The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Offense

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We’ve had our fifteen-window look heading at the 2012 Fighting Irish, culminating in Saturday’s spring football game. While the roster will see the infusion of 14 freshman this summer, let’s take a look at the way too early 2012 offensive depth chart, updating it with what we learned this spring.

OFFENSIVE LINE

With Braxston Cave spending most of spring recovering from a late season foot injury, the Irish trotted Mike Golic out as the center. Whether Golic stays in the starting lineup after Cave returns is likely up to guys like Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, and Nick Martin.

The left side of the offensive line is rock solid with Zack Martin returning for his third tour of duty protecting the quarterback’s blind side and Chris Watt looking to build on an impressive season. With Cave the third member of this line that’s expected to play at a championship level, the two jobs that still need to shake out are the replacements for Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever.

One thing we’ve learned this spring is that Christian Lombard has seized one of the jobs. Lombard, who the staff thought highly enough of last year to let Matt Romine walk with a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, is going to start the season in the starting lineup. Whether that’s at guard or tackle is likely up to Tate Nichols. Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand have already decided that Lombard is one of the four best linemen on the team. If Nichols shows himself to be the fifth, and can handle the edge of the offensive line, the Irish should be set.

Early Projection for opening day:

Zack Martin, LT
Chris Watt, LG
Braxston Cave, C
Christian Lombard, RG
Tate Nichols, RT

Thoughts: This might be what I’m hoping for as opposed to what’s been decided because the first-string offensive line was featuring Lombard at tackle, with Golic and Nick Martin leading the battle at guard. That said, regardless of the physical improvements Golic has made, he’s still not the type of mauler that Nichols can be, and while Lombard will handle right tackle if needed, a road-grader like Nichols is a much better fifth starter than the physically limited Golic. In an ideal world, Golic turns into this season’s Andrew Nuss, a super-sub type that backs up the three interior positions. (That said, don’t be surprised if Nick Martin is the guy to beat at guard, with Lombard shifting outside.)

TIGHT END

A quick viewing of the Blue-Gold game gives you the feeling that Tyler Eifert will likely be a tight end by name only. Split wide, he’s the Irish’s top receiving threat. Paired with an inline blocker, it’s a mismatch waiting to happen. (Take a look at the deep post Eifert ran, it was a two-man route with Ben Koyack running the under route.) Even with Troy Niklas missing the spring’s final week with the flu and then concussion-like symptoms, he’s got to be the leader in the clubhouse to be the Irish’s top attached blocker.

Alex Welch, who had been passed by Ben Koyack last season, had a nice spring, fighting his way back into the mix and showing just how good the depth chart looks behind Eifert. Koyack is expected to do big things next season and into the future. Jake Golic, who along with Eifert is the elder-statesman of the group, reportedly has come down with mono, but he’ll likely only contribute on special teams.

Early Projection for opening day:

Tyler Eifert (never coming off the field)
Troy Niklas
Ben Koyack
Alex Welch
Jake Golic

Thoughts: Expect Eifert to play as many snaps as he can handle. I fully expect Niklas to become a weapon by the end of the season, and the Irish have taken a look at every snap of the New England Patriots’ tape to see how to use Eifert with Niklas, or whoever else can step up and make an impact. With plenty of two-tight sets, expect the top four on this depth chart to see plenty of playing time, and Golic do his best to get in the rotation.

OUTSIDE WIDE RECEIVER

If tight end is an embarrassment of riches, the outside receiver is quite the opposite. While John Goodman was voted most improved by the coaching staff this spring on the offensive side of the ball, believing that the fifth-year senior is ready to tap into all of his bottled promise is a leap I’m not yet willing to make. Same goes for Daniel Smith, who made it through spring practice healthy, and passes the eyeball test, but doesn’t look to be an explosive option. Davaris Daniels is the guy the Irish staff likely wants on the field, and might hope is flying under the radar. TJ Jones doesn’t look to have the physicality needed to be a top-flight outside wide receiver at this level (or at least he hasn’t shown it yet), but he’s taken a lot of snaps and needs to be a leader. Chris Brown and Justin Ferguson, not on campus until this summer, are true wildcards, with the staff believing Brown has the speed and athleticism to get on the field quickly. The loss of Luke Massa to a knee injury, after he looked good during spring drills, can’t help from a sheer numbers perspective either.

This is still a spread offense, regardless of how good the tight end depth chart is. The Irish are going to need two or three of these guys to be ready to go from day one, and the loss of Floyd, not to mention the late defection of Deontay Greenberry, will have Irish fans quickly wondering what could’ve been. That said, Mike Denbrock has done nothing but good things since he stepped back on campus, and he and Chuck Martin taking the reins of the passing game should open things up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Davaris Daniels
TJ Jones
John Goodman
Chris Brown
Daniel Smith
Justin Ferguson
Luke Massa (injured)
Andre Smith (walk-on)

Thoughts: This group doesn’t give you much confidence, but there is some talent here. Past numbers certainly won’t show that, but Goodman has a chance to be this season’s Jonas Gray, and Jones has shown flashes of being a starting-caliber player. While we’ll talk about the quarterback being a game manager, the Irish coaching staff will need to call the right game and play the best scheme to bring the most out of this group, as it’s not going to wow you with its athleticism.

SLOT RECEIVER

This is where we see the versatility of the Irish offense. On paper, there looks to be only Robby Toma currently on campus that plays the position. Davonte Neal, who was among the top recruited skill players in the country, could immediately make his mark, but he’ll need to learn the concepts and the playbook first. The same goes for KeiVarae Russell, who might be the forgotten man in this recruiting class, but someone people think could be a game-breaking talent. The versatility of the roster, where Tony Alford coaches both slot receivers and running backs, and Martin’s redesign of an offense that got way too vanilla last year, make this position a true mystery.

George Atkinson, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick all looked very good this spring, with the Irish running attack truly three-deep during the spring game. All three can play some version of slot receiver, with Riddick leading the team in catches during the scrimmage and Atkinson making some explosive plays in the passing game as well. We’ve only seen him with crutches, but the Irish believe they have another elite talent with Amir Carlisle, who dominated during the All-Star game circuit as a blue-chip recruit at wideout and was USC’s most versatile running back before transferring to South Bend.

It may be difficult to classify these guys correctly, but from this point going forward, who cares. The staff knows they are going to need to get the ball in their best players hands. How and where they do it will be fun to track.

Early Projection for opening day:

Robby Toma (could be a breakout player)
Amir Carlisle
Davonte Neal
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell

Thoughts: This group is going to be the most fun to watch. I could make a good argument that every guy listed here is going to have a huge season. The upside potential on all of these guys is tremendous and Chuck Martin is committed to finding interesting ways to get these guys touches. That’s all you can ask for.

RUNNING BACK

When Jonas Gray went down last season, the Irish’s biggest depth-chart deficiency on offense was revealed. With only freshmen Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson available as back-ups, Brian Kelly returned Theo Riddick to the backfield, where he’s stayed after looking natural at the position against Stanford and Florida State.

The addition of Amir Carlisle, the recruitment of Will Mahone and KeiVarae Russell, and the ascension of Atkinson this spring has turned this into one of the strongest positions on the Irish roster, and led to McDaniel getting reps with the depleted cornerbacks. Top-lined by returning starter Cierre Wood, the Irish can easily trot out four starting caliber running backs, before ever knowing what Mahone or Russell bring to the table.

With the balance of power in the offense tilted to running back and depth at tight end, expect all these guys — whoever is starting — to get carries.

Early Projection for opening day:

Cierre Wood
Theo Riddick
Amir Carlisle
George Atkinson
KeiVarae Russell
Will Mahone

Thoughts: The running game is going to power this offense. Call me crazy, but each of the top four guys listed could put up thousand yard seasons when you tally up rushing and receiving yards. That’s a scary proposition, especially when you know that Tyler Eifert is going to get his fair share of touches, too. For as much as people complain about the Irish’s weapons, this position grouping is definitely BCS caliber, and should remind Irish fans of the running game Lou Holtz used to trot out on the field.

QUARTERBACKS

Of course, it all is going to come down to the man behind center. The Blue-Gold game showed that the position battle, likely a three-man race between incumbent Tommy Rees and challengers Everett Golson and Andrew Hendrix, is far from over. It might be so unresolved that it gives Gunner Kiel a chance to fight his way into it, too.

The spring game was a microcosm of all three starting candidates problems. Rees forced a ball into coverage and threw a bad interception. Hendrix locked on a receiver, never even noticing a dropping linebacker that was there to pounce, too. Both are mistakes that upperclassmen can’t make. Golson, who looked the best of the three, struggled to get the team in alignment quick enough, burning two timeouts in more than comfortable circumstances.

This battle could go any way before the Irish board the plane to Dublin. But as of now, here’s my gut on where things will end up.

Early Projection for opening day:

Everett Golson
Tommy Rees
Andrew Hendrix
Gunner Kiel

Thoughts: Chuck Martin will earn his salary, and likely his first major head coaching opportunity, if he can get this group to play up to its potential. Admittedly, this depth chart is based around what we saw during the spring game, and the coaching staff had 14 other opportunities to evaluate the position. During his postgame press conference, Kelly made it clear that Golson, while he looked good, needed to put in the time during voluntary workouts to win the job. Never one to shy away from playing multiple guys behind center, there’s a high likelihood that we’ll see three (and maybe even four) of these guys.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

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By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

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Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)

What Notre Dame players should you actually watch? Plus, catch up on reading

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If technology does its part, this will post as its typist meanders toward finding his credential for the Blue-Gold Game to conclude Notre Dame’s spring practice. If technology doesn’t do its part, well, then this will be lost to the cobwebs of the internet. Such as it goes.

This space has spent much of the past week discussing what to look for in the 12:30 p.m. ET exhibition. Worry about the big picture, not the individuals. Fret about the macro, not the micro.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling new schemes, not the indivdual players
Blue-Gold Game primer with help from Notre Dame’s coordinators
Four defensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game
Four offensive positions to watch on Notre Dame’s spring game

But, if insistent on focusing on singular players, look to the inexperienced, the names you are unfamiliar with. The 15th and final practice of spring may be no more than a practice in reality, but it is in front of nearly 30,000 fans in Notre Dame Stadium. Some players do not have so much as that minimal experience.

“The Blue-Gold Game, specifically, is a time for us to emulate a game-like situation,” senior safety/linebacker/rover Drue Tranquill said. “Especially for guys like freshmen, second-semester guys coming in, it’s a great opportunity for them to get that game feeling, but also continue to take steps in the process to get better.”

The question on the tip of your tongue is a fair one. If you are unfamiliar with the names, how are you supposed to focus on those players? How are you to know who fits the appropriate tunnel vision version of perspective?

Let’s turn to Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mentions from Wednesday–primarily, sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara, sophomore long snapper John Shannon, senior kicker Sam Kohler, sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem and sophomore safety Jalen Elliott.

Obviously, that is just a sampling. Less obviously, this post’s purpose may or may not be to link to previous reading material and remind you of the vague but pertinent purposes to today’s endeavor. It is neither be-all nor end-all. It is simply another opportunity to gauge what may come down the line.

But hey, how about a prediction? Per Kelly, the first-team offense and second-team defense will be in blue, against the first-team defense and second-team offense in white.

PREDICTION: Blue 37, White 21

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online at ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.

Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.” (more…)