D.J. Morgan

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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line

Four defensive positions to watch in Notre Dame spring game

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Entering spring, question marks riddled Notre Dame’s defense. What is a rover? Who will play on the defensive line? Do the Irish have enough big bodies to fill the defensive line? What about athletes at safety?

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network on the NBC Sports App) will provide fans a glimpse at some of those possible answers.

What four defensive players/positions should fans be most focused on? Let’s start with that much-discussed, about-to-finally-be-seen rover position, a focal point in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

ROVER: Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal
The lessons learned here this weekend should be applied more to the position than to the individual players. Senior Drue Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal will both contribute at the safety-linebacker hybrid position, though it increasingly sounds like it is more linebacker than safety.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense additional flexibility when compared to a traditional linebacker. Tranquill, for example, is plenty well-built at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, but he still provides better coverage abilities than a third linebacker such as junior Te’von Coney might. Bilal, at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, offers a bit better coverage option than a Coney or sophomore linebacker Jonathan Jones would, and much better run-stopping tendencies than a safety such as sophomore Devin Studstill’s. At least, that is the theory.

In practice, what will the rover’s primary assignments be? Admittedly, this may change on a week-to-week basis depending on an opponent’s strengths, but Notre Dame’s offense should present many looks and opportunities for Tranquill and Bilal to showcase the position’s unique nature. When the Irish offense trots out three receivers and a tight end like graduate student Durham Smythe, the rover will need to either cover Smythe, sophomore “slot” receiver Chase Claypool or account for the possibility of a running back coming out of the backfield. One way or another, the rover will be tested.

In that hypothetical, it is more likely one of the senior linebackers—captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—covers the running back, leaving the unenviable option of Claypool or Smythe (or any one of Notre Dame’s other tight end options) for the rover.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

For the sake of sample size, hopefully the Irish coaching staff puts one of the two in blue and the other in white, rather than symbolically designating them as 1A and 1B by keeping both in white. That roster alignment—usually seen as an “OR” on the depth chart in the fall—may be more accurate, but it would be more worthwhile to see a full set of snaps from each. Especially considering how Kelly has touted Bilal as the likely option against run-based teams, perhaps placing him on the second-unit defense this weekend could present a worthwhile experience, facing a solid backup offensive line blocking for either junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones.

DEFENSIVE END DAELIN HAYES
Yes, the sophomore gets his own entry on this list looking at four positions. He has, after all, seemingly secured a starting position as the rush-side/weakside defensive end. Throughout the spring, only praise has followed Hayes’ name when mentioned by Kelly or any other coach, but they also caution with discussion of his need to understand more fundamentals. (more…)

Kelly on situational safeties and Spencer Perry’s transfer

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If anyone hoped the move of Notre Dame senior Drue Tranquill from safety to rover would lessen the questions at the former position, they hoped in vain. The defensive backfield’s elder statesman is spending more and more time working at the hybrid position specific to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme, yet the competition at the last line of defense has continued among those remaining.

Come fall, that competition may not yield two primary players, but could rather result in a number of specialized options, Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Friday’s practice.

“I think you’ll see that we’re going to be situationally playing guys that make sense at the time of the game,” Kelly said. “First, second and third down. We’re going to put guys in position to succeed. It’s not going to be one guy and that’s it in all situations.”

Junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman continues to impress Kelly as he learns the new position. In some ways, the change in schemes may aid Coleman’s learning curve.

“We’re playing the safety position quite differently than we did before,” Kelly said. “Nick Coleman has been the guy that has done some really good things for us. He’s extremely athletic. We’re in the process of continuously developing his understanding of the defense.”

With junior Nicco Feritta reportedly nursing a left wrist injury, sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott are the primary remaining challengers in the position group. Sophomore D.J. Morgan may be among the rovers.

“Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill are still in that programming mode in terms of doing the little things right for us,” Kelly said. “Fundamentally, they’re getting better. I know Mike Elko really likes those two kids, likes their toughness and their want-to to play the game. They’re going to be there for us.”

There could conceivably include both of them on the field at the same time, not merely complementing Coleman, per Kelly. He indicated both Studstill and Elliott will be expected to know both the field safety position as well as the boundary safety position.

Early enrollee freshman Isaiah Robertson may not be neck-and-neck with his elders, but he remains in the mix thanks to his rapid improvement.

“[Robertson] started at a level of really not knowing much and he’s grown considerably over the last few weeks,” Kelly said. “He’s done a nice job of picking things up. We’re making progress there. We’re going to need more time, but I’m pleased”

With more time will come freshman Jordan Genmark-Heath and possibly classmate Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, though the latter is more likely to join the group at rover. At 6-foot-2, 205-pounds, Genmark-Heath is not far from the ideal safety Kelly described Friday when discussing the lack of desirable depth at the position.

“I don’t know that anybody is going to walk in the door that’s 6’2”, 215 pounds and can a 4.5 (40-yard dash) anytime soon,” Kelly said. “We know who our guys are. We think there’s some more flexibility coming, and with the players that we have that we’ll be able to come up with a really good solution by the time we kick it off against Temple.”

RELATED READING: Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now
Friday at 4: Four Defensive Questions

SPENCER PERRY TRANSFERRING
Kelly confirmed what rising sophomore safety Spencer Perry announced via Twitter on Thursday: He is transferring. Due to his good standing in the football program and at the University, Kelly said he will not restrict where Perry transfers.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly said. “He expressed to me that he felt like athletically he needed to find a place that would better suit him.

“I guess if you read between the lines, maybe he wasn’t seeing the position in which he was playing, nor the area of reps suitable for where he is right now in the program. You’d have to ask him to get a clear understanding of that.”

Like Tranquill, Perry had moved from safety to rover, but Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal have separated themselves from other possibilities at the position, leaving little theoretical playing time for Perry.

JAMIR JONES TO DEFENSIVE LINE
To Notre Dame’s young options at defensive line, add sophomore Jamir Jones, formerly a linebacker. Jones will most likely contribute among the ends.

“We’re even going to get Jamir Jones activated a little more,” Kelly said. “He’s up to 242 pounds. I don’t know that we’ll ever be able to hold him back from being a bigger guy.”

Jones joins four other sophomores in competition with seniors Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes for playing time on the end. Hayes has two years of eligibility remaining.

“I really believe that those young players and Andrew are going to continue to develop and give us the kind of edge presence that we need,” Kelly said.

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

BLUE-GOLD GAME FORMATTING
The Irish will scrimmage in private this Sunday, only 13 days before the final spring practice, better known as the Blue-Gold Game. Kelly indicated the April 22 exhibition will split Notre Dame into two teams, rather than rely on an arcane offense vs. defense method of scoring. The coaching staff will begin dividing up those teams Monday following the 60-play scrimmage in the 11th spring practice.

84 & Counting: A Scholarship Chart

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After signing 21 incoming freshmen last week, Irish coach Brian Kelly quickly indicated the Notre Dame roster may not yet be done growing. In a radio interview on Weekday Sportsbeat, Kelly spoke of a possible transfer to Notre Dame, likely a graduated senior taking advantage of the NCAA’s stance on graduate student’s having immediate eligibility.

“We’ve put a scholarship aside,” Kelly said. “We think we’re in a very good position with one right now that we’ll be able to close on within the next couple of weeks.”

Before rampant speculation about just who that may be gains too much steam, it is prudent to consider where such a player may have an imminent impact. A look at the Irish roster as currently constructed—categorized by both class and position—may indeed help narrow that speculation. Hence, the below. First, some notes regarding the below:

  • All classes are listed as they will be next season. For example, quarterback Brandon Wimbush is currently a sophomore at Notre Dame, but below lists Wimbush as a junior since that will be his standing come fall.
  • Today’s best guesses at starters are listed in italics.
  • Asterisks next to seniors names indicate that player will have a fifth-year of eligibility after this season. The chart only notes seniors with that possibility, rather than marking all players who have preserved a year to-date. Predicting such for years in the future often bears little-to-no resemblance to what reality transpires once injuries and other events are factored in down the road.
Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
QB M. VanGorder B. Wimbush I. Book A. Davis
RB J. Adams T. Jones C.J. Holmes
D. Williams
Receiver E. St. Brown K. Stepherson J. Armstrong
C. Finke J. McKinley M. Young
C.J. Sanders C. Claypool
M. Boykin D. McIntosh
Tight End D. Smythe N. Weishar* A. Jones B. Wright
T. Luatua C. Kmet

Bringing in two of the top-three tight ends in the class of 2017 presents an interesting quandary of, will one red-shirt this season? Four upperclassmen at the position only increases the likelihood of such. Since Brock Wright enrolled early and will thus take part in all of spring practice, he is the more likely of the two to see the field in 2017, though do not be surprised if Cole Kmet’s talent forces new Irish offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Chip Long to deploy him, as well.

Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
Tackle M. McGlinchey A. Bars* L. Eichenberg A. Banks
T. Kraemer J. Lugg
Guard H. Bivin Q. Nelson* T. Hoge P. Boudreaux R. Hainsey
J. Byrne* T. Ruhland D. Gibbons
Center S. Mustipher*

Spring practice will provide a better handle on offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s latest alignment. The biggest question is not who will start, but where will the back-ups cross-train. Hiestand has often relied on only three or four actual second-stringers, believing a player or two was his best secondary option at multiple positions. Barring a rash of injuries—and the offensive line is perhaps the only position group to avoid that epidemic in recent years—this strategy holds up just fine.

Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
Def. End A. Trumbetti D. Hayes K. Wardlow
J. Bonner* J. Okwara MacCollister
J. Hayes* A. Ogundeji
K. Kareem
Def. Tackle D. Cage J. Tillery K. Hinish
P. Mokwuah * E. Taylor Tagovailoa-Amosa
M. Dew-Treadway D. Ewell
B. Tiassum
“Rover” D. Tranquill* A. Bilal J. Owusu-Koromoah

Simply learning who new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko trots out at his “rover” position (a safety-linebacker hybrid of sorts) will tell us the most about this spot’s role and future. He has also mentioned senior linebacker Greer Martini as a possibility there, but the need at linebacker may be too great to give Elko a genuine chance to try Martini at the rover.

Position 5th-Yr Senior Junior Sophomore Freshman
LB N. Morgan T. Coney Jo. Jones D. Adams
G. Martini J. Barajas Ja. Jones D. White
Corner N. Watkins* S. Crawford J. Love
A. White T. Pride
S. Perry
D. Vaughn
Safety N. Coleman D. Studstill I. Robertson
N. Fertitta J. Elliott J. Genmark-Heath
D.J. Morgan
PK J. Yoon
Kickoff J. Doerer
Punter T. Newsome*
LS     J. Shannon

Irish A-to-Z: Brandon Wimbush

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Notre Dame’s quarterback of tomorrow is Brandon Wimbush. Until then, the key to the 2016 season is making sure tomorrow doesn’t come over the next dozen Saturdays this fall.

Eventually, the Irish staff will hand the keys of the offense off to Wimbush. But after starting his eligibility clock too quickly last year when he moved into the No. 2 role after Malik Zaire went down, Wimbush will now attempt to redshirt as a sophomore, buying some time until the two quarterbacks on campus can hand things over to a signal-caller who might be even more talented.

 

BRANDON WIMBUSH
6’1″, 225 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 7, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An Under Armour All-American, a Top 100 recruit and a first-team MaxPreps All-American, Wimbush was the crown jewel of the Penn State recruiting class until he flipped to Notre Dame.

He had offers from Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Stanford and many others. He was the Tri-State Player of the Year, the Gatorade State Player of the Year and a state champion in New Jersey.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in two games, connecting on three of his five passes for 17 total yards. Also ran seven times for 96 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown run.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Zaire got injured and Wimbush was thrown into the mix. And wouldn’t you know — an offensive package that focused on his elite running skills was deployed.

(I’m done patting myself on the back now.)

In a perfect world, Wimbush stays on the sideline this season, saving a year of eligibility while remaining incredibly involved in the process. While some wondered how long it’d take Wimbush to overtake DeShone Kizer in the depth chart, the reality of the situation is that Kizer’s accuracy and advanced knowledge base make way more sense as a No. 2 than a promising freshman.

Of course, one injury to Malik Zaire could change all of that. And if Kizer slides into the starting lineup, you’ve got to think that Wimbush will be activated as well. It’d be logical for him to immediately get an offensive package, something that utilizes his speed and (after a healthy dose of the running game) would also allow him to throw over the top of a defense.

Brian Kelly’s preference is to always keep a redshirt on a freshman quarterback. He acknowledged that in the past and while he hasn’t specifically laid out his plans for Wimbush, it makes sense here, too. With Zaire on track to be the Irish quarterback for the next three seasons, the battle for the next quarterback job should be a very interesting one, especially with Kizer showing well this camp and 2017 quarterback Hunter Johnson still in the crosshairs.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

When it comes to upside, you can make the argument that Wimbush has the best of any quarterback on campus. And the fact that the sophomore quarterback is on board with using a redshirt season as a sophomore also points to a maturity you really have to like in a quarterback.

That said, the depth chart will eventually force Wimbush to step in and skip the part of the learning curve that includes a young player making first-time mistakes. Because assuming that Kizer or Zaire will be on campus next season, Wimbush will have two seasons to run the offense, likely a fourth-year junior when the fog clears.

That’s plenty of time to establish himself. But it’ll require the lion’s share of his development to take place on Monday to Friday, not Saturdays.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless something goes really wrong, I think Wimbush’s redshirt will be preserved at all costs. Of course, an injury to Kizer or Zaire will make that an uncomfortable situation—and we’ll see if this staff is willing to bet on true freshman Ian Book, or if they’ll call on Montgomery VanGorder to step into the mix.

Sooner or later, the quarterback position will go as we think. (Or at least this year, be shared between the people we think.) If it doesn’t and Wimbush is called into action, don’t expect the offense to take too much of a step backwards.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Feritta
Tarean Folston
Mark Harrell
Daelin Hayes
Jay Hayes
Tristen Hoge
Corey Holmes
Torii Hunter Jr.
Alizé Jones
Jamir Jones
Jarron Jones
Jonathan Jones
Tony Jones Jr.
Khalid Kareem
DeShone Kizer
Julian Love
Tyler Luatua
Cole Luke
Greer Martini
Jacob Matuska
Mike McGlinchey
Colin McGovern
Deon McIntosh
Javon McKinley
Pete Mokwuah
John Montelus
D.J. Morgan
Nyles Morgan
Sam Mustipher
Quenton Nelson
Tyler Newsome
Adetokunbo Ogundeji
Julian Okwara
James Onwualu
Spencer Perry
Troy Pride Jr.
Max Redfield
Isaac Rochell
Trevor Ruhland
CJ Sanders
Avery Sebastian
John Shannon
Durham Smythe
Equanimeous St. Brown
Kevin Stepherson
Devin Studstill
Elijah Taylor
Brandon Tiassum
Jerry Tillery
Drue Tranquill
Andrew Trumbetti
Donte Vaughn
Nick Watkins
Nic Weishar
Ashton White
Dexter Williams