Notre Dame Football 2017 kicks off on Wednesday with the opening of spring practice and the start of a new era for Brian Kelly’s football team. New coaches, new quarterback, new stadium–it’s all happening. You might be one of those “eh, it’s just spring ball, wake me up when the real games start” kind of party poopers, and that’s fine too. You do you.
I’ve never been that guy. I love spring ball. I love fall ball. I love all ball. I’m the guy who would have wanted Notre Dame to accept a bowl bid at 4-8. Watching Notre Dame play football is better than not watching them play football. If it has to be a practice 6 months before the season starts then I’m fired up for it. So let’s talk about all the things that I’ll be following at each position during these practices that may not amount to much come the fall.
This isn’t meant to be what I think is “most important.” Every position has a number of storylines that may be more appealing to one than to another. It’s simply what I’m most interested in and what I think could have the biggest impact on the team in 2017.
How good is Ian Book?
Like everyone else, I expect Brandon Wimbush to be a really good player in 2017. But, this quarterback situation makes me nervous because it all pretty much hinges on Wimbush being really good, and I have no idea where Book is in his development. Remember he was not recruited by this staff and he hasn’t played football in a game situation in about a year and a half. It might be comforting to hear that he’s in the exact same position DeShone Kizer was in 2015 spring ball, and he looked awful, but it all worked out just fine when he was pressed into duty. But, he also admittedly was thinking about playing baseball following spring ball and was aided by Will Fuller, CJ Prosise et al. I’m glad things progressed the way they did, but if Book looks anything like Kizer did in April 2015, we are all going to be pretty nervous.
Fortunately, Chip Long’s RPO offense seems to favor his style of play. He is athletic enough to be a threat as a runner and showed a nice ability to get the ball out quickly with accuracy in high school. I’m not much of a talent evaluator, I have no idea what his ceiling is, but his skill set should translate over to this offense. It’s important that it does because as we all know, injuries happen, especially at quarterback. As scary as it sounds, Book is one play away from being the guy, we’ve seen it time and time again. A solid 15 practices would do a lot to ease the minds of fans heading into the summer.
Questions I want answered: Does he take command of the huddle? Is he accurate on his shorter throws? Is he a solid decision maker? Does he grasp the playbook?
Will Josh Adams get his mojo back?
Fans in general have a bad habit of discarding what they’ve seen in favor of things they haven’t seen. I remember when Dayne Crist was the best quarterback on the roster in 2009 after people soured somewhat on Jimmy Clausen. Once Kizer started to struggle there were rumblings about how great Wimbush has looked and Notre Dame didn’t mind of Kizer moved on.
The same has been true of Adams. People will tell you he might be the third best running back on the roster, despite his 274 carries, 1,771 yards, 6.5 a carry and 13 total touchdowns in his first two seasons. It’s also easy to forget he entered the season with a nagging hamstring injury, which can set a player back months. When looking at the season Adams had last year, following the bye week against Stanford, his effectiveness increased significantly. Pre-bye he registered 89 carries for 416 yards (4.67 a carry) and one touchdown. Post-bye he tallied 69 carries for 517 yards (7.5 a carry) and four touchdowns. Added to his healthy 2015 production, a 100% Adams is good for 185 carries, 1,355 yards (7.3 a carry) and 10 touchdowns. This isn’t a guy that people need to be kicking to the curb.
There have been reports that Adams is also taking on more of a leadership role on the team and in the weight room. The idea of a healthy Adams, with an improved weight training regimen, who by all accounts is showing a sense of urgency, is pretty appealing to me. Young potential is good, but Adams has shown real star power as a runner and could add some stability to a back field with a first time starter at quarterback.
Questions I want answered: Does he have his burst back? Is he taking on an on-field leadership role? Has he improved as a receiver? Is he running with decisiveness?
Is Aliz’e Mack (formerly Jones) ready to be dominant?
There might not be a player on the team prior to 2016 that hopes were higher for heading into the season than Aliz’e Mack. He was supposed to be the answer to the tight end woes that plagued Notre Dame in 2015, but as we all know, it was not to be. With the addition of Chip Long, who is known to feature his tight ends, the hype train is waiting in the station again. But, we haven’t seen Mack play in a long time and taking a year off adds an unpredictability that makes people nervous. Mack has been very active on social media voicing his readiness for a new start so expectations are high.
On paper, his skill set and body type gives Notre Dame something they simply didn’t have last year and haven’t had since Tyler Eifert. He’s big, he’s fast, he’s a match up nightmare. Long loves using two tight ends and Mack gives Notre Dame the option of going double tight with two inline tight ends, or splitting Mack out as a real receiving threat in a more traditional three wide, single tight end look.
Questions I want answered: Is he pulling away from the competition? How consistent is he on a day to day basis? Has he improved as a blocker? Is he most effective in the red zone?
Is Chase Claypool ready to take the leap?
This guy needs to get on the field on a regular basis folks. He’s Jeff Samardzija. He’s Golden Tate. Both of those guys went from relatively nothing, to something. A big something. I think Claypool is ready to do that. I understand that he was raw coming out of Canada where the competition isn’t great and he could get by on sheer athleticism. So what? Golden Tate didn’t know how to run routes as a freshman. Weis wasn’t the best coach, but he knew enough to put Tate out there and let him make plays. This is Chase Claypool in 2017. He’s the type of guy who lines up at wideout and the defensive back says to himself, “wait, what am I supposed to do with this dude?”
There are trivial concerns about whether or not he can actually catch the ball. Some of the best receivers in Notre Dame history couldn’t catch (See: Fuller, Will and Ismail, Rocket). We know he can block. He can be taught to run routes. It’s just a matter of mastering the playbook. Is this section a little too fan boy? Absolutely it is. I think the guy will be a star. And look, he’s 6’5 225 and runs like a deer. It’s not like I’m pumping up Robbie Parris.
Just think of EQ and Claypool playing on opposite sides, where EQ is the less scary of the two of them. Then imagine EQ and Claypool on one side with Aliz’e Mack on the other side in the red zone. Three guys who can run, all 6’5. I’m sorry, but it’s just exciting to think about.
Questions I want answered: Can he catch? Does he know the plays?
Is Sam Mustipher the answer at center?
Most people are going to focus on the goings on with respect to the right side of the line and for good reason. There is going to be a battle for the 5th offensive line spot, be it right guard or right tackle, and that deserves attention. But, should we be assuming that Mustipher is a lock to retain his starting center spot? He was good last year, but not great, and Tristen Hoge mounted something of a challenge last spring and summer before giving way to the experience of Mustipher. Something tells me Hoge isn’t going to just let Mustipher skate in the middle and remember Mustipher has had a bit of the yips at times when it comes to his snapping. Not to mention, Hoge has most likely put in a lot of work with Wimbush as far as snaps and cadence, which isn’t the biggest deal, but it is a factor.
It is hard to imagine Notre Dame would turn away from Mustipher’s 12 starts last year and time in the program, but after the entire line underachieved last year, other than McGlinchey and Nelson, I doubt the coaching staff is married to any particular lineup.
Questions I want answered: Are Mustipher and Hoge splitting reps? How much time does Hoge get with the first team? Has Mustipher cleaned up his snapping woes? Is Hoge improving as a run blocker?