Getting beyond the restlessness over Notre Dame's understated youth movement

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The expiration date on the group angst among the Notre Dame fan base about former five-star prospect Jordan Johnson’s depth chart standing is likely to coincide with the time they start obsessing about freshman prodigy Lorenzo Styles Jr.’s status in August.

Or when oft-injured/2019-suspended wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr., in fall camp has a practice reel that matches or exceeds the expectations that still swarm around the presumptive No. 1 Irish perimeter target in 2021.

The worry from the outside looking in, when there’s limited buzz on the freshmen on the Notre Dame football team, is as predictable as it is at least in part defensible.

Are they incubating or fermenting?

It’s still not clear with Johnson, who’s technically a sophomore from a spring classification standpoint, a freshman because his quiet 2020 season can be taken as a redshirt or COVID-exemption season, and an enigma when both head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees offer up that he’s missed two of the first 13 practices.

Of the 14 actual freshmen on the spring roster, a record number for midyear enrollees at Notre Dame, Kelly has been measured, if not a bit stingy, in singling them out individually, even when pressed to do so. Offensive linemen Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler have been the headliners among them.

Kelly added a few to the list Saturday after practice No. 13, in defensive tackle Gabe Rubio, who recently suffered a hyperextended elbow, and freshman corners Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes. Ramon Henderson, an early enrollee last season at cornerback, drew even more superlatives.

If it turns out after watching the Blue-Gold Game Saturday (12:30 p.m. EDT; streaming on Peacock) that the 12th-year Irish head coach has been understating his young talent all along, don’t get too attached to that snapshot.

Summer transformations, 13 additional June-arriving freshmen and the possibility of additions through the grad transfer market and/or transfer portal will recalibrate story lines in August, including those of the 14 midyears.

In future years, the underclassman transfers will have a May 1 deadline to select their new school and still be able to play four months later without sitting out, per the new NCAA rule. This season, because of the newness of the rule and COVID complications, the deadline is July 1.

Grad transfers still have their own more-liberal timetable. Last offseason, the Irish took four — two as midyear enrollees (Isaiah Pryor and Ben Skowronek) and two more who arrived in June (Nick McCloud and Trevor Speights).

“I think as part of your operation, you have to be looking at the transfer portal,” Kelly said Saturday. “But it has to fit, right? It has to be the right fit for your university and your program.

“But it has to be part of what you do in your program in recruiting, to be monitoring it, looking at it, and measuring each and every year if there’s a particular fit for your football team.”

So far in 2021 it’s quarterback Jack Coan, a grad transfer from Wisconsin, who’ll exit the spring as ND’s No. 1 option.

Offensive tackle Blake Fisher (54) has put together one of the strongest springs among Notre Dame football’s 14 early enrolled freshmen.

The 13 June arrivals, meanwhile, offer an intriguing mix of plug-and-play-caliber prospects and developmental players.

Four of the 13 had their senior football seasons delayed to this spring, even if they were abbreviated versions of them. A fifth, linebacker Kahanu Kia of the Punahou School in Honolulu, plays in one of three states that canceled football all together because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Punahou was one of a handful of private schools that got the green light to practice starting March 15 and schedule some controlled scrimmages this month against other schools. The 6-foot-2 Kia was 185 pounds the last time Punahou had staged a practice, in November of 2019.

He’s at 220 now.

The June arrival with the best chance to make a dent in the Irish two-deeps figures to be Khari Gee, based on the intersection of raw talent and lingering positional need. And Kelly acknowledged as much Saturday.

“That’s a position (safety) we’d like to continue to build depth at, certainly,” he said the 6-3, 185-pounder from Woodward Academy in College Park, Ga.. “I would think that one has a little bit more of our focus.”

Which also means it’s the position group that’s getting the deepest look in the transfer markets.

Last season’s early enrollees didn’t get to fully benefit from the midyear experience, with 14 of the 15 spring practices being canceled because of the pandemic. Yet, it’s notable that the only three Irish freshmen who played in all 12 games in 2020 were June enrollees — tight end Michael Mayer, cornerback Clarence Lewis and running back Chris Tyree.

The process of them climbing the depth chart was hardly universal.

“When I first got here, it was definitely way harder than high school — the running, the conditioning, the weight room,” Lewis said Saturday. “I tried my best and didn’t know what to really expect. I kept working and giving good effort.”

And then there’s Mayer:

“I think it starts the first day you get on campus,” said the player who in 2020 set a school record for receptions by a freshman tight end (42). “I remember getting here and texting Ian (Book) right away, saying ‘Let’s go throw.’ And he knew I meant business, and we went through the whole summer.

“It’s a gradual progression, where you make a play here, make a play there, mess up a little bit. And then you make another play. Coming in as a freshman, you’re going to mess up a little bit in the summer.

“It is a little bit of a small window, but there are plenty of opportunities to make plays and to show the coaches what you have in the small month and a half, two months.”

On the flip side, for those who equate freshman inactivity to a career arc that will end in disappointment, keep in mind Thursday night that if linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah gets selected in the first round of the NFL Draft as expected, he’ll become the 10th Irish first-rounder of the Kelly Era.

And the seventh among them to start his career with a redshirt season.

Johnson can take solace in that history, but one of the best things he has going for him is that star running back, team leader and fellow St. Louis product Kyren Williams is helping to coax Johnson through the growing pains.

“I’ve known Jordan since I was in second grade and he was in first grade,” Williams said Saturday. “We used to play in the same Little League organization, so I look at him as a little brother and try to help him get to where he wants to be.

“I think he’s had a great spring. He just needs to keep working on the little details of everything. That just comes with being a wide receiver and being a football player. You’re never going to be perfect.

“He knows that he’s got to keep working, and come fall camp that it’s time to excel and really take off to get to where he wants to be as a player.”

Notre Dame sophomore-to-be Jordan Johnson (15) is trying to make a move up the wide receiver depth chart this spring.