Post-spring stock report: Secondary

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With the majority of Notre Dame’s starting lineup returning for 2015, the Irish spent spring practice knowing what their team would look like. But for Brian VanGorder and new secondary coach Todd Lyght, getting improvement out of the returning depth chart was critical.

At safety, there is no legitimate option behind Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, as Nicky Baratti and Drue Tranquill return from surgery. Redfield and Shumate were highly-touted recruits, and both have spent multiple years in the program. While the system change made things tough on the back end of the defense, one full year in, both players are expected to take a big jump forward.

At cornerback, the Irish await KeiVarae Russell‘s return. Paired with Cole Luke, Notre Dame has two front-line covermen who will be asked to do more than drop and play zone. Once again, behind the starters is where the concern begins.

Sophomore Nick Watkins pulled even with Devin Butler, who struggled mightily down the stretch in place of Cody Riggs. Graduate transfer Avery Sebastian joins the program this June, hoping to infusing some athleticism and earn a role like Riggs did in 2014.

While some promising freshmen get to campus this summer, let’s take a look at the secondary with spring practice in the rearview mirror.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

CB: Cole Luke, Jr. (5-11, 190)
S: Max Redfield, Jr. (6-1, 198)
S: Elijah Shumate, Sr. (6-0, 213)
CB: Nick Watkins, Soph. (6-0, 200)

CB: Devin Butler, Jr. (6-.5, 195)
CB: Matthias Farley, GS (5-11, 205)
S: Nicky Baratti, Sr.* (6-1, 205)
S: Drue Tranquill, Soph. (6-1.5, 225)
S: John Turner, Sr.* (6-.5, 225)

*Denotes fifth year available

 

STOCK UP

Max Redfield: That Redfield took last season’s demotion and struggles and came out the other side is a big victory. The Irish absolutely need one of their best athletes to play like one of their best defenders, and in many ways, Todd Lyght’s arrival was the perfect thing to happen to Redfield and Shumate.

A new voice will give each safety a fresh start, and early reports are that Redfield is thriving. There’s nothing stopping Redfield from being a standout player. With a year of knowledge and last season’s experience behind him, a big jump looks probable—or at least what many hope. Redfield could be the Irish’s best safety since Harrison Smith.

 

Nick Watkins: While he saw the field and played a role on special teams in 2014, Watkins didn’t find much playing time in the secondary. After Brian VanGorder acknowledged Watkins’ struggles fitting into the defense, Watkins took a step forward this spring when he began taking first-team reps across from Luke, continuing in that spot through the Blue-Gold game.

Sure, Watkins got beat long by Will Fuller for a 70-yard touchdown. But outside of that mistake (and Fuller can do it to anyone), he looked competitive and challenged opponents on every rep.

KeiVarae Russell will be back in the starting lineup soon enough. But a third corner is a key role, and Watkins proved himself capable for the job before a freshman like Shaun Crawford comes on campus to battle for it.

 

Drue Tranquill: After tearing his ACL against Louisville, that Tranquill was participating in spring practice and running and cutting on his surgically repaired knee was miraculous. Even more impressive? If the Blue-Gold game was against Texas, Brian Kelly said Tranquill would’ve been on the field and playing.

As a key piece of Notre Dame’s sub-packages, Tranquill fits into the defense perfectly. While he struggled as a half-field safety after Redfield and Shumate were relegated to the dog house, Tranquill’s speedy recovery is critical to the Irish defense, allowing VanGorder to mix and match on the back end.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Elijah Shumate: It was a quiet spring for the rising senior, who all of a sudden is out of eligibility after 2015. After serving as a key nickel cornerback during 2012 and struggling through injuries in 2013, Shumate needs to step forward as the Irish’s strong safety in 2015.

A physical freak and one of the team’s hardest hitters, Shumate has potential to play at the next level. But his game tape needs to match up with his skill set, and we’ll see if that happens come September.

 

Matthias Farley: The Irish’s best playmaker on the backend last year, Farley enters next season with no job carved out for him. And while he cross-trained at safety to help with depth issues, we’d be foolish to think that just because the lineup doesn’t have a spot for him that Farley won’t make one.

Farley’s best served in the slot, playing close to the line of scrimmage and using his physicality. And as we watch the Irish offense work to get the best 11 players on the field, at this point, Farley’s made a convincing argument that he fits in that group on defense.

 

STOCK DOWN

Devin Butler: Late last season, Butler struggled with what golfers call a two-way miss. Only instead of missing the fairway both left and right, Butler was letting receivers beat him short and also over the top. (That ain’t good.)

While Butler has shown some playmaking ability in limited action, finding a role in this secondary after sliding behind Watkins could be tough, provided everybody stays healthy.

Entering his junior season, Butler has played in 25 of 26 games the past two seasons. So thinking he’ll be relegated to the bench is rather stupid. But if this spring was an opportunity for Butler to shine, it appears that Watkins pulled even and past him, putting Butler’s place in the two-deep in trouble, as he’ll likely be behind Russell this fall—who won’t be coming off the field.

 

John Turner: What a difference a spring makes. After pushing his way into the starting lineup at outside linebacker last spring, Turner shifted back to safety to provide depth. While the veteran will likely play a key role on special teams, Turner doesn’t look like he’ll be in the mix for playing time in the secondary, as long as everybody stays healthy.

 

 

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…)