Only a month and handful of practices into the 2016 spring version of Notre Dame football, fans and writers are officially on “over-reaction watch”. Spring stars don’t always turn into fall standouts and a single stellar practice with the media in attendance from a lesser known player can lead to multiple articles, a feature, and prognostications of greatness from those on the Notre Dame beat. It’s the nature of the business that is spring football.
That being said, coach Brian Kelly has met with the media a handful of times and some common themes have emerged from those meetings.
Sam Mustipher is Likely to Start at Center
The battle at center to replace captain Nick Martin looked to be a fierce one between Mustipher and redshirt freshman Tristen Hoge. Hoge was a player the coaching staff was extremely high on last spring and throughout fall practices, and with Mustipher’s intermittent snapping issues, figured to make a strong case to win the job. Turns out Mustipher has taken control of the center position to the point where Kelly came out last week and essentially proclaimed the job to be his.
This, however, doesn’t eliminate Hoge from winning a starting position on the offensive line in 2016. He has been taking first team reps at right guard next to Mustipher and now appears to be battling with Colin McGovern for the spot vacated by Steve Elmer. Given the praise the coaches have heaped on Hoge, they may feel he is one of the best five linemen and are compelled to get him into the starting lineup one way or another. That leaves Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars to go at it for the right tackle spot, with Bars having a clear advantage in that race.
Kevin Stepherson and Devin Studstill are Shining
Stepherson was probably the least touted early enrollee of the five who are participating in spring practice this year. Wide receiver is one of the deepest positions on the team, and the former three star figured to take a back seat to some of the more experienced players at his position.
Coaches and players alike have touted Stepherson, almost daily, for his speed, route running and his hands, with coaches saying he might have the second best hands on the team right behind Torii Hunter Jr. His ascent would be hard to believe if a smallish, skinny receiver who wasn’t known for his speed hadn’t just torn apart every secondary he faced during his two years in the starting lineup (I’m talking about Will Fuller, people). Of course, spring prowess doesn’t guarantee anything, it still has to be proven when these things count, but it’s never bad when the new toy turns out to be better than you thought.
There were rumblings about Studstill before he took a single rep in practice; a quiet confidence amongst the coaches that they had snagged a gem out of Florida was starting to leak, and his play early on seems to validate those feelings. When Brian Kelly comes out and says “things come easy” for the freshman, that is code for “he knows where he is supposed to be and does what he’s supposed to do”, which if you were wondering is a shot directly across the bow of senior to be Max Redfield.
Receiver coach Mike Denbrock singled out Studstill, along with Shaun Crawford, when asked which secondary members had stood out to him thus far, and he was seen taking first team reps away from Redfield in the last media viewed practice. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine a true freshman taking the field to start in Austin, Texas against the Longhorns, but if Studstill can keep up his current play then that may not be such a stretch after all.
Shaun Crawford is Really Good at Football
When Crawford went down with a torn ACL a couple of weeks into fall practice in 2015, the word was he had already won the starting spot as the team’s nickel corner and looked to be a key member of the defense. In that sense, people knew he was a real loss to the team; losing a starter always hurts. Just how much of a loss he was may have been greatly underestimated. When Crawford suffered the injury, starting corner KeiVarae Russell was quoted as saying he would be an All-American at Notre Dame before his time was up. Matthias Farley called Crawford “incredible” after two weeks of practice. Those are pretty strong words from a couple of seniors.
This spring he’s back from the ACL injury and incredibly he doesn’t seem to have lost any of the explosiveness he had prior to the setback, as evidenced by his 4.52 40 posted following winter workouts–a mere seven months post surgery. He is again garnering praise not just from teammates, but from coaches as well. As noted above, Denbrock praised Crawford for his play thus far, and last week Brian Kelly also singled him out for his performance in practices. It’s fair to say that Crawford is picking up where he left off last season and could bring a dimension to the Notre Dame defense that wasn’t always seen last year–remember in the losses to Stanford, Clemson and Ohio State, Notre Dame didn’t play a down of nickel defense. Couple that with new faces at linebacker, it’s likely that Crawford, even if he doesn’t win the starting left corner spot, will be one of the best 11 players on Brian VanGorder’s unit.
Brian VanGorder is Giddy Over Daelin Hayes
Hayes is probably the most intriguing recruit/early enrollee in the 2016 class, mostly because he has the highest upside, he plays a position that Notre Dame has trouble filling, and he possesses a skill set Notre Dame doesn’t often see. In my pre-spring article, I wrote that Hayes had Von Miller-like skills. When has Notre Dame had a guy like that? Hayes is already bigger than Jaylon Smith ever was while in South Bend, and was hardly used in a rush end type role that Hayes is already pegged to play.
The news that Hayes would be extremely limited in the spring due to his recovery from shoulder surgery was quite a buzzkill for the program. However, his limitations apparently haven’t kept him from impressing his defensive coordinator who had some glowing words about Hayes and his skill set:
“Ohhh boy, he is a good-looking player. Explosive. Sudden. Very dialed-in. Very competitive. I mean, it’s really driving him crazy not to get out there and be able to play. But he’s doing some individual stuff, and during that individual stuff his traits are really obvious. He’s going to play a lot of football for us this fall.”
Let’s go ahead and mark VanGorder down as a fan.
It’s no secret that an edge rush has been lacking at Notre Dame for some time. In fact, a true rush end would seem to be something of a purple unicorn in South Bend. Obviously, caution should be exercised when a coach gushes about a guy who hasn’t played a single down and is spending practice time in shorts and a t-shirt. But, for now, lets just envision Notre Dame’s version of the Super Bowl MVP terrorizing opposing quarterbacks like we’ve never seen. Let’s save practicality for another time.