When Tarean Folston went down on his third carry of the season, few expected a position with zero career running back carries to become one of the most dominant offensive weapons in Notre Dame history.
But C.J. Prosise was the next man in. And after making the transition to the backfield during spring practice, Prosise became Notre Dame’s feature back, with Folston out, Greg Bryant transferred and only freshman Josh Adams and Dexter Williams left.
During his first seven games at the position, Prosise has used his game-breaking speed and surprising power to make himself one of the nation’s top weapons. And in doing so, he’s on a crash-course for Notre Dame’s record books.
Let’s take a look at the backfield.
Undisputed MVP: C.J. Prosise
Prosise is the only running back in college football with over 900 yards rushing and 200 yards receiving. And if it weren’t for the Irish calling off the dogs early in a few games to get Prosise some rest he’d be at 1,000 yards as he enjoys fall break and the bye week.
There’s still room to grow in Prosise’s game—especially in short yardage and inside running situations. But watching the 220-pounder routinely bust through tackles in the open field and continue to score long-range touchdowns, it’s amazing that Prosise is actually outplaying the lofty expectations Brian Kelly set for him when most thought he was just publicly challenging Folston and Bryant during spring practice.
Pleasant Surprise: Josh Adams
That Adams, a three-star prospect coming off a major high school knee injury, is actually leading Notre Dame in yards per carry is amazing. That he’s shown the ability to process and understand the Irish offense, and earn an opportunity in pass blocking situations, is an even larger testament to his football IQ.
Granted, there’s no other veteran option to be on the field. But Adams possesses the long speed that makes Prosise dangerous and runs hard and downhill. He’s also another datapoint on the “recruiting stars don’t matter as long as Notre Dame’s staff IDs you early” train, a bandwagon I’d like to see more Irish fans jump on.
Room for Improvement: Short-Yardage Victories
Yes, DeShone Kizer is a 235-pounder. But he shouldn’t be Notre Dame’s short-yardage running option, and currently he’s the guy with the ball in his hands on 3rd and 4th-and-short. (Not to mention two-point plays.) That’s less of an indictment on Notre Dame’s backfield and more a strategic preference to get additional blocking numbers, but it’s still an area of concern at a position that’s really over-performing.
For as explosive as Prosise has been, he’s done most of his best work running on the perimeter. Still young in his career as a runner, there’s certainly no reason why his vision in the trenches won’t improve. (We saw him pull off a great run to get to the end zone against USC, knifing through a hole and then spinning back for the touchdown.) He also iced the Navy game by allowing his blocks to set up on a slow-developing counter.
But with a difficult schedule of defenses coming up, earning the tough yards will be crucial.
At the end of nearly every fall, one can look back at the praises of spring and see misguided conclusions. Such is the nature of competing against oneself for months at a time. Last year, the greatest misread from Notre Dame’s spring actually may have been the underrating of the Irish defensive line. Its struggles to mount a pass rush spoke more to the offensive line’s dominance than it did the defensive front’s ineptness, but the latter became the view du jour.
Thus, every conclusion drawn this spring should be measured with a great deal of trepidation and a few qualifiers. Nonetheless, certain possibilities this spring would offer the most promise to Notre Dame’s 2018.
Starting with, of course, avoiding any and all injuries in the coming month of practices.
Beyond that, the greatest development would be settling upon a starting quarterback without any remaining doubt. Such a decision is hard to fathom without one of the two main competitors — rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book — failing as much as the other succeeding, and that may seem contrary to the search for an ideal 15 practices. However, if that is what it takes to have no quarterback question moving forward, it would be a net positive.
This would require one of Wimbush or Book to show an “adeptness,” to borrow a word from Irish coach Brian Kelly, in both passing and running.
“What I want to know is that our quarterbacks are equally adept at running it and throwing it, and that wasn’t the case [last] year,” Kelly said before spring practices began.
Proving that beyond the shadow of a doubt would hinge on a nearly flawless month to come, which would also be the longest stretch of stellar play seen from either Wimbush or Book. It remains unlikely, but it would be the first step toward an ideal scenario.
A young emergence along the offensive line Splitting right tackle duties last year worked in large part because the rest of the offensive front was proven and experienced. With rising sophomore Robert Hainsey likely at a new position and rising junior Tommy Kraemer taking on more duties (if not also at a new position), finding a single fifth starter would allow this new-look line a full summer to develop the chemistry last year’s already had.
That could come in the form of rising sophomore Josh Lugg or rising junior Liam Eichenberg or from another of the handful of candidates. Whomever it is, identifying him before the summer would bode well for whoever is taking the snaps.
Coney’s command of the defense Rising senior Te’von Coney will step into the role formerly filled by the likes of Te’o, Schmidt and Morgan. Not only will he be counted on to make the most defensive plays and break 100 tackles again, but his command and understanding of the defense will dictate how a number of other players perform, as well.
Granted, Coney will have fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill in the middle with him, and Tranquill showed a solid grasp last year, often directing traffic from the rover position, but Coney will be in the middle and efficient pre-snap adjustments this fall will be best coming from there.
Competent safety play emerges The odds are slim Notre Dame will find two excellent safeties this offseason. Given there was not even good safety play last year, finding two stellar starters would require both rising junior Alohi Gilman to be better than advertised and some distinct development from an unexpected source.
More realistically, Gilman may be good, certainly better than options seen last year, and one of those options also takes a few strides forward this spring.
Having some viable possibilities at safety may sound like a low bar to clear, but it would be a marked improvement over the last two seasons and may be the final piece to the 2018 Irish defense.
Anything else found this spring would be icing on the cake. Even if that includes early-enrolled freshman running back Jahmir Smith flashing unexpected speed, rising senior Asmar Bilal showing a complete handling of the rover duties and/or rising sophomore receiver Michael Young not dropping a single pass throughout all of March and April. The Notre Dame coaching staff would certainly welcome each of those daydreams, but such micro performances may be a mirage this time of year.
Bigger picture changes — such as at quarterback, offensive line and the up the middle of the defense — would present a strong foundation for 2018.
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring questions focus on four non-QB positions
Notre Dame held two practices before spring break, both without pads. At the most, they set a base line, but much more should be learned in the coming month building up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 21.
Instinct, public opinion and headlines may presume the most-important thing to learn this spring focuses on the competition between rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book to be named starting quarterback. The fact of the matter, though, is that duel will almost assuredly extend well into the summer. It is thus not among the items to learn this spring.
Who will “start” at running back, however, may come into focus in the next five weeks. Whether rising senior Dexter Williams or rising junior Tony Jones gains an advantage over the other, both will receive plenty of carries in the fall.
For one thing, Josh Adams is no longer around to take 206 carries for 1,430 yards. If including the dismissals of Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes, 279 attempts for 1,831 yards and 14 touchdowns will need to be replaced from last season. That task begins with health, which neither Williams nor Jones had much of in 2017. Thus, the question of who takes the step forward has little previous evidence to provide an answer.
“Most people just see you on Saturday when you have your helmet on and shoulder pads, and wonder why isn’t he in the game,” Kelly said March 5 in discussing Williams. “Well, there’s four other days leading up to it, and his inability to really practice and provide the kind of work necessary to get to Saturdays put him behind a little bit.”
Kelly had similar thoughts regarding Jones, also acknowledging the first season of collegiate contact may have taken a toll on the then-sophomore.
“His strength in work volume is better than it was last year,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t healthy most of the season, as well. Stronger, he’s got a coat of armor on him. His work volume is better.
“Finally, we recognize how important he is and we have to make sure he gets the proper touches within the offense.”
Again, both Williams and Jones will have plenty of opportunities in the fall … if healthy. As much as this is a question of who gets more opportunities, perhaps it should be a wondering of who will stay healthiest, if either.
The Irish have to replace even more at receiver.
Notre Dame’s receivers totaled 113 catches for 1,716 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. With all of Equanimeous St. Brown (to the NFL draft), Kevin Stepherson (repeated legal issues), Cam Smith (out of eligibility) and C.J. Sanders (outgoing transfer) gone, the Irish lost 61 receptions for 934 yards and 10 touchdowns of that productivity. To put it more aptly, that is 53.98 percent of the receivers’ receptions, 54.43 percent of their yardage and exactly two-thirds of their scores.
That is, well, a lot.
With rising junior Chase Claypool only somewhat involved this spring due to shoulder surgery, even more of a vacuum awaits filling. Claypool leads the returnees with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns.
Enter rising seniors Miles Boykin and Chris Finke and rising sophomore Michael Young. With Kelly identifying Boykin as one of roster’s quickest players in 10-yard bursts, then that trio is not only diverse in size but also a grouping of genuine speed.
Will they solidify their standing as the leaders at the position, along with Claypool, or will offensive coordinator Chip Long be desperate for the arrival of a trio of incoming freshmen this summer, not to mention early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones or finally-healthy rising junior Javon McKinley?
No production was lost at safety this offseason, but that is not inherently a good thing.
Someone will start at safety in the Blue-Gold Game. Perhaps it will be rising sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath and fifth-year Nick Coleman. Maybe rising junior Alohi Gilman will confirm a year’s worth of reviews this spring and earn the nod, joined by returning starter and rising junior Jalen Elliott.
It will not be rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson after his move to rover. Removing him from contention is about the only piece of clarity at safety thus far, and that cloudy view may remain until late August, quite frankly.
Whoever starts at safety to close the spring will have pole position to maintain that honor when incoming freshman Derrik Allen arrives to present an additional challenge.
Of the three position groups discussed thus far, safety is truly the one with the most unknown. Early-enrolled freshman cornerback Houston Griffith could line up at safety on April 21 and it would not be all that much of a shock. It would simply mean the dismal play offered by last season’s roster had not developed into something better.
Another early-enrolled freshman could be the answer to the question of, who will be the fourth linebacker?
Rising junior Jonathan Jones is likely the backup to both fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney. If injuries were to pillage the rover possibilities, Tranquill would then move back to his former position and Jones would step into Tranquill’s place. And yes, Kelly confirmed Tranquill’s move to a more traditional linebacker role.
“You can write that down and get used to it,” Kelly said.
A number of other names could be plugged in where Jones’ appears in that paragraph. Early-enrolled freshmen Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer could both surpass Jones. Lamb and Bauer were such-heralded recruits, a jump past Jones and sophomores Drew White and David Adams could be just a confirmation of those reviews, not necessarily an indictment of the upperclassmen’s potential.
The final option, which would not be clear even if it came to be reality in the long-run, would be rising senior Asmar Bilal becoming the backup for both Tranquill and Coney despite also likely starting at rover. With similar logic to Tranquill possibly filling in for an injured rover, it could be determined relying on rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah or Robertson at rover with Bilal filling in at linebacker would provide the best fix of a lineup.
These are the things spring practice is intended for. A year ago, the questions hinged on new coordinators and new schemes. Even with the departure of Mike Elko to Texas A&M, the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator ensured consistency in scheme and message. Thus, the questions this spring hinge on a few positions, most notably these four.
Last week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly named three captains for the 2018 season. He also said he would hold a team vote for a fourth captain by the end of spring practice. That naturally leads to some speculation as to who could prevail in that balloting.
Kelly indicated “six or seven” players were in the mix after the first tally this spring, the one that made captains out of fifth-years Drue Tranquill, Sam Mustipher and Tyler Newsome. Considering which seniors stand out as productive playmakers, which fifth-years were invited back to contribute and thus create a roster crunch, and who led the offseason “SWAT” teams, a few frontrunners emerge.
The Irish have long had multiple leaders along the offensive line, and fifth-year right guard Alex Bars could join Mustipher as a team-wide captain. Similarly, fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar returned despite not yet being a vital piece of the passing game — instead, Kelly has often cited Weishar’s influence within the tight end group and the offense as a whole.
The returns of rising seniors Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery, each opting to forgo the NFL draft, certainly made Notre Dame’s defense a force to be reckoned with as far as paper is concerned. Usually, when a player up the middle comes off a strong junior season and opts to return, a captainship may soon follow, but both Coney and Tillery have faced disciplinary issues during their Irish careers. Such could jeopardize a captainship from an administrative standpoint, no matter how a player vote turns out.
Rising senior cornerback Nick Watkins is leading one of those spring SWAT units. Watkins may otherwise be off the possible captain radar, but that position of leadership has been an indicative piece of data the last two years. Exhibit A: Newsome led a group each of the last two years, bringing him to a more prominent role in the locker room than a punter may usually have.
Rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush heads a SWAT team, as well, as a co-leader with Weishar. Naming Wimbush a captain coming out of spring would create some level of expectation of him being the starting quarterback, something Kelly does not intend to establish before August, at the earliest. Of course, Wimbush’s play, or rising junior Ian Book’s subpar play, could force that issue before then.
That makes six candidates. Rising junior cornerback Julian Love (pictured above) could be a seventh. Love has comported himself well both on and off the field in his two years as a starter, and he may not be around to be a captain as a senior.
This is nothing but idle speculation, but it is spring break and the conversation is intriguing, at the least.
Mustipher on new o-line coach Jeff Quinn The verdict on Quinn’s promotion to fill the void left by Harry Hiestand will not be returned until November, at the earliest. Until then, the opinions of Mustipher and the rest of the offensive line are the best clues to Quinn’s interactions with the offensive line. When asked about Quinn on Tuesday, there was no chance Mustipher would offer anything but praise, but some insight can be gained by what praise Mustipher provided.
“He brings a motivational and inspirational energy to the offensive line room,” Mustipher said. “He understands the way the standard needs to be set.”
That is pretty generic to start. Mustipher then spoke of the “privilege” of being part of the interview process, along with Bars. It would seem the two made it clear to Kelly they wanted not only consistency in message and system, but also some investment in that approach.
“We understand that standard of excellence,” Mustipher said. “We wanted a guy that wanted to be here and wanted to coach, and that it meant a lot to him to be here.”
Kizer to the Green Bay Packers Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer was traded to the Green Bay Packers from the Cleveland Browns on Friday for a cornerback, per the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Without a doubt, getting away from the Browns will be good for Kizer, but do not presume he will ever throw many passes on the shores of Lake Michigan.
In trading oft-injured cornerback Damarious Randall, the Packers not only received Kizer, but they also moved up in both the fourth- and fifth- rounds in next month’s NFL draft. That alone may have been enough incentive to move on from a defensive back who publicly feuded with an assistant coach last season.
Securing a contract-controlled backup quarterback solidified the deal, and it is likely Kizer is never more than a backup for the Packers. Starting quarterback and future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers is only 34. He should have another four or five or even more years left in his career. Kizer’s contract, meanwhile, expires after the 2020 season.
If he minds his manners, learns from Rodgers and makes a few cameos in the next three seasons, then perhaps an opportunity elsewhere will await Kizer. Knowing the NFL and its preference for the newest inventory, though, this may be a step toward a career as a backup for the 2017 second-round draft pick.
Kizer finished his rookie season with 2,894 yards, 11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions on 255-of-476 passing in 15 games. He added 419 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 77 attempts with nine fumbles sprinkled in.
(Off-topic, but near to the heart: Quarterback rushing statistics do not need to be adjusted for sacks in the NFL.)
Kudos to Oklahoma With the Sunday night reveal of the NCAA men’s basketball bracket, Oklahoma continued a rather impressive streak. The Sooners athletic department is the only one in the country that can claim AP Top-10 finishes in football and men’s basketball tournament teams in each of the last two years. For that matter, Oklahoma actually managed the double in 2015, as well.
‘Inside the Irish’ March Madness Pool Every online community has a bracket pool. On good days, this space is an online community. Thus, applying logic, it should have a bracket pool.
There is nothing at stake except for bragging rights and a chance to embarrass this scribe by finishing well ahead of him. What more could one possibly need?
For the sake of being different, the group will utilize a Fibonacci scoring sequence (2-3-5-8-13-21) with a seed-difference upset bonus throughout the Tournament.
At least with Notre Dame out of the bracket, the group’s results will not be skewed by unrealistic Irish hopes.
Speaking of Notre Dame not making it … The Irish did not have much of a résumé, injuries or no injuries. Looking at analytical measurements, though, Notre Dame appeared to have a much better chance than Syracuse, who squeezed in as the last at-large team. The Irish were the first team left out.
The differences between the two? Well, aside from Notre Dame winning at the Carrier Dome while without their two best players? The Irish have the nation’s No. 28 offense when adjusted for efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. The Orange have the No. 128 offense, offsetting it with the No. 11 adjusted defense.
It was indeed that difference that helped Syracuse to a 55-52 win over Clemson in its March 3 regular-season finale, a credentials-boosting victory the likes of which Notre Dame did not have.
Drue Tranquill returned to Notre Dame for a fifth season for a few reasons. Being named a two-time captain may have been in-line with the less tangible of them, but it was not necessarily a driving motivation. The vague pieces of Tranquill’s return are the usual platitudes of college football, but when he delivers them, they include such urgency and sincerity, the rote lines come across as genuine, or at least close to it.
“There is just something special about college football, and you can’t necessarily put your finger on it until you’ve actually experienced it and played it,” Tranquill said Tuesday. “In my heart, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this thing for one more year and finish what we started.”
More practically, Tranquill’s return should also serve to enhance his NFL future. The safety-turned-rover with two ACL tears projects as a linebacker in the NFL, if he is to have a professional football career at all. To date, Tranquill has never played as a traditional linebacker. To at least some degree, that inexperience would lower his NFL draft profile.
Both Tranquill and the Irish coaching staff knew as much, so the latter made a position switch part of its pitch to Tranquill in recruiting him to return. Tranquill’s first year under linebackers coach Clark Lea’s tutelage yielded better results than most may have expected, so another season with Lea would certainly help him develop further, especially if 2018 was spent as a linebacker. Right?
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly confirmed the position move Monday, and Tranquill acknowledged it as the on-field logic to his return.
“It was coach Kelly and a general understanding that was what I was going to play in the NFL,” Tranquill said. “… I knew in mind I need development at that position, so it was a general understanding that [the Irish coaches] had gotten feedback from NFL teams, I had obviously gotten feedback from NFL teams, and we all understood this is what I needed to develop at.”
Certainly, Tranquill could take the risk of getting that development in the NFL. In that situation, football would be his only obligation, quite literally his job in every respect. The additional year of earning power could offset the reduced salary of a lower draft spot. Then again, there would be no assurance of getting drafted or landing on a 53-man roster come fall. NFL teams are not often in the business of developing projects with long-term views. Coaches and front offices need to win now.
At Notre Dame, Tranquill would be guaranteed that some of development, likely enhancing his draft prospects, although also taking on the risk of injury. Such is the dilemma many such players face every year.
“It was just a decision of do I want to go and get that development in the league, or do I want to come back and develop under coach,” Tranquill said. “I think the best decision for me was to come back and develop under coach Lea.”
There will be no switching back, both for the sake of the Irish and out of respect for Tranquill’s future. Notre Dame has a few possible replacements at rover. There are no such ready possibilities at linebacker.
“Drue’s got to play the Buck, he’s got to play it well, and we’ve got to settle it on him,” Kelly said. “That’s where his reps are going to be this spring.”
The move will create challenges for Tranquill, many of them similar to the lessons he learned in moving from safety to rover. Moving closer to the line of scrimmage and now closer to the center of the action reduces the time he can take to react. His duties become even more specific, but still depend on reads of the offense’s intentions.
An engineering major, Tranquill spends his classroom time moving task-by-task in order to accomplish the larger objective. At linebacker, that broader view will inform his task.
“It’s going to be a challenge in terms of being able to expand my vision and see those other keys,” he said. “It’s something I think is really going to benefit my game and my ability to just see the defense as a whole.”
And, it should aid his NFL dreams.
Now who at rover? Kelly said rising senior Asmar Bilal will get first crack at rover, an easy assumption anyway. He then referred to Bilal as a “big rover.” Notre Dame lists Bilal at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, which is actually eight pounds lighter than Tranquill on a similarly-sized frame. Perhaps big was not the most precise adjective. Rather, Bilal is even more run-focused than Tranquill. If the Irish face an offense far more reliant on the pass, to the point of using four receivers more often than one tight end, Bilal’s role may need to be minimized.
In such a situation, Kelly mentioned rising sophomores Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and safety-turned-linebacker Isaiah Robertson as options, along with rising junior safety-turned-linebacker D.J. Morgan. Owusu-Koromoah was recruited by former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko (along with Lea) for the exact purpose of being a rover of the future. Incoming freshman Shayne Simon was sought for similar reasons.
The last option, also included by Kelly, would be to default to a nickel coverage package, turning the rover into another cornerback. Elko actually did that frequently last season, deploying rising senior Shaun Crawford, both physical and speedy, to disrupt offenses.
“There are going to be a number of guys that have the opportunity to be that next guy.”
Compare that array of varied possibilities to the lack of depth behind Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney at linebacker. Kelly expects Bilal to cross-train to protect against injury to either Tranquill or Coney, and after that the only name mentioned was rising junior Jonathan Jones.
“Jonathan’s got to do a great job of being a guy there that can give Te’von a blow when he needs one,” Kelly said.