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.