Analysis: Key impressions and projections from Notre Dame's completed spring session
SOUTH BEND — Both the best thing and the worst thing about the April 13 conclusion to Notre Dame spring football practice, the 90th Blue-Gold Game, is that it’s a snapshot.
Not a harbinger. Not a conclusion. Not even distortion-free.
It’s not devoid of significance, either.
But perhaps the most consequential facet of the 120-play controlled exhibition will be, per usual, its aftermath — namely what happens between now and the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville.
That’s especially true when it comes to the group of eight linebackers who competed for three starting spots with no verdict and who will gain five more challengers — three June-arriving freshmen and two injured players — over the summer.
“I think they know what to do,” departing Irish linebacker and soon-to-be NFL Draft pick Drue Tranquill said this week on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast of the unwieldy and fluid depth chart he leaves behind.
“They all have, for the most part, played under (defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Clark) Lea for two years now. Certainly, I think, there are some emerging leaders in that group and some guys that can step up big. It’s going to be a matter of their want-to and their desire to be great.”
The work continues, largely unsupervised and completely unscrutinized (when it comes to media access) until the team reconvenes for training camp in August.
In the interim, here are some impressions and projections from the recently completed 15 spring sessions and the critical summer work that will ensue.
• The five June arrivals with the most to gain
Only 12 of the 22-member freshman class didn’t enroll early. The same holds true of a key preferred walk-on who tops this list:
1. Harrison Leonard, kicker: The now 5-foot-11, 208-pounder — finishing up his prep school days in Avon, Conn., this spring as an elite high school shortstop — turned down a handful of baseball scholarships offers, and a football scholarship from Baylor to follow his dream at Notre Dame.
The place-kicking and kickoff duties figure to be wide open. Leonard can punt in a pinch as well.
2. Kyle Hamilton, safety: The 247Sports five-star prospect from Atlanta made the spring moves of former safeties Paul Moala (rover) and Houston Griffith (cornerback) — both sophomores-to-be — more palatable. Now up to 205 pounds at 6-3, from 190 on signing day in late December, Hamilton has the skill set to play both safety spots and perhaps some nickel — all three positions where depth is needed.
3. Litchfield Ajavon, safety: The former Virginia high school hurdler/sprinter standout is by far the member of the 2019 Notre Dame freshman class with the widest variance in his recruiting rating from the two major rating services — Rivals (No. 9 safety nationally, No. 106 player overall) and 247Sports (No. 59 safety and No. 746 player overall). That said, both agree he is extraordinarily physical (247Sports questions his coverage skills), which should help earn him a spot on special teams at the very least. Given that there were just four scholarship safeties on the roster at the end of spring, Ajavon figures to get a long look.
4. Howard Cross III, defensive tackle: The 6-foot-1, 265-pounder has the flexibility to play inside or out, but the most immediate and long-term needs are at defensive tackle. There, he is expected to push into the rotation with projected starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, surging backup Jayson Ademilola and convalescing classmate Hunter Spears (ACL tear).
5. Isaiah Rutherford, cornerback: At a position that’s facing some serious roster churn after the season (Troy Pride Jr., Donte Vaughn and Shaun Crawford) and that loses impending transfer Noah Boykin as well, the 6-foot, 175-pound Californian and 5-11, 190 Atlanta product K.J. Wallace should both get a run in fall camp to see if they can bolster depth.
• The five most misleading mirages from the Blue-Gold Game
1. Julian Okwara, defensive e end: Arguably Notre Dame’s best overall player coming out of spring and its most likely first-rounder in the 2020 NFL Draft, Okwara logged just one tackle in the spring game, though it was a sack. A heavy rotation limited his opportunities on April 13. That wasn’t the case in the other seven (of 14) spring practices open to the media, where the 6-foot-5, 240-pound senior was consistent and dominant.
“We put together a highlight video of Julian, where he had 27 missed sacks last year,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “If he has just half of those (to go along with the eight he did register), he leads the country in sacks.
“So finishing plays for Julian, where he can be the leading sack guy in the country, (is Okwara’s next step). He can be a menace to teams. We want that for him.”
2. Chris Finke, slot receiver: Notre Dame’s second-leading returning receiver had a modest one catch for nine yards in the Blue-Gold Game and was targeted only twice, but he was a nightmare matchup throughout spring during scrimmage and 1-on-1 periods for Irish defenders.
“He probably doesn’t get enough recognition for what he can do as a receiver,” Kelly said. “He’s a top-notch, BCS college receiver in the slot. He can do virtually everything for you. He’s a real weapon for us.”
3. Cole Kmet, tight end: The junior’s left (throwing) elbow soreness shut down his double duty this spring with the Irish baseball team. It did not curtail his production on the football field. He had three catches for 21 yards with a long of eight yards in the spring game but was a constant threat both in the red zone and on long routes down the middle of the field during the rest of spring.
4. Alohi Gilman, free safety: The senior stood on the sidelines during the Blue-Gold Game and missed most of the contact portions of spring practice as a precaution to let his body heal from a long 2018 season. But when he did make an appearance in drills or in scrimmage periods, there was a clear step up in how the Irish defense played. ND’s second-leading tackler (95) and co-leader in fumbles forced (3) appears on track for a standout season.
5. Sophomore wide receivers: Collectively, they had a modest 107 receiving yards in the Blue-Gold Game among the four of them, and only two catches in excess of seven yards among their seven receptions. But the speed and potential impact of Kevin Austin Jr., Lawrence Keys III, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Braden Lenzy is real. Consistency over the summer and in training camp will determine how many of them and how deep they push into the wide receiver rotation in September.
• The five breakthrough Blue-Gold performances that were no fluke
1. Jahmir Smith, running back: At 5-11, 207, the sophomore is actually ND’s second-lightest back, but he powers through traffic like a bulldozer. The unexpected dimension perhaps was his consistent receiving throughout spring, and it showed up again in the Blue-Gold Game — three catches for 37 yards to go along with 56 rushing yards on eight carries and two TDs.
2. Paul Moala, rover: The converted safety’s team-leading nine tackles including two sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. He was good enough on special teams as a freshman to burn a potential redshirt year, and he finishes spring in a position to challenge junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah for a starting berth in the fall at his new position.
3. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover: The rover position surged in the final couple of weeks of spring practice, with the junior capping his spring with seven tackles in the Blue-Gold Game, tied for second-highest in the game. Owusu-Koramoah is finally healthy and finally comfortable enough with the playbook to flash his impressive athleticism more than intermittently.
4. Justin Ademilola, defensive end: His four tackles in the Blue-Gold Game included two sacks, indicative of the production the 6-2, 250-pound sophomore twin of defensive tackle Jayson had throughout spring and the four games he got into as a freshman in 2018. At the deepest position on the team on either side of the ball, he’s put himself in a position to be a factor in the rotation.
5. Temitope Agoro, cornerback: The 6-0, 203-pound senior walk-on’s six tackles and team-leading three pass breakups in the Blue-Gold Game was hardly a fluke. Agoro flashed physicality and speed throughout spring. He should secure a special teams role, but the return of Donte Vaughn and Shaun Crawford from injuries and the addition of freshmen Isaiah Rutherford and K.J. Wallace will make a training camp encore for significant playing time at corner challenging.