A to Z: Your comprehensive spring breakdown

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While the Irish were thrown a major curve ball with Michael Floyd’s arrest and indefinite suspension the weekend before spring practice was set to start, there’s plenty to be excited about as Brian Kelly kicked off the spring season for the Irish Tuesday with some opening comments.

For those of you that’ve been away from the computer since the Irish drubbed Miami in the Sun Bowl, here’s a quick A to Z breakdown of what to expect during these 15 practices that culminate with the Irish playing the 82nd Annual Blue-Gold Game live on Versus on April 16th.

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A is for Aaron Lynch. One of the crown jewels of the 2011 recruiting class has been on campus adding weight and muscle to his frame since January. We’ll finally see him in an Irish uniform on Wednesday, where we’ll find out how close he is to making an impact.

“Physically, he’s as developed as some of our juniors and seniors,” Kelly said.

B is for Bob Diaco. While some fans were wondering if he’d last his inaugural season in South Bend, Diaco put together one of the best defensive improvements in college football last season, thanks to a constant message and stressed fundamentals. He’ll have virtually all the same tools to play with this season, with a year of experience under their belts, only now he’ll coach both inside and outside linebackers.

C is for Crist, Dayne. This time last year, Irish fans (and coaches) held their breath as Crist returned to the field ahead of schedule after a major knee injury ended his season. Fast forward 12 months and the song sounds the same, with Kelly pointing to last year’s practice model as essentially the same thing going forward. One thing Irish fans have to feel good about is Crist’s development mentally, even if he’s struggled to stay healthy these last two years.

“I can sense that when I talk to him, it’s a lot more of a comfortable situation,” Kelly said. “He knows the offense, he knows what’s expected of him, he knows what to expect from me. There’s a very good communication base between him and I.”

D is for Dog linebacker. While Carlo Calabrese hasn’t solidified his job opposite Manti Te’o yet, the position opposite Darius Fleming is wide open, with Kerry Neal and Brian Smith graduating. It’s the only spot on the defense where a player with starting experience doesn’t return, and four players seem like they’re in line to battle for the job: Danny Spond, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, and Steve Filer.

E is for Early Entries. With the rest of the 2011 recruiting class set to join their teammates this summer for informal workouts, five freshman will take the field for the first time. Joining Aaron Lynch will be kicker Kyle Brindza, defensive end turned offensive lineman Brad Carrico, Everett Golson (more on him in a second), and Ishaq Williams. Brindza will battle David Ruffer at placekicker, but probably holds the inside position for kickoffs, while he’ll also battle Ben Turk for the punting job.

F is for Filer, Steve. As we mentioned earlier in the week, the future is now for Filer. I expect the coaching staff to give him every chance to win the job at ‘Dog’ linebacker, and the Chicago native certainly has the athleticism needed to succeed. Whether Kelly meant to do it or not, Filer’s name wasn’t one of the first he mentioned for the open linebacking job, so consider the message sent.

G is for Golson, Everett. Enter Golson, the first true spread quarterback of the Brian Kelly era. The head coach has already hinted that Golson will likely see the field early, and during spring practice he and freshman Andrew Hendrix will wear both red jerseys and blue — live — jerseys.

H is for Hamstrings. Kelly also formally announced the move of former team trainer Jim Russ into a leadership role and Notre Dame’s hiring of Rob Hunt as head athletic trainer for Irish football. With that hiring, the Irish medical staff completely turned over, and used the offseason to take a comprehensive look at what seemed to cause all those balky hamstrings.

“We were able to evaluate everything,” Kelly said. “All of those areas have been addressed. It wasn’t one particular area and we feel pretty good that we’ve made very good strides in that area.”

I is for Ishaq Williams. While Darius Fleming might be entrenched at the ‘Cat’ linebacker position, expect to see Ishaq Williams running around chasing quarterbacks a lot this spring.

“Physically, he’s a gifted young man and the transition is a whole lot easier for him,” Kelly said, before hinting at some evolutionary changes the Irish might make.

Last season the Irish lined up with a three-man front 53 percent of the time, a nearly 50-50 proposition, hinting that the influx of big-time edge players like Lynch and Williams, joining guys like Prince Shembo, might be enough to push the Irish into more multiple fronts.

J is for Jackson, Bennett. As Jackson announced earlier this offseason on his Twitter page (something the staff wasn’t exactly happy about), Jackson is switching to cornerback where he’ll take his special teams prowess and apply them to the defensive side of the ball.

“We like Bennett’s speed and playing with athleticism on the defensive side of the ball gives us an opportunity to have length and speed at cornerback,” Kelly said about the new No. 2, taking over Darrin Walls’ old number.

K is for Kerry Cooks. The news has been in the works for some time, but Kerry Cooks is shifting back to coaching cornerbacks after his one-season run at outside linebackers coach. Cooks came onto the staff having never coached linebackers, and was shifted likely because Chuck Martin was already in control of the secondary. Martin’s basically like having a second defensive coordinator, and keeping Cooks working hand-and-hand with a group of corners without much margin for error is a smart decision.

L is for Louis Nix. With Kelly announcing that Sean Cwynar is out for the spring as he recovers from multiple offseason surgeries, the focus shifts to one of ND’s most highly touted redshirts. It sounds like Kelly expects some big things from an equally large  Louis Nix.

“He’s going to be a guy that when you turn on the tape, you can recognize Louis Nix,” Kelly said. “Louis just needs to continue to work on his volume and what he can handle. He’s a big fella, he’s close to 345 pounds and to carry that weight, it’s a matter of how many quality reps can he give us. We know what we can get in very short spurts, but this spring is about what he can handle in volume.”

M is for Michael Floyd. This wouldn’t be a comprehensive breakdown without including the plight of the Irish’s returning MVP and co-captain, but after being prodded two or three times, Kelly finally gave a logical explanation of what he was going through when he heard the news of his star receiver’s arrest.

“There’s a range of emotions that you have,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a lot like a parent would have — from anger to disappointment to making sure that something like that in his life never happens again. I think you go through the gamut of all those things. We want to be able to support Mike, but also understand that this was a serious, serious offense, and so I think all of those emotions play in it when you first hear about something like that.”

Kelly wouldn’t put a timetable on the suspension, nor the university decision, but at the very least, the head coach both understands that Floyd did something incredibly serious and stupid, but he also needs support as he tries to get through this tough time.

N is for Nose Guard. Cwynar’s limitations this spring almost clarify an interesting situation on the interior of the defensive line as Cwynar is the only defensive tackle on the roster not listed as a nose guard.

With Cwynar out, the Irish will see what they have in a talented group of reserves, highly touted guys like Brandon Newman, Nix, Tyler Stockton, and Hafis Williams. That foursome had plenty of recruiting stars, but so far have done next to nothing on the football field.

O is for offensive evolution. If you’re looking for Brian Kelly’s offensive contemporaries, look no farther than his guests for his coaching clinic — Urban Meyer and Chip Kelly. Neither of those coaches inherited a personnel package as polar opposite as the grouping they needed to run their preferred offense. As players become comfortable with the system and Kelly begins to bring in players to fit his scheme, look for the offensive attack to evolve.

The installation of Ed Warinner to running game coordinator is a likely first step in that process, as it was far from coincidental that the Irish’s running game helped kickstart a team badly in need of some wins. The promotion might be the product of Warinner staying put and not chasing an open offensive coordinator position at Nebraska, but it’s well deserved for a coach that’s already been one of the best coordinators at the collegiate level.

P is for Prince Shembo. Watching Shembo develop this spring will be very interesting, as the freshman spent last season almost exclusively chasing the quarterback and not worrying about much else. If he’s going to be one of the top 11 guys on the field, he’ll need to do it with some semblance of a skill-set at drop linebacker. If Shembo can make strides covering the pass instead of chasing the passer, he might make his move to the top of the OLB depth chart.

Q is for QB competition. Who would’ve thought this time last year that Dayne Crist was more of a question mark at quarterback entering the spring of 2011 than he was replacing Jimmy Clausen?

“My expectations are it’s going to be a very competitive situation at quarterback,” Kelly said, “and Dayne can include his name in that competitive battle.”

Another knee injury certainly contributed to the competition, but the impressive play of freshman Tommy Rees and the development of Andrew Hendrix helped turn a position that was a huge question mark heading into last season into a spot where the Irish already know they can win with two different guys.

“It’s going to be fun to watch,” Kelly said.

R is for Running Backs. Gone from the backfield are Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, leaving Cierre Wood as the No. 1 starter and Jonas Gray as the primary backup. While Cameron Roberson impressed last season on the scout team, it’s clear that Kelly believes it’s now or never for Gray.

“It’s pretty clear that Jonas Gray is a very integral part to our success,” Kelly said. “He is no longer that guy that tells jokes and goofs around, and you guys get the message there. But the fact of the matter is, football has got to be, outside of academics, a priority for him because he is in an absolute crucial position for us. We have to play with two tailbacks. You can’t get by with one guy. We all know that. So this is extremely important for him to show that we can count on him this spring.”

S is for Slaughter, Jamoris. This will be a huge spring for Slaughter to prove that he’s healthy after having a season essentially ruined by an ankle injury suffered in the season opening win against Purdue. When healthy, Slaughter’s a perfect defender for Bob Diaco’s defense, a strong tackling safety that has the coverage skills to play as a corner in the Cover 2.

T is for Tyler Eifert. If you’re looking for a guy that proved his worth last year, consider that heading into the season many weren’t sure if Tyler Eifert was even going to be playing on the football team, after a major back injury made it seem like his career was in doubt. But Eifert filled in for Kyle Rudolph more than valiantly, and his receiving ability brought a dimension that even Rudolph didn’t bring last season before he got hurt.

U is for Justin Utupo. While most Irish fans probably forgot about him, Utupo was listed in the conversation as a potential starter opposite Manti Te’o, who will spend the spring severely limited after having his knee cleaned up. Utupo enters the battle along side fellow redshirt Kendall Moore, who won rave reviews for his play at middle linebacker on the scout team.

Utupo’s move to the inside is a semi-surprise, as he was recruited by Charlie Weis to be a defensive end. The fact that this coaching staff thinks Utupo can play in both space and at middle linebacker means that the California native has the athleticism needed to be a run-stuffing playmaker.

V is for Victories. The only currency worth anything after an eight win season came when a four game winning streak helped people forget the frustration that came with starting 1-3. Injuries and the transition period are a long way from being understandable excuses to a fanbase not known for its patience.When asked what he wants to do differently this year, Kelly was clear:

“Win more games,” Kelly said. “I think definitely win more games.”

W is W Receiver. Gone indefinitely is one of the best W receivers in the country. Filling in for him? That’s what we’ll find out this spring, as Kelly broke down the indefinite Floyd-less plan.

“I think you’ll see Goody (John Goodman) playing a lot of the W-receiver position for us, and Danny Smith, both of those guys, will get a lot of work,” Kelly said. “Luke (Massa) will also get some work at the W position. I feel pretty good. Obviously from Goody’s standpoint, a guy that’s got a lot of football in him, can make plays and we know what he can do. Danny is kind of that unknown, big, physical, strong kid and he needs a lot of work this spring and Luke we are breaking in.”

X is for X receiver. Flipping over to the other side of the offense, the pressure ratchets up on TJ Jones as well, who got off to a blistering start before getting slowed down by some bumps and bruises. But one name Kelly put front and center was another promising recruit who has yet to made a different in his four seasons at Notre Dame: wideout Deion Walker.

“He’s had a great offseason,” Kelly said. “I’ve love the way he’s competed. He’s a changed young man in the way he goes to work every day. I questioned last year his love for the game and his commitment. He’s shown a totally different side of himself in our workouts up to this point. Quite frankly, Deion’s a guy I want to see and he’s going to get some reps and some work. We’re going to have a clear evaluation as to where he is in this program after the spring.”

That sounds an awful lot like a challenge.

Y is for Youth development. If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last four or five seasons it’s that signing talented recruits is only step one of the process. Step two — and a step that’s far more important — is developing the youth your roster has.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in the entire Floyd Fiasco, or injuries to Sean Cwynar and Manti Te’o, it’s the opportunity to give young players important reps throughout the spring and get the development process jump-started.

How Kelly decides to use players like Lynch and Williams, Utupo and Moore, even Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth — first time defenders looking to crack the two-deep, will determine whether or not Notre Dame can build a consistent winner under Kelly.

Z is for Zeke Motta. Thrown into the fire last year and playing much of the season without a safety net, Motta held up incredibly well, and might have played his way into a starting job. Nobody would’ve confused Motta for a pass-first center fielder, but his cover skills improved as his knowledge of the defense and scheme continued to grow. If the Irish can keep Motta on the field for all three downs, they’ll be able to use the trio of Motta, Harrison Smith and Jamoris Slaughter to really tighten up the passing defense.

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s tight ends, a surplus of depth, unproven talent

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Notre Dame has such tight end depth, it was somewhat surprising when the Irish pursued a second tight end in the class of 2018, but the possibilities of yet another playmaker in Tommy Tremble combined with a physical option in George Takacs forced the coaching staff’s decision.

“I always like to have that versatility each year and each signing class,” Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Feb. 7. “… We don’t want to pass up on a great athlete … being able to present different challenges to the defense with those kind of guys and still be very physical at the same time.”

That is a key to remember when looking at the Irish tight ends — Long sees different purposes amid the individuals in that position’s meeting room. Tremble, for example, could line up as a receiver as often as not while Takacs might fill in as Durham Smythe most recently did, serving as an additional blocker when needed and offering sure hands otherwise. In many respects, the two roles are two different positions.

Spring Roster:
— Fifth-year Nic Weishar, who Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said had shoulder surgery recently, though Kelly did not offer a timetable for return.
— Rising senior Alizé Mack.
— Rising sophomore Cole Kmet, when he is not pitching in relief for the Irish baseball team. Kmet made his second appearance of the season Thursday night. A letdown (3.0 IP, 3 ER, 3 H, 4 K), it did not go anywhere near as well as his debut did (4.0 IP, 0 ER, 1 H, 3 K).

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— Rising sophomore Brock Wright, who underwent a shoulder surgery of his own shortly following the regular season. A recent photo (left) from the @NDFootball Twitter account indicates Wright is partaking in at least some winter conditioning drills.
— Early-enrolled freshman Takacs.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Tremble.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Long uses multiple tight ends, deploying both of those aforementioned archetypes at the same time. That tendency should be seen even more often in 2018 with more options now available. A full year in a collegiate program should have both Kmet and Wright ready for bigger roles, challenging Weishar for some of what were Smythe’s snaps in 2017.

The third tight end will see opportunities. It is essentially a second-string role. If granting the argument of two different forms of tight ends, then even the fourth tight end will get chances, as he will simply be the second-stringer in that particular role.

Kmet would seem the more likely of the rising sophomores to get a bit more time, but that only means Wright will see plenty of time in a blocking back role, just as he did in situational packages in 2017.

Biggest Question:
Kmet could find his way to a more prominent role if he offers something not yet seen from Mack: consistency not just on the field, but in all respects.

Can Mack finally translate his athleticism and potential into a consistent mismatch and productive threat? At his best, he could be the product of an offensive coordinator’s daydreams, but Mack has so rarely been at his best. That applies both on and off the field, considering his multiple drops in 2017 were followed by Kelly suspending Mack for an internal team matter for the Citrus Bowl before Notre Dame even headed down to Florida.

Another year of Mack spinning his wheels will result in a loss of playing time with the likes of Kmet and Tremble around. If Mack does not provide positive results in the spring while Kmet does, that shift could begin even before the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar will provide Notre Dame not only with depth and experience in 2018, but also sure hands. That alone should give him a leg up on the other tight ends entering this spring. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Pertinent Reader Question:
“Every year a four- or five-star disappoints and every year a three-star or lower prospect surprises. My prediction is fall: Mack, rise: Weishar. I have been the lone man on the Weishar bandwagon for a few years now and really hope that this year he becomes the big receiving target we need.

What are your fallers and risers for this coming year?” — Mark H.

A logical argument can be made that “fallers” should not be labeled as such until after their collegiate careers conclude. There are so many factors that can limit a player for years before he breaks out. Consider rising senior receiver and former consensus four-star prospect Miles Boykin. As recently as New Year’s Eve, he may have been labeled a bust, but now he can lay claim to one of the most dramatic catches in Irish history and is a frontrunner for a starting role in 2018 with another year of eligibility remaining after that. He could end up with a stellar collegiate career by every measure.

Mack has had the opportunity to shine to date, and he has not done so, but he also might have two more seasons to go to change that reputation.

As for “risers,” Weishar makes sense and he certainly showcased his strong hands when given the chance in 2017, but his ceiling is likely not much higher than that. A couple touchdown catches, a handful of third-down conversions and a year of physical blocking would be a welcome success.

Notre Dame’s safeties, though, could stand out to fit the criteria laid out by Mark. If — and that is a two-letter word not to be overlooked — Navy transfer and rising junior Alohi Gilman and rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath end up as productive starters for the season, then they will both have exceeded the expectations set out by star ratings.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by six receptions for 38 yards against North Carolina with rising junior quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured Brandon Wimbush.
Weishar: Nine catches for 52 yards and two touchdowns.
Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards; appeared in all 13 games.
Wright: Appeared in 11 games, no statistics recorded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: George Takacs
Notre Dame gets the letter: Tommy Tremble

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are
Linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s linebackers, a proven two and then many questions

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Any concerns about Notre Dame’s linebackers were allayed when Te’von Coney spurned the NFL to return for his senior season. That decision, and Drue Tranquill making the same move, means the Irish do not need to replace their two best playmakers at the position from last season.

Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Clark Lea does need to figure out how to fill in for the graduated Nyles Morgan and his 92 tackles, not to mention classmate Greer Martini and his 75, good for second and fourth on the team, respectively.

Spring Roster:
— Two known and welcome playmaking veterans in Coney and fifth-year Tranquill.
— More than a handful of unproven and untested possibilities in rising senior Asmar Bilal, rising juniors Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation), and rising sophomores Drew White, David Adams and Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah.
— A trio of early-enrolled freshmen in Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo.

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman Shayne Simon, a likely rover candidate.

Entering 2017, Te’von Coney was not even a starting linebacker. By the end of the season he was the leading tackler, and in 2018, he will be counted on as a defensive stalwart. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Wherever Tranquill ends up — be it at rover or a more traditional linebacker position, with the latter seeming more likely — someone will need to earn the third starting role. Bilal is the front-runner for that duty, at either position, but he will need to show a quicker understanding of the game than he has in the past.

The rising senior has always been ready physically, but he has looked up the depth chart at the likes of Morgan, Martini, Coney and Tranquill. Opportunities were not readily available. Now that one very much is, Bilal will need to either seize it or get ready to be bypassed by the newcomers.

It would be a surprise for Lamb or Bauer to be named that third starter in their freshman season, but both could certainly land in the two-deep, as that entire second unit is up for grabs. Neither Jones showed much last season, and the linebacker recruiting emphasis of 2018 belied the coaching staffs’ opinions of the rising sophomores pretty clearly.

Presuming Bilal steps forward and secures the starting position, and some combination of Jones, Jones, Lamb and Bauer fill two of the backup roles, only Owusu-Koromoah stands out as an obvious rover substitute. In that respect, depth remains a concern at the defense’s second level, albeit less of one than in years past thanks to the influx of four touted freshmen.

Biggest Question:
Where does Tranquill line up against Michigan on Sept. 1? More to the current purpose, where does he line up in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21?

“My responsibility as linebackers coach is to put the best combination of people on the field,” Lea said Feb. 7. “I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots. Through the course of the winter and spring, we’ll take a look at different options.”

The duties at rover can be handled piecemeal, accounting for the tendencies of each opponent. When facing an up-tempo, aerial attack, perhaps even rising senior cornerback Shaun Crawford could be featured there. When facing a physical, ground-bound opponent, Bilal would make more sense.

Shifting around like that at the Buck linebacker spot makes far less sense. While Tranquill never necessarily had the speed to excel at safety, and two knee injuries only further limited him in that respect, he shined at rover in 2017. Concluding his collegiate career at linebacker is logical, both as it pertains to his development thus far and to his professional aspirations.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Rarely can a defense lose two of its top-four tacklers and still return more than 200 tackles from starting linebackers. Thus is the luxury provided by both Coney and Tranquill bypassing the NFL for another year.

Coney: 116 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble which he recovered.
Tranquill: 85 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss including 1.5 sacks, one interception, three pass breakups, three fumbles recovered and one fumble forced.
Bilal: 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
Jo. Jones: 10 tackles with one for loss and one pass breakup.
Ja. Jones: Four tackles.

A 2018 Statistical Thought:
Presuming linebacker health, the three starters should end up as Notre Dame’s leading tacklers once again in 2018, even with the presumed drop off from Morgan to insert Bilal or Owusu-Koromoah or Lamb or … here.

The Irish defensive line will be much improved in 2018. Once upon a time, that seemed a guarantee just because the expectations for the line entering 2017 were so low, but it instead became a strength. Developing that strength and making it the backbone of Notre Dame’s defense moving forward will serve to burgeon the linebackers’ tackle totals, both at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Lamb
Notre Dame gets the letter: Bo Bauer
Notre Dame gets the letter: Shayne Simon
Notre Dame gets the letter: Ovie Oghoufo

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

A second four-star defensive lineman, Hunter Spears, joins the Notre Dame class of 2019

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When Notre Dame got five heralded defensive line recruits on campus together in January, it turned heads. When Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston offered public optimism about the possible 2019 commitments, it raised expectations.

Notre Dame has now secured a second of those five with the Tuesday commitment of consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse High School; Texas). He joins consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.) as the early foundation to the recruiting class, now with four prospects pledged.

“Honestly, just talking with the guys today — Jacob Lacey, Mazi Smith, Joseph Anderson, Nana Osafo-Mensah, and myself — if Notre Came can land all of us, that would be the dream d-line class for Notre Dame,” Spears told Irish Illustrated. “I could see another pass-rusher or two, also.”

The other three names Spears mentioned all joined Lacey and him on Jan. 27 at an on-campus Junior Day. All five qualify as consensus four-stars, with Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.) a tackle, Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.) an end, and Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Fort Worth, Texas) a possible end/linebacker hybrid.

From left to right: Osafo-Mensah, Anderson, Elston, Smith, Lacey and Spears. (Twitter: @JacobLacey6)

Landing all five may be ambitious, but it would also be the envy of most of the country.

Spears already held offers from the likes of Alabama and Michigan State, despite missing his junior season with a knee injury. The Irish extended a scholarship offer to him in June, prompting an unofficial visit to watch a 49-14 Notre Dame victory over USC in October. In a video released by 247Sports.com, Spears cited that experience as one of the three primary reasons he committed, along with the educational opportunity and the “overall tradition and culture.”

Spears shows quickness for a defensive lineman, but not such that he would ever be considered an outside linebacker in any form. His size makes him an ideal candidate to set the edge against the run or possibly move inside when the Irish need a quicker defensive line to handle certain opponents. His agility, though, will make him a three-down threat, both a pass-rusher and an edge-setter.

Notre Dame currently has depth at defensive end, but with only one signed in the class of 2018 (Justin Ademilola) and one remaining from the class of 2017 (Kofi Wardlow), an influx will be a priority this recruiting cycle. Spears will theoretically have one season to adjust to collegiate competition before the quartet of rising juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji run out of eligibility. (The first three have two seasons remaining, while Ogundeji has the possibility of three more years.)

Hence, that Junior Day emphasis and Elston’s confidence on National Signing Day.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.”

Expect to read that quote again and again (and possibly again) if any of the remaining three in the above photo follow Spears’ and Lacey’s lead.

RELATED READING: ‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister