IBG: Pushing towards Purdue

8 Comments

In case people forgot, the Irish are playing a football game this Saturday night. Yep, they’ll be hopping on the bus and heading down to West Lafayette, enjoying that glorious drive down US 31 into Boilermaker country, where a hostile crowd will be looking to enact revenge from 2009, where Purdue nearly pulled the upset on Jimmy Clausen and the Fighting Irish.

I’m a few hours late on the Irish Blogger Gathering, which I’ll blame on last night’s baseball and this afternoon’s schedule. (Neither are good excuses, I realize that.) Supplying the excellent fodder this week was the Irish Round Table, giving us quite a few interesting questions that I spent far too much time answering.

Enjoy.

1) Excluding Aaron Lynch, who is your top newcomer of the year thus far (freshman or player that hadn’t seen much playing time in prior seasons)?

There is no other answer that I can think of than Louis Nix, even if you include No. 19. But here’s a quick run through of the worthy candidates:

George Atkinson: Tough to not be impressed when the kid has already taken a kickoff to the house.
Kyle Brindza: Remember when Irish kickers never got touchbacks? Brindza certainly solved that problem.
Aaron Lynch: I’m only expecting more from him in the weeks to come. Think he’ll lead the Irish in sacks.
Stephon Tuitt: Could be athletic enough to help in a four-man front against Air Force or Navy.
Ishaq Williams: He’s getting playing time in the base defense behind Darius Fleming. That’s impressive.
Troy Niklas: My true freshman Newcomer of the Year (Non-Lynch division). This guy is a really impressive athlete. Watching him the next four years will be very fun.

2) We asked our Twitter followers for questions to use in this week’s IBG. Here’s a sampling of what we got. Choose ONE and answer:

Let’s get crazy and try to answer them all.

@TheSubwayDomer: If the #NDFB quarterbacks were female super models, who would they be? What would they endorse? #IBG —

Man, my knowledge of supermodels has slipped since college. Can I change this to actresses from our favorite TV shows? (Answer by me: Yes.)

Tommy Rees is Pam Beesly.

Now known as Pam Beesley Halpert. We all loved Tommy from the start, he was the quarterback next door: Decent arm, calm under pressure, great personality, and we all really wanted to see him succeed. Well, Pam got married to Jim. We all loved it. Then she got promoted from receptionist, tried getting into sales and kind of sucked at it. That’s not the Pam we like! Now she’s a little too snarky, not quite as good as we thought she’d be, and probably mistakenly gives Cece the wrong flavor of Gerber, or drops the baby bottle too much. Aren’t we better off liking Erin?

Dayne Crist is Christina Applegate.

It feels like we’ve known Christina forever. (At least I do. I practically grew up with her.) Ever since we’ve seen her, we knew she had star qualities. (Who could forget Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead!) But while she’s shown those flashes of brilliance, she’s never quite become the movie star she should have.To be fair, she’s also had to overcame huge personal setbacks. And it’s a credit to her that she did.

There are people that will go to the mattresses supporting Applegate — She was magic as Veronica Coringstone! But she’s also failed on TV, forcing America to watch Samantha Who? Now she’s back with Up All Night, a show almost reverse engineered to make us like it, teaming her with Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph. A good cast doesn’t hide the show’s flaws, but it might be the perfect place for her to show what she can do… even if that isn’t under the Golden Dome.

Andrew Hendrix is Minka Kelly:

Okay, I’m rapidly running out of steam here, but follow. Everybody loves Minka Kelly. Looks like the complete package. Hell, she was the apple of Derek Jeter’s eye, and that guy has some pretty good taste. Yet we have absolutely no clue if she can get it done. Kelly wasn’t the reason Friday Night Lights was good, even if she was good to look at. Now she’s in charge of making Charlie’s Angels TV show watchable, no easy task for anybody.

Hendrix might very well still be the quarterback of the future for the Irish. Brian Kelly is on the record as saying he’s got as much talent as anybody. Everybody looks at the guy and just sees a starting quarterback. But he hasn’t done it yet, and he might not ever.

Everett Golson is Zoey Deschanel.

Everybody loves the New Girl! Zoey’s a perfect fit for TV. Movie star skills. Funny, talented, cool dresser, awesome glasses. World class musician. (Crazy that she likely came to TV because she was sick of seeing how much money her sister was making on Bones, while she got like $150k for 500 Days of Summer.)

Well, everybody loves Everett Golson. He’s a prototype for Brian Kelly’s offense. Point guard quickness. Rocket arm. World class musician. Not sure if he wears awesome glasses, but it’s a pretty good fit. And he’s the new guy. What’s not to like?

@PerrasW01: Why has the #NDFB program gone to hell since Holtz left?

Mostly, College football got a lot better. I’m not old enough to understand why Holtz truly left, so I’d only be spewing someone else’s rhetoric when I blame administrators, athletic directors, or board members for maybe or maybe not pushing Holtz out before he could pass Knute Rockne.

But the bottom line is college football got a lot better and Notre Dame was really slow to come around to the changing landscape in college football, and the game blew by the Irish. In retrospect, the decision to hire Bob Davie is just shocking. You’ve got a program still at or near the top of college football and Notre Dame decides to promote its defensive coordinator, a guy with no real ties to Notre Dame. No offense to the Eagles, but that’s a move Boston College makes, and only with a guy that’s been on staff for a decade. Notre Dame got caught at the absolute worst time: A brewing arms race in college football that Notre Dame thought it was better than, mixed with the hiring of a guy that was absolutely overmatched for the job. Institutional arrogance at its best, and just in time for this young schmuck to start paying tuition.

@rpleary: You know that sign that says “Play Like a Champion Today”? What does our offense have against the sign?

Not sure. I think they’re “Playing Like People With Champion-like Ability.” Obviously that doesn’t get it done, but I actually like the strides they’re taking, even if last week was a step back for Rees and the unit.

@chadros: Based on our offense’s performance to date, is the current play calling mix (run vs. pass) the right one? Should we be running the ball more?

I’ve got no problem with the run/pass mix. One thing the Irish need to do is run the ball more effectively in the fourth quarter. I’d also like to see some more creativity out of the running game, giving the ball to Theo Riddick on a jet sweet, getting Cierre Wood in space more, and just seeing how slow Tommy looks on a QB keeper.

Last week’s offense was ugly, but it was impressive to see the Irish get every 3rd or 4th and short that they needed. That’s running to win.

@yetiisready: Will this be the week we see the “change-up package” AKA “the Leprecat?”

I will never call it the Leprecat. Man, that’s horrible. I’m kind of hoping we don’t see Everett Golson this year, only because saving a year of eligibility would be great, and seeing what Andrew Hendrix can do this year would be interesting as well.

That said — I think we’ll see some kind of “change-up package,” I just don’t think there’s any reason to show it against Purdue or Air Force. After bye week, I’m expecting a few interesting wrinkles for the men of Troy when they come to chilly South Bend.

(Not to mention a wrinkle in uniforms…)

3) If you could have 1 play back this season, what play would you want a do-over? How would that have changed a game’s outcome? Are you sure your do-over would work in ND’s favor?

I’m hoping everybody says Jonas Gray‘s fumble. That was like getting floored by a big right uppercut in the first round of a twelve-rounder. Sure you get up, but you’re starting out in a 10-8 hole after the first round and still finding your legs. If the Irish get in the endzone that first drive, I’m pretty sure this entire season looks different. A lot different.

4) In 140 characters or less “tweet” a summary of the season so far. Bonus points for hashtags or mentions.

Everybody please calm down RT @AngryNDFans Don’t you understand the other QB is better! Stop turning the ball over! Man 2-2 is frustrating!

5) Lou Holtz asked 3 basic questions of every player and coach, “Can I trust you? Are you committed? Do you care about me?” In your opinion, which player would every other player give a resounding “Yes” to each of these questions and why?

On offense: Michael Floyd. Take away last spring’s off field incident, and Floyd is the perfect football player. He’s the Irish’s best player. He makes a difference even when the ball isn’t being thrown to him. And he’s the guy everybody on the other team is watching. It will be sad watching the Irish without him.

On defense: Manti Te’o. If it’s possible, people are under-appreciating Te’o. He’s an every down linebacker, he’s a force in the run and playing better in the pass game, and he’s brought a swagger to the Irish defense that hasn’t been seen since Shane Walton was terrorizing quarterbacks, only Te’o has a first round skillset to go along with first round confidence.

6) Jumbotron. Good idea or terrible idea. What would you do to make it a great idea?

It’s not a polarizing thing for me, but I think it’s coming sooner than later. If you went to the Yankee Stadium game, it was really cool seeing Notre Dame use the video board as an extension of the university brand and a great way to remind people of the traditions and history of Notre Dame. If it helps keep fans engaged, informed and loud, even better. Just don’t have it block Touchdown Jesus.

(That said, give me FieldTurf or a semi-artificial surface first.)

7) Every week we try to fire up the masses with a “Fire It Up” video. Sometimes these videos are inspirational ballads of kick-ass Notre Dame football. Sometimes they are of a Japanese game show with dudes getting hit in the junk. Submit a video to Fire Up the Irish faithful for the Purdue game.

With a game like Purdue, I’ll let coach Eric Taylor get the boys fired up:

 

Wimbush’s mechanics, Notre Dame’s receivers shine in Blue-Gold Game

15 Comments

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The 64-yard touchdown pass to Miles Boykin in the Blue-Gold Game will be memorable, and with good reason, but Brandon Wimbush’s shorter completions — such as a 12-yard gain to Alizé Mack, a 10-yard reception by Chris Finke and a seven-yarder to Cole Kmet — hint at even more promise for Notre Dame in 2018.

A year ago, the rising-senior quarterback missed those underneath crossing routes, hitting the checkdowns in the shoelaces, if at all. During Saturday’s conclusion to the spring practices, Wimbush finished 19-of-33 for 341 passing yards and two touchdowns, leading the Irish offense to a 47-44 victory over the defense.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his staff have maintained the party line of an open quarterback competition this spring between Wimbush and rising-junior Ian Book, but Kelly acknowledged the writing is on the wall after this spring.

“It’s pretty clear that Brandon went out and got a chance to go with the first group and Ian played with the second group,” Kelly said. “That’s not etched in stone, but that’s the way they have been trending.

“I don’t think there was anything today that changed that, but we know Ian Book can win for us.”

By no means did Book play poorly in the intrasquad exhibition, but Wimbush’s marked improvement in his accuracy and mechanics essentially ended any competition talk for the summer. Book threw for 292 yards on 17-of-30 passing with one touchdown, an 85-yard touchdown pass to rising-junior receiver Chase Claypool to open Saturday’s scoring in which Claypool dismissed a tackle attempt from rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford with nary a concern, in part because Crawfrod’s ball-hawk instincts kicked in and he went for a strip as much as for a tackle.

Claypool led the receivers with six catches for 151 yards and two scores, while rising-senior Miles Boykin added three catches for 132 yards and the aforementioned touchdown.

“We weren’t an explosive passing game last year,” Kelly said. “Miles changes that complexion. He’s very difficult to defend, and if you do, you have to roll a coverage up on him. You’re going to take a safety and borrow a safety. We think that’s going to give us the kind of running game that will be extremely effective, as well.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Already embedded above, Boykin’s shedding of fifth-year cornerback Nick Watkins to pull in Wimbush’s pass, while maintaining enough balance to get to the end zone, showcases much of what could make Boykin a true all-around threat in 2018. He showed his leaping ability and overall athleticism in the Citrus Bowl dramatics/heroics. He also has the speed to get a step on a quality cornerback like Watkins, giving Wimbush the opening to launch toward.

While praising Wimbush’s short-game Saturday is pertinent and accurate, ignoring his ludicrous arm strength would be a mistake. From his own 27-yard line, Wimbush did not take a step into the throw, basically heaving it from his back foot, and still sent it 56 yards through the air on target to Boykin at the opposite 17-yard line.

RUNNER-UP PLAY OF THE GAME
The folly of an intrasquad scrimmage is every success comes as another teammate’s failure. Boykin’s and Claypool’s touchdowns did not result from blown coverages. In each instance, the cornerback had close coverage, but the receiver simply made an outstanding play.

Rising-senior cornerback Shaun Crawford may have gotten turned around a bit finding Book’s throw, but once Claypool came down with it, he simply broke Crawford’s tackle and headed toward the end zone.

“[Crawford] played, honestly, really good defense,” Claypool said. “He was right there with me. He never gives up on the play, which is what I love to see from the defensive guys. … No other defensive back really offers his hidden ability and his coverage ability with his speed.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
In the days to come, more time will be spent looking at rising-sophomore Avery Davis’ public debut as a receiver/running back hybrid who happens to spend some time at quarterback. In fact, pondering those possibilities will undoubtedly be a recurring theme of the summer. His performance Saturday guaranteed as much.

Davis took 11 carries for 30 yards with a long rush of 11, adding two catches for 24 yards and completing two passes, on two attempts, for 26 more yards. He may have never found the end zone, but his fingerprints were all over the game, including a five-yard reception in the flat from Wimbush, another example of the starting quarterback properly diagnosing and hitting the easy throw, taking the yards where they are available.

“Avery is kind of a multi-dimensional guy,” Kelly said. “He can do a little bit of everything for us. [Davis and rising-sophomore Jafar Armstrong] give us more versatility than just having the two backs and the freshmen at that position. What we saw from them in the spring kind of showed itself today. Both of them are going to be productive.”

Armstrong, another running back/receiver hybrid, took five carries for 48 yards including a 25-yard touchdown, and had one catch for 21 yards.

Between the two of them, Notre Dame opens up a much larger inventory of possibilities within its playbook, and creates opportunities to rest the backfield mainstays.

STAT OF THE GAME
Rising-junior safety Jalen Elliott recorded an interception in the spring finale for the second April in a row. Between the two interceptions, no Irish safety managed such a takeaway. On top of that, Elliot missed another interception earlier, letting one bounce right off his hands. For that matter, so did Watkins.

In a game with 65 pass attempts, some are going to find defensive backs’ hands. Throughout 2017, the Notre Dame safeties tested that hypothesis, seemingly averse to attacking the ball in the air. By pulling in one interception and breaking up a pass, as well, Elliott offered a glimmer of hope that trend may change. Those two pass breakups would have been nearly half of the five managed by all Irish safeties in 13 games last season.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Rising-senior running back Dexter Williams is known for his speed. His playmaking ability is why he sees the field despite deficiencies as a pass blocker and receiver. When he breaks away, he is not supposed to be caught.

Unless the defender chasing him from across the field is also a track star, at which point, rising-junior cornerback Troy Pride had little difficulty at all.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Last spring, Wimbush played well enough, but not much better than that. He threw for 303 yards on 22-of-32 passing, finding the end zone only on foot. Kelly remembered it well.

“Last spring, I told him I went home, I didn’t feel so good about the way you played,” Kelly said. “I think I’m going to go home feeling a whole lot better today.”

UNRLEATED TO THE ACTUAL GAME …
Even a cynic has to acknowledge the genuine happiness displayed by fifth-year left guard Alex Bars about being named the fourth Notre Dame captain early Saturday morning after a team vote Friday.

“I was just elated,” he said. “I was so happy. Highest honor I’ve ever received.”

Bars did not bother to tell his family about being named captain, instead focusing on the exhibition at hand and letting the natures of modern technology inform them in good time.

SCORING SUMMARY
No, let’s not detail how the defense scored 44 exhibition points, even if one of them came from a supposed sack by rising-sophomore tackle Darnell Ewell. Instead, let’s be rational and simply note the offensive tallies:

Book to Claypool, 85-yard touchdown. Justin Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 28-yard field goal.
Yoon 40-yard field goal.
Jonathan Doerer 20-yard field goal.
Armstrong 25-yard touchdown run. Doerer extra point good.
Wimbush to Boykin, 64-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Dexter Williams one-yard touchdown run. Yoon extra point good.
Wimbush to Claypool, six-yard touchdown. Yoon extra point good.
Yoon 46-yard field goal.

Blue-Gold Game Primer: Who, what, when, where and why

und.com
6 Comments

WHO? Notre Dame’s offense (Blue) against its defense (Gold).

WHAT? Spring games are often misconstrued as actual games. They are, in all of reality, the 15th and final practice of spring. Thus, the time on the field cannot exceed two hours, and the second half will consist of only two 12-minute quarters with a running clock.

WHEN? 12:30 p.m. ET, and this should, again, have a strict two-hour time limit, so do not arrive late if genuinely wanting to watch.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, hosting its first Blue-Gold Game without construction afoot since the Campus Crossroads project began following the 2014 season.

NBCSN will broadcast the game, which will also be available at NBCSports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

WHY? A cynic might wonder why the 15th practice is opened to tens of thousands of fans and held in Notre Dame Stadium at all. The obvious reasoning is two-fold. Giving the public a look at the team and any possible progress does not endanger the fall’s game plans as some might fear. Instead, it engenders good will and creates a buzz around the football program during a slow period, rather than stretch from January to August with nothing but silence and a few recruits signing National Letters of Intent.

Secondly, and more importantly, those tens of thousands of pairs of eyeballs offer another litmus test for each of the players, especially the young and inexperienced. There is no reason to think rising-junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg might struggle with that kind of pressure, but there is equally little reason to think he will thrive in it. By no means will today’s atmosphere be comparable to Sept. 1’s, but it is closer to that than a normal practice would be.

MEANINGLESS STAT: Actually, all Blue-Gold Game stats are meaningless. Last year, Ian Book threw for 271 yards on 18-of-25 passing, adding a touchdown with no interceptions. Meanwhile, defensive end Daelin Hayes reached the quarterback three times.

During the actual 2017 season, Book threw for 456 yards on 46-of-75 passing, matching four touchdowns with four interceptions. Hayes notched three sacks in 13 games.

The point is to remind all not to focus too much on today’s stats, but instead notice schemes, orders of appearance and designed alignments.

BY HOW MUCH? In a game with offensive scoring as usual and defensive scoring hinging on touchdowns (six points), forced turnovers (three points), three-and-outs (three points), an overall stop (two points) and tackles for loss (one point), the edge may actually fall on the defense’s side, and not only because it returns nine starters, compared to the offense’s six.

Consider, even when the offense scores a touchdown, the odds are the defense logged at least one tackle for loss on the drive, making the touchdown drive a net-6 for the offense. Meanwhile, whenever the defense forces a stop, it gets those two points plus another likely tackle for loss. Every two such possessions match each offensive touchdown. Three-and-outs and forced turnovers should quickly create a margin of victory.

And yes, that was approximately 125 words too many spent on handicapping this intrasquad scrimmage.

SOME PREDICTIONS: Book will star. Notre Dame’s safeties will make two interceptions, leading to a summer of unearned hype. Rising-senior receiver Chris Finke will score a touchdown.

AND IF YOU WERE CURIOUS … The Shirt will be green this year, as was announced Friday evening.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Wimbush’s accuracy, finally five offensive linemen & Jay Hayes’ destination
As linebacker depth questions persist, Notre Dame turns to a safety
Notre Dame announces two-game series with Alabama
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions
Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Football announces Blue-Gold Game format
How improvement in the Irish secondary will look
Brock Wright on track
It’s not just coaches that make big bucks
2018 NFL Draft narrative busters
Dear NFL: Go ahead and get rid of the kickoff

Four-star OL John Olmstead chooses Notre Dame over Michigan

rivals.com
4 Comments

With the addition of a consensus four-star offensive lineman, Notre Dame gained its fourth commitment in the class of 2019 on Friday afternoon. John Olmstead (St. Joseph High School; Metuchen, N.J.) becomes the first offensive lineman to join the class.

He cited the tradition of the Irish program as a key factor to his decision.

Considered the No. 10 tackle prospect in the country per rivals.com — also the No. 1 player in New Jersey and No. 63 recruit in the country — Olmstead is the third consensus four-star in the class, all trench factors. He held a lengthy offer sheet, including the likes of LSU, Florida and Oklahoma, but Olmstead had narrowed his final choices to the Irish, Michigan, Mississippi, Minnesota and Rutgers.

When Olmstead arrives at Notre Dame, he will have some time to wait before an opportunity is readily-available at tackle. Rising-sophomore Robert Hainsey and rising-junior Liam Eichenberg are positioned to start at right and left tackle, respectively, this season. Each has three years of eligibility remaining, meaning Olmstead would likely spend at least his first two seasons in strictly a reserve role.

The Irish signed four offensive linemen in the class of 2018, but all were a bit less-heralded than the usual recruit Notre Dame hauls in at the position. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn played a vital role in gaining the National Signing Day pledge of rivals.com three star tackle Jarrett Patterson, whose pass protection skills mark him as a high-ceiling contributor in years to come.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s running game and depth lead Blue-Gold Game questions

Getty Images
1 Comment

For every strong performance in tomorrow’s conclusion to Notre Dame’s spring practices, a misstep or mistake will inherently match. If rising-senior running back Dexter Williams breaks loose for a 40-yard touchdown run, a critic might note the lack of speed in the Irish secondary. Should the Notre Dame defensive line wreak havoc in the backfield all afternoon, it may be due to a shoddy offensive line rather than a stellar defensive front. Interceptions will be considered equal parts a quarterback’s failing and a defensive back’s playmaking.

A year ago, defensive end Daelin Hayes recorded multiple “sacks” in the Blue-Gold Game. Whether or not he actually tackled a quarterback, the pressures indicated to the public’s eye that the right side of the Irish offensive line would be a 2017 weakness. Instead, they should have sparked no offensive line worry, only taken as a precursor to Hayes’ three real-world sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in the fall. The right side of the line, manned by the tag-team of Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey, was actually a strength, part of the country’s best offensive line.

Such are the flaws to over-analyzing an intrasquad scrimmage.

With those disclaimers in mind, the things to learn in the Blue-Gold Game hinge more on scheme, order of appearance and type of usage. Throughout the spring, the Irish offense has focused on the passing game. Yes, the running game drove the Notre Dame offense throughout 2017, but it is now without two All-American offensive linemen and a record-setting running back. At some point, the ground game needs to be proven all over again, and that point is supposedly Saturday.

“As it relates to our offense against our defense, we’ve thrown the ball much more than we’ve run it because of those things that we’ve wanted to grow in,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said over the weekend. “The spring game, we’ll get a better sense because we’ll run the ball a whole lot more and we’ll be who we have been.”

Rising-senior Dexter Williams is Notre Dame’s presumptive starter at running back, but finally showing an eagerness to engage in pass blocking could cement that status. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

That sense will begin with Williams and rising-junior Tony Jones (pictured at top). Williams appears to have the starting position within his grasp, but picking up a few pass blocks against the likes of Hayes would solidify that pecking order. Aside from that, perhaps the greatest thing to learn regarding Williams and Jones is, can they get through a competitive environment without injury?

Of course, limiting their carries will not only help that cause, but also reveal what kind of running back depth Notre Dame has. After the two injury-plagued upperclassmen, all the Irish can claim is an early-enrolled freshman, a receiver-turned-hybrid and a quarterback-turned-running back/receiver.

The Irish desperately need at least one of, preferably two of, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, respectively, to step forward.

The offensive line has set itself. With four returning starters and a long-touted tackle-of-the-future in rising-junior Liam Eichenberg along the front, the blocking is not the concern in the running game. Williams’ speed and Jones’ versatility offer promising potential when healthy. But this is football, both will not be healthy throughout the fall. Other carries need to be handled ably by at least a portion of that trio.

Though he may be the youngest, Smith may be the best option, simply because Armstrong’s and Davis’ responsibilities vary so greatly as they bounce between running back and receiver and, in Davis’ case, quarterback.

How will offensive coordinator Chip Long deploy Armstrong and Davis? Will they spend more time in the backfield or at slot receiver?

The addition of the two pass-catching backs increases the likelihood of Long using his favorite alignment, one with two running backs, at least one of which is a veritable route-runner and pass-catcher. Williams has never proven himself to fit that description, though Long noted Williams has improved his pass-catching as of last week. When Jones was injured last year, Long could no longer deploy the two-back set that quickly puts opposing defenses in unavoidable binds.

“That was a big part of our offense in spring ball, fall camp, then the backs got knocked out and hobbled,” Long said. “We couldn’t use that part of our offense. It hurt us.”

Should Jones twist an ankle again in September, Armstrong and/or Davis should keep that option available for Long’s play calls.

“Just having the ability with more depth back there, those type of guys, instead of just being Tony, now you have Avery, possibly Jafar,” Long said. “Injuries can’t take us out of that personnel.”

When he was healthy, Jones would often motion out of the backfield in those alignments. Although he finished the year with only six catches for 12 yards, the mere threat of his receiving abilities altered defensive approaches.

At other points, Jones was a bulldozer of a blocker, taking on multiple defenders to help spring either quarterback Brandon Wimbush or now-NFL-bound Josh Adams for a longer gain. Jones is likely to remain the best at this varied skillset, but having depth in the role is a luxury critical to Long’s preferred offensive scheme.

Most starting positions are settled, especially with the offensive line now set. Safety is not. Who will start at safety? Who will be the second-unit?

Rising-junior Jalen Elliott’s tackling miscues of the past have not yet prevented him from sitting atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety, though new challengers have joined the mix this spring in Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Even the candidates at safety have ebbed and flowed this spring. Rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath now appears to be headed toward a future at linebacker and rising-senior Nick Coleman has dabbled at nickelback while early-enrollee Houston Griffith moved from cornerback to safety to become another considered option.

At this point, rising-juniors Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman appear to be the likely starters, with Griffith offering a possibility of that changing as he learns the position over the summer. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has certainly left the door open for just such a development, or even the emergence of incoming-freshman Derrik Allen.

“The depth back there has yet to really take shape and we’re not in a hurry to dictate who is the 1 and who is the 2,” Lea said Tuesday. “… Those guys have a lot on their plate, it takes some time. They need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level. We’re getting to that point, I don’t think we’re all the way there yet.”

Learning who the starting duo is, and who fills in the second unit — be it still Genmark-Heath or Coleman, or rising-junior Devin Studstill or rising-senior Nicco Fertitta — the concerns of tackling from the position or attacking the ball in the air will be naturally included. Elliott’s physical gifts have long been evident, but he has lacked in both those areas. If he trots out with the starting defense but does not exhibit improvement in both categories, that will be portend another year of poor play along the defense’s back line, no matter what Lea may say publicly.

“I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along,” he said. “I think we’re allowed to get back into what is the base of the package, which is exciting.”

Notre Dame had a strong defense in 2017. Aside from the precarious positions offensive turnovers put the defense in at Miami and Stanford, it rarely buckled. Realizing the defense played that well while only occasionally getting into its most basic package because the safety play was so dismal is a sobering conclusion. It is also a tantalizing thought of what could come in 2018 with nine returning starters and improved safety play.

Lastly, who be the fourth Irish captain? When Kelly named fifth-year center Sam Mustipher, fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome and fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill captains early in spring practice, he said a fourth would be voted upon by the team as spring came to its close.

At that point, the most-likely candidates, all rising seniors or fifth-year graduates, seemed to be defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney, left guard Alex Bars, quarterback Brandon Wimbush, tight end Nic Weishar or cornerback Nick Watkins. Rising-junior cornerback Julian Love’s talent alone made him an outside contender.

As spring practice has progressed, reading between the lines might reduce that pool to three front-runners of Tillery, Coney and Bars. The first two of those three have had disciplinary issues during their time at Notre Dame, oftentimes an exclusionary factor in this conversation. To hear offensive line coach Jeff Quinn on the issue, the fourth captain should be Bars.

“Anytime your big guys run the program, I think you always have a better chance of succeeding,” Quinn said Thursday.

Two more quick-hitters:
— How will Coney fare in pass coverage?
Coney may not play that much this weekend. He does not need to prove anything in the 15th spring practice, while his backups need every rep they can get. When Coney is on the field though, watching him in coverage against any of the Irish tight ends could be revelatory. Lea has put the onus on himself for Coney’s past coverage woes.

“Coverage is a product of teaching,” Lea said. “Coverage deficiency can be a product of teaching deficiency. … Some guys do it naturally and some guys don’t, they have other things they have strength with. … As a unit, we’ve put a focus here on the end of spring practice in playing better in coverage and as a result, we’re seeing that play out in skeleton and team periods.”

— Will the receivers flash any speed?
When it comes to the positioning and usage of unique talents, the mismatches created by Armstrong and Davis may be the most predictive, but Notre Dame lost much of its outside speed with the departures of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL) and Kevin Stepherson (to repeated disciplinary issues). The defensive headaches caused by those two-back sets are best taken advantage of when a receiver can also take the top off a defense. Rising-sophomore Michael Young and rising-senior Chris Finke are both quick and shifty, but neither has shown truly top-end speed to this point. Despite his 6-foot-4, 227-pound, frame, rising-senior Miles Boykin has apparently improved his burst quite a bit this offseason. Fifth-year Freddy Canteen landed on the Irish roster last offseason largely due to his natural speed, before injury cut short his first season with the Irish.

Can any of them single-handedly alter a defense’s coverage, or will Notre Dame need to turn to incoming freshmen for that threat?