The Washington State coach sat down to discuss Notre Dame this week. Here’s what he said.
Go back a month in this space and of the biggest questions entering Notre Dame’s spring practices, a defensive reserve merited mentioning. “Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?”
It looks less and less likely the Irish will rely on a freshman to provide the entirety of depth at linebacker. For that matter, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea does not expect to need one backup to learn multiple positions a la Te’von Coney at the beginning of last season.
(In the above photo, Coney, No. 4, is featured, as the defense will do this season. In the background, Asmar Bilal, No. 22, can be seen as a factor in the play, a defensive hope in 2018.)
Between Coney, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, Lea had three capable linebackers to fill the two interior positions in 2017. By cross-training Coney at both Mike and Buck, the Irish did not need to lean on any other substitute.
“In some ways, that’s unfair at times because the Mike and Buck, though conceptually tied together, they’re different,” Lea said Tuesday. “Different body types, different people. We’d rather not do that. We’d rather not go three-for-two. We’d rather go two-for-two and make it like a hockey line (substitution). That would be the way it would work best. I’m not sure how that’s going to shape up right now.”
Throughout spring, the presumption was rising-senior Asmar Bilal would both start at rover and provide injury-protection depth along the interior, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill starting at Buck and remaining a break-in-case-of-emergency option at rover, his 2017 position. Such a scenario still needed a fourth linebacker to offer some snaps of rest for the starters. Either one of the three early-enrolled freshmen would need to grasp that task or rising-junior Jonathan Jones would claim it.
“They know they’re competing for a chance to play,” Lea said. “Where [Jones] might have fallen into a lull mid-spring, I think here in the last few days he’s come out here and really changed his game.”
Joining Jones this week, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath moved up a level from the safeties to try his hand at linebacker. Per Lea, the move mirrors Bilal’s cross-training on the interior — Notre Dame would rather know what it has available long before it is needed.
“We don’t move a guy unless we identify things that he brings to the table that allow him to be successful,” Lea said. “It’s not just throwing paint at the wall. We’ve seen him play in a manner that we know he can handle the Buck position. I would argue he’s looked very natural there.
“… You know what he can do for you at safety, too, so we’re not closing our eyes to that possibility. You have a short window here where you have a chance to get a look at somebody who makes you more athletic at the second level.”
The mixing and matching of the Irish linebacker reserves will continue for at least the rest of this week, and almost certainly into preseason practices. Unlike the beginning of spring practice, however, it does not hinge on only one name, and the early-enrollees are not seen as the saving graces.
Instead Jones may back up Coney, Genmark-Heath support Tranquill and either rising-sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or classmate Isaiah Robertson provide depth behind Bilal.
“You always want the ability through the course of the season to have your best three on the field,” Lea said. “You always want to have an idea of what that three look like if injury happens or if a young player comes along and how you can shift and shape the pieces to ensure that you’re at your competitive best.”
If Brandon Wimbush excelled in Notre Dame’s 12th spring practice Saturday — and all reports indicate he did — then it was an anomaly only in that Irish head coach Brian Kelly has not seen such a complete two-hour performance from the rising-senior in the previous 11 sessions. Wimbush’s progress throughout this spring, though, made such a Saturday possible.
“He’s building his consistency,” Kelly said. “His footwork has now put him in a position where now he can accurately put the ball where it needs to be and be so much more consistent with his progression reads.”
Kelly highlighted the seam route as one now within Wimbush’s arsenal whereas it was only nominally considered in 2017. Hitting a seam route — in which a tight end or receiver skirts the linebacker’s or cornerback’s coverage while theoretically remaining just out of reach of the safety; more a situational route than a rehearsed one — requires the quarterback to recognize the exact coverage and then have the touch to put the pass where only the target can reach it. As a first-year starter, Wimbush struggled with both the mental and the physical aspects of that, only finding mild success with it when looking for 6-foot-5 tight end Durham Smythe on an adjusted seam route.
“[Wimbush’s increased] ability to do that is a product of he’s really been much more consistent with his footwork,” Kelly said. “His delivery and throwing motion has allowed him to throw a lot more on the black and throw strikes.”
Consider this another step toward the inevitability of Wimbush starting for Notre Dame against Michigan on Sept. 1 (139 days away, for those counting), despite the seemingly-open competition between Wimbush and rising-junior quarterback Ian Book this spring.
After a disappointing and error-filled November, the question with Wimbush was never his athletic ability, but rather if he would piece the physical aspects together with the mental necessities, a question applicable to the vast majority of first-year starting quarterbacks.
The question was also never if Kelly would praise Wimbush this spring. April practices yield nearly only positive reviews, but when those trend toward specific pass routes, that suggests a genuine nature to the applause.
— Kelly has previously said his hopes for the offensive line this spring was to figure out who could play where, not necessarily what the exact formation would be. Notre Dame seems to have settled on five linemen in fifth-years Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars, rising-juniors Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, and rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey.
Three of their positions may even be settled by now with Mustipher at center, Eichenberg at left tackle and Hainsey at right tackle, where as a freshman he split time with Kraemer. This differs from the first half of spring practice when Hainsey typically worked at left tackle.
“He’s just a good back-side setter,” Kelly said of Hainsey. “He can do the job we’re looking for at the right tackle.”
As Eichenberg develops the confidence and consistency at left tackle, Kelly and offensive line coach Chip Long have to debate at which guard spots to station Bars and Kraemer. Bars spent the 2017 season at right guard after starting at right tackle in 2016. He moved to left guard Saturday to aid Eichenberg.
“What we really like about Liam is his strength, his size, his physicality,” Kelly said. “He’s learning, so why not move a veteran next to him where he can communicate with him, help him pass off twists, give him cues prior to the snap and settle him in a confident and really consistent basis?
“I like [Eichenberg’s] size, his reach. He can stand up to the different pass rushes we’re going to get out there, the bull rush. He’s long enough to help off the edge.”
This will likely not be the last offensive line configuration seen before the Wolverines’ arrival, although it could be the one deployed that Saturday.
It should also be noted, in moving Bars to aid Eichenberg, Kelly is indirectly praising Hainsey’s aptitude, which has been apparent since he forced his way into the rotation as a freshman at Eichenberg’s expense.
— Continuing with last week’s praise of early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith, Kelly left no wiggle room about Griffith’s chances of seeing the field in 2018.
“He’s got great instincts, knows the game. He’s going to be a really good player here,” Kelly said. “… He’s going to play for us in the fall. How that ends up, whether he’s a starter or a backup, [we’ll see]. He will play football for Notre Dame this fall. No doubt.”
— Former Irish defensive end Jay Hayes announced he will transfer to Oklahoma for his final season of eligibility.
Former Notre Dame assistant coach Kerry Cooks still serves as the Sooners assistant defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. Per both rivals.com and 247sports.com, Cooks was not a vital piece of Hayes’ initial recruitment to the Irish, but undoubtedly having a known point of contact on the field helped Hayes head south this time around.
Furthermore, Hayes’ lead recruiter from Notre Dame, then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, has joined the Oklahoma staff this offseason as a defensive analyst, furthering the logical connections.
— The NCAA announced another kickoff rule change. Now any kickoffs fair caught within the 25-yard line will be spotted at the 25-yard line. Kelly does not expect the rule change to effect games very often, considering most Division I kickers can already send the ball out the back of the end zone if they want to minimize a return threat. In that respect, this rule may help to prevent more injuries at the Division II or III level.
Notre Dame will need to have a conversation with its kick returners, whoever ends up winning that role, about where to fair catch from and where to return from, similar to punt returns.
— There is often a debate/discussion about scheduling weddings in the fall. In most of the world, it is a non-issue, but obviously anyone finding this space on a Monday in April understands the inherent conflict.
In that vein, consider this a nod of acknowledgement to the friends who recognize the under-discussed corollary of also not scheduling bachelor parties in the fall. Slotting one for the mid-Atlantic in mid-April may have led to some time in a very cold river and a quiet weekend in this space, but the 14-inning whiffle ball game would have been even more out of place in November.
If anyone is wondering, this scribe went 6-for-9 with four RBIs and three runs while making only two errors at second base in a 20-19 victory.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— Notre Dame turns to two juniors with Hayes’ transfer; new indoor field announced
— Crawford’s health and Pride’s progress strengthen Notre Dame’s cornerbacks beyond Love
— An unlikely, and young, candidate enters the Notre Dame safety fray
— Notre Dame to construct new indoor facility
— Alteration to football kickoff rule approved
— After years of mom carrying the load, Boston College’s AJ Dillion is eager to reciprocate ($)
Due to the aforementioned weekend out of pocket, this last link is an unread reference, but given the topic matter concerns Dillion, it may be wise to educate oneself on 2017’s breakout rusher, 2018’s dark-horse Heisman contender and 2019’s most-obvious storyline of an Irish opponent arriving at Notre Dame Stadium.
An early-enrolled freshman has a lot on his plate. From getting up to speed in collegiate coursework to being exposed to a genuine strength and conditioning program, much of the challenge comes away from the field. It is to be expected. In the case of receiver Micah Jones, Notre Dame receivers coach Del Alexander argued the early-enrollment is actually 10 times harder football-wise than it is to arrive in the summer.
“When you come in as a freshman and you have the numbers in your favor as far as a group, we’re probably going 100 miles an hour,” Alexander said at the end of March. “Right now it’s going at 1,000 miles an hour for Micah. He’s at a disadvantage coming in the spring.”
Jones has had to learn only one position. How fast must it be going for cornerback-turned-safety Houston Griffith?
Apparently, not faster than he can handle.
After about half a dozen practices, the Irish coaching staff opted to move Griffith to safety from corner, to a position devoid of a single established starter from a position stockpiled with proven and experienced talent. In doing so, Notre Dame gifted Griffith with an immediate opportunity to contribute, rather than spend a year learning from the likes of second-team All-American rising-junior cornerback Julian Love.
“In the week that he has been [at safety], he has done a great job as far as picking it up,” safeties coach Terry Joseph said last week. “He’s a smart kid. Really happy how he has progressed so far.”
Joseph was not unfamiliar with Griffith before the move, but even on February’s National Signing Day, the safeties coach outright said, “He’s a guy that is going to play corner for us. We’ll see what he can do outside on the perimeter.”
When looking at Griffith’s high school tape, in which he spends time at both positions, the Irish coaching staff clearly came to the conclusion his talents would best serve at cornerback. Seeing those skills in person, though, changed that opinion.
“We think he’s a guy that has a combination of playing away from the ball and having a good sense when the ball is in the air,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday.
“We do a tackling drill virtually every day, and through our circuit tackling and live tackling, he really stood out as a good tackler. At the safety position, obviously that’s crucial.”
That tackling has been a bit of a problem for the Irish in the last two seasons, though quantifying its struggles is a difficult task. When a team’s top-four tacklers are linebackers, as Notre Dame’s were in 2017, that will immediately limit some of the chances for safeties to rack up their stats. The top tacklers at the position last year were rising-senior Nick Coleman and rising-junior Jalen Elliott with 44 and 43, respectively.
Their ball in the air abilities — or, if being harsh, lack thereof — can be decently-measured. Last offseason the critical statistic of choice was the zero sacks among returning defensive linemen. This offseason, it is the zero interceptions notched by Irish safeties. Arguably even more incriminating, they recorded only five pass breakups, three by Coleman and two by Elliott.
Hence, the competition now, and the insertion of a new candidate despite his complete and utter youth.
Griffith’s time at cornerback may help him in the position competition that should be more closely watched than even the one at quarterback.
“You like that he has the coverage skills,” Joseph said. “Because when you play a quarter system, you want a guy at safety who can have those coverage skills.
“… With how deep we are at corner, it’s one of those situations where we want to try to get the best guys on the field.”
One position’s riches may yield another position’s saving grace.
Todd Lyght’s, and Notre Dame’s, embarrassment of riches forces him to downplay a second-team All-American. Lyght must convince himself, the Irish cornerbacks and the media paying excessive attention to the April depth chart that both the field and the boundary coverage positions are up for grabs. If rising-junior Julian Love has already secured the latter, then others may begin to lose interest or focus.
That would defeat the purpose of having up to five starting-quality cornerbacks on the roster, not to mention an early-enrolled freshman who already moved to safety and another four incoming freshmen arriving this summer.
“What I want our guys to understand is even though only two guys can come out if we’re in base or three if we’re in nickel, I want them all to see themselves as if they’re a starter,” the cornerbacks coach said last week. “I like to rotate them with the first- and the second-team, so they get the feel of being a starter. I want them all to think that they’re starters, and I want them all to approach the game like they’re starters.”
Inevitably — well, as inevitably as a sport rife with injuries will allow — Love will start against Michigan on Sept. 1. (144 days, if anyone is counting.) He will take the majority of the 80-100 defensive snaps, as well, but throughout the season, up-tempo offenses will look to stress the cornerbacks both in coverage and in pace. At that point, having an actively-engaged Troy Pride will bear needed results.
A few weeks ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly pointed out specific scenarios where Pride was in the wrong coverage or had the wrong position a season ago. That criticism stood out amid Kelly’s compliments of the rising-junior.
“Another spring gives [Pride] more of an opportunity to gain that knowledge which you need to be smart and savvy,” Kelly said March 20. “I don’t think there’s anything from a skill piece that he’s missing. It’s experience, knowledge, film study and then a little more strength to continue to build that within his tackling.”
Through eight spring practices (a ninth was held two days after Lyght’s availability), Pride has shown improvements with those understandings. Lyght pointed to Pride and rising-senior Shaun Crawford (pictured at top) as the two most-consistent cornerbacks.
The absence of Love from that list may be a coaching tactic, or it may be the natural human reaction to spring practice following a truly-excellent sophomore season, one which only built upon a surprisingly-strong freshman campaign. When asked who was competing with Love for the other starting position, Lyght mentioned each of the other four veteran cornerbacks has been named as one of the top 10 percent of defenders this spring, a motivational tactic employed by new defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Perhaps Love has been, too, but he was not included in Lyght’s listing.
“For Julian, his key to success and his key to getting to the next level is going to be focus and attention-to-detail,” Lyght said. “Sometimes when he gets out there, he can get to autopilot mode.”
Again, that coaching observation is not a cause for any alarm whatsoever. The odds are 50-50 at worst it is nothing more than a coach refraining from overly praising his best player for 12 months a year. Coming off a season with three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns and the third within five yards of the same result, and 68 tackles, good for No. 5 on the team, Love’s status as both a starter and a vital defensive cog is not in question.
Who starts opposite him remains such, because of Pride’s surge and Crawford’s versatility. When healthy, Crawford has spent his career at nickelback. Last season it took until mid-October, by Lyght’s estimate, before Crawford was back to 100 percent after suffering an Achilles injury in September of 2016. Being that fraction of a step slow and the inherent endurance questions related to it played a part in keeping Crawford at nickelback. Without those concerns, he may move to the field position moving forward.
“Shaun is an extremely smart player,” Kelly said Saturday. “He makes up for his size with football intelligence. What I’ve noticed more than anything else this spring is he has some suddenness to him, change of direction, closing on the football.
“Things of that nature where he was healthy last year but he still didn’t have that ‘snap’ that you require. He’s going to be a guy we can play at the field corner position and he’s going to be an immense help to us on all special teams.”
Frankly, the combination of a fully-healthy Crawford and an engaged Love would qualify as a guilty pleasure of cornerback talent on its own. That is merely a fact. Adding in a maturing Love, an adjective offered by Lyght, creates both depth and a dangerous nickel package.
Lyght said rising-junior Donte Vaughn moves between field and boundary, just like fifth-year Nick Watkins does. Watkins does such largely out of institutional knowledge, it would seem. Vaughn’s moves come from the exact opposite. Lyght is readying Vaughn for a full-time commitment to the field position.
“I want him to get more reps into the field because I think he’s more comfortable in the field, even though he’s such a good press corner,” Lyght said. “The game is a little slow and he’s able to see things a little bit better out into the field.”
Even with those five, Lyght made it clear he expects to play at least a few of incoming-freshmen Noah Boykin, DJ Brown, Tariq Bracy and Joe Wilkins. Boykin’s athleticism or Bracy’s speed would make them the most-likely candidates.
Editor’s Note: If confused by field and boundary designations, they take the place of left and right in Notre Dame’s defensive scheme. Whenever the ball is snapped from a hashmark, rather than the exact middle of the field, the narrower side of the field is the boundary.