Removing the redshirts: Rising sophomores ready for spring

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When Notre Dame kicks off spring practice on Wednesday, a handful of rising sophomores will step into the depth chart for the first time. After a redshirt season (not the preferred nomenclature in South Bend, but still), 11 sophomores will start competing for playing time as their eligibility clocks begin ticking this fall.

Their circumstances will all be vastly different. A season after serving as practice players only (or sitting out injured), some will step into the starting lineup, while others will fight for special teams duty.

Let’s handicap their race to the field as the Irish begin a month of football activities.

 

Shaun Crawford: Assuming Crawford’s healthy and fully recovered after an August ACL injury, we expect him to step immediately into the starting nickel role. A job he was expected to take on last season, Crawford’s August knee injury short-circuited the defensive plans for the Irish from basically Day One.

Roughly seven months after the injury, Crawford might not be full-go for spring ball, but he’ll likely be moving around and in the mix. A year after the Irish played without a nickel, Crawford should provide a missing link there, putting the undersized but physically-talented DB in the mix to be the third cornerback on the field.

 

Tristen Hoge: With multiple vacanies along the offensive line, Hoge could fight his way onto the field at either center or guard. While he spent most of his high school career snapping the football, Hoge’s offseason work and development might allow him to play guard next to Sam Mustipher.

To do that, Hoge will need to prove he’s better than some veteran members along the offensive line. He’ll also need to show that he’s physical ready to step in and fight with defensive tackles. Brian Kelly has praised his work in the weight room in the past, but his offseason gains will be worth watching.

 

Miles Boykin: With the team’s three top receivers gone, Boykin has a huge opportunity in front of him. Now he needs to establish himself this spring, fighting his way into a rotation that’ll be long on talent but short on experience and production.

Boykin could battle Corey Robinson for playing time on the boundary. Or he could line up with Equanimous St. Brown in Will Fuller‘s spot on the wide side. At nearly 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds last year, size and physicality is on his side, wherever he lines up.

With Mike Denbrock on the look out for guys who can step in and fill the gap, Boykin has a great opportunity this spring to open some eyes.

 

Mykelti Williams: Few spots on Notre Dame’s roster are as thin as the safety depth chart. And after sitting out 2015, Mykelti Williams has a chance to seize a starting job next to Max Redfield with a good spring.

Drue Tranquill continues to recover from his second torn ACL. Avery Sebastian is healthy, but mostly an unknown. A year after learning from the sideline, Williams needs to show that he’s taken great strides, especially as Todd Lyght looks to solidify the back end of the defense.

Little is known about Williams after a redshirt season. But there’s an opportunity there for the taking if Williams is a quick study this spring, so keep an eye out for the Indiana native.

 

Josh Barajas: After struggling to stay healthy and in shape for much of his freshman season, Barajas has health going for him at a time when the rest of his position group seems to be recovering from injuries. That should allow him to get in the mix this spring, taking key reps as the defensive staff looks for a place to play one of the more highly-touted recruits in the class.

Barajas projects to be a SAM linebacker, but with injuries impacting guys like Greer Martini and Te’von Coney, he could easily see time at Will or Mike as well. Mostly the spring will be utilized to see if Barajas can take some of his unique traits and add something to a defense that’s desperate to replace some of the playmaking Jaylon Smith made in 2015.

 

Asmar Bilal: Another linebacker who infuses athleticism into a defense looking to replace the ultimate athlete, Bilal will spend the spring proving he’s not a tweener. At 215 pounds last season, that might be too small to be an in-the-box linebacker.

Of course, Brian VanGorder built a reputation around utilizing sub-packages and finding ways to turn players of all shapes and sizes into weapons. Bilal certainly has a great toolkit, and with a shortened depth chart, Mike Elston will get a good look at the Indianapolis product this spring.

 

Ashton White: Another athletic defensive back given a chance to fight at a position that’s far from settled. While Nick Coleman had a chance to learn on the field as a freshman, White took things in while saving a year of eligibility, retaining a fifth year and joining a very large group of first-year contributors in a reloaded secondary.

White has good size and length for a cornerback, where he’ll likely compete this spring. With Nick Watkins, Crawford, Coleman and senior Devin Butler all trying to find time opposite Cole Luke, White’s got a chance to either get in the mix in nickel and dime packages of find a home on special teams in 2016.

 

Elijah Taylor: After spending last season learning, Taylor enters an interior defensive line mix that’s got some talent but not necessarily the depth Keith Gilmore wants. The closest thing to a run-stuffing nose guard in this group of defensive linemen, Taylor’s brute strength might be what helps him see the field, especially if he’s able to impress this spring as the defense keeps Jarron Jones’ snap count down.

It’s hard to be a imposing player in the trenches if you don’t put the time in off the field, and we’ll see if Taylor’s year with Paul Longo helped prepare him for a depth chart that’ll likely see him behind Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah as well. But the Cincinnati prospect was an early target by this defensive staff and he could begin grinding his way up the depth chart this spring.

 

Trevor Ruhland: What to expect at guard this season is anybody’s guess. If it’s not Hoge, it could be senior Colin McGovern. But Ruhland is another guy who could emerge—especially with news that the coaching staff is potentially cross-training John Montelus with the defensive linemen.

Ruhland doesn’t profile as a tackle, which seems like the position with less depth and flexibility. But if Alex Bars (still working his way to full health) isn’t the guy there, then there’s a chance some of the other shuffling could benefit Ruhland on the inside.

Another guy worth watching when the spring roster comes out, mostly to see how much heft he put on after weighing 292 on the fall roster.

 

Micah Dew-Treadway & Brandon Tiassum: At this point, I need the spring to differentiate between Dew-Treadway and Tiassum. Both are stout defensive linemen who were listed last year at either 6-4 or 6-3.5. One weighed 300 pounds, the other weighed 302. Neither was a quintessential blue-chipper, with each guy a three-star prospect, though an early offer and commit to Notre Dame.

The road to the field doesn’t look open for either, unless they’re able to provide some pass rush. The interior of the defensive line is one of the underrated strengths on this roster. The strong side defensive end is manned by Isaac Rochell, perhaps Notre Dame’s best front seven player.

Dew-Treadway was on campus last spring, able to get a jump start on his college career along with Hoge, Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney. Tiassum is another Indianapolis product who’ll bring some athleticism to the field along with his 300-pound frame.

Both guys came to campus as need-based recruits. We’ll see how close they are to being able to fill that need this spring.

 

 

 

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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