taken reps there this spring as well.

“Truthfully we’ve left (rovers) Paul and Jeremiah in in some of those situations too and they’ve held up fine,” Lea said. “When you have a little more of a safety body at the rover position, that kind of expands your playbook in base situations.

“We want to respond to whatever the opponent dictates for us. We don’t do that in spring necessarily, because this is about base installations and base techniques. But once we get into the season and it becomes about game-planning, we’re going to be outside the box.”

Asmar Bilal has been the closest thing to an absolute this spring for Notre Dame in the linebacker position group.

When: Saturday at 12:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBCSN

Radio: WSBT (96.1 FM, 960 AM)

Tickets: Available

Gates Open: 11:30 a.m. EDT

FORMAT

Game Clock

• The first half will have two 15-minute quarters with normal clock stoppages

• Depending on the length of the first half, the second half will feature two 15-minute quarters with a running clock

• Second half clock stoppages will occur only due to injuries or timeouts

Other Rules

• The game can end in a tie

• Quarterbacks in red jerseys will not be live

• Each possession will begin on the 25-yard line

• Offense can place the ball on either hash or the middle of the field

• There will not be any kickoffs

• All punts will be fair caught

• No rush permitted on punts, PATs and field goals

• No fakes on punts, PATs and field goals

SCORING

Offense

• Touchdown: 6 points

• Extra Point: 1 point

• 2-point Conversion: 2 points

• Field Goal: 3 points

Defense

• Touchdown: 6 points

• Turnover Forced: 3 points

• Three-and-out: 3 points

• Stop: 2 points

• Sack/Tackle for loss: 1 point