Analysis: Suspended spring shrinks windows of opportunity for some Notre Dame football players

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The next month will be much less interesting without Notre Dame football.

Even though covering spring football requires early morning wakeups, it’s a time to gain valuable insight for the upcoming season.

Last spring alone, we learned that wide receiver Chase Claypool was ready to take the next step as a go-to target, the Irish would be just fine at rover with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and the gap at quarterback between Ian Book and Phil Jurkovec wasn’t shrinking.

As the Irish have wisely suspended spring football activities amidst the coronavirus pandemic, thus ends the annual opportunity to learn lessons about Notre Dame’s 2020 roster. At least this year we don’t have to urge fans to not overreact to what happened in the Blue-Gold Game.

Any development happening on Notre Dame’s roster will temporarily come from players working out on their own. Whenever the Irish are allowed to reconvene, we will see how that impacts the depth chart.

Players hoping to vault themselves into a new role had their windows of opportunity shrunk. The following players may be the most negatively impacted by the loss of spring practices.

CBs Isaiah Rutherford, KJ Wallace and Cam Hart: All three needed this spring to support their cases for playing time as sophomores. With new cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens in the mix, they were given blank slates following redshirt seasons. While Wallace and Hart each played in four and three games, respectively, last season, Rutherford didn’t see any action.

But the first spring practice on March 5 showed the workloads they would have been given throughout the spring. With sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford dealing with a minor hamstring issue, Rutherford stepped in to play with the starting defense at times. Even as Crawford’s hamstring injury subsided, the Irish were going to provide Rutherford, Wallace and Hart plenty of opportunities to prove that cornerback depth existed

S Isaiah Pryor: The graduate transfer from Ohio State lined up with the No. 2 defense at strong safety behind junior Houston Griffith in spring practice No. 1. Even though Griffith struggled to find consistent playing time in his first two seasons, he had the advantage of being well-versed in defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s scheme.

Pryor, who recorded 47 tackles, two tackles for a loss and one interception in 31 games at Ohio State, could still prove to be a quick learner. And he’s definitely a physically impressive athlete. But Pryor needed this spring to show if he could become a starter, find a spot in a safety rotation with Griffith or if his slip down the depth chart at Ohio State would be mirrored at Notre Dame.

QB Brendon Clark: So long, scout team. Clark’s work last year as a freshman was rewarded with the Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year award in December. But the start of spring practice in 2020 offered Clark his first extended action as the backup quarterback.

Clark looked sharp in spring practice No. 1. He needed to give offensive coordinator Tommy Rees reasons to be confident in his ability to replace starting quarterback Ian Book if necessary.

With freshman Drew Pyne already on campus, Clark can’t take for granted the backup quarterback role. Clark spent part of his spring break working with quarterback coach Malcolm Bell to continue his development.

LB Marist Liufau: Notre Dame’s answer for the starting buck linebacker position might not come until August. But Liufau could have made a great case that he should be seriously considered for the job this spring. With fellow linebackers Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb sidelined with injuries, Liufau would have received plenty of reps in a competition with senior Jordan Genmark Heath.

Liufau proved his value as a freshman by playing special teams in four of Notre Dame’s biggest games — Georgia, Virginia, USC and Michigan — and preserving a year of eligibility. His physical and mental growth would have been fun to observe this spring.

DE Ovie Oghoufo: The former linebacker spent his sophomore season in 2019 transitioning to defensive end. Oghoufo could have spent the spring showing that the move will result in serious playing time in 2020.

Graduate student Daelin Hayes stood ahead of Oghoufo on the depth chart at weakside defensive end, but Hayes remained somewhat limited in his return from the torn labrum in his right shoulder that ended his 2019 season. That would have given Oghoufo the necessary reps to establish himself.

But even a role as the No. 2 weakside defensive end wasn’t guaranteed for Oghoufo with hard-charging sophomore Isaiah Foskey ready to challenge for playing time too. Now neither can create separation from the other.

All early enrolled freshmen: The missed time in the weight room and on the playing field with Notre Dame’s staff is an obvious one. But one of the benefits of early enrollment is getting an early taste of what life as a student-athlete at Notre Dame is like. By starting in the spring semester, those freshmen typically get to experience all of that without the pressure of football season.

With online classes and suspended spring practice, that experience will be much different for defensive ends Jordan Botelho and Alexander Ehrensberger, wide receivers Jay Brunelle and Xavier Watts, cornerbacks Ramon Henderson and Caleb Offord, defensive tackle Rylie Mills and Pyne.

Cornerback Isaiah Rutherford runs a drill during Notre Dame’s first spring football practice, Thursday at the Irish Athletics Center.
Spring practice was Brendon Clark’s first chance at proving he deserved to be Notre Dame’s backup quarterback heading into the 2020 season.