Analysis: As Notre Dame's workouts begin, here's a stab at Brian Kelly's to-do list

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Monday morning, in groups of 10, the Notre Dame football team will rotate through the reconfigured weight room at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and take the first rudimentary steps since March 5 toward a 2020 college season.

The first steps to be supervised without Zoom Conference software anyway.

The alternative reality Irish head coach Brian Kelly has been planning for since spring practice and in-person classes got shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March finally comes alive with a reconfigured approach to the season.

All workouts between Monday and July 12 will be considered voluntary, per NCAA guidelines. Required team activities in the earliest stage, July 13-23, won’t include the use of a football.

That doesn’t mean third-year starting quarterback Ian Book and his backups can’t and won’t throw to their receivers on the side. Even now.

“We would educate them on what our protocol would be to utilize said ball,” head football trainer Rob Hunt said earlier this month when Notre Dame first revealed its plan for the summer return.

“We expect our quarterbacks to go out and throw. And we’re expecting during this early phase our wideouts to run routes. And we’ll come up with a procedure for them when they’re running their activities by themselves, so there will be proper safety there.”

A Notre Dame spokesman said Sunday that the school will reveal positive COVID-19 tests when information becomes available.

Revealing actual football progress won’t be restricted, either, but it won’t immediately be easy to come by for Kelly and his staff until supervised walk-throughs are introduced on July 24 and more so when actual football camp activities kick off Aug. 7.

Assuming there will be a season, it will kick off for Notre Dame Sept. 5 or 6 against Navy in Annapolis. Md., the first of the 94 meetings between the two schools to be staged on the Mids’ campus.

Between now and then, Kelly will reprioritize his spring to-do list. Here’s a peek of what that might look like:

Sorting out the secondary

The Lowdown: Determining what the rest of the defensive backfield should look like around freshman All-America safety Kyle Hamilton remains at the top of the list, just as it did heading into spring.

Passing game coordinator Terry Joseph and new cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens have added another option since the final 14 spring practices of the 15 scheduled were shuttered. And NC State grad transfer cornerback Nick McCloud is a potential starter, especially if the Irish play six-DB looks as often as they played last season.

Sixth-year returnee Shaun Crawford and junior TaRiq Bracy are the only other corners with any college experience of significance. Without spring ball, figuring out who among the six redshirt and true freshmen could help this season needs to be an abbreviated process this summer.

At safety, junior Houston Griffith and Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor both show promise in a probable three-man rotation.

The standard is extremely high. Notre Dame is the only one of 130 schools to rank in the top six nationally in pass-efficiency defense each of the past two seasons.

Wild cards: Cornerbacks Isaiah Rutherford and Cam Hart, the latter a converted wide receiver.

Running back rotation

The Lowdown: Both a wide receiver (Braden Lenzy) and a former backup QB (Phil Jurkovec) finished 2019 with more rushing yards than the player who began the season as the No. 1 option at running back, Jafar Armstrong (155 yards on 46 carries, 2.7) average.

And they did so in the same or fewer number of games.

The June addition of Stanford grad transfer Trevor Speights gives the Irish seven scholarship options in the position group. And a rotation of players figures to be the ultimate formula, though certainly not seven deep.

But Kelly still needs to figure out if Armstrong can be durable and effective enough to be that No. 1 back, who can get the tough yards — or make a big catch — with the game in the balance.

Freshman Chris Tyree gives ND a versatile speed option. As is the case at cornerback, determining how everyone else fits — or doesn’t — needs to be an abbreviated process so that offensive coordinator Tommy Rees can invest the needed reps in the players who will be in the rotation.

Wild card: Kyren Williams.

Beyond Bilal

The Lowdown: Filling the opening at the buck (weakside) linebacker should be a snap, given the plethora of promising candidates and the fact that defensive coordinator Clark Lea has just one opening at linebacker/rover after having to audition for all three spots last offseason.

The growing pains carried into the 2019 season, with Louisville and New Mexico combining to rush for a combined 461 yards the first two weeks of the season. But by season’s end the Irish were a formidable rush defense.

In fact, in the last six games of the season, only Navy exceeded 128 rushing yards against ND, and the nation’s leading rushing team fell 80 yards short of its average (361). Perhaps most impressive was holding the nation’s No. 8 rushing team, Boston College to roughly half its 253-yard rushing average.

Senior Jordan Genmark Heath started spring penciled in as former starting buck Asmar Bilal’s successor. Two strong candidates, juniors Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb, wouldn’t have been able to make a move in spring because of injuries. Presumably they can now.

Wild card: Marist Liufau.

Passing game chemistry

The Lowdown: The numbers suggest there should be a falloff in the Irish passing game, after losing a second-round draft choice in tight end Cole Kmet and another second-round draft pick, and team MVP, Chase Claypool, among others.

That leaves junior tight end Tommy Tremble as the team’s leading returning receiver (16 catches) and junior Lawrence Keys III (13 receptions) tops among the wide receiver corps.

The optimism emanates from having a third-year starting quarterback, the internal gushing over Tommy Rees’ promotion to offensive coordinator and an exciting wave of receivers led by reinstated 2019 suspendee Kevin Austin Jr. and late-season ascender Braden Lenzy.

Wide receiver is another position that adds a grad transfer, Ben Skowrenek from Northwestern, and the only one to add a five-star talent (Jordan Johnson), though freshman tight end Michael Mayer was close to that status and probably will prove to have been worthy of it.

This is the facet of the team that really could have flourished in the spring. Instead, they’ll play catchup and try to microwave the timing and chemistry process in the upcoming weeks.

Wild cards: Xavier Watts and Javon McKinley.

Diminishing returns?

The Lowdown: The Irish are set with incumbent specialists Jonathan Doerer and punter Jay Bramblett, but there are a lot of moving pieces around them and only so much time to invest in special teams, given what else needs to be packed into every one of the August camp practices.

Freshman Chris Tyree and junior Lenzy are among the options at kickoff return, with Keys the front-runner to start camp at punt returner. But what about the schemes to help them shine and the blockers to create room for them?

Same goes for finding replacements for coverage standouts Claypool and Alohi Gilman, to name just a couple, on what turned out to be outstanding coverage teams last season.

Wild card: Freshman long snapper Alex Peitsch.

Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) returns an interception during ND’s 40-7 rout of Boston College, Nov. 23 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Kevin Austin Jr.  runs a drill during Notre Dame's first spring football practice at the Irish Athletics Center on Thursday March 5, 2020.