Analysis: Notre Dame must now dig deep and develop more players in practice

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider


What Clark Lea construed in July about a conga line of sorts emerging at Asmar Bilal’s old buck linebacker position still kind of looks that way roughly a month later, five days into Notre Dame football training camp.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly spewed five names Monday afternoon on a Zoom conference call with the media, when coaxed to update how filling that vacated linebacker spot was going.

The beauty in the answer — senior Jordan Genmark Heath, juniors Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb, and sophomore Jack Kisers and Osita Ekwonu — was the implication that came along with it.

That being that the glut of contenders for playing time at the position, less than four weeks before the Sept. 12 opener with Duke, is about a surplus of quality and not an indistinguishable pool of mediocrity.

“Just have a lot of really good, young, athletic players in there, and Clark’s got his hands full,” Kelly said of his third-year defensive coordinator and the man who presided over the nation’s No. 18 team in total defense last season.

Depth figures to become even more of an insurance policy this season for teams like the Irish (11-2 in 2019) with legitimate playoff aspirations. Beyond the typical injuries to concoct Plan Bs for, there’s the new layer of possible COVID-19 infections — and the isolations and quarantines — that must be considered.

That specter has altered Kelly’s approach to practice this preseason. So not only is the next man in getting meaningful reps, but the next man to the next man is also getting front-burner attention and development.

“I’m not paralyzed by it, but you have to be realistic,” Kelly said of the possible scenarios involving COVID-19. “Just as I have to have a replacement for me and our coaches — all have replacements if, in fact, they were to get sick — we have to think in those lines as it relates to our starters as well.

“Yup, we have to pay attention to it. We have to practice accordingly. But it’s not changing us to the point where our frontline players are not getting prepared properly for being the best players they can be.”

Hammering the point home Monday was news that broke in the Atlantic Coast Conference — ND football’s home for 2020 — about virus outbreaks on the University of North Carolina campus. The Irish are scheduled to play the Tar Heels on that very Chapel Hill, N.C., campus on Nov. 27.

Just over a week into staging in-person classes at North Carolina, the school announced it will pivot to remote learning on Wednesday and thin out the dorm population.

According to a UNC press release,177 students are in isolation and 349 are in quarantine, both on and off campus.

Kelly said Notre Dame football held its latest round of testing on Monday, with four players total testing positive since the football players returned to campus in mid-June. Notre Dame started in-person classes for the fall semester on Aug. 10.

“You have to have a plan,” Kelly said of the uptick in practice activity for his reserves. “You have to make sure they get the proper reps so if they’re called upon, they can go out and execute and help you win.”

If ND does have to dip into its depth, due to circumstance and not by choice, here are the positions in which it faces its biggest challenges in that regard.


Kelly on Monday lauded the progress and the traits of backups Brendon Clark, a sophomore, and freshman Drew Pyne. But largely because of experience, there hasn’t been this big of a gulf between the No. 1 QB and everyone else since Brady Quinn’s four seasons as starter (2003-06).

Between them, they’ve accounted for one pass in a college game, though Clark’s lone attempt turned out to be a 22-yard touchdown pass.

Part of the gaping depth chart gap, though, is the way third-year starter Ian Book has evolved this offseason/preseason.

“You’re really trying to work on things outside of installation and coverage recognition,” Kelly said of Book. “You’re trying to work on some of the things that can separate him as one of the best in college football.

“So tight-window throws. One-on-one indefensible throws, where only one guy can get to it. You’re really focusing on some specific things — not the totality of the offense.

“He’s got a great grasp of it. It’s much more the nuances of the position when you have a guy like Ian Book coming back.”

Running back

Kelly is 2-for-2 in training camp Zooms when it comes to offering up how significantly freshman Chris Tyree could impact this positional depth chart. Kelly added to that Monday a strong review on sophomore Kyren Williams, who redshirted last season.

“I think (with) the hard work, his commitment in the offseason, (he) has put himself in a position now where he’s what we thought he would be,” Kelly said. “He can catch the football. He’s got really good vision, escapability.

“He’s not afraid to block, or run the ball up between the tackles. So he’s going to be a really key piece for us moving into the season.”

But other than senior Jafar Armstrong, the other four backs on the depth chart — Williams and Tyree along with juniors Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister — feel like just that, pieces. Maybe very valuable pieces, but none of them project as a No. 1 back at this point in their careers.

Armstrong does when fully healthy, which admittedly hasn’t been much since switching from wide receiver to his current position in the spring of 2018.

Injuries already claimed grad transfer Trevor Speights, from Stanford, a June arrival who medically retired before the Irish started camp last Wednesday.


defensive end

Nana Osafo-Mensah’s freshman season statistically consisted of a single assisted tackle in 2019 spread over a mere two cameos and was no higher than third-string at his position when camp opened Wednesday.

But the 6-foot-3, 249-pounder’s recent knee injury and subsequent surgery that put him out for the rest of the regular season may play more significantly in a pandemic than in a normal year.

Grad senior Ade Ogundeji is the starter and junior Justin Ademilola is a nice fit for the tag teams associate head coach Mike Elston likes to use across his defensive line. But Osafo-Mensah’s injury leaves a big hole beyond them.

The Irish have the flexibility to move someone from their stockpile of weakside defensive ends or take a look at freshman Rylie Mills on the edge rather than inside if it comes to that. But the options already at the position consist of seldom-used senior Kofi Wardlow and raw freshman Alexander Ehrensberger — the latter of whom was stuck in his native Germany for most of the summer, fettered by travel restrictions.


There’s actually some pleasant surprises at a position group that needed some and is being led by first-year Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens.

Kelly on Monday again gushed about the freshmen at that position — Caleb Offord, Ramon Henderson and Clarence Lewis — though collectively and not by name. And he’s more excited about their long-term potential than the prospect of plugging one of them into a high-leverage situation in September.

NC State grad transfer Nick McCloud, despite some starting experience and coveted size (6-1, 190), isn’t necessarily a plug-and-play candidate. So the Irish will rely heavily on sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford and junior TaRiq Bracy as starters, and need a sophomore or two to emerge among KJ Wallace, Isaiah Rutherford and converted wide receiver Cam Hart.

Freshman Drew Pyne (10) looks on as fellow backup QB Brendon Clark (7) throws a pass in a recent Notre Dame football practice.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly says running back Kyren Williams (23) has remade his body this offseason and has impressed during training camp.