New Year’s resolutions for 2012 Irish

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It doesn’t take a CSI investigator to know that Irish fans are still smarting from the 18-14 loss to Florida State. Minutes away from a nine win season, the firm grasp the Irish defense had around the throat of the Seminoles loosened, and an offense that moved the ball prolifically earlier this season ground to a halt as both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix struggled to do much of anything to help win a football game.

Instead of heading to the offseason winning an ugly, defense first football game and making incremental progress with a nine-win season, Kelly’s squad seems stuck in neutral thanks to a quarterbacking conundrum that will make spring practice 15 of the most important sessions this team will ever have.

With the calendar starting anew today, there’s no better time to lay out some New Year’s resolutions for the Fighting Irish as they take some time off before getting back to the grind of getting better and preparing for 2012.

For the secondary… May they learn and develop quickly. For Jamoris Slaughter, may he springboard forward after his coming-out party against the Seminoles, and become the dual-threat player he’s always been capable of as he takes over for Harrison Smith as the heart of the secondary. For Zeke Motta, may he continue to improve in coverage and get better tackling in the open field. After two years of special teams consistency, may Austin Collinsworth take that playmaking knack to a secondary in need of big plays. May Eilar Hardy come back healthy after a knee injury and Chris Badger be a quick study after his two-year mission. At cornerback, may Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson be ready to be thrown into the fire. The same goes for Josh Atkinson, who saw the field this season and will likely see it a lot more next year. With the redshirt off Jalen Brown, the athletic and tall cornerback could also emerge as a contender for playing time, where the defense will likely hinge on the young secondary’s ability to make plays.

For the linebackers… May Manti Te’o stay healthy for his senior season, a year where he’ll likely earn his reputation as one of college football’s best defenders. After going from the bottom of the outside linebacker depth chart to the starting will linebacker, may Dan Fox continue to show the athleticism that had the previous Irish coaching staff see a better prospect than Luke Kuechly. Carlo Calabrese, who lost playing time to Fox, can use 2012 to improve in space, building on the strides he took this year in coverage. Te’o’s return pushed back the emergence of Kendall Moore, but the talented youngster will find a way to make a difference for this defense next year. The same can be said for Justin Utupo and Jarrett Grace, two young and talented inside linebackers that will be contributors sooner than later. May Anthony Rabasa‘s shoulder heal quickly, allowing the freshman to participate in spring drills as he continues his transition to the interior of the defense.

With the outside of the linebacking crew, may the Irish find stability as they try to replace Darius Fleming. For Prince Shembo, may he find stability if he shifts to Fleming’s old position, where he’ll have the opportunity to rush the passer and feel more at home. May the freshman season of Ishaq Williams help the youngster develop after absorbing the transition for New York high schools to major college football. For Troy Niklas, may the talented freshman take his unique size and skill set and apply that at the dog linebacker. For Danny Spond, may he get through a season healthy, and finally be able to utilize the talent that had Kelly and the staff so high on him. For Ben Councell, may his redshirt season be fruitful for a young linebacker that could become a top-line 3-4 drop linebacker.

For the defensive line… May Kapron Lewis-Moore come back healthy after knee surgery. May Sean Cwynar return to help anchor the interior of the defensive line while also continuing his first-class education. May Tyler Stockton work his way into the interior line rotation during his final season. After a promising first season, may Louis Nix continue to improve, turning himself into an All-American. While Kona Schwenke spent a year of eligibility during fill-in duty, may he work his way into the defensive end rotation, taking some of the snaps Ethan Johnson left behind. May Chase Hounshell build on a surprising freshman campaign that found him working his way out of a redshirt and onto the field. With time in the weight room, he could add yet another promising pass rush option to a front line that could be among the best in recent Irish history. After spending 2011 on the sidelines, may Tony Springmann surprise everyone with his athleticism and size, adding another player with the versatility to play inside and out. May Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch continue to evolve into bookends the Irish haven’t seen in years. For Tuitt, may the playing time he lost due to illness be paid back next season, when the already massive freshman has a chance for another 12 months in under Paul Longo. For Lynch, may the talented pass rusher work on the space between his ear pads, cutting down on the mental mistakes and personal fouls that pockmarked a freshman season that showed everyone just how talented he’ll be. (Lynch could also work on drawing the flags he earned for holding.)

For the offensive line… May Braxston Cave return healthy for 2012, anchoring the line from the center position while continuing to add finesse to a game certainly not lacking power. If Mike Golic returns, may he do it stronger at the point of attack and more versatile, giving the Irish another super-sub candidate a la Andrew Nuss. May Chris Watt build on an impressive 2011 season, where the left guard was one of the Irish’s most punishing run blockers. May Zack Martin continue being the technically sound left tackle he’s been for two straight seasons, and continue on his All-American trajectory. May Christian Lombard be ready to take over for Taylor Dever at right tackle, after spending 2011 waiting in the wings. May Tate Nichols come back healthy and ready to challenge for playing time at tackle as well, battling Lombard for the job and showing unnatural athleticism for a player of his size. May 2012 be the year Bruce Heggie isn’t a punch line. For Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, and Matt Hegarty, may 2012 be the year they battle for Trevor Robinson’s vacant job. For Brad Carrico, may he be ready to see the field. For Jordan Prestwood, may the year used in the weight room translate to the playing field.

For the receivers and tight ends… May Tyler Eifert decide what’s best for him and his family. If it’s Notre Dame, may he stay healthy and continue to build his body physically. For Alex Welch and Ben Koyack, may they be ready for a larger role in the offense, whether or not Eifert decides to return for 2012. For Jake Golic, may back surgery fix whatever ailed the tight end running out of opportunities to make a difference. At wide receiver, if John Goodman comes back, may he dedicated himself to becoming the wide receiver people thought he’d be coming out of high school. For Theo Riddick, if he stays at wide receiver, may 2012 be the year that the lightbulb finally goes on. For Robby Toma, may he find a more permanent spot in the offense. For TJ Jones, may he use the personal tragedy of 2011 as motivation to become the type of receiver the Irish need, while also realizing that he’s halfway done with his career. For Daniel Smith, may he finally find his way onto the field, stay healthy, and give the Irish a big body that’s ready to fill the void left by Michael Floyd. For Davaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, may they learn from the redshirt season and be ready to come out swinging in 2012.

For the running backs… May Cierre Wood pledge to put together one of the best single season’s in Notre Dame rushing history, and give himself a difficult decision on whether or not he should stay in school or head to the NFL. May Cam Roberson finally get healthy after a devastating knee injury suffered last spring. May 2012 be a better year than the last for him. For George Atkinson, may he build on the game breaking skills he showed in the return game, while finding ways to improve as a position player. For Cam McDaniel, may the youngster build on a year where his eligibility was lost, but not all that much experience was gained.

For the quarterbacks… May they find some stability. For Tommy Rees, may he prove the growing mountain of skeptics wrong. Like all quarterbacks, they’re never as good as the good times nor as bad as the bad ones. May this offseason help restore confidence, build more knowledge in the passing game, and take a step forward in his decision making. Rees will never be able to run the ball, but he can move the offense, even if the Irish sputtered down the stretch. For Andrew Hendrix, may he continue learning the offense, giving Kelly and the coaching staff a true look at what he can do come spring practice. With a skill-set that’s never been questioned, he’ll need to cut back on decisions like the throw he made against the Seminoles while also proving to be more than just a battering ram in the running game. The Irish can be the offense Kelly wants with Hendrix behind center, and a quarterback that can run will take some pressure off a receiving corp short potentially two All-Americans. For Everett Golson, may 2012 be a year where he rises to the occasion. There might be no player with great expectations heaped onto him, and if there’s a player that can rescue an offense still stuck in transition, it’s Golson.

For the coaches… May Brian Kelly stick to his guns. Two years in South Bend didn’t erase 20 years of experience, even if the fish bowl is a whole lot bigger. Sometimes seasons like the past year build humility, and for Kelly may he learn from the bizarre circumstances that came to define the 2011 season. For Bob Diaco, may he learn to live dangerously. With a youthful secondary and one of the best front sevens the Irish have ever had, maybe he keep the gas pedal down and his foot on opponents’ throats, as opposed to playing from a base defense. May Mike Elston solve the punt return game, where Michael Floyd bailed the Irish out with his 41-yard return in the bowl game after the worst season in school history. May Tim Hinton be thankful he turned down Urban Meyer and Ohio State to stay with Notre Dame. May Ed Warinner reload the right side of the offensive line and a ground game that slowed down in the season’s final month. May the offensive coordinator, whoever he may be, be ready to put his stamp on the offense. May Tony Alford earn his keep both in recruiting and in preparing this wide receiving corp for life without No. 3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

Associated Press
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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills