There are many occasions where spring football is very much a non-story. Practices are rudimentary, we generally make big predictions about the spring narrative–consider that Corey Holmes and Jay Hayes were the stars of spring practice last season–and all this happens while we constantly remind ourselves to take spring ball with a grain of salt. And for good reason; as soon as the team takes the field for fall practice, spring is just a footnote.
However, this spring is a little different.
The head coach is the same, but for all intents and purposes this offseason has played out as though there was a complete staff overhaul. Both coordinators were replaced, a new strength program, and a new special teams coordinator. All three phases are being led by someone different than the season before. The offense will still be a spread, yes, but they will be uptempo, with a new quarterback. The defense is now a 4-2-5, with a couple positions that didn’t exist the last three seasons.
And with every spring, young players will be given the chance to fully introduce themselves to Notre Dame fans and try to develop established roles within the 2017 team. Basically, it’s time for the redshirts to show what they’ve been doing for the last year.
Here are few players we should be most excited about:
Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver
My first prediction of the year: Claypool starts at the X position and turns into a star for the offense a la Jeff Samardzija in 2005. Everything is there for him: he’s 6’5 225, he runs like a deer, he’s built like a defender and he’s great with the ball in his hands. He was given the “raw” label out of high school and the biggest question in my mind as far as his impact on the field is has he picked up the nuanced parts of the game enough to become a dominant player? Obviously, I think he is going to, hence my hot as lava take to start off my analysis. It would also help if he became more comfortable catching the football, I hear it is an integral part of the receiver position, but I expect this will not be such an issue that it will keep him off the field.
He played a bit role last season, mostly special teams and a cameo at tight end against MSU that worked so well they never used it again, because 2016. I expect him to be a major player at wideout this spring and with a new position coach to impress, I expect he’ll do just that.
Tony Jones Jr., Running Back
Jones caught a lot of buzz during fall practice last season for his performance in practices. It was a lot of the old “Hey, you know who looked really good today? Tony Jones.” At the time it was nice to hear, but with the depth at running back heading into last season it was just something to file away for later.
Well, it’s later.
Jones was mostly viewed as strictly a power back out of high school, but he showed a little more burst than expected in practice and surprisingly good hands. The fact that he still has power as the main part of his game, something the other backs on the roster don’t have, gives him a natural opportunity during spring ball to carve out a niche for himself. It’s difficult to say how much of a factor he’ll be in 2017–remember Dexter Williams looked great in spring ball last season and inexplicably logged only 39 carries during the year–but it will be the first extended look of Jones we’ll get as fans and someone to pay close attention to.
Khalid Kareem, Defensive End
Kareem was an early enrollee last season, but lacked the requisite size to be a legitimate contributor on the defensive line. We saw him in flashes both in the spring and on the field in 2016, but not enough of a look to get a feel for what he’d be as a player. Defensive line development has to be the most important running plot for the 2017 team and the former Alabama commit will be front and center of everyones focus during spring ball. Does he have enough burst to be an edge player? Is he strong enough to play inside? He compared to Isaac Rochell out of high school, and it’s unfortunate we never got to see Rochell under this defensive staff. If Kareem were able to provide Rochell-like production as a sophomore when Rochell registered 39 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks, I’d have to think the coaches would take that.
The good news for Kareem is he’ll be working against a very good offensive line all spring, and he has a defensive coordinator who has done a lot more with a lot less.
Tommy Kraemer, Offensive Line
There was talk of Kraemer making a play for time on the offensive line as a true freshman, but that was shut down pretty quickly and never developed into anything that was considered to be realistic. Most freshman don’t start for Harry Hiestand, he recruits and develops players too well, and Kraemer eventually gave way to Colin McGovern and Mark Harrell. However, McGovern has since moved on, and Kraemer is expected to be prime to battle for a starting spot on the right side of the offensive line, be it at guard or tackle. To be honest, it would be a disappointment if this didn’t happen; he was the highest rated recruit in the 2016 class (and would have been this year as well, by far) as a borderline five star player and would give the line its highest starting pedigree. A starting line of McGlinchey, Nelson, Mustipher, Bars, and Kraemer would be a group where the lowest composite rating is .9123 (Sam Mustipher, the no. 216 player in the country in his class).
Maybe most importantly, I’m sure the coaching staff wants him to win the job, given his pedigree and his potential, so he will be given a great chance. Tracking his development will be a key storyline come spring ball.
Spencer Perry, Rover
One of the players who had to be the most excited about the move from Brian VanGorder to Mike Elko is Spencer Perry, mostly because he added a position that seems to be specific to his skill set. Perry isn’t really a safety and he isn’t really a linebacker. But, he is a really good athlete who should have a role on a winning defense. The rover position provides that for him. He is at his best when he is allowed to play downhill without any deep half responsibilities and allowed to unleash the fury that is his playing style. He’s most comparable to a heat seeking missile, when he sees the ball he is able to get to their in a hurry and arrives with incredible force. Watching him track the ball carrier on high school film was a sight to see.
The fear was he’d just be a great athlete without a role at Notre Dame, and now he has one that was built for a guy like him. He’ll have some competition though; Dru Tranquill also looks like the perfect fit for this role, as well as fellow sophomore DJ Morgan. It’s going to be very intriguing to see if Perry can grab onto this role and run with it.
Brandon Wimbush, Quarterback
New quarterback, new coordinator. His development will likely have more to do with Notre Dame’s success than any other player, and it will be the focus of spring football coverage every single day. The team is going to play a lot faster than they have in the past, with a lot of run-pass-options, which favors Wimbush in that he’s a mobile guy who’s a constant threat to hurt a defense with his legs, a la someone like JT Barrett at Ohio State. Notre Dame has had a few mobile quarterbacks lately, but none as dangerous as Wimbush.
There is one basic question that everyone will be asking after every rep and every practice: is Wimbush ready to be the man at quarterback for Notre Dame in 2017?