Dexter Williams

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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…)

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…)

5 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at RBs

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It is a matter of concern when only one tested running back returns, but that concern is somewhat mitigated when that back has proven himself both durable and consistent over the last two seasons.

Josh Adams has not missed a game in his career, and last season the junior carried the ball at least 10 times in all but one game—the 17-10 loss to Stanford in which quarterback DeShone Kizer and running back Tarean Folston combined for 19 attempts. Adams finished with eight rushes. Expect that usage to only increase, especially without Folston around to provide Adams spells of rest.

Assuredly, running backs coach Autry Denson hopes junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones can allow Adams to catch his breath, but neither has proven that ability yet. Jones spent last year on the sidelines, fourth on the depth chart and preserving a year of eligibility. Williams, meanwhile, tallied only 39 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns, his most-prolific output coming in Notre Dame’s 50-33 win over Syracuse when he finished with eight attempts for 80 yards and a score.

In many respects, Williams could provide a better complement to Adams than Folston did last season. It should be noted here, Folston may not have been at his peak after tearing his ACL in 2015’s opener. Either way, he was not the bruising yet agile runner last year he shined as in 2014.

Williams, known for his speed, could force defenses to change gears whenever he steps in for Adams. At least, that is the theory.

Early enrollee C.J. Holmes, also a regarded blazer, will force Williams to perform in order to earn that dynamic role.

There will be carries available for whomever fills the position directly supporting Adams, but expect the starter to be the bell cow. Adams increased his rushing attempts by 41 last season in one fewer game and is already on pace to finish in the top three of Notre Dame’s career rushing yards leaders. The record-holder? None other than Denson with 4,318 yards. Adams currently stands at 1,768, including the 835 in 2015 that set the Irish freshman record.

Nothing would please Denson more than to see Adams enter his senior season with a viable chance at breaking his coach’s record. Doing so would likely also indicate an overall improvement on last season’s team rushing production. As noted in Wednesday’s look at the offensive line, Notre Dame finished with 2,123 rushing yards on 410 attempts for an average of 5.18 yards per carry when removing sacks and the yards lost from them—the NCAA counts sacks as rushes, despite how they can inappropriately distort rushing statistics.

Certainly, the offensive line’s performance will greatly affect the Irish rushing attack, but this quartet of running backs will inevitably receive the praise if the ground attack were to flourish. That will start with Adams. The question is, no matter how durable and consistent Adams may be, who will provide the needed influx in conjunction with him?


The primary impetus in determining the Notre Dame depth chart at running back will be production in the rushing game, but another factor should develop into a notable aspect this season.

When discussing the hiring of new offensive coordinator Chip Long, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted Long’s inclusion of the backfield in the passing game, in more than a blocking capacity.

“I wanted the offense to look a specific way,” Kelly said. “Chip gives me, clearly, something that I saw that will resemble what I see through his offense. It’s going to be the inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.”

In his one year as Memphis’s offensive coordinator, Long’s running backs caught 51 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns. Last year, Adams, Folston and Williams combined for 33 catches for 275 yards and one score.

Looking closer, though, one notices the snaps Long will reward a back with if the ball carrier has demonstrated a penchant for catching the ball. While Memphis’s leading rusher, Doroland Dorceus, caught 10 passes for 77 yards and a score, three other running backs caught as many or more passes:

Darrell Henderson – 20 catches – 237 yards – three touchdowns
Patrick Taylor, Jr. – 11 catches – 37 yards
Sam Craft – 10 catches – 126 yards – one touchdown

If, for instance, Jones establishes himself as a passing game threat but Williams is indeed the more dynamic runner, Jones very well may end up at quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s side on many third downs.


Josh Adams 2015: 117 rushes – 835 yards – 7.1 average – six touchdowns
Josh Adams 2016: 158 rushes – 933 yards – 5.9 average – five touchdowns

Dexter Williams 2015: 21 rushes – 81 yards – 3.9 average – one touchdown
Dexter Williams 2016: 39 rushes – 200 yards – 5.1 average – three touchdowns


Positional Group Spring Preview Schedule:
Wednesday: Offensive Linemen
Thursday: Tight Ends/Receivers
Today: Running Backs
Saturday: Quarterbacks
Sunday: Defensive Backs
Monday: Linebackers
Tuesday: Defensive Linemen
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Redfield Moves on to Plan C

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When Max Redfield signed with Notre Dame four years ago, he figured he would spend January 2017 recovering from his rookie season in the NFL.

When he opted not to enter the NFL Draft last spring, Redfield figured he would play in a bowl game the first week of this month and then prep for an eventual pro day.

Instead, the former Irish safety has spent the month attending rehab sessions in the mornings before heading to class at Cal State Fullerton or an internship at a real estate firm.

“I believe everything happens for a reason, and I’ve learned so much from this,” Redfield said Wednesday. “I’ve grown so much from this. I’m extremely thankful for that, but I would obviously have loved to finish my last year at Notre Dame and have the impact on my team that I think would have been profound.”

PLAN A

Redfield, a class of 2013 five-star recruit, originally verbally committed to USC. During the Under Armour All-America Game, however, he changed that commitment to Notre Dame. For context: Two days later the Irish faced Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami. Notre Dame’s upcoming contest played a part in Redfield’s change of heart.

“Notre Dame was No. 1 in the country at the time, the academics are incredible, and the alumni are international, which is something I really valued,” he said.

“You hear various stories about how not ideal the weather is, location, all that kind of stuff. Being from California, obviously that is something that is on your mind, but for me it was, I’m going to go out and really experience this and go for it.”

Not because of the weather or location, Redfield intended to leave Notre Dame for the NFL as quickly as he could, hopefully with both a national championship and a degree—perhaps complemented by a minor or two—in hand. Looking to graduate in three years, Redfield took 17 or 18 credits (compared to a normal undergraduate load of 15) more semesters than not, including Mandarin Chinese from the outset.

“The coaches did not like that,” Redfield said. “I had to put a decent amount of time into that field of study, but it was something I was extremely passionate in and very determined to do.”

Before his dismissal from the University this fall, Redfield was on pace to graduate with a philosophy degree and minors in Mandarin Chinese and business economics.

“I made it clear I wanted to get my degree as fast as possible in three years flat … and potentially get drafted after my junior year because I thought I had that ability and that potential. I felt my junior year we had a team that could win a national championship, so my plan was to end on a high note, win a national championship, and do everything that I needed to do, including getting my degree.

“Often [the coaches] would make it very explicit they didn’t think it was best for me, even if it was maybe. It obviously wasn’t the best for their agenda and what they wanted for me. It wasn’t something that made us have an adversarial relationship, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t in the back of their heads at all times.”

PLAN B

Notre Dame did indeed come tantalizingly close to a College Football Playoff berth in 2015, losing only two games by a combined four points, both on the road. The 10-2 regular season yielded a Fiesta Bowl date with Ohio State. Redfield licked his chops at the chance to match up with Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott, now a favorite for NFL Rookie of the Year honors.

“It was the biggest game of my life,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a football game. Obviously, the hype around Ohio State was incredible. Playing Ezekiel Elliott was something I was looking forward to for a while. I thought he was overhyped to a certain extent, although he was a great running back.”

One missed curfew later and Redfield’s junior season ended a game earlier than expected. Despite friction with the coaching staff long before that 2 a.m. bed check, Redfield opted to stray from his original itinerary, ambitious as it was, and return for his senior year.

“[The NFL Draft] was something that was on my mind, but it wasn’t a hard decision to make,” he said. “My heart was in coming back for another year. At that point, I felt like I would be leaving my teammates and leaving unfinished business behind.”

REALITY

That business would remain unfinished. Redfield and four teammates—sophomores running back Dexter Williams, defensive back Ashton White and linebacker Te’von Coney, and freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson—were arrested Aug. 19. Redfield was charged with possession of a handgun without a license and possession of marijuana.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly dismissed the senior two days later, saying Redfield was “expected to provide leadership and a positive example to the other members of the team” and “failed in that regard.”

This response caught Redfield off-guard. He expected a suspension for all five rather than being singled out and sent packing.

“That blindsided me. It definitely broke my heart.”

Though he may have disagreed with the severity of Kelly’s actions, he did not disagree with the sentiment. For this misstep, Redfield takes full responsibility.

“It was decision-making that was terrible on my part,” he said. “At that point, I was a leader on the team, and needed to act like a leader in everything I did. Falling into a situation like that, I wasn’t being a leader … That’s something I probably regret most.”

Redfield went home to Mission Viejo, Calif., returning to Indiana for necessary court appearances. To show the court he is moving forward with his life, he joined a rehab program about three weeks ago. His next appearance is scheduled for mid-February.

Redfield enrolled in two philosophy courses at Cal State Fullerton with the understanding they will satisfy his remaining requirements to complete his Notre Dame degree. The Mandarin Chinese minor will come with it, but he will end up two courses short for the corresponding business economics honor.

Presuming he graduates, he should be eligible to play football this fall thanks to the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule.

“I considered declaring for the Draft this year, but I felt it was the best decision for me to come back for another year and prove how consistent I can be on and off the field. Give it a year to put it behind me.”

Redfield would not go so far as to name schools he has been in contact with, deeming it “really premature,” but he did indicate he expects to play at the FBS level in the fall and should know where within a few weeks.

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

By no means does Redfield regret attending Notre Dame. Throughout a 30-minute conversation, he alternates between bluntly criticizing the Irish coaching staff and taking some responsibility for the “adversarial relationship.” More than anything, he praises the people he met at the University.

“I love my brothers, and most of the people I came into contact with at Notre Dame were incredible people, as well. I really do cherish all the experiences I had and all the connections I made as well.”

Nonetheless, Redfield entertains the thought maybe he should not have been so enticed by Notre Dame’s undefeated 2012 regular season. Maybe the Midwest location should have been a red flag not because of the weather, but because of the thousands of miles of separation from home.

“I wish I did make a decision closer to my heart and maybe stayed closer to my family,” he said. “Maybe that would have given me more opportunity to stay focused, but I definitely don’t regret it.”

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.