Recalibrating Notre Dame's strengths, weaknesses and bottom line in its new reality

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The constant Brian Kelly is counting on — whenever playing college football starts creeping toward reality again — was captured in a mental snapshot on March 5.

In what turned out to be Notre Dame’s one and only staged spring practice, the Irish head football coach’s most significant takeaway was about the soul of his team, and what he hopes becomes an enduring identity.

“This is the first team that I’ve had that has really established in their own mind who they are and what they want to be,” Kelly said of his 11th ND squad. “That’s hard to have a group of 18-to-21-year-olds come together and say, ‘This is who we want to be and this is how we’re going to go to work every day.’

“You don’t need a lot of guys out there yelling, because they’ve set a standard as to how they want things to be accomplished.”

That day, March 5, was the last time the Irish were together as a team. A planned 11-day hiatus for spring break before spring practice No. 2 was to be held March 17 before things gave way to the beginning of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That included cancellation of the next 13 spring practices and what would have been the 91st-annual Blue-Gold Game, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

The separation since and the conversion of everything academic, athletic and team chemistry-wise to a virtual world will test how enduring Kelly’s March 5 impression of his team can be.

All the other story lines wafting from the 2020 Notre Dame football team remain fluid. The following is a position-by-position look at how the team’s strengths and weaknesses, its position battles and its projected bottom line may have shifted in its altered reality.


Old Narrative: It was about incumbent starter Ian Book evolving into a top 10 QB statistically to be able to stand up to the challenges 2020 heavyweights Wisconsin and Clemson would likely bring in key games against the Irish.

It was also about determining whether sophomore-to-be Brendon Clark was the true No. 2 or if early enrollee Drew Pyne could challenge him. Once that was settled, it was about developing No. 2 aggressively to give the Irish some semblance of a Plan B at the position during the season.

New Reality: Book is likely to emerge from the virtual world much better off than a lot of QBs around the country. His drive, the fact that he won’t walk into a QB derby upon re-entry, and the strength and depth of his relationship with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees are all huge plusses for the third-year starter.

So is the notion that Book’s improvement would likely have been more cerebral than physical anyway, something that can be honed effectively even at a distance to some extent.

Clark, who showed signs of growing into a capable No. 2, realistically is now the only choice. But the gap between Book and whoever’s next on the depth chart will likely become more like a chasm.


Old Narrative: It was about finding out if senior Jafar Armstrong, now healthy, still showed the profile of being a No. 1 back, while also figuring out the options the coaching staff could trust the most beyond Armstrong.

Junior C’Bo Flemister seemed poised to move up. And even though incoming freshman Chris Tyree wasn’t on campus for spring ball, how the 15 spring practices unfolded without him would be telling in terms of how he might fit in once he did arrive.

New Reality: Football’s re-entry will be more about conditioning and less about X’s and O’s and fiddling with the depth chart, so pencil in Armstrong as the No. 1 option.

The knock on Tyree is his size, but his high school coach — Kevin Tucker — told the Tribune recently that the Chester (Va.) Thomas Dale High standout — is up to 190 pounds on his 5-10 frame, without losing any of his elite speed.

While that’s 30 pounds lighter than Armstrong, it’s just five pounds lighter than Flemister. Depending on how much Tyree is able to self-develop from a distance, not being an early enrollee is becoming much less of a factor.


Old Narrative: The potential collectively of this group, headlined by reinstated junior Kevin Austin, was exciting, and spring was about honing skills, shaking rust (in Austin’s case), and building chemistry with Book.

It was also going to be interesting to see what tweaks new coordinator Rees would make in the passing game in the way the receivers were utilized and how deep the rotation might go.

New reality: Despite the talent and speed predominant in this group, this is the position on offense that will have the biggest challenge finding its groove after the layoff.

Because Austin was so overwhelmingly convincing in practices late last season and off the field during and after his suspension, he’s not going to have to prove himself all over again when football resumes.

Without spring practice, perhaps incoming freshman and five-star receiver Jordan Johnson is in a better position to challenge for early playing time than he otherwise would have been.


Old Narrative: With five starters returning along with top reserve Josh Lugg, spring was about developing a solid chemistry into a dominant one. For all the apparent talent individually, there seemed to be plenty of room for improvement in terms of what this unit could accomplish together.

That’s even with right guard Aaron Banks missing 5 1/2 weeks of spring with a foot fracture and fellow starters Robert Hainsey and Tommy Kraemer easing back from fall injuries.

This was also a time when we were likely to see if the chemistry between Rees and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn helped produce better on-field results than the strained relationship between Quinn and deposed offensive coordinator Chip Long.

New Reality: Chemistry needs to be fostered in real time. But having five starters returning puts Notre Dame in such an enviable position over other teams once football starts ramping up.

The nature of the layoff and the accelerated restart means some of the younger linemen won’t have much of an opportunity to impress and to move up into key backup positions.


Old Narrative: Life after Cole Kmet, an early entry in the 2020 NFL Draft, meant an open audition to see who fit best with versatile junior Tommy Tremble, ND’s leading returning receiver.

Senior Brock Wright seemed like the logical choice, at least until two promising freshmen, Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman joined Tremble, Wright and junior George Takacs in June.

New Reality: Not a lot of the dynamics have changed here, even with a new position coach, in John McNulty. Mayer has the kind of talent to become a starter, or at least a significant piece in the tight end picture.


Old Narrative: The position group has an ideal blend of reliable experience and promising and surging young talent — and that’s with losing starters Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara to the NFL, along with key 2019 fill-in Jamir Jones.

So spring was about watching that position group likely successfully regenerate, with players like sophomore Isiah Foskey and juniors Justin Ademilola and Ovie Oghoufo moving into more prominent roles behind projected starters and fifth-year players Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji.

New Reality: Basically the same dynamic, but with intriguing early enrolled freshmen ends Jordan Botelho and Alexander Ehrensberger moving into less-accelerated development arcs. The interior of the defensive line continues to evolve into a strength.

A logistical conundrum: Can D-line coach Mike Elston find a way to get wife Beth’s famous motivational cookies to his players?


Old Narrative: This was about finding a starter at buck (inside) linebacker to replace departing Asmar Bilal and figuring out who the top backups were. It also made some sense to ponder whether Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah moving over from rover made sense, given the depth at that position.

New Reality: Owusu-Koramoah will almost certainly stay at rover, which probably would have happened anyway. There will be a mass audition for the buck, and now juniors Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb, presumably fully healthy when football re-emerges, have a better chance to show they have the right stuff to be the starter.


Old Narrative: This was to be a big spring for both junior Houston Griffith and Ohio State grad transfer/spring semester enrollee Isiah Pryor. The logic was that both would play extensively in a three-man setup along with position group anchor Kyle Hamilton.

It was also about finding out how much the coaching staff could get out of backups DJ Brown and Litchfield Ajavon at a position group with very limited numbers at the moment.

New Reality: The good news is that Hamilton is probably the best player on the team at any position. The bigger challenge is getting Griffith comfortable at the position that was probably his best fit all along and integrating Pryor into a new defense for him.

If the coaching staff comes to believe five isn’t enough safeties to carry on the roster in 2020, the process of moving a player from another position and getting him up to speed is more daunting.


Old Narrative: Yikes.

Six of the eight cornerbacks new position coach Mike Mickens inherited have never played a high-leverage snap on the collegiate level. All six are freshmen, either true or of the redshirted variety.

His best cornerback — sixth-year veteran Shaun Crawford — has made it through only one of his first five seasons without missing at least three games.

So spring was supposed to be about heavy, heavy development and identifying which of the young cornerbacks could be counted on beyond projected starters Crawford and junior TaRiq Bracy.

New Reality: The best news about the cornerback position is that the strengths of the defensive line (pass rush) and safety groups will help mitigate potential growing pains at corner and the defense overall, but not eliminate them.

Isaiah Rutherford and converted wide receiver Cam Hart remain the most likely candidates to see playing time beyond Crawford and Bracy.


Old Narrative: The Irish had two reliable specialists in kicker Jonathan Doerer and punter Jay Bramblett and wouldn’t be able to integrate their new long snapper, freshman Alex Peitsch, until summer. So spring was mostly about scheme and personnel in the return and coverage games.

The new Irish Athletics Center had a high-enough pitch in its roof to get started on the return man “gong show” earlier than usual.

New Reality: Chris Tyree will get added into the audition mix in the return game once football returns, though that was expected. The intrigue will be how much time will teams be able to devote to special teams in the initial restart when there’s so much offensive and defensive install to do.


Coming into spring, Notre Dame projected as a 10-2 team in 2020, with the potential to pleasantly surprise, a la 2018, based on offseason developments.

This still feels like the right baseline, though Wisconsin — one of the two biggest challenges on the schedule — seems like a team that will be more challenged by the altered offseason, based on how many key starting positions will need to be replenished.

Kevin Austin Jr.  runs a drill during Notre Dame's first spring football practice at the Irish Athletics Center on Thursday March 5, 2020.
Defensive end Ade Ogundeji (91) and the rest of the Irish defensive line figure to be a team strength in 2020, even with most of spring practice having been canceled.