Analysis: Separating the real from the surreal as Notre Dame opens spring practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The two overarching objectives Brian Kelly brought into his first set of spring football practices at Notre Dame a decade ago were putting a QB development template into place and imposing a heavy dose of culture shock on the players predecessor Charlie Weis had left behind.

“We didn’t have time to have a big group hug,” Kelly said at the time.

The then-first-year Irish head coach wasn’t smiling when he said it.

Or when he surveyed his initial options backing up Dayne Crist as the No. 1 quarterback that spring.

As it was, there was plenty of uncertainty around Crist himself. The junior was coming back from ACL knee surgery and was going to be a first-year starter. Junior Nate Montana, son of former Irish great Joe Montana, had walked on, walked off, transferred to a California junior college and transferred back.

While at Pasadena City College the previous fall, he completed 35 percent of his passes and threw more than twice as many interceptions (5) as TDs (2), as PCC’s backup.

Kelly, meanwhile, successfully implored 17-year-old Lake Forest High senior Tommy Rees to enroll early, for numbers sake that spring. Rees had committed to ND when Weis was still the head coach.

By the end of the spring, Kelly was so pessimistic about Rees being able to positively impact the 2010 season and perhaps beyond, he moved up the timetable for June-arriving freshman QBs Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa by two weeks.

Kelly’s first take on Rees is a reminder of how mirage-filled spring football can be by its very nature, as Kelly now begins his 11th spring as Notre Dame’s head coach on Thursday, with practice No. 1 of 15.

The Irish then take an 11-day hiatus for spring break before booting up and staging practice No. 2 on St. Patrick’s Day. The conclusion to spring, the annual Blue-Gold Game, is set for April 18 at Notre Dame Stadium.

In the weeks and months that followed the spring of 2010, the lowest-rated QB recruit by far of the Kelly Era (No. 31 pro style QB nationally per Rivals in the 2010 class) had one of the most transformative summers of any Kelly Era player in the past decade.

And yet Thursday Rees begins a phase in which he’ll have a chance to impact ND’s QB development template more profoundly than he ever has before, in four years as a player and three more seasons as the Irish QBs coach.

He’s been on the job since January as Notre Dame’s sixth offensive coordinator under Kelly, but the first to be the offensive coordinator, QBs coach and offensive play-caller all at the same time.

At the very least, it figures to be an alignment that gives incumbent QB Ian Book the best chance to evolve his game significantly, particularly from a cerebral standpoint.

Those inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex firmly believe Rees will turn out to be more than that, most notably an upgrade in the meeting room, in locker room chemistry and on game day over deposed predecessor Chip Long, when Rees finally gets to show it on Thursday.

Just don’t expect to see or read about conclusive proof of that this spring.

Spring football is more about impressions than conclusions. Often valuable impressions. Impressions that can lead to something significant in August and beyond.

And those will be chronicled and qualified for context.

Here’s what you might see and what you won’t regarding ND’s other momentous offseason issues that could make the difference between the Irish morphing into a playoff team or becoming something similar to its 2019 version that finished 11-2.

The Running Game

Even when conditions are perfect, measuring running game progress — or lack of it — is one of the most futile spring exercises, because there’s not enough full-speed contact work on it in the spring.

And this spring the conditions aren’t anywhere near perfect.

The Irish return five starting offensive linemen, but three of them are recovering from injuries (guards Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks, and tackle Robert Hainsey), so their participation will be limited.

Spring also will be absent incoming freshman running back Chris Tyree, a June arrival who will impress on the stopwatch but needs to do so in the weightroom this summer as well.

The assumption is Rees as offensive coordinator and running backs coach Lance Taylor, promoted to run game coordinator, will have a positive spin when it comes to offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.

How much so, though, gets answered in September.

Then there’s Stanford grad transfer Trevor Speights, reportedly in line to visit 2 ½ weeks from now but not a certainty to be added to the Irish roster. Even if he were to be, it would be June at the earliest.

What we can get glimpses of in March and April is whether the coaching staff considers senior-to-be Jafar Armstrong still a No. 1-type running back.

Since converting from wide receiver going into his sophomore year, Armstrong has been slowed and perhaps even regressed by injuries. Last season both wide receiver Braden Lenzy (200 yards) and then-backup QB Phil Jurkovec (130) outrushed Armstrong (122) — in fewer carries and in the same number or fewer games.

Amrstrong’s 2.7 yards per carry was the worst of anyone on the roster with more than six carries on the season.

And if Armstrong isn’t No. 1, who is?

We should also get a feel for what the plan is for Avery Davis, who’s been a QB, a cornerback and last season an emergency running back. Perhaps he evolves into more of a receiving option.

Redshirted freshman Kyren Williams is an intriguing wild card, who may get a fresh start under Rees.


Going into the spring, this is the position group in which Notre Dame least looks like a potential playoff team.

Notre Dame’s best corner, sixth-year veteran Shaun Crawford, has completed one season without missing multiple games or the entire season due to injury. Its second-most reliable opton, TaRiq Bracy, has two career starts.

All six of the other cornerbacks on the roster have freshman eligibility, either redshirt or true.

Welcome to first-year Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens’ new world.

All but June arrival Clarence Lewis will be on campus, though redshirt Cam Hart may still be restricted coming back from shoulder surgery.

That leaves six options for Mickens and defensive pass game coordinator Terry Joseph to tinker with this spring. And it likely will look more like tinkering than progress.

Remember linebacker- apalooza from last spring?

Departing starting cornerback Troy Pride Jr. predicts redshirt freshman Isaiah Rutherford is the corner who’s most likely to make a move this spring, and monitoring that forecast is as close to an absolute as we’re likely going to get coming out of spring at this position group.

Buck Linebacker

Injuries again play into spring inconclusiveness, in this case finding a successor to 2019 surprise Asmar Bilal.

There’s no shortage of options, but not all of them are healthy, and that includes two of the most compelling ones — juniors-to-be Jack Lamb and Shayne Simon.

What we will get to see is if defensive coordinator Clark Lea opts to introduce starting rover extraordinaire Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah into the buck linebacker mix, which seems more and more of a stretch.

Yet if Lea comes to believe Owusu-Koramoah is every bit as much as an asset inside, then it really comes down to whether you want to get Paul Moala/Jack Kiser on the field more as rovers or choose from the large inventory of potential bucks that also includes senior-to-be Jordan Genmark Heath, and sophomores Marist Liufau and Osita Okwonu.

Wide receivers

Five-star freshman Jordan Johnson doesn’t arrive until June, but otherwise this is an area in which we actually can glean some significant spring impressions.

And the most significant may be whether former offensive coordinator Chip Long’s abrasive practice demeanor was a drag on player development at the wide receiver position.

There is talent and speed and wiggle in the next wave of receivers, and spring can tell us how much polish there is and how deep the rotation is likely to go.

We’ll also get a first meaningful look at Kevin Austin Jr., since last spring. Austin could very well end up Notre Dame’s leading receiver in 2020, after missing last season because of a university-imposed suspension.

The wild cards in the wide receiver mix are junior-to-be Joe Wilkins and Northwestern grad transfer Ben Skowronek. Keep an eye on early enrollee Xavier Watts as a potential surprise.

Notre Dame QB Ian Book (12) is greeted by QBs coach Tommy Rees following ND’s 33-9 rout of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl, Saturday at Orlando, Fla.
Notre Dame’s Kevin Austin (4) returns from a season-long suspension Thursday when the Irish open spring practice.