Louis Nix, Steve Elmer

Spring Solutions: Offensive line

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It may not feel like it, but spring isn’t too far away. For Notre Dame and Brian Kelly’s football team, spring practice is starting earlier than every, kicking off in early March.

The rationale for moving up the calendar isn’t 100 percent clear, but what is certain are the steps the Irish need to take to get back to the elite. As college football enters the playoff era, the 15 practices this spring will give the Irish their marching orders heading into summer workouts.

Needing to replace key starters on both sides of the ball, let’s take a look at the pre-spring practice depth chart, starting along the offensive line.

OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

Nick Martin, Sr. — C*
Matt Hegarty, Sr. — C*
Christian Lombard, GS — G/T
Conor Hanratty, Sr. — G*
Mark Harrell, Jr. — G*
Hunter Bivin, Soph. — G/C*
Colin McGovern, Soph. — G*
John Montelus, Soph. — G*
Ronnie Stalney, Jr. — T*
Steve Elmer, Soph. — G/T
Mike McGlinchey, Soph. — T*

*Fifth-year of eligibility available. 

Harry Hiestand won’t know what to do with himself this spring. After having miniature groups the past few springs with the depth chart in poor shape, competition will be at a premium this spring, with the two-deep stocked with people competing for playing time.

The departure of Zack Martin and Chris Watt leave two gigantic holes in the offensive line, but there are plenty of candidates to fill the jobs. Let’s walk through the spring objectives for each lineman on the depth chart.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Nick Martin: First and foremost is returning healthy after a knee injury ended Martin’s season early. Kelly gave good news on that front, calling Martin ahead of schedule during a press conference at the end of January. That doesn’t necessarily mean Martin will be taking live reps, and if he does that goes to show you how quickly he’s healed.

Then again, if he doesn’t, it’s a sign that the staff is comfortable letting him get through spring healthy. After a more than serviceable debut season in the starting lineup, the hope would be that Martin takes that leap forward in his second season at center.

Matt Hegarty: After battling some really serious health issues, Hegarty had to be one of the true surprises of the season, stepping into the lineup after Martin got hurt and holding his own against some really difficult competition. Hegarty played well against BYU, Stanford and Rutgers, facing off with some solid competition and showing himself fully recovered from a scary stroke he suffered.

Hegarty was a highly touted recruit. He’s got the size and athleticism the Irish staff targeted from the start. If he’s able to push Martin at center, there’s a chance he could play his way into a swing role at both guard and center, making himself a key reserve heading into the season.

Christian Lombard: Irish fans have all but forgotten about Lombard, the 2012 starting right tackle who shifted inside to play guard alongside Ronnie Stanley. But Lombard went down with a back injury early in the season, forcing Steve Elmer into the starting lineup. If healthy, Lombard is a key returning starter that could serve as an anchor on the interior.

The lone fifth-year player on the depth chart, Lombard has played a lot of football and has always been highly thought of by this staff. (Take a trip in the “Way Back Machine” and remember the Irish staff letting Matt Romine play out his eligibility elsewhere to allow Lombard to start at tackle.) Lombard’s a big body at guard who has the ability to play tackle as well.

Conor Hanratty: Hanratty was impressive last season, cutting into Elmer’s reps at guard before being forced into a more regular role when Chris Watt got injured. Now a senior, Hanratty’s urgency for a starting job will only be elevated. How things shake out on the interior of the offensive line should be interesting.

Expect Hanratty to stake a claim to a guard job, though what the staff does with Elmer remains to be seen. Depth like this is hardly a problem, but it certainly makes for a nice challenge. With redshirts coming off some other guys, the guard competition will be fierce.

Mark Harrell: After redshirting during 2012, Harrell didn’t see the field in 2013 either. From what we’ve heard from the coaching staff, Harrell’s got positional flexibility on the interior of the line, though he’ll be competing at a packed position with talented guys both younger and older than him. Getting on the map will be the first order of spring for Harrell.

Hunter Bivin: This will be our first look at Bivin, who was an emergency option down the stretch last season. A really athletic prospect who came into Notre Dame as a highly touted recruit, Bivin could play anywhere along the line, though might be Notre Dame’s next center after Martin and Hegarty move on.

Colin McGovern: McGovern wasn’t completely healthy last season, so spring will be a good opportunity to get his first true reps as someone competing for playing time. The Illinois native should earn some fans on the coaching staff with his mauler style, but he’ll have to work his way through a stocked depth chart as well.

John Montelus: Another redshirt getting his first look at true competition. Kelly spoke about Montelus’ recovery from shoulder surgery, proclaiming him healthy for spring. He’s a physically different player than most of the guys on the depth chart, with his 340 pounds a rather eye-popping number. That kind of heft might be useful in the trenches.

Ronnie Stanley: This is an important spring for Stanley, who had a sneaky, below-the-radar type season for the Irish in 2013. It’ll be clear to most that Stanley is a very good football player. Is he the Irish starting right tackle again? Does he shift to the left side? Does it really matter?

Stanley is a building block for this offensive line and will be counted on to be a key player next season. He should spend this spring asserting his dominance and preparing to be a front-line championship-level player for the Irish.

Steve Elmer: We’re past the point of wondering “if” Elmer plays next season. But “where” is a really interesting question. It’ll be important to give the sophomore a real opportunity to make a home at a position. You could make a decent argument that it could be at three or four different spots.

Elmer’s got the size and ability to be a left tackle. But if Mike McGlinchey is in the coaching staff’s plans at that position, then Elmer’s too good to keep off the field. In that case, he could slide inside and take over Chris Watt’s job. But that’s keeping some very good football players off the field as well. If Stanley flips to the left side, Elmer could play right tackle. And he spent a ton of last season playing right guard.

These type of dilemmas aren’t problems for coaching staffs. And as Alabama showed with Barrett Jones, it’s possible to slide a talented lineman all around. Elmer has that type of ability, so it’ll be a fun spring to watch what happens.

Mike McGlinchey: That Elmer isn’t a lock to step in at left tackle says a lot about McGlinchey. Expect to see and hear a lot about the monument-sized tackle, who will likely be given the first shot at the starting job. The season off likely helped McGlinchey grow into his 6-foot-8 frame, and he’ll have packed on plenty of weigh from his listed 290 pounds.

Brian Kelly has raved about McGlinchey’s athleticism, calling him athletic enough to play tight end during his signing day press conference and then talking about his arm strength and basketball ability as well. It’ll be fun to watch McGlinchey take his first meaningful snaps this spring.

Putting a redshirt freshman at left tackle is a big decision. But McGlinchey seems to fit the part well.

 

Notre Dame returns 15 starters in 2017; How many do its opponents?

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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In six months—180 days, to be even more precise—college football will return. Sure, spring practice might be only eight days away in South Bend, but those sessions will have no tangible effect on the national championship chase.

On Aug. 25, Stanford will face Rice in Sydney. According to AP Style, one does not need to notate Australia there, but some thoroughness can’t hurt, right? For that matter, South Florida will take on San Jose State, and Hawai’i will travel all the way to Foxboro, Mass. to take on Massachusetts.

Six months ago—well, again, 180 days to be exact—No. 19 Louisville introduced America to quarterback Lamar Jackson in a 70-14 rout of Charlotte, kicking off the 2016 season with an eight-touchdown performance from the eventual Heisman winner. No. 9 Tennessee topped Appalachian State 20-13 in overtime, setting the stage for a Volunteers season full of dramatics.

A week after the Cardinal go down under to face the Owls, Notre Dame will open its season against Temple with 15 returning starters, eight on offense and seven on defense, pending any spring or summer departures or injuries. According to Phil Steele, 24 teams return more experience.

Offense: Offensive linemen Mike McGlinchey (12 starts in 2016), Quenton Nelson (12), Sam Mustipher (12) and Alex Bars (12); tight end Durham Smythe (12); receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (12); running back Josh Adams (nine) and C.J. Sanders (seven)
Defense: Safeties Drue Tranquill (12) and Devin Studstill (nine); cornerback Julian Love (eight); linebackers Nyles Morgan (12) and Te’von Coney (nine); and defensive linemen Jerry Tillery (11) and Andrew Trumbetti (seven)

How does this Irish listing compare to Notre Dame’s opponents? Right about middle of the pack. (If a quarterback is not specifically mentioned, the team does not return a starter at that position.)

Sept. 2 — v. Temple, returns 10 starters; six on offense and four on defense
Sept. 9 — v. Georgia, returns 17 starters; seven on offense, including quarterback Jacob Eason, and 10 on defense
Sept. 16 — at Boston College, returns 15 starters; eight on offense and seven on defense
Sept. 23 — at Michigan State, returns nine starters; four on offense and five on defense
Sept. 30 — v. Miami (Ohio), returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Gus Ragland, and eight on defense
Oct. 7 — at North Carolina, returns 12 starters; five on offense and seven on defense
Oct. 21 — v. USC, returns 12 starters; five on offense, including quarterback and Heisman-threat Sam Darnold, and seven on defense
Oct. 28 — v. North Carolina State, returns 17 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback Ryan Finley, and eight on defense
Nov. 4 — v. Wake Forest, returns 15 starters; nine on offense, including quarterback John Wolford, and six on defense
Nov. 11 — at Miami (Fla.), returns 15 starters; seven on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 18 — v. Navy, returns 13 starters; five on offense and eight on defense
Nov. 25 — at Stanford, returns 16 starters; eight on offense, including quarterback Ryan Burns, and eight on defense

Naturally, the number of returning starters is cyclical, and some might argue teams with lackluster records one season should not want to return many starters the next. Then again, those players started over others for a presumed reason in the first place

Acknowledging that cycle, it seems innate to take a look at how many starters Notre Dame might return in 2018. By no means is the intent here to look past 2017. Rather, consider this something of a scholarship chart cliff notes. As always, this does not factor in the inevitable injuries, transfers and departures otherwise inherent to the coming six months.

Of the above eight offensive returnees, McGlinchey and Smythe will both be out of eligibility following 2017, and Nelson will nearly-certainly depart for the first round of the NFL Draft. The other five, though, could all be back in blue-and-gold. One would think quarterback Brandon Wimbush—2017’s assumed starter—will return, as would whoever the third receiver is in 2017, considering there is no senior at the position aside from graduate transfer Freddy Canteen who has two years of eligibility remaining anyways. If a tight end such as freshman early enrollee Brock Wright or junior Alizé Mack were to usurp Smythe, then the Irish may have eight returning offensive starters again in 2018.

Of the above seven defensive returnees, only Morgan and Trumbetti will finish their eligibility this season. If Tranquill does indeed end up manning the rover position in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, that will open a starting spot for another safety. Whoever that is, he will have eligibility remaining, as will whatever cornerback lines up opposite Love. The defensive line remains a quandary, but it is distinctly possible Notre Dame returns eight defensive starters, as well, in 2018.

Fortunately, spring practice begins March 8, and some light can begin to shine on those questions regarding the defensive line and the overall defensive alignment. In addition to garnering excitement for 2017, they can also shed some insights into the seasons to come.

Oh, and in case you are curious, Stanford will fly 7,434 miles to get to Sydney while Hawai’i will travel a mere 5,083 to get to Gillette Stadium.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)