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Spring practice heads for the home stretch

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With the Blue-Gold game set for this Saturday, Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish are down to their final four football sessions until preseason camp in August.

Let’s take a quick look at a few of the battles that caught our interest:

At ‘Dog’ linebacker, it’s a two-man race, with sophomores Prince Shembo and Danny Spond leading the way. It isn’t hard to read between the lines and see how excited both Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco are for the two youngsters to emerge, and we’ll likely see Shembo in the backfield and Spond in coverage.

What opened as a crowded race for the one vacated starting spot among the linebackers has clarified quickly, with senior Steven Filer working in a niche role at the ‘Cat’ position behind Darius Fleming and Dan Fox impressing with his work on the inside.

Don’t expect to see much from Diaco and the defense this Saturday — especially with a network broadcast providing better sight lines into Irish preparations, but if you’re excited to see anything, the Irish just infused two elite athletes into the mix at outside linebacker, bringing in size and speed at a position that struggled in space last year.

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Probably by design, there’s no true news out of the quarterback position, but the coaching staff has to be relieved and happy that Dayne Crist didn’t miss a beat in his rehab and is once again the man to beat at quarterback.

Last season, expectations might have been unrealistic as Crist was taking his first snaps as a starting quarterback. This season, whoever gets the majority of playing time should thrive, playing in an offense that should be vastly improved in the run game as well as with the particulars of the passing system.

Crist and Tommy Rees have both shown themselves to be capable of leading the Irish to wins, but newcomer Everett Golson has shown a ton of promise this spring, and Andrew Hendrix has wowed the staff with his impressive skillset, highlighted by great athleticism and a rocket arm. Kelly’s only mentioned that he plans on limiting the fall competition to three quarterbacks. Who those three are remains to be seen.

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Last September, it was assumed that Jamoris Slaughter would be the steadiest safety on the field for the Irish, with his coverage skills and solid tackling a much needed boost after inconsistent safety play plagued ND’s defense. Fast forward to this spring and Harrison Smith is coming off a breakthrough season, is the captain of the defense, and Zeke Motta impressed everybody with some rock-solid play after being thrown into the fire after Slaughter went down with an ankle injury in the season opener.

Now it’s Slaughter working to get back into the starting lineup. Even if he doesn’t, expect to see three safeties on the field whenever the Irish go into nickel, with Slaughter’s versatility and coverage skills helping make the pass defense even better in year two under Chuck Martin’s tutelage.

If you’re looking for someone to watch in the Blue-Gold game, keep an eye on Dan McCarthy, who has yet to kick the injury bug long enough to make a difference for the Irish. Brother Kyle was a late bloomer too…

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Simply put, the Irish special teams were incredibly ordinary last season. After Armando Allen went down, the punt return game sputtered with John Goodman back deep, and the Irish’s paint-by-numbers approach to returning kickoffs with newcomers like Bennett Jackson didn’t help jump-start the Irish offense either.

Injuries to Allen and Theo Riddick certainly didn’t help the return game, but neither did the depth blocking for them. With Mike Elston spending another season with the special teams units, expect better results coming from both return units, even if the Irish haven’t identified who will be returning the kicks. (Here’s a hint: he might not be on campus yet…) With the influx of young athletic talent continuing, the Irish coverage teams should continue to be a strength.

Kicker Kyle Brindza wasn’t just brought onto campus because he can kick field goals, he was brought on to compete for the punting job with Ben Turk, who hasn’t put together a solid season yet at Notre Dame. Too often, Turk’s punts stuck the Irish defense on a short field.

Another small, but important job to watch: The battle for the long snapper spots, a position the Irish were continuing to recruit down to the wire, even with Jordan Cowart and Ryan Kavanagh already on the roster

Notre Dame gets 10 invites to NFL Scouting Combine

2013 NFL Combine
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Notre Dame will send ten former players to the NFL Scouting Combine. The annual event in Indianapolis serves as the unofficial apex of draft season, a meat-market where the best professional prospects are poked, prodded, questioned and tested in a variety of on- and off-field drills.

Heading to the festivities from Notre Dame are:

Chris Brown, WR
Sheldon Day, DT
Will Fuller, WR
Nick Martin, C
Romeo Okwara, DE
C.J. Prosise, RB
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, S
Jaylon Smith, OLB
Ronnie Stanley, OT

For a prospect like Smith, it’ll be teams first opportunity to talk to the elite prospect and check his progress medically as he returns from a Fiesta Bowl knee injury. Russell will also be a non-participant in physical drills, waiting until Notre Dame’s Pro Day to go through testing.

Invites to Chris Brown, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are crucial in finding their way into the draft, as the three former Irish starters participated in the Shrine Bowl, where scouts had an early look at them. Likewise, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day continue their ascent, both coming off strong Senior Bowl weeks.

For Irish fans, it’ll be fun to watch early-enrollees Fuller and Prosise test. Both are expected to be some of the fastest players at their position. Brown may also have the ability to surprise teams, with his track background and leaping ability capable of earning him an extended look. Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley will look to impress as well, hoping to check out as one of the draft’s most impressive athletes at offensive tackle.

Ohio State led all schools with 14 invites. National Champion Alabama had nine former players invited.

 

WR Corey Robinson named Notre Dame student body president

Notre Dame v Florida State
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On Wednesday, wide receiver Corey Robinson added another impressive title to his resume as a student-athlete at Notre Dame: Student Body President.

The junior, paired with classmate Becca Blais as his vice presidential running mate, won a majority of the votes cast by his fellow students, a runaway winner with 59.4% of the votes, nearly triple the next highest vote getter.

Robinson posted the following on Twitter, thankful for the opportunity to serve his fellow students:

Robinson’s time at Notre Dame has been filled with accomplishments both on and off the field. He was named an Academic All-American as a sophomore. He’s a six-time Dean’s List member in the prestigious Program of Liberal Studies and is also pursuing a sustainability minor. He’s won the team’s Rockne Student-Athlete Award as well.

That’s quite a bit on the plate of Notre Dame’s lone senior wide receiver. But as you might expect, Robinson is well prepared for the next challenge ahead.

“I’ve planned ahead, gotten all of my hard work out of the way this semester, and I’m finishing up my senior thesis,” Robinson told The Observer. “I’m doing all the hard stuff now so in the fall and the spring, I just have to take two classes pretty much.”

Robinson’s other contributions as a student-athlete at Notre Dame include One Shirt one Body, an opportunity for college athletes to donate their athletic apparel to local communities. Robinson has presented the plan to the ACC as well as the NCAA, earning immediate support from both organizations.

 

Mailbag: Now Open (scheduling input requested)

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 01:  Actors Mike Myers (L) and Dana Carvey as Wayne and Garth from "Wayne's World" onstage during the 17th annual MTV Movie Awards held at the Gibson Amphitheatre on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Okay folks, we’ve had enough semi-positive encouragement to keep the video mailbag going for another week. With that said, I’ll need some reader participation to keep this thing rolling on.

As always, submit your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold. You can also ask your questions live via Facebook. You’ll need to LIKE THIS PAGE first, and then at the appropriate time, head on over to watch and participate.

To that point, let’s pick a time that works for everyone. Right now, here are the options that work at Inside the Irish HQ.  Weigh in and the best time wins. (How’s that for a democracy?)

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Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars*, T
Colin McGovern*, G/T
Mark Harrell*, C/G
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.