Five pressing questions for Notre Dame football as preseason camp starts

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Friday marks the unofficial start to Notre Dame football’s preseason training camp.

That’s when head coach Brian Kelly, entering his 10th season leading the Irish, will hold his first press conference and field questions from reporters starting at noon EDT.

Preseason training camp will officially start Sunday morning at Culver Academies when the 2019 Irish practice together for the first time. Players will report Saturday for the annual trip to the boarding school in Culver, Ind.

The Irish have started preseason training camp at Culver Academies every year since 2014. Notre Dame will practice once daily Sunday through Thursday before returning to campus for the rest of preseason practice.

The answers Kelly provides Friday will only be preamble to the larger questions facing the Irish this preseason. These are the top pressing questions the Irish will need to address before the season opener at Louisville on Labor Day (Sept. 2 at 8 p.m. EDT on ESPN).

• Does a clear picture at linebacker exist?

The spring auditions may have narrowed the pool of legitimate candidates for starting spots at linebacker. Graduate student Asmar Bilal and junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah look to be the leading options at mike and rover, respectively. Junior Jordan Genmark Heath and sophomore Jack Lamb emerged as contenders at buck linebacker.

Those roles can change quickly. Junior Drew White, who missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury, will try to get back in the mix. Sophomore Shayne Simon should eventually settle into one position after shuffling around in the spring. Sophomore Bo Bauer and senior Jonathan Jones have some experience, but can they break through?

Even the freshman class has intriguing options in four-star recruit Osita Ekwonu, who may already be physically prepared for college football, and Indiana Mr. Football Jack Kiser, who defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea praised in April.

Lea has been adamant about not being in a hurry to settle on a starting lineup, rotation or depth chart at linebacker. Whatever those end up being for the Louisville game may not be the same a month later. Competition at the position won’t end, but the Irish need some linebackers to assert themselves.

• Will the kicking game be a hazard?

Certainly Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome will be missed. Yoon left Notre Dame’s program as the career leader in most field goals made, 59, and highest field goal percentage, 80.8. Newsome finished less than a tenth of a yard behind Craig Hentrich’s school record in career punting average. Newsome 44.04-yard average came on nearly twice as many punts (225) as Hentrich’s 44.11 average on 118 punts.

Junior Jonathan Doerer and freshman Jay Bramblett have big kicking shoes to fill. Working primarily as a kickoff specialist in his first two seasons at Notre Dame, Doerer had issues with consistency. When he filled in for Yoon against Navy last season, Doerer missed his first extra-point attempt.

In his career, Doerer has logged just one field goal attempt, a 30-yard make, and has converted on five of his six extra points. Freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard, who was ranked as the No. 8 kicker in the 2019 class by Kohl’s Kicking, could push for playing time if Doerer can’t be accurate.

Bramblett struggled a bit as an early enrolled freshman and averaged 34.9 yards per punt in the Blue-Gold Game.

But what if the entire kicking game is shaky? Kelly may opt to be more aggressive on fourth down. Last season, the Irish finished 18th in the FBS with a fourth-down conversion rate of 64 percent (16 of 25). Forty-one teams opted for at least 25 fourth-down attempts and only four of them (Army, Oregon State, Washington State and Iowa) converted at a better rate than Notre Dame.

• Is the cornerback shuffling a reason for concern?

Notre Dame’s cornerback alignment seemed pretty straightforward at the start of spring. Sophomore Houston Griffith would enter the starting lineup in Julian Love’s absence at boundary corner and senior Troy Pride Jr. would stay in his spot at the field corner.

By the time the Blue-Gold Game came around, Pride was being featured on the boundary. If the opposing team’s top wide receiver is playing in the boundary, it makes some sense that Pride would follow. But does that reflect a lack of confidence in Griffith? Will he be able to transition to playing the field side?

Or does the coaching staff have more confidence in fellow sophomore TaRiq Bracy taking over the field cornerback role? Can senior Donte Vaughn, who missed the spring with a shoulder injury, provide help at the boundary and redeem himself from a rough Cotton Bowl performance?

Those questions don’t even begin to address what Notre Dame will do at nickelback. That’s where Griffith and departed senior Nick Coleman played last season. Can graduate Shaun Crawford finally stay healthy after suffering three season-ending injuries in the last four years? Could Jalen Elliott slide down from safety to play nickelback? Will the Irish opt for another freshman at nickel and give Kyle Hamilton an opportunity?

Defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght have a lot to sort out this month.

• Will Phil Jurkovec be ready in case of emergency?

The Blue-Gold Game likely didn’t inspire any confidence in Jurkovec’s readiness to play quarterback for the Irish. It probably didn’t make Jurkovec any more confident either. Helping Jurkovec find confidence should be a focus this month.

The Irish no longer have the security blanket of Brandon Wimbush, who started in Book’s place against Florida State when he was sidelined with a rib injury. Notre Dame needs to have faith in a backup quarterback being able to fill in for Book.

Jurkovec wasn’t pleased that plays were blown dead in the spring game, which resulted in 12 sacks. Defenders weren’t allowed to actually tackle the quarterback but were credited with sacks when within their vicinity. Notre Dame can’t afford to wait for live action for Jurkovec to prove his capability. He needs to be sharp in practice, show a command of the offense and deliver accurate throws.

Otherwise the Irish may be forced to turn to freshman Brendan Clark, who entered the program as a three-star recruit with much less fanfare than the four-star Jurkovec.

• Who are Notre Dame’s captains?

Perhaps Kelly will answer this on Friday or following Sunday’s first practice. But for the first time since 2016, the Irish have entered August without publicly naming captains. Certainly the Irish hope that’s the only similarity between 2016 and 2019.

After the 4-8 collapse of 2016, Kelly decided to name captains for the 2017 season at the annual awards show in December. Even though quarterback DeShone Kizer, who left for the NFL Draft soon after that, was one of the seven appointed captains, the early decision allowed for a full offseason of clearly defined leadership.

In 2018, Kelly named three captains (linebacker Drue Tranquill, center Sam Mustipher and Newsome) in March and added guard Alex Bars to the leadership group in April.

Even though the Irish haven’t announced captains, that doesn’t mean they have lacked a leadership structure. Eight players were named SWAT team captains for offseason workouts: Book, Elliott, offensive linemen Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey, defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, safety Alohi Gilman and wide receiver Chris Finke.

The captains for the season will likely come from that list. But the sooner they’re named, the sooner they can embrace the role.

Junior Jordan Genmark Heath (2) hopes to be the starting buck linebacker for Notre Dame this season.