Spring practice is now concluded. What did we learn?
Better than expected:
Jerry Tillery at Defensive tackle. Tillery’s move from “left tackle of the future” to defensive tackle was an “experiment” like the Manhattan Project was an “experiment.” Tillery’s progress eases the burden on some promising young tackles like Cage, Hayes, Matuska, Mokwuah and the three frosh.
What is unique about Tillery is that he inspires nearly head-shaking awe from all who observe him. The recruit who requested and received an audience with Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh, C.S.C. during one of his recruiting trips may have picked up a little bit of charisma during the audience.
Steve Elmer – We have to force ourselves to remember that he is just a rising junior, deprived, due to the numbers crunch, of the redshirt year that even Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson enjoyed. Settled in a right guard, he was thought by many to be the most improved offensive player this Spring (other leaders in the poll for the most improved are Chris Brown and Kelly’s designee Amir Carlisle. )
Everett Golson – He seems to have fully recovered from his November implosion which reached its low point when he came undone in the Coliseum. Everett seems to have moved forward and then some. Is it conceivable that he will improve the more distance there is between time present and his “training” with the purported guru George Whitfield??
Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate are drawing high praise from Kelly and Van Gorder and they seem to have broken the code and are now more comfortable at safety. This area, very iffy at the start of Spring, may now feature a playmaker in Redfield, whose on field exploits may now be commensurate with his five start ranking.
Jarret Grace, a feel good story no matter how much or little it affects the depth chart. Grace is a case study in will power and its impact on rehabilitation from a gruesome injury. 2014’s Achilles Heel was MLB but it may now be a strength as Grace has been warranted playing time, no matter what Schmidt and Morgan do. Just say the aloud once “Our biggest problem at Mike is finding ENOUGH snaps to accommodate the talent and ability of Schmidt, Morgan and Grace.”
Tevon Coney has gotten solid reviews since he arrived in January. He’s backing up Jaylon Smith, and Smith will only leave the field if injuried. Nevertheless Coney’s performance has been noteworthy. Coney illustrates what happens when depth and early enrollment combine. For it allowed Greer Martini to shift to Sam behind Onwualu and that domino allowed John Turner to shift back to the depleted safety depth chart.
Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown – Both improved significantly with Carlisle drawing praise from Kelly for the greatest improvement. So far they’ve kept their starting positions and are keeping Robinson, Hunter and Prosise on the second string. NOTE: in some all too recent years, Robinson, Hunter and Prosise would have been a more lethal combination than the Note Dame starters.
C.J. Prosise – After arriving as an athlete without a position, Prosise has avoided the Dean Lytle trap and is now prepared both as a running back and receiver. Think a more muscular, faster Theo Riddick. He could be ready for a breakout year, regardless of whether or not he starts. Frank Vitovitch may be on to something with the “Percy Harvin role” riff.
Todd Lyght – Drawing rave reviews for his coaching, and he is not looking, as might have been his predecessor, to move up or out. Locked in on making ND’s secondary great.
PLANNING FOR RUSSELL’S RETURN – Van Gorder and Lyght have been preparing some special packages for Russell. Good news on two fronts, clearly putting their money where their mouth is on the certainty of his return, and setting up the weaponizing of the ever-chomping-at-the-bit KeiVarae Russell.
About As Good As Expected
The Quenton Nelson/ Alex Bars battle at left guard-a hallmark of excellence is what happens when a job is open. Two outstanding candidates, whose future success is indubitable, battle it out. A great player will get the job, another great player will not win the job and wait to start in 2016. Get used to this. It’s a paradigm for the future.
Isaac Rochell, moving from a true soph to an upperclassmen, the arc of his improvement is high and steady. Player development at its best.
Nick Martin – Healthy thumb, back in position at center, ready for his fifth year. Rock solid, steady anchor.
Malik Zaire – Growing into the role of a starting Notre Dame quarterback, though it may be in 2016. Remember he is still a sophomore, even though it’s his third Spring practice.
Nyles Morgan – Making progress in his first Spring Practice, will be an anchor at Mike even after Schmidt and Grace are gone.
More hitting – The depth at both OL and DL, with the OL depth particularly bolstered by some preferred walk-ons, has enabled some physical drills and worry-free scrimmaging.
Ishaq Williams’ status remains unclear, about what we figured.
Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell will stay in their previous positions. Some Depth Chart Engineers and some daffodils from one of the pay websites were drooling over moving Rochell inside and Day to DE. Hogwash! Coaches are smarter than that.
Mike McGlinchey and Will Fuller – The twosome from football’s vast wasteland, Philadelphia, continue on a collision course with stardom.
Tyler Newsome – Yep, he can punt!! He redshirted last year because Kyle Brindza was able to function as both punter and placekicker. Beyond that dramatic kick against LSU, Brindza’s legacy lives on. Sometime, in 2018, when you’re watching Tyler Newsome boom another punt, think fondly of Kyle Brindza.
The expanded offensive coaching staff is coalescing nicely. Kelly is a student of emotional maturity and he knows that in its hierarchy, interdependence is more highly valued than dependence and independence. “All things are possible when it doesn’t matter who gets credit.” Great organizations, including great football programs, don’t abide selfish control freaks very well. Napoleon Hill(q.v.) used to talk of a “mastermind” blending sound intellects, working and exploring together. Doubters will never understand, the emotionally immature or dwarfed will never grasp, how vital it is that great minds passionately collaborate rather than selfishly compete. Kelly, Denbrock, Sanford and Quinn, are collaborating, and WILL collaborate, for the greater glory of this team.
Less Than Expected
Jaylon Smith, perhaps it’s because he has raised the bar so high, but there are fewer “oohs” and “ahhs” being tossed in his direction. Perhaps it’s because it is so bloody easy to take excellence for granted.
Jhonny Williams and Kolin Hill – Identified as potential star pass rushers, their progress has been slow this Spring.
2017 recruits like Mike Heuerman, Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph are mired in the middle to bottom tiers of the depth chart. And all, at some level, were highly touted.
Deshone Kizer – Progressing, but a tad slowly. For his sake and Notre Dame’s it would be best if he were a challenge to Malik Zaire more than a challenge to Brandon Wimbush.
Devin Butler can not stay on top of Nick Watkins in the depth chart. Perhaps that is more indicative of where Watkins is, but Butler may battle for playing time once Shaun Crawford and his classmates arrive.
Second tight end – Durham Smythe is solid, but Luatua is almost second string by default. Somewhere in Las Vegas, Alize Jones notices this, and dreams big dreams.
Third Safety – The lack of a third safety shows the polar opposite of the Coney syndrome. Farley, one devil of a “libero” and a nickel and a situational pass rusher, has been forced to cross-train at safety, where he, and we, suffered a miserable 2013 year. Turner had to move back. Avery Sebastian may be the savior here. While Shumate and Redfield now “get it” we are one injury away from a “challenge.”
Rating the Units
Final Four Caliber
It took four years, remarkable recruiting and persistent insistence of outstanding practice and playing habits, but Harry Hiestand’s offensive line has arrived. Let’s get to the punch line: There will not be 5 better offensive lines in America next Fall, and it could be fewer than that.
This line has height, mass, agility, and just enough “darkness in their hearts” to excel. Elmer, Martin and Stanley all have made double digit starts.
But why will the 2015 line be so much better than a year ago? Frankly, there were some questionable decisions regarding the Offensive Line in 2014. Spots were held open for injured players in the Spring. The Elmer experiment at tackle was an abject failure. McGlinchey needed more time and the September OL was misaligned, precipitating the shift of Nick Martin to Left Guard, Matt Hegarty to Center and Steve Elmer down to Right Guard, all prior to the Syracuse game. Simply, more push was needed in the middle, and lo and behold, the Irish converted all 8 of their short yardage plays against Syracuse.
But in 2015 none of those problems exist. Stanley’s flirtation with the NFL draft ended and Ronnie seems to have taken on a leadership role. Nick Martin is healthy once again, stronger, and not moving from his post at Center. Steve Elmer, still completing his Sophomore year, has hunkered down at right guard. And McGlinchey had pushed the oft-injured warrior Christian Lombard aside by the USC game. McGlinchey then drew first blood against LSU. Certainly the Left Guard will be a redshirt frosh, but when was the last time ND had two highly probable NFL players in a battle for an open offensive line spot?
This time, there’s depth. McGovern, Bivin and Montelus are classmates of Elmer and McGlinchey and holding their role on the second string. Sam Mustipher has settled in as the backup center. His battle with Tristen Hoge next Spring to succeed Martin at Summer would have been noteworthy, except that it is being presaged by the Alex Bars/Quenton Nelson battle at LG this Spring.
Harry has a pipeline now, just like Milt Tenopir used to in Nebraska’s glory days.
2015 will be outstanding and the future of the ND OL is bright as far as the eye, and Dillan Gibbons, who may still be playing OL in 2021, can see.
Three honors candidates on the front line, a burgeoning three deep and a four man freshman class that ND can afford to redshirt. Keeping what he inherited on track and two outstanding recruiting harvests have given Brian Van Gorder and Keith Gilmore a lot to work with, a strong present and a bright future.
A lie has been exposed, a shameful, cowardly lie: Notre Dame can not recruit defensive linemen!
Sheldon Day returns for his senior year and will contend for All American honors. Quick and disruptive,
Sheldon creates havoc while Jarron Jones, mostly, stays home. Jones’ Lisfranc injury was nettlesome, and it is no sure thing that he will be ready, AT FULL CAPACITY, for Texas. But a healthy Jones will contend for honors. He was much stronger in ’14 and was gaining the ability to collapse the pocket with push up the middle. This compromises pocket integrity and can make modestly competent outside rushers up their sack total. Isaac Rochell is a rock of an edge setter and run-stopper and he should be an honors candidate as he enters his junior year. Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti share the fourth starter position. If that is the “weakest link” of the defensive line, then that is some kind of starting lineup.
Depth at tackle is more solid than a year ago, with Daniel Cage, who had moments as a frosh, and is much better shape, and Jerry Tillery, the Spring phenom du jour. They join Jay Hayes and Jake Matuska for a sound three deep (Gilmore has said he needs five, and the hand he’s been dealt contains six.) Peter Mokwuah may need another year.
Defensive end depth is iffier. Jonathan Bonner suffered the turf toe injury that requires surgery. He had moved past Grant Blankenship, who may be one more year away from contending as a starter. Of course, if Ishaq Williams surprises and returns that would give Gilmore his fifth DE. Otherwise, Jhonny Williams and converted linebacker Doug Randolph are emergency and not preferred options.
Micah Dew-Treadway, though no gimme, was overshadowed by Tillery in the Spring It is most probable that he, Brandon Tiassum, Elijah Taylor and Bo Wallace will don redshirts. They have no impact in 2015 but this depth chart is building. Here are the years the player’s eligibility expires:
2015 Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara
2016 Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones
2017 Jake Matuska, Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Doug Randolph, Daniel Cage, Grant Blankenship,Kolin Hill
2018 Peter Mokwuah, Jerry Tillery, Jonathan Bonner, Jhonny Williams
2019 Bo Wallace, Micah Dew-Treadway, Brandon Tiassum, Elijah Taylor.
The key for 2015 is a full return to health for Jarron Jones and a healthy Sheldon Day, right through the Stanford game.
This area is so deep that Torii Hunter Jr. was able to play baseball and C.J. Prosise went on lend-lease to Autry Denson and the running backs corps.
Will Fuller played at an All-America level in ’14. Chris Brown makes Jac Collinsworth, he with NFL wide receiver DNA coursing through his veins, froth at the mouth. Yet Kelly identified Amir Carlisle as the most improved receiver.
The next tier includes Corey Robinson, who gave FSU’s talented secondary fits, Torii Hunter, still shy of his one year anniversary of a return to full health and fitness, and the versatile C.J. “Theo/Percy/Riddick/Harvin” Prosise.
There aren’t enough snaps for Justin Brent and Corey Holmes to join the regular rotation, but these two redshirt frosh will be available if needed.
C.J. Sanders may be called on to return kicks, and that does not mean FIELD kicks, but RETURN them, but otherwise, he, Miles Boykin, Equanimeous St. Brown and Jalen Guyton would probably redshirt.
In 2014, the top six wide receivers combined for 214 catches for 3071 yards and 27 touchdowns. Only Brown and Carlisle were upperclassmen last year. Think back to the “player development” path that T.J. Jones followed. The wide receiving corps should improve significantly this year. All of the top 6 are now upperclassmen.
Ohio State’s Cardale Jones is one of two quarterbacks returning who has led his team in an FBS Championship game. The other is Everett Golson.
Golson’s ball security issues have been documented ad nauseam. Ball security is his Achilles heel and it brought him down from being in the Heisman conversation through the FSU game to a forlorn, quivering tragedy against USC.
Golson has had a good spring but it is spring. We simply will not know until October.
Outside of Columbus, (Sorry, it’s just rue) there are not many backups better than Malik Zaire. He’s a leader, a gamer, and an outstanding runner. He simply lacks Golson’s pristine arm and Golson’ s experience and maturity. Everett had the edge in the Spring, a solid edge.
Deshone Kizer is the third stringer, with a big arm. What we can say about Kizer is that if he is forced to play in 2015, he’ll be more experienced than Tommy Rees was in 2010. Brandon Wimbush arrives in June.
This is the kind of Quarterback depth chart that ND will have in the future.
Selection Committee Bowl Level
2014’S big question mark has solidified and emerged this Spring.
Jaylon Smith is an all American. He is a marvelous athlete now comfortable enough to be a team leader , whether at Will or Sam. He is ready to wreak havoc in his second year in Van Gorder’s defense.
At Will, he’s backed up by Tevon Coney, an early and successful entrant.
The Mike now has three solid options. Joe Schmidt proved he could play as well as communicate. He is recovering from a fractured and dislocated ankle, but is on schedule. Jarrett “the werewolf” Grace has recovered from a gruesome compound injury against Arizona a State in the 2013 game in Texas. Nyles Morgan is all he was supposed to be and will benefit from sharing snaps with Grace and Schmidt. Van Gorder offered special praise for Morgan for staying the course during 2014’s tough times.
Athletic, and vastly under-appreciated, James Onwualuy is the Sam. Against power teams like Stanford and Pitt, possibly USC, James may give way to either Greer Martini or Jaylon Smith to match bulk against bulk. Kelly was very pleased with Onwualu’s progress this Spring. Remember, it has only been about a year since Onwualu made a double move, from wide receiver to safety and then down to linebacker.
Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal arrive in June. It is unknown if Jaylon Smith will return for his senior year or if Jarrett Grace will apply for and receive a sixth year. As insurance against the non-occurrence of either event Barajas or Bilal or both may see the field, in some capacity, this year.
This unit has come a long way since last Spring, It is athletic, and, now, experienced. The linebacking corps will also benefit from having a healthier defensive line in front of it.
KeiVarae Russell-Russell was outstanding as a starter in 2013 and fully embraced the changes implemented by Brian Van Gorder in installing his new defense. Simply, Russell’s confidence and aggression were about to be unleashed. Then the academic issue. Russell returns in June, fresh, fit, faster and stronger. His declared intent is to win the Jim Thorpe Award. The Irish will not face a great passing combo until USC arrives in South Bend on October 17th. Russell will be dialed in by then. He should contend easily for all-America honors, possibly the Thorpe. Russell is an eager tackler and will be an asset against the Georgia Tech and Navy option attacks.
Cole Luke would have been a solid lead cornerback, and will flourish evermore as second in command behind Russell. Smooth in coverage, he is sound against the run, though short of Russell’s competence and effectiveness as a run stopper.
Nick Watkins-the tall kid from Texas moved past Devin Butler to claim the starting spot opposite Luke, at least until Russell returns. Though Farley will again be the nickel, Watkins should play a lot, and then start alongside Luke in 2016.
Devein Butler, though even with Luke as a frosh, was slowed by a freshman injury and he is now the fourth cornerback. That may be Butler’s ceiling.
Matthias Farley, -lost in last November’s defensive injuries and subsequent implosion was the first rate job Van Gorder did in sculpting a role for Matthias Farley as ”Nickel with an asterisk.” And also lost was the first rate job Farley did of executing that subtle job description. Farley sneaked in four interceptions, 3.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He was the comeback player of the year. Wise as a fifth year player, he will have another outstanding year as the nickel, and don’t be astonished when he makes a sack or a tackle for loss. It’s part of the defensive design.
Three freshmen arrive in June. Shaun Crawford will probably play and may also contend as a kick returner. Crawford is short at (perhaps) 5’9” but explosive and aggressive. Nick Coleman and Ashton White will probably redshirt.
New Year’s Bowl Level
Tarean Folston arrived as a lead back in 2014 with 889 yards and 6 TDs. Folston has great vision and some wiggle in the hole, but he lacks breakaway speed. His longest run from scrimmage was 26 yards in 2014, and that is highly substandard for teams that wish to play in the last game of the year. Folston is steady, but not explosive.
Greg Bryant got more carries late and has responded to Autry Denson in the Spring. He has big play potential whether running, catching passes or as a kick returner. This, 2015, is Greg Bryant’s time to arrive.
C.J Prosise cross -trained at running back in Spring. He may be more than an emergency player.
Two frosh, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, arrive in June. Expect one to play, and one to redshirt. And remember that in 2013 we expected Bryant to shine, and Folston to be the handmaiden. It didn’t work out that way. We’ll know in late August .
But this unit is rated as New Year’s Day Bowl level because only two recruited running backs were on the roster in the Spring, and because of a lack of demonstrated explosiveness and breakaway ability. The jury remains out.
Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have put a tumultuous 2014 behind them and are eager pupils for Todd Lyght. When focused and communicating, this is one of the better starting safety duos in the country, especially against the run. They combined for 34 tackles against USC and LSU. Redfield needs to show more acumen against the pass. But if Redfield has, indeed, “arrived,” then the Irish will have a “playmaker” at every level of the defense:
Sheldon Day DL
Jaylon Smith LB
Max Redfield S
Playmakers make plays, the kind that disrupt long drives and force punts. While depth at safety is not as vital as at cornerback, this situation is worrisome.
Drue Tranquill, who showed flashes as a frosh and oft-injured Nicky Baratti were held out of contact in the Spring. Kelly noted Tranquill’s ferocity in his rehab and is confident he will be ready to go. John Turner did not make an impact after his return to safety from backing up Onwualu at Sam. Tranquill is positioned to start opposite Redfield in 2016.
Avery Sebastain is an intriguing addition and may prove as valuable as Cody Riggs was in 2014. Sebastian was a special teams wizard at Berkeley and may be added to Scott Booker’s core Special Teams Cadre of Prosise, Onwualu, Grace and Farley. That would go a long way to stabilize special teams. But Sebastian must beat out Tranquill and the others for the third safety position.
Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertita arrive in June. In a perfect world, they would both be expected to redshirt. In this world, in which recent safety recruiting and the current depth chart is still below the norm (the ONLY such area) Williams or Fertita or both may play some in anticipation of 2016.
Because Durham Smythe has only one catch this is the lowest rated area on the team.
But do not despair. It is conceivable that Smythe, Weishar and Alize Jones may fulfill the legacy of “Tight End U” and play in the future in the NFL.
Smythe has made strides and Kelly anointed Durham as ready to accept the legacy of the tight ends who have preceded him. Tyler Luatua is more blocker than receiver. Weishar is a skilled receiver but may need, just as Smythe did, one more year of weight training and maturity to be combat ready.
Alize Jones will probably play in some carefully etched spots, as Corey Robinson, Will Fuller and Chris Brown did as frosh. He is tall and has remarkable, Corey-Robinsonesque, hands. Give Alize September to get acclimated to the college game, then watch out for him as a spot weapon in October and November.
Experience and Motivation
Regardless of what will be written, only Koyack and Riggs are gone from the season ending starting lineup. It will be years, if not a decade or more, before Notre Dame is this experienced again, with 20 starters returning (21 if you count KeiVarae Russell).
Many of the players tasted excellence and an unbeaten season in 2012 and want another sip.
Last year the Irish team was a zebra away from beating the defending National Champion in their Tallahassee lair. That, simply, is reality.
Then came November. That, simply is reality.
Complacence and seniority should not be an issue.
You can see this team through the lens of November’s embarrassment, muffed placekicks, turnovers, and a tattered defense.
But if you employ a different, but entirely legitimate, lens, you see a 5th year quarterback who flirted with Heisman candidacy, the best combination of offensive line and wide receivers in the country, a veteran (if Morgan does not start, EVERY defensive starter will be an upperclassmen with prior starting experience) and playmakers at every level in Day, Smith, Russell and Redfield.
Much is in place. It could be a year to remember.
Hook the Horns!