Crist vs. Rees: Breaking down Tommy’s throws


Brian Kelly named Tommy Rees the starting quarterback for Saturday against Michigan. It was a decision that made plenty of sense from a production point of view — Rees went 24 of 34 for 296 yards in the second half, when everyone in the stadium knew Rees would be passing to catch up, in conditions hardly optimal.

After looking at every throw a few dozen times, not every decision Rees made was the right one, but the sophomore was able to turn the Irish offense into a high octane attack against a good defense, something the Irish haven’t seen in the Brian Kelly era.

“Our hopes are Tommy is productive and can play at a high level week in and week out,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s got a pretty good resume, 4-0 as a starter, and he’s come off the bench twice and has played well under those circumstance.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the throws Rees made to impress the coaching staff — all 34 of them:


Throw 1: 1st and 10 at USF 49

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 7 yards.

A high percentage play. With the corners off and Floyd by himself on the short-side of the field, Rees throws a quick hitch for a nice gain. Nice play call to get Rees warmed up and an easy completion.

Throw 2: 1st and 10 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 4 yards.

Another high percentage throw, but potentially a missed opportunity for Rees, who had Theo Riddick flashing open from the slot on the field side. With five wide, the Irish might have caught USF in a missed coverage and Rees didn’t see Riddick. Again, a nice throw and modest completion to Floyd, but I’m sure in the film room the coaching staff will let Tommy know he missed an open read.

Throw 3: 2nd and 6 at USF 30

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 5 yards.

All three receivers on the field side ran slants, and Rees chose TJ Jones on the outside to go to. The ball sailed high on him a bit, but Jones went up and made a very nice catch. Nothing wrong with the read, but Rees’ accuracy wasn’t all that great. Still, three throws and three completions, all done at a pace faster than the Irish moved with Crist in the first half.

Throw 4: 1st and 10 at USF 20

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

With trips to Rees right, he hits Floyd, the inside receiver with a quick bubble screen. Sprung by a nice block by Theo Riddick, Floyd accelerates around the corner for a big gainer, taking the Irish to the USF five yard line.

Throw 5: 1st and Goal at USF 5

Rees pass intended for TJ Jones intercepted by Michael Lanaris, returned for no gain.

A tough play for a number of reasons. Obviously, Jones never gets his head around to look for the ball, a huge no-no. (As Brian Kelly’s reaction made evident.) With Floyd and Eifert split tight to the right and Riddick and Jones split tight to the left, Riddick pulled the defensive backs on the far side of the field to the corner of the end zone, while Eifert occupied the end zone on the right side.

In what was essentially a two man route, Rees jumped his first option, Jones, throwing to him on the crossing route before he was able to get his head around to the ball. Jones had a step on his defender, but was never looking for the ball, which caromed from Jones’ helmet into the arms of Lanaris, keeping the Irish out of the end zone.

If you watch the replay enough times, you’ll certainly see how well constructed the play is, with Floyd clearing behind Jones and breaking wide open just after the ball is out of Rees’ hands. Just a horrible outcome that probably won’t ever happen again, but did so at the absolute worst time for the Irish.

Throw 6: 1st and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A well-designed screen set up for Riddick, but Taylor Dever struggles to keep his man out of Rees’ face, and the defensive end knocks the pass down. Looked like there was some room to operate if the pass were completed.

Throw 7: 2nd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd

Another throw where Rees might have locked on Floyd too early. He sailed the throw out of bounds, a miscommunication with Floyd, who pulled up with the defensive back in man coverage. Again, it’s hard to say without knowing the play call, but Riddick seemed to be open on a skinny post from the opposite slot.

Throw 8: 3rd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 37 yards

A really impressive throw into a tight window. With Eifert detached on the right side of the line, Rees has a narrow window to fit the throw in, and he does it. Eifert splits two linebackers and breaks into the secondary for a really big gain. If you’re looking for a throw that Brian Kelly would term “decisive,” this is one of them.

Throw 9: 1st and 10 at USF 29

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 5 yards.

Tommy does a good job buying time in the pocket, and with nobody open downfield, Rees dumps the ball off to a crossing Cierre Wood, who needs to break just one tackle before he’s into the secondary for a potentially big play. A good example of Rees’ subtle mobility, and nice work to make something out of nothing, putting the Irish in a second and short instead of a 2nd and long.

Throw 10: 2nd and 5 at USF 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 24 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

Perfect throw. With Rees seeing Floyd in one-on-one coverage, he hits No. 3 in stride with a perfect strike and let’s Floyd do the rest. Presnap, USF made the decision easy for Rees, with the corner up in man coverage on Floyd and the safety creeping up before the play. NBC announcer Mike Mayock makes a nice observation about Floyd’s spot on the field, staying on the short side and forcing USF to decide whether they want to play him one-on-one or roll a safety to the shorter side of the field, leaving the rest of the field unprotected.

The Bulls coaching staff left Floyd alone, and Notre Dame made them pay.

Throw 11: 1st and 10 at ND 33

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 27 yards.

Another perfect throw. Great route by Riddick, who puts a stutter move on the linebacker before getting over the top of him vertically, and Rees puts the ball in the hole before the safeties converge. This throw was open multiple times for Riddick, and he had a few big drops on it. Don’t be surprised if the Irish continue to try and take advantage of this pattern against the Wolverines. Again, another decisive decision and a big league throw by Rees.

Throw 12: 2nd and 4 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

The same play that went for five yards to Jones early goes to Floyd, who makes a defender miss and turns it into a big gainer. As the outside receiver in the three wide to the left formation, Floyd makes a good play on a ball delivered accurately by Rees, another difference between the shorter completion to Jones.

Throw 13: 2nd and 5 at USF 14

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

A slip screen that didn’t quite work, Rees gets the ball quickly to Jones, but both Chris Watt and Braxston Cave miss their blocks on the screen pass. Jones is tackled for a short gain instead of breaking free for a potentially big gainer.

Throw 14: 3rd and 4 at USF 13

Rees pass incomplete to Cierre Wood.

Well defended by the Bulls. Neither Floyd nor Eifert came open after their shallow crossing routes and Theo Riddick was well covered on the deep cross. Rees essentially throws the ball away over Cierre Wood’s head, settling for what looked like an automatic chip shot for kicked David Ruffer.

Getting nothing out of this drive was a huge blow for the Irish.

Throw 15: 1st and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A critical drop by Riddick, who could’ve easily had a 20 yard gain if he’d have held on to the perfectly thrown ball by Rees on the deep crossing pattern. It was a tough evening for Riddick, who came up looking for someone to blame, but ultimately knew that drop was on him.

Throw 16: 2nd and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 6 yards.

A quick hitch to Floyd that Rees hit on time. An important throw to get out of 3rd and long. The cornerback started off, then crept up on Floyd only to push back off presnap. An easy completion against a defensive back that’s protecting against the deep ball as well.

Throw 17: 3rd and 4 at ND 30

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 5 yards.

With Robby Toma in the slot for Riddick, TJ Jones runs a slant on the top side of the field that was open, but Rees takes Floyd on the short hitch, who spins for the first down. A five yard play when you need four. Can’t fault him for that decision, to a receiver who was probably his primary option.

Throw 18: 1st and 10 at ND 35

Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones

If you’re looking for the difference between Rees and Dayne Crist, you might have your answer here. On a designed roll out, Rees doesn’t get enough on the deep smash route to Jones and the ball skips short. A long throw, but one Rees should have hit. Also — the same throw that Crist waited on and then went to Eifert on the square out, who was covered by then.

Almost a perfect example of the two quarterbacks on Saturday. With Rees, if he misses it’s because of a physical problem. With Crist, it was because he took too long to identify the read, and the defense had time to get back into position.

Throw 19: 1st and 10 at ND 39

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 22 yards.

A nice throw over the corner and in front of the safety and an even better catch by Floyd. A big-league deep ball by Rees, who sees Floyd beat the corner and then get wide enough to find a hole in the two-deep zone. Another throw that if not made early is a really dangerous decision.

Throw 20: 1st and 10 at USF 39

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 7 yards.

With Riddick running off the safety, TJ Jones wide running a curl, Eifert is open at seven yards, and Rees delivers the ball for an easy completion.

Throw 21: 2nd and 3 at USF 32

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 11 yards.

On the wide side of the field, Floyd’s got a linebacker trying to bump him. He gets inside of him anyway, and runs a slant into the middle of the field for 11 more yards.

Throw 22: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

Looked like a max protect route, with the tight end staying in. Rees was going to take his shot to Floyd and when it looked like he was covered, he may or may not have thrown that ball semi-away. A play that felt a lot like a Jimmy Clausen-Charlie Weis play call, a “go out and get it” throw to Floyd.

Throw 23: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 15 yards.

A similar route combination to some others we’ve seen, only this time Rees wasn’t on the roll out. Jones was open early and open late, and Rees worked his way to Jones, who turned a small gain into a nice one.

Throw 24: 1st and Goal at USF 6.

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 5 yards.

A nice route, a nice throw and a really nice tackle by the USF safety, with LeJiste really laying the wood. Sets up second and goal from inside the one yard line, where Cierre Wood eventually jams it home.

Throw 24a: Two-point conversion attempt

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

With Floyd matched up one-on-one on the short side of the field, Rees went to Floyd on the jump ball – fade route, but threw the ball too wide, forcing Floyd out of bounds on a throw he couldn’t hold onto either. It’s a zero-margin for error route, and probably a play-call that’s a little risky after they had moved the ball half the distance to the goal line. Any chance of the Irish winning was cut in half with Notre Dame not converting there, and I’m sure Kelly would want that play call over again, especially after he had to burn a timeout when Rees didn’t get the play off in time before the penalty.

Throw 25: 2nd and 6 at ND 13

Rees pass intercepted by Jerrell Young at ND 30. (Intended for Michael Floyd)

A bad decision by Rees, who might have had a tough throw available with Tyler Eifert on the wheel route on the outside. With Rees flushed from the pocket, that probably eliminated that option, but Tommy would’ve been wise to take the check down to Cierre Wood, but instead tried to fit a ball into double coverage while on the run.

The decision reminds me of one of Charlie Weis’ old rules: never throw the ball on the run across your body. You can’t call this throw the nail in the coffin, but it was another one of those plays that made the comeback even harder to pull off, especially deflating that it came right after a long rain delay.

Throw 26: 2nd and 13 at ND 2

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 23 yards.

With Floyd bracketed on the top side of the field, Rees fits another ball in-between the corner and the safety, with TJ Jones holding on with an amazing catch and taking another big hit. At this point, Rees needed to take any shot he could, and credit Jones for making a really nice catch and taking a big-time hit.

Throw 27: 1st and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert

With not much there on any of his options, Rees tries to squeeze a throw in short to Eifert, but the ball is knocked away. A good incompletion, with the clock stopping instead of continuing to run on a five yard gain.

Throw 28: 2nd and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

Jones was again slow to get his head around on this crossing route, but to Rees’ credit, he waits until Jones makes eye contact and dumps the ball off to him. From there, Jones was good to get out of bounds.

Throw 29: 3rd and 9 at ND 26

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 12 yards.

Great job by Rees buying time in the pocket, and nice job by Eifert, sinking into a hole in the zone defense. He’s able to make his way across the first down marker and pick up a first down likely conceded by the Bulls soft cover defense.

Throw 30: 1st and 10 at ND 38

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 8 yards.

With coverage solid down the seams, Rees waits for Wood to come open from the backfield and hits him underneath for another small gain that stops the clock.

Throw 31: 2nd and 2 at USF 36

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 18 yards.

Another rifle shot by Rees, putting this ball in a perfect place — just about the linebacker and just beneath the over-the-top safety. With the Bulls in a deep zone, this is a tough throw, but Rees takes the chance and puts the ball on the mark.

Throw 32: 1st and 10 at USF 36

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

A ball that Riddick absolutely needs to catch. Theo was bursting up the seam and Tommy puts it on him perfectly. The Irish hope they get those kind of shots this Saturday, as they’re confident that Riddick will make more of those plays than he misses.

Throw 33: 2nd and 5 at USF 31

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 15 yards. (Roughing the passer accepted.)

With the Bulls in deep cover, Rees takes advantage of the match-up Eifert has on the linebacker and waits for the deep in route to develop. Tommy takes a big hit late, adding another 15 yards to the gain. An impressive throw staying in the pocket showing patience as the linebacker vacates the middle of the field.

Throw 34: 1st and Goal at USF 8

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 8 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

We’ve seen this play before. Three wide, two inside guys run slants clearing the middle and Rees puts a perfect throw on Floyd. A tough play to defend when you’ve got a 6-3, 225-pound All-American like Floyd on the edge.


Here’s Rees’ receiver by receiver numbers:

Michael Floyd: 10 of 13 for 117 yards 2 TDs, 1 INT
TJ Jones: 5 of 7 for 45 yards, 1 INT
Theo Riddick: 2 of 5 for 32 yards
Tyler Eifert: 5 of 6 for 89 yards
Cierre Wood: 2 of 3 for 13 yards

Here’s a breakdown of where Rees went with the ball, a distribution chart that I don’t think many Irish fans will have a problem with.

Floyd targets: 38%
Jones targets: 20%
Riddick targets: 15%
Eifert targets: 18%
Wood targets: 9%

Even if Rees forced the ball to Floyd, as you can tell by the numbers, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. With a guy like Floyd, even against a secondary that has good talent and depth, he made them pay in a variety of ways, part of what makes No. 3 such a diverse weapon.

Rees also averaged 8.7 yards a throw, 2.5 yards per throw better than Crist. Rees’ half of football has him 30th in yards-per-throw, while Crist’s half has him at 65th. Even more telling, Rees’ numbers, even including the two interceptions, has him 37th in the country in QB rating. Crist’s first half numbers have him ranked 100th.

With the Irish offense having to work almost exclusively through the air as they played catch-up, the Irish have a chance to use their robust rushing attack — Cierre Wood went for over 100 yards on five yards a carry — against a Michigan defense that was the fifth worst team against the run in the country, giving up a gaudy 7.3 yards a carry to Western Michigan.

Again, you can argue that Brian Kelly gave Crist the hook too early. But after seeing the way the Irish responded to the change at quarterback, Kelly knew he needed to get the offense playing at a level that’d help support a defense ready to face a stiffer challenge with Denard Robinson ready for Saturday.

With a season on the brink and no margin for error, Kelly had the confidence to make a bold change. We’ll see if that switch was a mistake this weekend. If you look at the tape and the numbers, it sure doesn’t look like one.



Monday’s Leftovers: A worst-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring, with links to read

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Notre Dame will return from spring break today and get back to practice tomorrow, presumably breaking out pads for the first time this spring. Obviously, Irish nightmares of spring practice focus on injuries. Aside from those, though, …

Continuing quarterback confusion throughout the spring would not please anybody, especially if the issue becomes even cloudier than it already is. Of course, there is a not-so-bad version of this: Both rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book perform well, making Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long’s decision heading into the fall a difficult one because he actually has multiple worthwhile options.

Then, there is the worst-case scenario: Both Wimbush and Book flail away this spring, culminating with them turning over the ball multiple times apiece in the Blue-Gold Game on April 21. Such disappointments could lead to incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec arriving this summer an immediate and genuine piece of the starting quarterback competition. That would speak worse of Wimbush’s and Book’s next month than it would inherently speak well of Jurkovec’s 2018 potential.

If rising junior Ian Book does not perform ably this spring, Notre Dame would be one step closer to a summer spent discussing a lack of options at quarterback. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

No receivers emerge, either.
After the Irish receivers appeared to be a strength last spring, the season brought only inconsistency and little production. If that trend continues this spring, it may not matter who is throwing the ball in the fall.

This might not keep Long or Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly up at night, though, with three more incoming freshmen arriving this summer to shore up the receiving corps, a bandage not available to fix if …

No fourth linebacker provides peace of mind.
With both early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer already practicing, an absence of a strong backup linebacker would have no likely solution this fall. If those two were not around, and both rising junior Jonathan Jones and rising senior Asmar Bilal — not to mention rising sophomores David White and Drew Adams — failed to impress this spring, then the hope could be Lamb or Bauer would arrive in the summer and be an immediate fix.

With them on-campus, a lack of a worthwhile linebacker exiting this spring would foreshadow a lack of rest and injury relief for fifth-year Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney.

Lastly, and with the broadest view, 89 stays 89.
When the spring ends, the conversation will return to how the Irish roster will get down to the NCAA maximum-allowed 85 scholarships, four fewer than currently anticipated this fall. This would be extremely unlikely, although within a discussion of a worst-case scenario, but if summer begins and no outgoing transfers surface, then that scholarship crunch could quickly create unnecessary drama and suspense.

Right now, four spots of attrition is entirely reasonable and even usual. If that is still the number to be lost in late May, those adjectives may shift to avoidable and stressful.

— Last week’s “Leftovers” asked who should be Notre Dame’s fourth captain, a position to be filled by player vote at the end of spring practice.  The results tilted heavily toward the defense.

Coney: 37.27 percent
Rising junior cornerback Julian Love: 24.62 percent
Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery: 15.34 percent

From there, Wimbush, fifth-year right guard Alex Bars and fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar all fell between 5 and 9 percent.

— With spring break over, a quick piece of scheduling housekeeping: Notre Dame will fit in 12 more practices before the spring sessions conclude with the Blue-Gold Game. That will entail practices on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, with a brief break for Easter.

— The biggest free agent of the NFL offseason signed with the Minnesota Vikings over the weekend. Kirk Cousins may elicit poor memories for Irish fans, being the former Michigan State quarterback who authored much of the Spartans’ 34-31 victory in 2010, a game more commonly referred to simply as “Little Giants.”

After just reaching his second Pro Bowl, former Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph should be primed for an even better 2018 thanks to the Vikings’ signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

But Cousins’ payday should bode well for someone else from that game. Tight end Kyle Rudolph reached the Pro Bowl this past season thanks to 57 catches for 532 yards and eight touchdowns. With Cousins throwing passes, Washington’s tight ends have put up stat lines dwarfing that the last few seasons. In looking at those stats, the last two years need to include two tight ends, since Jordan Reed has yet to stay healthy through an entire season.

2017: Reed and Vernon Davis combined for 70 catches for 859 yards and five touchdowns.
2016: Reed and Davis combined for 130 catches for 1,219 yards and eight touchdowns.
2015: Reed’s breakout campaign consisted of 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns in only 14 games.

Rudolph could, even should, enjoy a career year catching passes from his former nemesis next season.

— Only one program can claim both a Sweet Sixteen entrant in the men’s basketball tournament and a top-25 football team. Who is it? (Answer at the bottom.)

Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions
A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

Bengals re-sign Tyler Eifert
Bob Diaco reportedly heads to Oklahoma as a defensive analyst
Michigan unlikely to have answer on Shea Patterson before practice begins

ANSWER TO THE ABOVE TRIVIA: Clemson, though even if the Tigers had lost Sunday, one program would still have been able to make that claim, considering Clemson beat another Tiger in Auburn.

A best-case scenario for Notre Dame’s spring

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At the end of nearly every fall, one can look back at the praises of spring and see misguided conclusions. Such is the nature of competing against oneself for months at a time. Last year, the greatest misread from Notre Dame’s spring actually may have been the underrating of the Irish defensive line. Its struggles to mount a pass rush spoke more to the offensive line’s dominance than it did the defensive front’s ineptness, but the latter became the view du jour.

Thus, every conclusion drawn this spring should be measured with a great deal of trepidation and a few qualifiers. Nonetheless, certain possibilities this spring would offer the most promise to Notre Dame’s 2018.

Starting with, of course, avoiding any and all injuries in the coming month of practices.

If rising senior Brandon Wimbush were to show perfect accuracy this spring, there would be the slightest chance of avoiding a quarterback controversy this summer. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Beyond that, the greatest development would be settling upon a starting quarterback without any remaining doubt. Such a decision is hard to fathom without one of the two main competitors — rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book — failing as much as the other succeeding, and that may seem contrary to the search for an ideal 15 practices. However, if that is what it takes to have no quarterback question moving forward, it would be a net positive.

This would require one of Wimbush or Book to show an “adeptness,” to borrow a word from Irish coach Brian Kelly, in both passing and running.

“What I want to know is that our quarterbacks are equally adept at running it and throwing it, and that wasn’t the case [last] year,” Kelly said before spring practices began.

Proving that beyond the shadow of a doubt would hinge on a nearly flawless month to come, which would also be the longest stretch of stellar play seen from either Wimbush or Book. It remains unlikely, but it would be the first step toward an ideal scenario.

A young emergence along the offensive line
Splitting right tackle duties last year worked in large part because the rest of the offensive front was proven and experienced. With rising sophomore Robert Hainsey likely at a new position and rising junior Tommy Kraemer taking on more duties (if not also at a new position), finding a single fifth starter would allow this new-look line a full summer to develop the chemistry last year’s already had.

That could come in the form of rising sophomore Josh Lugg or rising junior Liam Eichenberg or from another of the handful of candidates. Whomever it is, identifying him before the summer would bode well for whoever is taking the snaps.

Te’von Coney has never suffered from a lack of physical gifts at linebacker. This spring, his mental understanding of the playbook will be the greatest possible defensive development to watch for. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Coney’s command of the defense
Rising senior Te’von Coney will step into the role formerly filled by the likes of Te’o, Schmidt and Morgan. Not only will he be counted on to make the most defensive plays and break 100 tackles again, but his command and understanding of the defense will dictate how a number of other players perform, as well.

Granted, Coney will have fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill in the middle with him, and Tranquill showed a solid grasp last year, often directing traffic from the rover position, but Coney will be in the middle and efficient pre-snap adjustments this fall will be best coming from there.

Competent safety play emerges
The odds are slim Notre Dame will find two excellent safeties this offseason. Given there was not even good safety play last year, finding two stellar starters would require both rising junior Alohi Gilman to be better than advertised and some distinct development from an unexpected source.

More realistically, Gilman may be good, certainly better than options seen last year, and one of those options also takes a few strides forward this spring.

Having some viable possibilities at safety may sound like a low bar to clear, but it would be a marked improvement over the last two seasons and may be the final piece to the 2018 Irish defense.

Anything else found this spring would be icing on the cake. Even if that includes early-enrolled freshman running back Jahmir Smith flashing unexpected speed, rising senior Asmar Bilal showing a complete handling of the rover duties and/or rising sophomore receiver Michael Young not dropping a single pass throughout all of March and April. The Notre Dame coaching staff would certainly welcome each of those daydreams, but such micro performances may be a mirage this time of year.

Bigger picture changes — such as at quarterback, offensive line and the up the middle of the defense — would present a strong foundation for 2018.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions

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Notre Dame held two practices before spring break, both without pads. At the most, they set a base line, but much more should be learned in the coming month building up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.

Instinct, public opinion and headlines may presume the most-important thing to learn this spring focuses on the competition between rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book to be named starting quarterback. The fact of the matter, though, is that duel will almost assuredly extend well into the summer. It is thus not among the items to learn this spring.

Who will “start” at running back, however, may come into focus in the next five weeks. Whether rising senior Dexter Williams or rising junior Tony Jones gains an advantage over the other, both will receive plenty of carries in the fall.

For one thing, Josh Adams is no longer around to take 206 carries for 1,430 yards. If including the dismissals of Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes, 279 attempts for 1,831 yards and 14 touchdowns will need to be replaced from last season. That task begins with health, which neither Williams nor Jones had much of in 2017. Thus, the question of who takes the step forward has little previous evidence to provide an answer.

“Most people just see you on Saturday when you have your helmet on and shoulder pads, and wonder why isn’t he in the game,” Kelly said March 5 in discussing Williams. “Well, there’s four other days leading up to it, and his inability to really practice and provide the kind of work necessary to get to Saturdays put him behind a little bit.”

Kelly had similar thoughts regarding Jones, also acknowledging the first season of collegiate contact may have taken a toll on the then-sophomore.

“His strength in work volume is better than it was last year,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t healthy most of the season, as well. Stronger, he’s got a coat of armor on him. His work volume is better.

“Finally, we recognize how important he is and we have to make sure he gets the proper touches within the offense.”

Again, both Williams and Jones will have plenty of opportunities in the fall … if healthy. As much as this is a question of who gets more opportunities, perhaps it should be a wondering of who will stay healthiest, if either.

Rising senior Miles Boykin should finish this spring as a clear-cut starting receiver, a first in his career. (Photoby Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Irish have to replace even more at receiver.

Notre Dame’s receivers totaled 113 catches for 1,716 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. With all of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL draft), Kevin Stepherson (repeated legal issues), Cam Smith (out of eligibility) and C.J. Sanders (outgoing transfer) gone, the Irish lost 61 receptions for 934 yards and 10 touchdowns of that productivity. To put it more aptly, that is 53.98 percent of the receivers’ receptions, 54.43 percent of their yardage and exactly two-thirds of their scores.

That is, well, a lot.

With rising junior Chase Claypool only somewhat involved this spring due to shoulder surgery, even more of a vacuum awaits filling. Claypool leads the returnees with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.

Enter rising seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke and rising sophomore Michael Young. With Kelly identifying Boykin as one of roster’s quickest players in 10-yard bursts, then that trio is not only diverse in size but also a grouping of genuine speed.

Will they solidify their standing as the leaders at the position, along with Claypool, or will offensive coordinator Chip Long be desperate for the arrival of a trio of incoming freshmen this summer, not to mention early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones or finally-healthy rising junior Javon McKinley?

No production was lost at safety this offseason, but that is not inherently a good thing.

Someone will start at safety in the Blue-Gold Game. Perhaps it will be rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath and fifth-year Nick Coleman. Maybe rising junior Alohi Gilman will confirm a year’s worth of reviews this spring and earn the nod, joined by returning starter and rising junior Jalen Elliott.

If Jalen Elliott ends up as a front-runner for starting duties at safety for the third straight year, Notre Dame will still need to find him a running mate. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

It will not be rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson after his move to rover. Removing him from contention is about the only piece of clarity at safety thus far, and that cloudy view may remain until late August, quite frankly.

Whoever starts at safety to close the spring will have pole position to maintain that honor when incoming freshman Derrik Allen arrives to present an additional challenge.

Of the three position groups discussed thus far, safety is truly the one with the most unknown. Early-enrolled freshman cornerback Houston Griffith could line up at safety on April 21 and it would not be all that much of a shock. It would simply mean the dismal play offered by last season’s roster had not developed into something better.

Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?

Rising junior Jonathan Jones is likely the backup to both fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney. If injuries were to pillage the rover possibilities, Tranquill would then move back to his former position and Jones would step into Tranquill’s place. And yes, Kelly confirmed Tranquill’s move to a more traditional linebacker role.

“You can write that down and get used to it,” Kelly said.

A number of other names could be plugged in where Jones’ appears in that paragraph. Early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer could both surpass Jones. Lamb and Bauer were such-heralded recruits, a jump past Jones and sophomores Drew White and David Adams could be just a confirmation of those reviews, not necessarily an indictment of the upperclassmen’s potential.

The final option, which would not be clear even if it came to be reality in the long-run, would be rising senior Asmar Bilal becoming the backup for both Tranquill and Coney despite also likely starting at rover. With similar logic to Tranquill possibly filling in for an injured rover, it could be determined relying on rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or Robertson at rover with Bilal filling in at linebacker would provide the best fix of a lineup.

These are the things spring practice is intended for. A year ago, the questions hinged on new coordinators and new schemes. Even with the departure of Mike Elko to Texas A&M, the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator ensured consistency in scheme and message. Thus, the questions this spring hinge on a few positions, most notably these four.

Along with … How will Notre Dame’s offensive line fill the holes left by two first-round draft picks? and Who will replace Tranquill at rover with the captain now moving to linebacker?

In an effort to foster fun and competition and out of a societal need to have as many bracket groups as possible …

Inside the Irish 2018 Bracket Contest

There is nothing at stake except for bragging rights and a chance to embarrass this scribe by finishing well ahead of him. What more could one possibly need?

Monday’s Leftovers: Who should Notre Dame’s fourth captain be? And DeShone Kizer heads to the Green Bay Packers

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Last week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly named three captains for the 2018 season. He also said he would hold a team vote for a fourth captain by the end of spring practice. That naturally leads to some speculation as to who could prevail in that balloting.

Kelly indicated “six or seven” players were in the mix after the first tally this spring, the one that made captains out of fifth-years Drue Tranquill, Sam Mustipher and Tyler Newsome. Considering which seniors stand out as productive playmakers, which fifth-years were invited back to contribute and thus create a roster crunch, and who led the offseason “SWAT” teams, a few frontrunners emerge.

The Irish have long had multiple leaders along the offensive line, and fifth-year right guard Alex Bars could join Mustipher as a team-wide captain. Similarly, fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar returned despite not yet being a vital piece of the passing game — instead, Kelly has often cited Weishar’s influence within the tight end group and the offense as a whole.

Te’von Coney (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The returns of rising seniors Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery, each opting to forgo the NFL draft, certainly made Notre Dame’s defense a force to be reckoned with as far as paper is concerned. Usually, when a player up the middle comes off a strong junior season and opts to return, a captainship may soon follow, but both Coney and Tillery have faced disciplinary issues during their Irish careers. Such could jeopardize a captainship from an administrative standpoint, no matter how a player vote turns out.

Rising senior cornerback Nick Watkins is leading one of those spring SWAT units. Watkins may otherwise be off the possible captain radar, but that position of leadership has been an indicative piece of data the last two years. Exhibit A: Newsome led a group each of the last two years, bringing him to a more prominent role in the locker room than a punter may usually have.

Rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush heads a SWAT team, as well, as a co-leader with Weishar. Naming Wimbush a captain coming out of spring would create some level of expectation of him being the starting quarterback, something Kelly does not intend to establish before August, at the earliest. Of course, Wimbush’s play, or rising junior Ian Book’s subpar play, could force that issue before then.

That makes six candidates. Rising junior cornerback Julian Love (pictured above) could be a seventh. Love has comported himself well both on and off the field in his two years as a starter, and he may not be around to be a captain as a senior.

This is nothing but idle speculation, but it is spring break and the conversation is intriguing, at the least.

Mustipher on new o-line coach Jeff Quinn
The verdict on Quinn’s promotion to fill the void left by Harry Hiestand will not be returned until November, at the earliest. Until then, the opinions of Mustipher and the rest of the offensive line are the best clues to Quinn’s interactions with the offensive line. When asked about Quinn on Tuesday, there was no chance Mustipher would offer anything but praise, but some insight can be gained by what praise Mustipher provided.

“He brings a motivational and inspirational energy to the offensive line room,” Mustipher said. “He understands the way the standard needs to be set.”

That is pretty generic to start. Mustipher then spoke of the “privilege” of being part of the interview process, along with Bars. It would seem the two made it clear to Kelly they wanted not only consistency in message and system, but also some investment in that approach.

“We understand that standard of excellence,” Mustipher said. “We wanted a guy that wanted to be here and wanted to coach, and that it meant a lot to him to be here.”

Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer completed 53.6 percent of his passes in his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Kizer to the Green Bay Packers
Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer was traded to the Green Bay Packers from the Cleveland Browns on Friday for a cornerback, per the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Without a doubt, getting away from the Browns will be good for Kizer, but do not presume he will ever throw many passes on the shores of Lake Michigan.

In trading oft-injured cornerback Damarious Randall, the Packers not only received Kizer, but they also moved up in both the fourth- and fifth- rounds in next month’s NFL draft. That alone may have been enough incentive to move on from a defensive back who publicly feuded with an assistant coach last season.

Securing a contract-controlled backup quarterback solidified the deal, and it is likely Kizer is never more than a backup for the Packers. Starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers is only 34. He should have another four or five or even more years left in his career. Kizer’s contract, meanwhile, expires after the 2020 season.

If he minds his manners, learns from Rodgers and makes a few cameos in the next three seasons, then perhaps an opportunity elsewhere will await Kizer. Knowing the NFL and its preference for the newest inventory, though, this may be a step toward a career as a backup for the 2017 second-round draft pick.

Kizer finished his rookie season with 2,894 yards, 11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions on 255-of-476 passing in 15 games. He added 419 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 77 attempts with nine fumbles sprinkled in.

(Off-topic, but near to the heart: Quarterback rushing statistics do not need to be adjusted for sacks in the NFL.)

Kudos to Oklahoma
With the Sunday night reveal of the NCAA men’s basketball bracket, Oklahoma continued a rather impressive streak. The Sooners athletic department is the only one in the country that can claim AP Top-10 finishes in football and men’s basketball tournament teams in each of the last two years. For that matter, Oklahoma actually managed the double in 2015, as well.

‘Inside the Irish’ March Madness Pool
Every online community has a bracket pool. On good days, this space is an online community. Thus, applying logic, it should have a bracket pool.

Inside the Irish 2018 Bracket Contest

There is nothing at stake except for bragging rights and a chance to embarrass this scribe by finishing well ahead of him. What more could one possibly need?

For the sake of being different, the group will utilize a Fibonacci scoring sequence (2-3-5-8-13-21) with a seed-difference upset bonus throughout the Tournament.

At least with Notre Dame out of the bracket, the group’s results will not be skewed by unrealistic Irish hopes.

Speaking of Notre Dame not making it …
The Irish did not have much of a résumé, injuries or no injuries. Looking at analytical measurements, though, Notre Dame appeared to have a much better chance than Syracuse, who squeezed in as the last at-large team. The Irish were the first team left out.

The differences between the two? Well, aside from Notre Dame winning at the Carrier Dome while without their two best players? The Irish have the nation’s No. 28 offense when adjusted for efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. The Orange have the No. 128 offense, offsetting it with the No. 11 adjusted defense.

It was indeed that difference that helped Syracuse to a 55-52 win over Clemson in its March 3 regular-season finale, a credentials-boosting victory the likes of which Notre Dame did not have.

Monday’s Leftovers: Spring begins, a 2019 QB de-commits from Notre Dame & NFL Combine results
Position changes, weight loss and quarterback questions welcome Notre Dame’s spring
Notre Dame names three captains: LB Drue Tranquill, C Sam Mustipher … and punter Tyler Newsome
With two captains gone, only natural another pops up on Notre Dame’s offensive line
Tranquill’s move to linebacker should benefit both him and Notre Dame

— What a hospital stay sparked inside new Notre Dame captain Tyler Newsome
Damonte Ranch’s Cade McNamara de-commits from Notre Dame
AG Lobo probe expands to football rape case