Keith Arnold

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Five things we’ll learn: Countdown to spring practice

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With the university’s spring break in its final days, football will return to South Bend next week. But before Brian Kelly addresses the media to discuss the state of the program as the Irish embark on spring practice, let’s dig into five things we’ll learn before the Blue-Gold game on April 16.

 

What’s the identity of Harry Hiestand’s new-look offensive line? 

Quenton Nelson seemed to spill the beans on one of the biggest questions heading into spring, tagging Mike McGlinchey as his partner on the left side of the offensive line. That leaves three vacancies across the line, with spring likely dedicated to finding the best men for the job.

The health of Alex Bars seems to be one of the first storylines to follow. If Bars is full-go for spring after suffering a broken ankle against USC, he’ll likely seize a starting job. Whether that’s at guard or tackle remains to be seen. Bars saw limited time at guard in 2015, though he certainly has the length and athleticism to take over at right tackle.

The center battle focuses on Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge. Mustipher filled in rather capably behind Nick Martin last year, another interior lineman developed into a center under Hiestand. Hoge is the only true center on the roster, a young player who earned kudos from Kelly throughout his redshirt campaign, largely for the work he put in developing his strength.

If Kelly and Hiestand believe both Mustipher and Hoge are among the five best offensive linemen on the roster, they’ll both play. We saw that with Matt Hegarty and Mike Golic, two versatile interior players who cross-trained. But that was before the Irish built up a treasure chest through recruiting, with former blue-chip recruits like Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus entering their fourth years in the program (Montelus is a candidate for cross-training, spotted with the defensive linemen in offseason workouts).

There’s no urgency to find a starting five this spring—especially with Tommy Kraemer getting to campus this summer and potentially throwing his hat in the ring for a job. But with an offense that might be best suited for a rough and tumble style of play, building that identity through the men up front starts now.

 

Will a simplified defense be rolled out this spring? 

Joe Schmidt? Gone. Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day? The NFL awaits. Take away long-time contributors Elijah Shumate, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara and the Irish defense will rely on a new group of young, talented and inexperienced players to fill the gaps.

Awaiting that group is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense. A complex, multiple, attacking scheme, the third-year defensive coordinator’s system demands a level of preparation and understanding that—put kindly—wasn’t always met by his players.

Athletically, there were growing pains and legacy issues. A veteran roster built for Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme certainly wasn’t a good fit. But this spring will likely showcase players brought in by VanGorder, athletes capable of executing the vision that Kelly and his coordinator have for this unit.

But they can’t do that without proper comprehension.

With Schmidt gone, junior Nyles Morgan is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker. A productive player as a freshman (even through significant growing pains), grasping the plethora of responsibilities that come with the position is Job One this spring.

But that responsibility doesn’t fall on Morgan alone. The offseason was likely spent at 30,000 feet, with VanGorder and the defensive staff hopefully evaluating big picture items like communication and core philosophy. These fifteen practices give the staff a chance to implement some of their findings before the broken coverages and blown assignments start counting for real.

While he’s turning into a whipping boy in some circles, VanGorder deserves credit for fixing last offseason’s two major challenges: up-tempo offenses and the triple option. This offseason the focus should be strictly internal—how to optimize a defense that too often was its own worse enemy.

Don’t expect a lot of explanation from Kelly or VanGorder when asked for updates on their progress. But that doesn’t mean the wheels aren’t already in motion.

 

Can Max Redfield lead the secondary? 

Notre Dame’s senior safety ended last season on an immensely disappointing note—sent home from the Fiesta Bowl for a rules violation. Redfield’s response to the discipline was also a head-shaker, a tweet and extended explanation that looked inward, but delivered mostly empty words when action is what’s desperately needed.

It’s Redfield’s final season in South Bend, a journey that’s taken some twists and turns but still could end with the senior safety maximizing his talents and leading the secondary. He’s got all the tools necessary to succeed in the Irish defense. Now he needs to also take on leadership, a steadying voice as the last line of defense in Todd Lyght’s secondary.

Finding a starter next to Redfield is the next step. Avery Sebastian returns for a sixth year. Drue Tranquill recovers from another ACL tear. A slew of young and untested safeties will have their chance as well.

But it all starts with Redfield. The Irish desperately need a stabilizing force at safety, a struggle since Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta headed to the NFL.

 

What should we expect from the upcoming quarterback battle? 

The Irish have three quarterbacks capable of leading a major D-I program. In Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush, Mike Sanford’s position room is crowded with talent, a second consecutive offseason with a major position battle primed to become a national story.

That’s about where the similarities to last spring end.

In many ways, the Golson-Zaire spring battle gave the Irish coaching staff the blueprint on how not to handle this spring. Granted, Golson’s impending free agency added a wrinkle that this spring won’t have. Not to mention the buy-in of the candidates involved—all three quarterbacks, Wimbush included, seem happy to be in South Bend, at least through 2016.

For those looking for clarity leaving spring, they’ll likely be disappointed. Assuming Wimbush redshirts (a plan Kelly acknowledged), both Kizer and Zaire have room for improvement in their respective games. They’ll be getting to know a rebuilt offensive line and a wide receiving corps short three leading receivers, including one of the nation’s best in Will Fuller.

Expect to hear the term “skill development” from Kelly next Tuesday, taking the spotlight off any perceived position battle. It’s likely more than just lip service, as the bar has been raised for both starting candidates, with the internal expectations driving this battle all the way to fall camp.

 

Team 127 had an identity. What will Team 128 look like? 

There was no shortage of leadership on the 2015 football team. The Irish could’ve easily trotted out six captains (and would have, had Ronnie Stanley not run afoul with those pesky Notre Dame meter maids.)

Contrast that with this year’s football team. Finding and developing leadership on the current roster may be one of the most important parts of spring practice.

Senior wide receiver Corey Robinson won the right to lead the entire student body. You have to assume he’ll manage to get a ‘C’ on his chest. But to do that, Robinson’s buy-in as a football player needs to be absolute. Notre Dame’s renaissance man very well could be college football’s most impressive student-athlete, but he’ll need to lead from the front, finding his voice as one of the tenured members of this football team.

From there, looking at resumes won’t necessarily lead you to team leaders. The fifth-year options are limited. Role players like James Onwualu may be candidates to ascend, though Kelly has often talked about the benefit of having your best players also be your best leaders.

That could mean Isaac Rochell is ready. Same with Mike McGlinchey along the offensive line. While they lack the fanfare of former teammates like Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley, they will be frontline players on a very talented roster.  There’s no shortage of leadership at quarterback either, though navigating those tricky dynamics will test even the most capable coaching staff.

This is Kelly’s seventh spring practice since he took over a program in desperate need of a reboot. He’s done that, elevating not just the talent on the roster but the infrastructure that surrounds the program. That blueprint will come into play this spring as another team with great expectations begins to form its identity.

Notre Dame Pro Day set for 16 former Irish athletes

DeShone Kizer , C.J. Prosise
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Notre Dame will have 16 former Irish football players returning to campus to take part in their Pro Day on March 31. After having the second-most players in Indianapolis at the annual NFL Scouting combine, expect the NFL to descend on South Bend as the Irish have a handful of prospects capable of being early-round selections.

As mentioned last week, Everett Golson will be back in South Bend, with Notre Dame confirming the former Irish quarterback will throw to his old teammates in his most important audition for NFL teams. Golson played out his eligibility for Florida State but wasn’t invited to the combine.

Also returning to campus is former Irish safety Eilar Hardy.  Hardy started 13 games for Bowling Green last season, finishing fourth on the team with 82 tackles while also chipping in two interceptions.

Here’s the entire list of participants:

Chris Brown
Amir Carlisle
Sheldon Day
Matthias Farley
Will Fuller
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Eilar Hardy
Nick Martin
Romeo Okwara
C.J. Prosise
KeiVarae Russell
Elijah Shumate
Jaylon Smith
Ronnie Stanley
Ishaq Williams

Of note, Chris Brown was a late scratch at the combine, choosing not to test. He’s likely to put together some very impressive numbers to go along with a very solid senior season. KeiVarae Russell will also test for the first time, sitting out in Indianapolis as his broken leg and stress fracture continued to heal. Both expect to open some eyes.

Amir Carlisle, Matthias Farley and Jarrett Grace will also get their first chance to impress an NFL team. Farley has been training with former Irish linebacker Kerry Neal in Chicago, working alongside C.J. Prosise and Brown to prep. Expect to see a leaned down Farley, who played last season at 210 pounds but will likely be closer to 190 by the end of the month. We’ll get to see Ishaq Williams on a football field again as well, the former Irish defensive end hoping to resurrect his football career after two seasons away.

Pro Day will also likely be an important time for Jaylon Smith. After NFL teams examined Smith in Indianapolis, they’ll come back roughly six weeks later to see the progress he’s made.

Quarterback trio getting to work over spring break

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Think DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush hit up Cancun or Panama City Beach for spring break? Think again.

Notre Dame’s talented three-deep each hit the road during the university’s spring break, but all three went to work with quarterback coaches as they prepare for a very important spring practice. IrishSportsDaily.com’s Matt Freeman has the scoop on the travel plans($), reporting that Zaire went to Arizona to train with Dennis Gile at The Quarterback Academy while Kizer and Wimbush are in San Diego working with George Whitfield.

Zaire stuck around in Arizona after the Fiesta Bowl to spend some time with Gile, clearly ready to do battle this spring after recovering from his broken ankle. Kizer follows Everett Golson’s footsteps from South Bend to San Diego, training with Whitfield after a successful debut campaign, taking over for Zaire in the season’s second week.

Social Media gave us our first look at workouts:

Wimbush traveling to San Diego is a nice addition. While head coach Brian Kelly talked publicly about the hope to redshirt Wimbush and get back the year of eligibility he had to use in 2015, the rising sophomore has the raw talent and tools to be a dynamic player. Putting the work in and traveling on his own dime to San Diego to work with Whitfield shows that he’s ready to make the investment in his own future.

Notre Dame opens up spring practice on March 16th.

 

VIDEO: Camp Kelly means spring football is almost here

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Earlier this week, Mother Nature tried to keep spring football off the front burner with a dusting of snow in South Bend. But that didn’t stop Brian Kelly from taking his team outside for their annual Camp Kelly workouts.

Our friends at Fighting Irish Media and UND.com put together a nice video capturing the workouts. There’s plenty to get excited about—mostly that football is less than two weeks away.

McGlinchey looks poised to take over at LT

McGlinchey
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One of the big questions when Notre Dame takes to the field to start spring practice was who would be filling the shoes of left tackle Ronnie Stanley. It appears left guard Quenton Nelson may have supplied an answer a few weeks early.

Nelson hinted via social media that starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey was flipping to the left side of the line, finding a new home next to Nelson along the line of scrimmage. That could be the first move along a new-look offensive line as the Irish offense reboots this spring, needing to replace a handful of key contributors as they also kick-start another quarterback battle.

If McGlinchey is indeed moving, that means three new starters will be lining up next to each other as Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and McGlinchey’s positions are all now vacant. We’ve walked through the candidates for starting jobs, but locking in the left side of the line makes complete sense. Remember, in past years Notre Dame leaned heavily on the combo of Zack Martin and Chris Watt, and pairing two mauling starters like McGlinchey and Nelson could give the Irish a similar advantage—especially in the run game.

McGlinchey’s size and power were perfect prototypes for right tackle. They’re just as useful on the left side, with the wildcard being Malik Zaire‘s lefty throwing arm. The move also follows the trend of Stanley starting his career at right tackle then flipping to the left side once the starting job opened up.

The candidates for the starting center job appear to be Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge. From there, it gets murky. Alex Bars, who I assumed had a chance to be the starter at left tackle, could now be locked in on the right side. Then again, he could be a candidate to start at guard as well, where he was backing up Nelson last season.

There is no shortage of talent along the offensive line, with veterans like Colin McGovern or Hunter Bivin capable of stepping in or a true freshman like Tommy Kraemer a summer wildcard. While there is no rush to finalize a starting five, the news that McGlinchey will take over the left tackle spot helps bring some clarity to a position with three question marks remaining.