Notre Dame returned to the practice field for Spring Football 2017 last week and with multiple practices including one open to the media, there hasn’t been a shortage of practice reports and analysis. As Notre Dame starts to get into the thick of spring ball this week, we’ve identified some players who have started to trend up thus far.
For today, we are focusing on players we haven’t seen a whole lot of so that means no players like Equanimeous St. Brown, Josh Adams, Julian Love, Nyles Morgan, or Drue Tranquill. Instead we’re looking at players who didn’t play big roles last year but could this year.
Chase Claypool (SOPH/WR) – The massive Canadian prospect has been running with the first team offense at times this spring. If/when Kevin Stepherson gets out of whatever doghouse that Kelly won’t admit he’s in, that might not still be the case but for now, Claypool has been getting first team reps. He is still raw, but he is physically impressive and just makes plays that receivers his size shouldn’t be able to make. In Notre Dame’s tackling drills last week that circulated around that drew the ire of many fans, Claypool was almost untackleable in open space. Claypool might still be a little away from being a game breaker but he is getting closer and closer this spring.
Alize Jones (JR/TE) – Brian Kelly said that Jones is virtually uncoverable on certain areas of the field over the weekend. Jones hasn’t had to shake off too much rust this spring even after missing all of 2016 on suspension because he was still able to practice with the team. New offensive coordinator Chip Long has been a tight ends coach in the past and his offenses have utilized the tight end much like Notre Dame fans had become accustomed to before production fell off over the last few years. Most encouraging here is that Kelly also gave Jones credit for his willingness to stay inline and block. If Jones improves his blocking and becomes more than just a receiver in tight end’s body, Notre Dame could have a special player on their hands.
I think Chip’s doing a great job with him. He’s got a good relationship with him. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. And Alize needs a little bit of that. He’s virtually uncoverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one thing that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical.
Nick Watkins (SR/CB) – One player who has had to knock off some rust is the senior corner who missed all of 2016 with an arm injury. The good news is that Watkins has not been showing too many signs of that rust and by all accounts, Watkins has been one of the best corners on the field for Notre Dame in the sessions that have been open to the media. Watkins gets forgotten by fans sometimes because he has a small body of work and missed last year, but as we’ve written here already this spring, his return is a huge boost for the Notre Dame secondary. Reports that Watkins is playing well and not showing any lingering effects from missing 2016 are GREAT news.
I think Nick is playing with a lot of confidence. He’s long. He’s very coachable. He’s a great kid. I really like the way he is competing out there. I think the season off was, in a lot of ways, disappointing but I think he benefited greatly from that year to see it, to learn, and he’s had a really terrific off-season in the weight room. You can see his transition out of his break, breaking on the ball, playing physical at the line of scrimmage. Nice to have him back. He really gives us a presence out there that we’re starting to feel.
Donte Vaughn (SOPH/CB) – Another cornerback who has been getting some rave reviews so far. Vaughn played a bit last year and held his own. Now that he isn’t getting thrown into the fire and can work on his fundamentals with defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, he should be able to make some big strides this spring. So far in practice he has been one of the better corners for Notre Dame and will be fighting with Watkins and classmate Troy Pride for a spot in the lineup. Yes, I am placing Julian Love firmly in the starting lineup already.
Tony Jones Jr (SOPH/RB) – By all accounts, the star of Saturday’s open practice was the rising sophomore running back. Jones doesn’t have Josh Adams top end speed or Dexter Williams’s elusiveness. What he does have is great vision and he is forcing his way onto the field by being a terrific between the tackles runner. I doubt we’ll see Jones run many (if any) sweeps or outside runs this year, but between the tackles he may be Notre Dame’s best runner. With Adams and Williams ahead of him, he will need to fight for every rep. So far this spring he is doing a good job of that.
He’s 225 lbs. He can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. Assignment correct. Can run elusively and can get into the second level. What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back. He was noticeable today (Saturday) in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He’s a good player.
Miles Boykin (JR/WR) – Many thought (myself included) last year that Boykin would be unleashed at least as a redzone weapon. He wasn’t. So far in spring though Boykin has been making plays and is reportedly looking a bit slimmed down and nimble. With St. Brown locked in as a starter and Claypool rising, Boykin will be in a fight for reps just like Jones is at running back. Like Jones though, he is also playing well so far this spring.
Daelin Hayes (SOPH/DE) – Brian Kelly spoke quite a bit about the sophomore defensive end and how he has benefited from the scheme change this spring. Hayes played a lot as a true freshman but didn’t have the huge impact many were hoping/praying he would given Notre Dame’s lack of pass rushers. Remember though, Hayes missed a lot of time in high school with injuries and was limited last spring so he is still learning how to be a pass rusher. He relied totally on his athleticism last year. This spring he has been working on his fundamentals and the early returns have been very positive according to Brian Kelly on Saturday.
The athleticism is what stands out. He’s extremely athletic. He’s fit physically – 250 lbs and very strong. It’s the football knowledge – learning the techniques at the position that he plays is the piece where it’s just learning right now for him and this is the time to do it. You know, squeezing down on a tight end when the back’s away; wrong arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s gonna be some mistakes along the way, and I’m OK with that as long as he’s learning. Here’s the great thing about it: he cares a lot and he wants to get better so we’re going to live with some of the mistakes as long as he’s the same kid every day. And he is, he cares deeply about want to get better.
Asmar Bilal (JR/LB) – In the early goings of spring ball Bilal has been the first team ROVER. Kelly has said that the ROVER position may not be resolved in spring so take that with a grain of salt. That being said, Bilal has been impressive in his work at the position so far. Once more of the defense is installed and the staff starts throwing Drue Tranquill and Spencer Perry at the ROVER more it’ll be fun to watch this battle, but my money is on Bilal as the starting ROVER in the season opener against Temple.
Brandon Wimbush (JR/QB) – No list of players trending up this spring is complete without Notre Dame’s new starting quarterback. As we learned over the weekend though, just don’t tell him he’s the starting quarterback just yet. Wimbush still has a lot of work to do – just as any young quarterback has at this time of year – but he has shown a great command of the offense in practice and he has been throwing a very live ball. Still a long way to go before Wimbush is ready for the season opener, but so far so good.
This list is heavy on offensive players but that shouldn’t concern anyone just yet. Notre Dame has been focusing on fundamentals first before Mike Elko starts installing the real nuts and bolts of his scheme. The Irish defense had so many deficiencies under Brian Vangorder that the focus on fundamentals is necessary at this point so it makes sense for the offense to be ahead of the defense thus far.
Even though there is a new offensive coordinator, the offense will not be drastically different so again, it makes sense that offensive players are shining early. If the same is being said in August, then it’ll be time to be concerned.