Notre Dame Spring Football ’18: 5 Questions on Offense

With National Signing Day come and gone and the NFL Playoffs over, the next bit of football we have to look forward to is spring football. And, stop me if you heard this before, we are about to enter a very critical spring featuring a high profile quarterback battle for Notre Dame under Brian Kelly.  I know, crazy right?  That never happens.  Alas, here we are again heading into spring practice with questions a plenty at quarterback.

Quarterback isn’t the only position where the Irish have some questions this spring though with the Irish having to replace stars Josh Adams, Equanimeous St. Brown, Quenton Nelson, and Mike McGlinchey.  The Irish also have a new position coach along the offensive line and have to deal with some depth concerns at running back following a few disciplinary decisions that have left the Irish down two backs they thought they would have for 2018.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the biggest questions for the Notre Dame offense heading into yet another pivotal spring for Brian Kelly.

What Will Notre Dame do at Quarterback?

This will be the most talked about position at Notre Dame again this off-season.  Ian Book‘s emergence and Brandon Wimbush’s decline has made for another quarterback competition for the Irish under Brian Kelly.  You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that Wimbush has the higher ceiling and overall is the more talented player while Book has shown more accuracy in his limited body of work.

However this plays out, Brian Kelly must avoid – at all costs – the same mistake he made in 2016 when he let the QB competition linger not only through the spring and summer but into the season when he played both Deshone Kizer and Malik Zaire in the opener.  Kelly has to find out who his quarterback early into fall camp at the latest and then stick with that QB.

I was not the biggest of believers in Ian Book before the Citrus Bowl, but he showed that he can lead Notre Dame to victory against a SEC defense coordinated by one of the best defensive coordinators in college football. That performance alone should give him every opportunity to take the starting position in the spring.  At the same time, Brandon Wimbush totaled 30 touchdowns (16 passing, 14 rushing) a year ago.  Wimbush’s problem, however, was that this accuracy deteriorated so much by the Citrus Bowl that there was not much of a threat of the passing game for the Irish with him in the game.

Book and Wimbush could provide us with one of the most interesting quarterback competitions we’ve seen under Kelly and by now we’ve seen a lot of them.  The only thing that would be surprising here would be if a starter is named by the end of spring.

Who Will Replace Josh Adams at RB?

Notre Dame has some talented running backs at the top of the depth chart heading into spring football, but after them there is almost no depth.  Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr could both start for a lot of programs, but neither could stay healthy for long stretches last year.  Behind them the only scholarship back on the roster is early enrollee Jahmir Smith thanks to the dismissals of Deon McIntosh and CJ Holmes.

Dexter Williams is an absolute weapon when he gets the ball, but he hasn’t gotten many carries in his career primarily because he has been a liability in pass protection.  If Williams dedicates himself to improving in that department in the spring, the position is his for the taking.  Jones is a very talented runner as well, but Williams has special abilities that few backs possess.  If Williams doesn’t improve in that department, Jones is more than capable of handling the load and putting up big numbers in the fall.

Getting Smith up to speed and comfortable with the playbook will be hugely important for RB coach Autry Denson and Offensive Coordinator Chip Long. Smith was a rather unheralded prospect, but he’s got talent and will likely be on the field this fall due to the lack of the depth the Irish have at running back.

Look for Notre Dame to experiment with some position changes at this position specifically in the spring.  Brian Kelly said on Signing Day that the staff had some ideas here already.

How will the Notre Dame Offensive Line Replace Quenton Nelson, Mike McGlinchey, AND Harry Hiestand

How Notre Dame replaces offensive line stalwarts Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey – both likely 1st round NFL Draft picks – will be just as important as how they handle the QB position heading into 2018.  The two were the anchors of one of the best offensive lines Notre Dame has had in years.

Complicating matters here is Notre Dame also will have a new offensive line coach with Jeff Quinn replacing Harry Hiestand after Hiestand’s move back to the NFL to coach the OL of the Chicago Bears.  Some questioned Hiestand over the years, but honestly, there was nothing to question with him.  He was hands down one of the best offensive line coaches in college football.  Period.  Early returns on Quinn are promising, but replacing Hiestand will be as hard – if not harder – for Notre Dame as replacing Nelson and McGlinchey.

On a positive, the way Notre Dame handled the right tackle position in 2017 with Robert Hainsey and Tommy Kraemer both playing extensively will allow for the Irish to have to rely on just one player with little experience in 2018.

There are a lot of ways that this could shake out though.  Liam Eichenberg could end up playing one of the tackle spots with Kraemer moving inside to guard and Hainsey manning the other spot. Sophomore Aaron Banks could seize a starting spot at guard forcing Notre Dame to pick two out of the trio of Hansey, Eichenberg, and Kraemer at the tackle positions.  Some other former highly rated recruit like Josh Lugg could also emerge this spring.

Lots of questions and few answers right now.  Hopefully Notre Dame answers a few of them and has a better idea of how they will align their OL in 2018 by the end of spring football.

Can Notre Dame find more production from the TE position?

Notre Dame saw historically low production from the tight end position in 2016 but rebounded in 2017 somewhat.  The position was still, however, not the weapon it used to be or that anyone expected it would be with the arrival of Chip Long last year.  Alize Mack’s breakout season never came last fall and then he ended the year suspended for the Citrus Bowl.

Notre Dame has entirely too much talent at the tight end position for it not to be weapon for the Irish next fall.  If Mack is unable to turn all of his raw tools into production, sophomores Cole Kmet and Brock Wright will be there waiting.  Kmet especially could be in for a big year in 2018 making spring practice vital for him while Wright is expected to be limited this spring following a shoulder injury.  Throw in early enrollee George Takacs and the Irish have five tight ends vying for time this spring.

Like the offensive line, there are a lot of questions Notre Dame needs to sort out at tight end in the spring.

Will Miles Boykin build on his Citrus Bowl breakout?

With Equanimeous St. Brown headed to the NFL, Notre Dame has an opening on the outside at wide receiver to fill and the first player to get a crack at securing it will almost certainly be senior and Citrus Bowl hero Miles Boykin.  The question heading into spring football will be whether or not Boykin’s heroics against LSU are a springboard into a prominent role in the offense or just a fluke performance.  We’ve heard for a few years now of Boykin impressing in practice, but the Citrus Bowl was the first time we saw it really translate into production on the field.

The wildcard in the group, however, is Javon McKinley.  McKinley is still one of the highest rated wide receiver recruits of the Brian Kelly era, but after redshirting as a sophomore, it’s unclear where he will fit in to the offense.  McKinley and Boykin could be primed for a pretty entertaining position battle this spring.  Both will have incoming freshman Kevin Austin to contend with in fall camp as well. Micah Jones is also already enrolled and on campus ready to compete in the spring as well.

Regardless of who is able to secure a starting position in the spring opposite Chase Claypool, Notre Dame will have to find out who their slot wide receiver will be.  Right now, my money is still on sophomore to be Michael Young but Chris Finke and Jafar Armstrong will be in the mix at the slot position in the spring as well.

With speedsters Larence Keys and Braden Lenzy arriving this summer, any Notre Dame receiver on the roster in the spring will need to take advantage of every rep they can prior to their arrival.

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  1. Dan Devine darn near lost a NC season by starting the wrong guy(s) at the QB position in 1977…even though Coach Devine had seen Montana’s onfield work save him twice in1975…once at Carolina and again at Air Force…pulling our butts out of the fire twice. Without those two saves, DD would have been 6-5 in 1975…and probably on his way out…rather than 8-3. Who you play at QB matters, people.
    Let’s not “do a Mississippi” in 2018…if Wimbush really is noticeably improved, start him, of course. But if this is “same old, same old”…get a new guy for that job, and make sure he has lots of repetitions in practice before you throw him to the lions in the hope that he can save a game…whoever he is.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  2. Listening to comments below–Wimbush tanks , Book “takes over” in the Michigan game. Holy crap —Book is the QB for remainder of season ? Even more reason to keep Jurkovec on roster.– and a chance for a winning November. This on going “wait till next year red shirt ” is bull shit. Georgia played a freshmen Qb from game one. Alabama brought in a freshmen QB to win the National Championship in the 4th quarter. So ND has a 5 star QB — that you arm chair experts want to see him in 2019. What your saying is “wait until next year”—-haven’t we fans been waiting till next year under Kelly regime.

    1. Eason started game one and then due to injury they went to the true freshman… But they stuck with him the rest of the way even when Eason was healthy again.

    2. Sorry if i was a bit rough — looking back on my comment. Include me in with being “an arm chair expert”— I’ve had to eat crow numerous times. Enjoy debates , pro/cons , point/counter point on Notre Dame football. Go Irish.

  3. I think Jurkovec will only be wearing that red jersey is in practice. There is a real sense of urgency here at QB situation. He will be tossed in the fire right away. Look at Daniels forgoing his senior year. He’ll be starting as a high school Senior.

  4. I really think Wimbush starts vs. Michigan, Book eventually takes over, and Jurkovec is redshirted. They won’t start him Week 1 and by the time he’s ready, it won’t be worth burning his redshirt.

    I’m not worried about OL. I think they’ve recruited well enough. We should all be worried about QB and RB. Those positions will keep ND from competing for a playoff spot.

    1. Brad, I agree. I think we will have Book ready to contribute against U of M if Wimbush struggles, but I have a hard time seeing us not starting BW simply because of his versatility against what should be a pretty stout U of M defense.

      It will be interesting to see how BW improves this offseason mentally. It’s really nice knowing we have Ian Book to fall back on though. I don’t see Phil J. getting any action this year. Redshirt season for him.

    2. Maybe Book dominates the QB competition and becomes the clear starter while Wimbush moves to RB. Two birds, one stone!

      In all seriousness, though, I see us running the QB (whoever that is) a ton in 2018. We’ll have depth at the position in case of injury, and both guys can run.

      1. Actually, that would be a phenomenal move (Wimbush to RB). I don’t see it happening. QB’s rarely want to be anything else. Wimbush does not seem to be the answer at QB, unless he really turns around his passing this offseason.

        But I’ve always thought it’d be a shame to waste all that feet talent. He is an elusive runner and is a valuable player, too valuable to be warming a bench. In fact, I’d even argue that if he wants to play in the NFL that would be his best chance. As a QB, even at his best, he’s probably not an NFL style QB. But one could argue he’d very much be in play with his elusiveness as a RB.

        Sure there’s a lot of prestige with being a QB. But RB’s get plenty of attention too. Look at Adams last year. Be an explosive RB and make lots of TD’s. That will make a lot of highlight reels too.

        Of all the busted QB’s we’ve had, his would be the worse to waste as a backup QB. They need to keep Wimbush on the field, no matter who is QB.

      2. Damian, I’m with you; but you have to remember how different the positions are. Being handed the ball on a designed run between the tackles is very different from running out of the QB position. Taking a handoff and hitting a hole is different from taking a snap and making a read. And let’s not even try to imagine how effective Wimbush would be as a pass blocker. There is a reason most athletic QBs who change positions become wide receivers.

      3. However they can get him on the field is fine with me. Even having him take snaps as a QB with designed runs, or something like the old wildcat. I’d just hate to see him warming up the bench thinking about what school he wants to transfer to.

        Out of all the busted QB’s, EG, Zaire, even Kizer who played better but never seemed to reach his potential, Wimbush is probably the most athletic. While Wimbush’s passing ability is sub-par, and at this point probably will continue to be, put the ball in his hands and let him run and he’s a beast and an opposing defense’s worse nightmare.

        Hell, you could put him in a wildcat and broadcast the play to the world, and he’d probably still eat up a chunk of yardage. It’d be a travesty to leave all that on the bench.

  5. I feel like I’ve read this story before. Players suspended, some of them key players, and a QB competition where there probably should be none.

    How many times have we started the previous season with “this is the perfect QB for BK’s system” then by the end of the season that QB is all washed up and we’re moving on to the next one? Now it’s Book that’s going to bring it all home.

    Here’s a prediction. ND will start the season with Book at QB. By the end of the season he’ll be benched and everyone will be saying Jurkovec is the real deal. Then in 2019, ditto.

    As for me, well, I’ll root for the Irish to win every game. But no fooling me again about playoff aspirations. If they end the season 11-1 or better and in a playoff game, then I’ll believe.

  6. The difference between this QB competition and past QB competitions under Kelly is that this one seems healthy.

    Neither player lost his starting job because of injury; neither has previously established himself as “the man” for a full season yet, etc. It’s a competition between two young players who both know they need to improve—no one is going to claim they weren’t given a fair shot, or feel owed for what they’ve done in previous seasons.

    I think these guys will push one another, they’ll both improve, and the winner will be a damn fine quarterback.

    Also, I’m skeptical that Jurkovec will factor in, and I wonder why everyone seems to have forgotten about Avery Davis.

  7. I agree with comments below –in regards to freshmen Phil Jurkovic. DO NOT RED SHIRT THIS KID. Although , most seem to see a QB competition between Wimbush and Book. Let’s hope coaching staff keeps new kid ready to go. Injuries or failure to perform by Wimbush or Book—could leave Irish in dire straits come November. Y’all remember Novembers of the past ? GO Irish !

  8. nice article – I think Offensive line is critical; Running back will usually take care of itself if the line is
    I’m not certain that Wimbush and Book may not be eclipsed by the incoming freshman, QB who was highly recruited and might start against U. of M.

  9. Never heard the BRADSHAW / HANRATTY story, but the STEELERS drafted BRADSHAW with their #1 pick in the draft. Hanratty was already on the team and struggled mightily in the NFL. The story I always heard was that JOE GREENE told coach NOLL that the players wanted BRADSHAW back as starting QB in 74 after NOLL had given the QB job to “JEFFERSON STREET JOE GILLIAM”! GILLIAM had a huge arm but no accuracy or ability to read DEFENSES! The rest of course is history ( no I’m no fan of STEELERS )

  10. Wimbush and Book can only take the Fighting Irish so far. Jurkovec can take the team to that elusive national title. Defense leads the way. Mean Joe Greene was the one who had Bradshaw take over from Hanratty.

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