Hansen: Predictions and ponderings while waiting for normalcy to kick in for Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Normalcy is coming to college football.

Maybe not in leaps and bounds and certainly not without a step back or two now and then, courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After all, the NCAA’s indefinite “dead period” for recruiting will mark its 15th consecutive month of existence in May, and Notre Dame football does not yet have a projected end date for its pause in winter workouts that began Monday.

But there’s the promise of a full complement of 15 Irish spring football practices — 14 more than last spring — and all signs point to a Blue-Gold Game in some form, in late April.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts, none of which are guaranteed to be perceived as normal, to whet your college football appetite.

Spring six

The six players I’m most looking forward to tracking in spring practice, hopefully, with some of that actually occurring in person:

1. Jordan Johnson: Easily the player I’m asked about the most in live chats, emails and Twitter notifications.

His former five-star status juxtaposed against 26 total gameday snaps spread over two games in 2020 and so far zero career catches one year into his career is the intrigue, from the outside looking in. For me, it’s whether the 6-foot-2, 180-pound sophomore-to-be can churn that seemingly lost season into what Johnson’s good friend, Kyren Williams, did after a similar freshman experience in 2019.

Using it as a springboard to transformation.

In both frames of reference, Johnson becomes a litmus test for player development under wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander, as do classmate Xavier Watts (16 snaps in 2020) and mid-year enrollee Lorenzo Styles Jr.

What the Irish lack in collective experience in the wide receiver group, they can make up for in speed and twitch under the right circumstances.

2. Tyler Buchner: The popular assumption is that Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan will be Notre Dame’s QB1 in 2021, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of this spring to the freshman midyear enrollee — or to head coach Brian Kelly, for that matter — even if that turns out to be the case.

Because of an injury in 2018 and COVID in 2020, the 6-2, 205-pound San Diego product has just one high school season as a starting quarterback, and the best way for him to fast-track his development is for him to emerge as at least No. 2 this spring.

It’s not that Brendon Clark, Drew Pyne and Ron Powlus III can’t or won’t someday exceed their respective recruiting star ratings, but if Notre Dame is going to get back to the College Football Playoff AND have a chance to win there, the Irish need a quarterback who can eventually top out in the top 15 of the national passing-efficiency ratings.

Even in a small sample size, Buchner appears ND’s best chance to do that in the long term. Plus he has the potential to be one of the best running QBs of the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present).

3. Tosh Baker: Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn’s mission this spring, with four starters off to chase the NFL dream, is to figure out his best five linemen — period — and then determine how they best fit by position.

The freaky athletic Baker is more likely than not to be a year away from that inclusion, but the 6-8, 300-pound sophomore-to-be still may have the highest ceiling on the Irish roster among a talented group of natural tackles that includes classmate Michael Carmody and junior-to-be Andrew Kristofic among the up-and-comers.

Arriving a year early would be a testament to him and not a knock to the overall talent and development of the position group.

4. Jordan Botelho: One of five Irish freshmen to see action in nine games or more in 2020 (he logged 11, mostly on special teams), the 6-3, 248-pound Hawaii product will go as far as his maturity and discipline take him in 2021.

Which could result in him becoming an important tag team partner for Isiah Foskey as a pass-rushing defensive end.

Raw talent and the love of contact are, and never have been, in question. So the evolutionary dance begins.

5. Cam Hart: The former wide receiver flashed at cornerback in ND’s one and only practice last spring before college football moved into a virtual world for several weeks.

At 6-3, 207, Hart is by far Notre Dame’s biggest cornerback. And he could turn out to be the perfect complement at the physically demanding boundary cornerback to sophomore Clarence Lewis at the field corner.

If not, cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman have numbers in their favor, with a dive into the grad transfer market a possibility as well.

6. Jack Kiser: The linebacker group as a whole is compelling because of how Freeman may or may not reinterpret the linebacker roles and responsibilities, and reassess fits and ceilings of a deep and talented group with only Drew White established among them.

The 6-2, 227-pound junior-to-be may be the linebacker/rover who benefits the most from the coaching change, with his versatility making him a fit inside or outside and a fresh set of eyes giving him a chance to make a strong first impression.

Schedule shaping

Notre Dame’s recent announcement of a home-and-home series with Florida next decade (2031-32) got me to thinking about potential future series among teams the Irish have never played.

The Florida series technically doesn’t count as one of those, since the two teams met in the Sugar Bowl to conclude the 1991 season.

Toledo will be a first-time opponent this season, a home game on Sept. 11, but among Power 5 schools, there are only seven Notre Dame has never faced. That’s six if you discount Arkansas, which is on the 2025 Irish schedule, with the intention of another game to make up for last year’s canceled meeting.

Those six are Auburn, Kentucky, Kansas State, Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

Including some Group of Five teams, here are the five first-time opponents I’d most like to see the Irish tackle with the future scheduling:

1. Auburn: Some think of it as the Diet Coke of Alabama, but Auburn has its own rich tradition and cool vibe. There’s possible recruiting reverberations for the Irish from playing in the Deep South.

2. Boise State: The Group of Five at its best. And who wouldn’t want to tangle just once on the blue turf?

3. UCF: Another Group of Five beast and this one with a statue on campus of George O’Leary, to boot. The Irish had cooled on Florida as a recruiting go-to state but may be warming up to reestablishing stronger connections there.

4. Oklahoma State: But only if Mike Gundy is still the head coach at that point and makes the claim that he’s still a man and then states his age.

5. Mississippi State: More cowbell.

Pro day

The NFL Scouting Combine likely would have taken place this week in Indianapolis, had COVID-19 concerns not prompted cancellation of the run/jump/lift-fest and the premier annual pre-NFL Draft event.

That puts added importance on individual pro days, with Notre Dame’s scheduled for March 31, according to

Notre Dame’s sheer number of draftable prospects, including likely first-rounder Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, should make it a popular destination for NFL teams. And that matters, since March 31 is the most crowded date on the Pro Day calendar. Baylor, Florida, Kentucky LSU and Wake Forest also are staging theirs that day.

Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser (24) bears watching this spring under new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Marcus Freeman.
Auburn may be the most attractive possibility among potential first-time Notre Dame Power 5 opponents.