Keith Arnold

Notre Dame offensive line
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Injury in the clear, Alex Bars finding home at right tackle

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After putting together one of the school’s most productive offensive lines, Notre Dame needs to find three new starters to step in for Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Steve Elmer. Spring has already revealed Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand’s intentions of playing rising junior Sam Mustipher at center. And after a time-consuming recovery from a broken ankle suffered last season, it appears that rising junior Alex Bars is looking like the answer at right tackle.

Bars landing on the edge is likely the type of decision that solves any remaining calculus up front for the Irish. Especially as a new-look left side of the offensive line featuring the monstrous duo of Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson takes hold.

Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he mentioned that Nelson weighed 346 pounds—a number dialed back by Hiestand and Notre Dame’s sports information department. But whatever the number may be, any reservations Kelly has about the transition of McGlinchey from right tackle to the left side have been eliminated.

“The left side is crystal clear,” Kelly said. “Those two players are really good. Mike’s been our most efficient blocker and Quenton is in the best physical shape that he’s been in. He’s a rare football player.”

The opposite side still needs clarifying, though Bars fitting in at tackle helps this group come into focus. It also allows us to better understand what this line will look like come an early-September business trip to Austin.

Bars has always had the ability to play tackle, catching Kelly’s eye as a true freshman on the scout team. But with limited depth on the outside, the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder can also solidify a rare roster deficiency that’ll be patched up once promising freshman Tommy Kraemer gets to campus.

“He needs to play tackle,” Hiestand acknowledged on Monday. “We have to have guys that can protect on the edge at tackle when the game comes down to that…Alex has to be able to do that for us. It’s been a process to get Alex back off that broken ankle. We’re kind of progressing in and not overloading him too soon.”

With Bars settling in, that moves the focus to right guard. Seniors Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin seem to have separated themselves from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge. McGovern has gotten healthy after a concussion forced him out of practice. Bivin will have cross-over ability, capable of serving as a back-up at tackle and giving the Irish “three guys for two spots” with both veterans set to see their first substantial playing time in their career.

“If they’re even, they’re both going to play because they’re both good enough to help us,” Hiestand said.

 

 

Speed helps Corey Holmes turn into spring surprise

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
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Corey Holmes put himself on the radar with a 40-yard dash time that the coaching staff couldn’t ignore. Now he’s working to make sure he’s not just the latest spring sensation—a 15 practice standout who gets lost once fall comes around.

Brian Kelly put Holmes’ name on the front burner for Irish fans when he revealed that the seldom-used rising junior ran a sub-4.4 during Notre Dame’s pre-spring testing. But he also talked about the need to translate that track speed to the football field, an effort that’s a work in progress.

“There’s track speed. There’s in-line, straight-line speed, and then there’s, quite frankly, football speed,” Kelly explained. “I think that’s been the struggle with Corey in the first couple years is to get that to translate.”

He’s not alone. It look multiple seasons for Chris Brown to make that transition, helped along by the utilization of GPS monitoring during practice and a confidence growth that became apparent during a productive senior season.

After a sophomore year where Holmes took a redshirt (that flew by most who just assumed he was buried on the depth chart), returning to a competitive fight for playing time had Holmes looking at things through a different lens after the team’s top three pass catchers all departed.

The staff has certainly noticed.

“I really like Corey Holmes and what he’s done. He’s been more consistent than he’s ever been to this point,” associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said. “I’m a hard guy to please. He’s got more work to do but I like the direction he’s moving.”

 

 

Holmes credits the progress he’s made to a new attitude and a look inward. It also helps to have a father who has played the game—in Holmes’ case, his father played at Syracuse before being drafted and playing briefly with the Miami Dolphins.

“My dad used to tell me all the time, ‘Trust your speed. You’re fast, just trust it,'” Holmes said. “At times, I kind of get caught up in trying to make people miss and not show the speed.”

It took that trying sophomore season to figure that out. It also took watching a new generation of impressive young receivers arrive to understand that it was never about battling the roster, but more about challenging himself.

“It wasn’t about until halfway through the season that I finally just stopped worrying about other people and started to just worry about my own game,” Holmes said. “It was hard at the time, but I just looked it as a year for me to get bigger, faster, stronger and work on my game. I just took it as a blessing in disguise. It was a really humbling experience all of last year.”

 

Now the challenge isn’t getting off the bench, but finding a spot on the field. As Kelly and Denbrock mix and match their rebuilt receiving corps, Holmes is looking for a home in that rotation.

He’s lined up in Fuller’s X position, top-end speed on the wide side of the field. He’s moved inside to slot, a position that opened up with C.J. Sanders recovering from a hip injury and Torii Hunter showing flexibility.

It’s all a possibility for Holmes.

“Now that everybody else is gone, you could say it’s my time to step up,” Holmes said. “That’s what I’ve treated this spring as, an opportunity for me to really make some noise. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to finally earn a starting spot. That’s in my grasp if I continue to do my thing.”

Nyles Morgan primed to seize his opportunity

Notre Dame v Arizona State
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One of the largest X-factors heading into 2016 is linebacker Nyles Morgan. Last spotted racking up tackles (and too often, missing assignments) as a true freshman, Morgan spent his sophomore season stuck behind Joe Schmidt, unable to carve out even the smallest niche in Brian VanGorder’s defense.

But entering 2016, Morgan stands front and center amidst the rebuilding efforts. And if you believe the Irish have the ability to once again get themselves in the middle of the College Football Playoff conversation—the only postseason goal Notre Dame will allow itself—then Morgan’s ability to step in and perform at a high level is critical to that objective.

With Brian VanGorder’s defense under the microscope, Morgan’s ability to fully digest a scheme and system many fear is too complex is one of spring’s major questions. But in his first public comments to the local media this spring, Morgan sounded every bit like the confident veteran, a reassuring development at a time when the defense needs him.

“I feel like my knowledge of the game has grown so much. There’s so much I know now that I wish I knew then,” Morgan said last Friday. “I finally got all that down, got all that together. It all just clicked…I’m telling guys where to be, things like that. I can line guys up. The offense moves, I can check it.

With just four healthy scholarship linebackers available this spring, Morgan’s game was going to get tested more in these 15 practices than it did all last season. And after two full years in the program, it’s allowed him to balance the trial by fire freshman season with the knowledge base that’s needed to succeed.

“Being the Mike linebacker, you need to be the sharpest one out there. If not, the game’s going to get ugly,” Morgan said.

The difficulties in meetings have subsided. The mental challenges no longer neutralize a natural skill-set that nobody has ever doubted. And that confidence has come through on the field this spring, apparent to any coach that watches him.

“Nyles is having a really good spring. I’m very excited about his growth from the offseason from where he was a year ago,” linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “His communication is much improved. He’s playing very physical. His leadership is much improved. It’s definitely a great improvement and I’m excited about it.”

So is his defensive coordinator. With the identity of last season’s defense essentially gone, Morgan has the chance to put his stamp on the unit.

“This is his time,” VanGorder said. “I think he’s a much different middle linebacker right now.”

Those differences are things this staff is hoping Morgan embraces—especially as the Irish try to move on from Schmidt as the nerve center of the unit.

“Joe Schmidt was a smart player, he was a heady player, but he wasn’t the most physically gifted player that we had. Nyles Morgan is a tough, physical football player,” Brian Kelly said Friday. “What we’ve asked him to do is be himself. You’re not Joe Schmidt… Be who you are. We want that personality to come out and if that does, [he’ll] bring others around and that toughness will start to show itself.”

Morgan seems to be running with that challenge, a changed linebacker reflective of his changed status on the depth chart.

“It’s different when you’re behind somebody and you’re trying to live up to that standard,” Elston said. “Now you’re out there setting the standard. He’s got confidence now because he’s the first dog running out there. He’s playing with an aggressive nature and communicating really well. What it is for him that triggered it, I’m not sure, but he’s got more confidence.”

Carrying that confidence onto the field will be critical in 2016. While Greer Martini has the ability to play on the inside and first-time participants like Josh Barajas are cross-training there as well, the job is Morgan’s to lose.

But two years after earning Freshman All-American honors while he was learning on the fly, the bar is set much higher than just winning the job. For the Irish defense to take the necessary step forward, Morgan needs to lead it.

So far, so good.

 

Watkins’ spring ends early with broken arm

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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An injury opened the door for cornerback Nick Watkins to step into the starting lineup. Now the rising junior will have to overcome an injury of his own to stay there in 2016.

On Sunday, Notre Dame announced that Watkins underwent successful surgery to repair a broken humerus in his left arm, suffered during Saturday’s practice. That ended Watkins’ spring, though should have him ready to work with the Irish when summer drills begin.

Watkins is fighting to step into the starting job KeiVarae Russell left behind opposite Cole Luke. He had momentum this spring coming off an impressive first start against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, a job he got only after veteran Devin Butler suffered a foot injury during bowl practices in Scottsdale.

The secondary has been a main focal point this spring, with Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder looking to get improved play from the back end of the defense. That’s meant an open competition at every spot, with Watkins competing with Butler and rising sophomores Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Ashton White as well.

Watkins has the physical attributes to win the job—strong cover skills, good length at 6-foot-.5, and the type of competitive drive the staff has worked to bring out in his two seasons in South Bend. Earlier this spring, Watkins talked about that motivation leading into 2016, especially with a season-opener against home-state power Texas.

“In my mind, I’m a starter,” Watkins told BlueandGold.com. “I feel like I’m my only competition. I failed myself if I’m not starting against Texas.”

He’ll pick up that competition this summer, healing after surgery performed by team doctor Brian Rattigan. Until then, the Irish secondary will compete without him, concluding the spring with the Blue-Gold game on Saturday, April 16th, televised on NBCSN at 12:30 a.m. ET.

The NFL case for Jarrett Grace just got better

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Of all the performances that drew attention at Notre Dame’s annual Pro Day, none were more eye-opening than Jarrett Grace‘s. The fifth-year senior linebacker, two-plus years removed from a leg injury that should’ve ended his football career, might have tested his way into a dream job.

Not by acing any interviews or showcasing the mental fortitude that allowed him to work his way back from the painstaking odyssey. Not by showcasing a trim and fit frame that’s 25-pounds lighter than the one that made nine tackles against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

But rather, Grace likely punched his ticket to an NFL training camp by running, jumping, lifting and moving like a legit NFL linebacker.

Grace’s Pro Day performance in front of 31 teams looked like that of a prototype inside linebacker. Standing nearly a half-inch taller than 6’3, he’s got the height team’s covet. At 240 pounds, he looked the part of an Underwear Olympics standout. And Grace’s explosiveness in short distances—shuttle and cone drill times that essentially matched guys like Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown—show a linebacker who is more than just a great story.

After the workout, Grace talked to reporters about the progress he’s made. And as you might expect, he doesn’t think this is the end of the road.

“To see where I’m at today, I’m definitely very pleased,” Grace said, according to the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel. “I’m not done, though. I’ll tell you that. I’m not done. I think the best is in front of me.”

That Grace managed to put himself in a position to impress the NFL is a testament not just to the work he did to get back on the football field in 2015, but the time spent since the Fiesta Bowl. Taking a 17-credit load in Notre Dame’s MBA program is no joke. Doing that while training to ace performance-specific drills that most NFL prospects drop out of school to focus on? Very impressive.

In an interesting breakdown on Grace’s eventful Thursday, UND.com’s John Heisler detailed not just Grace’s job audition, but the road to get there. And this quote from Notre Dame strength coach Jake Flint crystalizes the Cincinnati native’s tenacity.

“He came to me as soon as the bowl game ended and said, ‘Can you help? I want to train and get a shot,’” Flint said. “We talked about a training program and he’s got his schedule with school and it needed to be a little flexible.

“So sometimes he came in and trained with our team and then sprinkled in some other things specifically for his Pro Day. But he’s a self-motivated kid. We built the goals and he executed it. What we did was less about football and more about some of these specific drills. He’s leaned up, and he’s done a great job.

“He was going to do whatever he needed to do. He did a lot of this by himself. We had a lot of good talks. I just tried to keep positive with him.

“He’s gonna go out there and he’s going to look good. We’ve seen what he can do and he’s going to get a shot and that’s all he wants. He’s here every day, and he’s positive and he has energy. He wants to give it one more go and see what he can do. He knows how to play and we all know that.”

Grace might not ever be the linebacker he was on track to be before that ugly injury against Arizona State. But the hard work he put in from that day forward—and the chance opportunity to play big minutes in the Fiesta Bowl after Jaylon Smith’s injury—opened the door.

Thanks to an impressive Thursday in front of 31 NFL teams, Grace’s chance of chasing his dream just got a lot better.