No narrative but plenty of compelling threads as Notre Dame kicks off spring practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It will be Brian Kelly’s first press conference, in which questions presumably will be allowed, since narrative sort of became a four-letter word on Jan. 1.

That, pandemic permitting, will follow Saturday’s first of 15 Notre Dame football spring practices, capped by the May 1 Blue-Gold Game. The persistent “closing the gap on Alabama/Clemson” curiosity that made Kelly look like he was auditioning for an Advil commercial for most of the 20 minutes and 42 seconds of his post-College Football Playoff loss presser, would seem to be much less relevant 85 days later.

Instead of a dominant narrative, there are a plethora of compelling story lines that make Kelly’s 12th spring as the Irish head football coach one of the most intriguing from the outside looking in.

Here’s a position-by-position look at the ones that matter most:

Quarterbacks

Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan is, at the very least, the whelming favorite to open as ND’s starting QB Sept. 5 at Florida State, but what spring football should tell us is how he actually fits into a Kelly/Tommy Rees offense.

The two biggest questions regarding the 6-foot-3, 220-pound former Badgers starter at this juncture is how consistent and proficient is his deep-passing game? And how does he fit as a runner in an offense in which predecessor Ian Book averaged almost 10 carries a game and 4.2 yards per carry, and scored nine rushing TDs?

If the running game is a struggle for Coan, it could prompt offensive coordinator Rees to consider a complementary and intermittent role perhaps for freshman Tyler Buchner.

This spring also must begin to answer who steps in should Coan be injured this season and who eventually will be Coan’s successor in 2022. That may or may not turn out to be the same person.

Running backs

When I tried to compile in my mind a list of the 20 best players heading into spring on the Irish roster, it became sort of a blur once I hit around No. 8 or 9, with so many unknowns about players with anticipated high ceilings and little chance so far to show that off.

In my mind, though, it’s clear that two of those top eight play the same position — junior-to-be Kyren Williams (1,125 rushing yards and 35 receptions) and explosive sophomore-to-be Chris Tyree (6.8 yards per carry).

Rees’ and running backs coach Lance Taylor’s job here is find creative ways to maximize touches and opportunities for both.

Wide receivers

At a position group with the longest and most daunting to-do list, the good news is there’s raw talent.

The top priority, among many, is finding a receiver who’s consistent enough, healthy enough and dynamic enough to stretch opposing defenses, thus making the rest of Notre Dame’s offense more difficult to defend.

Then build around that.

Tight ends

There’s Michael Mayer, a sophomore-to-be on an All-America trajectory, and there are four promising players behind him — though with a combined six career catches compared to Mayer’s 42 alone as a freshman in 2020.

It’s not just about the pass-catching potential, it’s how complete the other four are as blockers that spring should start to reveal. And that, in turn, will inform Rees how often he can effectively use the multiple-tight end sets he likes so much.

In 2020, Notre Dame’s tight ends combined for 68 receptions — the most by a Notre Dame team in the 2000s. But tight end TDs dropped from 11 in 2019 to two last season, suggesting perhaps an underutilization near the goal line for a team that ranked a Kelly Era-worst 102nd nationally in red zone offense.

Offensive line

Remember, it’s always about identifying who the best five linemen are and then retro-fitting them to positions, and not about what the depth chart looks like on paper and sliding people up in corresponding spots.

Lone returning starter Jarrett Patterson, coming off a season-ending foot injury, longtime super sub Josh Lugg and center Zeke Correll figure to be the three locks. So spring is about finding Nos. 4 and 5 as well as the most trusted backups, should an injury occur.

With four new starters and perhaps a fifth in a new position, chemistry may still be an issue when the season starts. The growing pains and hiccups need to be at a minimum, though, by the time the Irish face Wisconsin and Cincinnati in games 4 and 5, respectively.

Both those teams ranked among the top 15 nationally last season in rushing defense, pass-efficiency defense, total defense and scoring defense.

Defensive line

There’s high potential and eight bodies but absolutely no starting experience at the two defensive end spots, and only Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola having played high-leverage snaps in a college game among the ends. That’s why keeping an eye on the grad transfer market this spring might not be such a bad idea.

With such a glut of talent and experience inside, don’t be surprised if there’s some experimenting with an interior defensive linemen or two auditioning at the big end spot.

Inside linebackers

Will new defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Marcus Freeman want to rotate linebacker personnel as much as predecessor Clark Lea did? And will the linebacker skill sets (middle and weakside) and responsibilities closely resemble or not how they looked in Lea’s scheme?

Whatever the answers turn out to be, expect a lot of players to get a serious look in the spring and not necessarily at the linebacker position in which they were slotted in last season.

Rovers

Had unanimous All-American Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah opted to return to ND, rather than an early entry into the NFL Draft, it would have been a no-brainer to leave that outside linebacker position exactly how it was.

With him gone, perhaps there will be some minor tweaking to what that position is asked to do.

Converted safety Isaiah Pryor has the inside track, but the best fits might be Paul Moala, whose 2020 season ended in October with a torn Achilles tendon, and freshman Prince Kollie, a June arrival.

The fact that Freeman continues to recruit to the rover concept hints at more of a status quo schematically in how ND will envision that position.

Safeties

The biggest shift in the Mike Elko/Clark Lea scheme from ousted defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s was at the safety position. And that could be the case again under Freeman.

How transfer portal U-turner Houston Griffith fits and how ready mid-year enrollee Justin Walters is to climb the depth chart are two of the more pivotal and compelling offseason questions on the entire defense.

Junior-to-be All-American Kyle Hamilton makes everyone look better in the secondary, but 2021 could be his final season at ND, so the Irish need to find answers for the immediate and long-term future.

Cornerbacks

Another position with plenty of bodies but not a lot of game experience. Former starter TaRiq Bracy’s 2020 regression needs to be addressed, and Freeman and cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens need to find out enough about everyone else beyond returning starter Clarence Lewis to decide whether to plunge into the grad transfer market in this position group for the second offseason in a row.

Special teams

Mid-year enrolled freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. may be the answer to a more dynamic punt return game, but the first order of business is getting kicker Jonathan Doerer’s mojo back.

The super senior (taking advantage of the NCAA’s COVID exemption) made 10 of his first 12 field goal attempts last season, then missed six of his last 11. He nailed 17 of 20 overall in 2019.

Wisconsin grad transfer quarterback Jack Coan (17) looks to be Ian Book's successor as Notre Dame's No. 1 QB.
Houston Griffith will get a fresh start this spring in new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme.