Analysis: The 5 Notre Dame players to watch over the balance of training camp
SOUTH BEND — What leadership looks like a little more than two weeks before Notre Dame opens its 2019 football season as the nation’s No. 9 team, per the coaches poll, is a stagnant news feed.
Tenth-year head coach Brian Kelly hopes it lasts forever, particularly as it pertains to events off the field.
When your biggest ripple of breaking information in the past week is the reveal of retro uniforms that generate a collective shrug of approval/indifference, it’s a sign that your seven captains are holding their teammates accountable.
Perpetual story lines on the field, though, have to evolve between now and the primetime Sept. 2 opener at Louisville, that is if the Irish are going to look and play like a top 10 team in 2019.
Here then are the five players to keep an eye on who figure to be in the middle of the changing narratives:
Asmar Bilal: Three offseasons ago, the coaching staff was torn over which of the sophomore classmates Bilal and Te’von Coney warranted the bigger investment of reps as the linebacker with both the brighter present and future, with All-American Jaylon Smith gone.
Coney, the more instinctive option, won out over the superior athlete, Bilal. Now Coney is in the NFL after leading the Irish in tackles the past two seasons and more than doubling Bilal’s total in 2016.
Bilal, last season’s starter at rover, is embroiled in position battles at both inside linebacker positions.
His experience, knowledge of the scheme and almost freaky athleticism should have given him a huge advantage in the competition for both spots against players with mostly freshman or sophomore eligibility.
And the 6-foot-2, 227-pound grad senior still should be considered a favorite to land either the middle linebacker or buck linebacker starting job. The fact he hasn’t yet is actually a positive sign that the younger options are collectively improving and making the decision as difficult as the 2016 one seemed to be.
And this is a position group that not only needs to push its ceiling the next couple of weeks, it must do so significantly during the season.
Jonathan Doerer: The Irish have an offense potent enough that it should exceed its lofty 65 percent success rate on fourth-down conversions from last season and probably will be tempted to hike its number of attempts from the 20 the Irish tried in 2018, slightly below the national average (21.6 per season).
But it would be nice for that to be a choice and not a default reaction.
Maybe junior Jonathan Doerer’s recent surge in field goal accuracy in practice will eventually carry over into real games. Kelly even went so far as to single him out after a practice this past week as one of the three standouts on the entire team.
Actual game-time pressure is the next hurdle.
Freshman kicker Harrison Leonard appears to have been working through some mechanical refinements to make him less susceptible to blocks. So he could work his way through growing pains and again push to be all-time leader scorer Justin Yoon’s successor in the next couple of weeks.
If both surprise, then Kelly has a wonderful problem he couldn’t have expected.
Houston Griffith: When Kelly moved the top-rated 2018 Irish recruit, per Rivals, from cornerback to safety in the spring of 2018, the ND head coach couldn’t keep from gushing about the freshman early enrollee.
With classmate Derrik Allen now off the roster and committed to transfer to Georgia Tech, it makes sense to revisit the discussion of what really is Griffith’s best position long term.
Griffith moved from safety to nickel abruptly late last August out of necessity, then back to cornerback this past spring, because he was seen as a potential starter. That potential didn’t materialize.
Saturday’s practice at Notre Dame Stadium would seem like the time to make the move back to safety if the Irish coaches are serious about it.
Griffith is likely to be a backup in 2019 whether he plays cornerback or safety. But 2020 could be another story.
Senior starter Alohi Gilman has a fifth-year option in 2020, the result of having to sit out 2017 following his transfer from Navy. But draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic ranks Gilman as the fifth-best safety prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft, so sticking around isn’t likely if that assessment holds up.
And fellow starter Jalen Elliott is out of eligibility after this season, so a Kyle Hamilton/Houston Griffith pairing next season sounds intriguing.
In terms of ND’s needs, the safety position in 2020 is the one that more urgently needs quality and quantity.
TaRiq Bracy: The offseason push for the speedy cornerback was supposedly to get physical, as in bigger, so he didn’t get pushed around by sinewy receivers in the passing game and bruising backs in the running game.
So the formerly 5-10, 170-pound freshman reported to training camp roughly two weeks ago as … a 5-10, 170-pound sophomore.
That’s not to say there weren’t subtle strength improvements and more-than-subtle technique gains. In fact, he’s squarely in the mix for a starting spot opposite incumbent starter Troy Pride Jr.
His biggest competition to date has been comeback story Donte Vaughn — a combination of injured, ineffective and invisible most of the past two seasons.
The 6-3, 212-pound senior offers a physical contrast to Bracy in a position battle that stands as one of ND’s remaining holes to fill. Perhaps a mix-and-match approach might work best, with Vaughn drawing starts against the bigger, physical receivers and Bracy getting the call against those with elite speed.
Liam Eichenberg: The Irish offensive line could be elite in 2019, and there aren’t a lot of ifs that have to fall in place to make that happen.
Perhaps the most significant of those positive possibilities is a spurt of progress from ND’s senior left tackle.
With 2020 college eligibility still on the table, Eichenberg is the one of ND’s four draft-eligible linemen causing the biggest stir among pro scouts — though as much because of who he could become than who he is now.
The Athletic’s Brugler projects the 6-6, 305-pound Eichenberg as an NFL Draft first-rounder next spring and the fourth-best tackle prospect in this summer’s snapshot. If that indeed plays out, that would make him the fourth consecutive Irish starting left tackle to evolve into a first-rounder, following Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey.
And if that in turn happens, it means Eichenberg indeed finished off training camp strong and surged into the season.