Position Battles to Watch as Notre Dame Spring Football Heats Up

This Spring Notre Dame is tasked with replacing several leaders and crucial players from the 2018 season. Fortunately, a large nucleus of players will be returning from a team that finished 12-1. Each Spring brings turnover from the year before via the NFL, transfers, and eligibility. Irish fans will see several new faces emerge this spring.

Spring practices will help develop the next group of elite Notre Dame Football players. As Irish fans witnessed last year, no one is guaranteed a starting spot from game to game. Brandon Wimbush was the clear starter heading into last season, until Ian Book was given an opportunity against Wake Forest and he never looked back.

Key Offensive Position Battles:

Quarterbacks

Ian Book had a terrific season. After getting his first start in week 4, Book went 214 for 314 (68.2%) with 19 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. His completion percentage along with running ability helped lead the Irish to the playoffs. Book is one of the best quarterbacks in the country and is an early Heisman contender for 2019.

Unfortunately for Phil Jurkovec he will wait a bit longer to get any playing time. After Book’s performance last season, there really is no reason to not have Ian Book starting and Kelly has been very clear that there is no quarterback battle.

Jurkovec’s progression, however, is vital for Notre Dame this spring.  They need Jurkovec to progress to the point where he is pushing Book every day in practice.

Last year, three playoff teams featured quarterbacks that started the season on the sidelines with Book joining Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa.  In the case of Lawrence and Tagovailoa, they replaced two quarterbacks who started in the playoffs the year before after replacing Kelly Bryant (Clemson) and Jalen Hurts (Alabama).

In short, having a capable and ready backup is vastly important.

Running Backs

Last season when Dexter Williams was suspended the first four weeks, Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. proved that they could step up. Heading into the spring Armstrong and Jones Jr. are fighting for the starting position.

In 2018, Armstrong had 72 rushing attempts for 383 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and 7 touchdowns. While Tony Jones Jr. had 83 rushes for 392 yards (4.7 yards per carry) with 3 touchdowns.

Sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister will be pushing for playing time as well. Even true-freshman Kyren Williams has a chance to get playing time in 2019. Although he would have to make a great impression in order to appear in more than 4 games and lose a year of eligibility.

Tight Ends

Cole Kmet has proven to be the most consistent tight end on the roster. Last fall, he helped contribute with 15 receptions for 162 yards. The real question for the spring is who will be on the field with two tight end sets.

Brock Wright, George Takacs, and Tommy Tremble are all fighting to be the second tight-end behind Kmet. Wright was the 2nd best tight end in his class in 2017 but hasn’t seen much playing time at Notre Dame. All three tight ends can get playing time this fall, but it will be a hard-hitting competition.

Outside Receiver Battle

Chase Claypool is coming off a solid season last year with 50 receptions for 639 yards and 4 touchdowns.  He is essentially a lock at the boundary position where he replaces Miles Boykin. However, the other outside receiver position is yet to be filled.

Last season, the Irish utilized Claypool & Boykin’s height to move the ball. However, in the playoffs against Clemson, the Irish lacked a deep ball threat.

Notre Dame hasn’t had a true deep ball threat since Will Fuller. Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Kevin Austin Jr. would be the most likely candidates if Chip Long is looking to spread the field. Lenzy in particular is said to have started to really flash already in spring ball.

Junior Michael Young, however, is the most proven receiver out of the three and has been running with the first unit so far this spring.

Defensive position battles:

Cornerback Battle

Troy Pride Jr. had an excellent season working alongside Julian Love last fall. He will be the return to his field corner position that he thrived at in 2018.  The competition at the boundary to replace Love who has entered the NFL Draft, is just heating up.

Notre Dame needs to have another cornerback step up this fall because when all saw what happened when Love got hurt in the playoffs.

Houston Griffith is one of the most talented players on defense for the Irish. He saw a little playing time during the 2018 season, but only lacks experience. Last season Griffith was placed at safety out of necessity but has moved back to cornerback this spring.  He has been the first team boundary corner so far. No matter where he is in the secondary, he will cause problems for the offense.

Donte Vaughn has the most experience at cornerback but doesn’t have the athleticism of TaRiq Bracy or Houston Griffith. He was beaten several times by Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, but was playing with a torn labrum.  Bracy is sticking at the field position backing up Pride. Vaughn will miss spring practice as he recovers from the injury giving Griffith an opportunity to run away with this race with a big spring.

MIKE Linebacker

The battle at middle linebacker will be an intriguing competition between Bo Bauer and Jonathan Jones. Bauer is the taller linebacker at 6-3, 225 pounds, and has the slight edge over Jonathan Jones at the moment. Jones is 6 ft, roughly 225 as well, and has a little more experience since he is entering his senior season.

Both players have seen little in-game action, and their development will be crucial to Notre Dame’s success this fall.

Rover

Shayne Simon only had 1 tackle last season, as he adjusted to the college game. Simon has the athleticism to be a great linebacker, but the leadership and positioning are something he will have to develop fast, as the Irish visit Georgia early in the season

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah missed the entire 2018 season due to injury which also stunted his development.  Both JOK and Simon will be fighting for the starting position and playing time in 2019.  So far this spring, Simon has been running with the ones.

BUCK Linebacker

Asmar Bilal has the most experience and tackles among the linebackers. He played in every game in 2019, recording 42 tackles including 9 tackles at Virginia Tech. He played the entire season at ROVER though making the BUCK position new to him.  Jordan Genmark Heath spent 2018 as Drue Tranquill’s understudy and has more athleticism, but it will be difficult to overtake Bilal’s experience and performance in 2019.

Drew White and Jack Lamb are also in the mix. Despite less accolades coming into his collegiate career, Drew White was who Clark Lea called upon when Tranquill hurt his ankle against Navy.  Like Simon, Lamb took time adjusting to the college game last fall, but was said to have flashed in practice towards the end of the year.

Expect to see some split playing time, depending on the in-game situation.

Final Thoughts

The Irish have a lot of great players to replace this spring. Even though Notre Dame hasn’t finished with a top 5 recruiting class in a long time, they make up for it with development and coaching. The Fighting Irish reached the playoffs last year, which was a great accomplishment, but they still didn’t reach their goal of a National Championship.

There are a few position battles and areas this spring that can help the Irish get one step closer to the playoffs.  Notre Dame strongly needs a deep threat in the passing game. Will Fuller’s ability to extend the field took the Irish offense to the next level in 2015. Whether it’s Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, or another receiver, the Irish need to have the ability to score on a single play.

On defense the challenge is at linebacker. The Irish pass rush should be consistent, along with the secondary, but losing Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney could disrupt the defense. Not only will Clark Lea’s defense be losing production, it will also be losing leadership. The Irish have the talent to continue to get better, but their success in 2019 will depend on coaching and development of that talent.

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10 Comments

  1. I still completely disagree with Jurkovec basically not getting a chance to be the starter. That is ridiculous. Book is ok, but limited in what he can do. And coordinators started to figure out how to play against him as the season went on. He is not a NFL-caliber QB. This has been a problem for Notre Dame for some time. The QB position. This makes no sense to me.

  2. I love the statement that when ND doesn’t get the top players, they make up for it with development and coaching. Nobody was singing those praises before Matt Balis arrived. He seems to have jump started players and coaches alike.

    GO IRISH!!

    1. I would disagree that the D will be better than the O. So many holes left by the loss of 4 serious studs. I still think the secondary minus Love will continue struggling to stop the pass. Seems like the Irish always struggle covering people. Offensively, the single most important element is the return of 4 starters and several who add depth to the line. That is crucial and I think will be a strength. RB’s will be solid but not spectacular (though I would love to see what a healthy Jafar could do behind a good OLine), Book is solid and should improve, TE U continues, and I think there are several players who could possibly break through at WR. I sure hope the D is great. The ability to get after the passer is huge and ND has that well handled. I am just very concerned going to Georgia early without Coney, Love and especially Tranquil. I sure hope I am wrong and the D dominates! Go Irish.

  3. I think the defense will be good. The offense is the big question.Also Long needs to step up with the game plans game decisions game adjustments etc.

    1. Pete,

      You and I are on the same page on the Long situation. At times the gameplan is good enough from the beginning that we score enough points that it hides the fact that our offense struggles in second halves and never truly puts games away. It seems when the drawn up gameplan isn’t working because the defense adjusts to it quickly, Long doesn’t make the adjustments along with that and continues with the same stuff. He has to be better than that. The Clemson game was all on him and Kelly in my opinion.

      1. I disagree. The Clemson game was on execution of players. Dropped passes, bad QB play, turnovers, etc. Better execution and no Love injury and that was a game. Dudes were open and Book couldn’t hit them

      2. Early dropped passes that could have kept drives alive really hurt in beginning.

      3. BC et alia,
        The Clemson game was an all around team loss…coaches, players, it almost seemed like the offense was not prepared, not much in the way of wrinkles considering the amount of prep time, and when our chronic underachievers, Special Teams, came up huge!!!,,,we got robbed…not by Clemson, not by the on-field refs, but by a conference replay crew…and even at USC they’ll admit that is corrupt.

        In the high schools, we used to say, “we win as a team, and we lose as a team.” And really, everybody in a true team sport should understand that.

        BGC ’77 ’82

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