Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Wednesday, Brian Kelly confirmed what just about every Notre Dame football fan already knew: The quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will head into fall camp.
“They’ll continue to compete into August. There’s no question,” Kelly said.
What that means remains to be seen.
For Zaire, it’s the status quo. After all, Kelly said the same thing last spring, telling anybody who’d listen that Zaire was giving Golson a true run for his money. (It didn’t result in the shackles being taken off Zaire until late-November.)
For Golson, it’s not quite as simple. With his transfer options wide open after he earns his diploma in May, Golson can play next season for anybody. Kelly’s announcement makes any decision to depart a very complicated gamble.
There’s no team where Golson will go that has better weapons. There’s no offense he knows better. And there’s no group of players where he’ll feel more comfortable.
Ultimately, Kelly and the offensive staff understand that. And they also know that after living and dying with Golson in 2014, they’ll need both of their quarterbacks to push each other, making the turnovers and mistakes that plagued Golson’s game dealbreakers.
“I think that’s healthy competition. They’re both trying to get better and working to get better in the areas we’ve asked them to focus on,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “I can’t see where that’s not healthy and it will continue to work to get us better as a football team because they’re getting better every day.”
But just because the winner won’t be named until fall camp, doesn’t mean the competition won’t continue. On Saturday, the Irish will go live—quarterbacks included. It’s the type of scenario that wasn’t possible in years’ past, when the Irish usually had a starting quarterback but an unproven backup.
That’s not the case heading into 2015. If all goes according to plan, the Irish will enter camp with two starting-caliber quarterbacks.
And if that happens, Kelly can consider this spring a success, even without naming his starter.
After a promising start to spring football, defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner will need surgery. The rising sophomore will undergo a procedure for a turf toe injury, sidelining him until mid-June.
Last week, Bonner was singled out by head coach Brian Kelly for a string of good practices. He was spotted in a walking boot at practice on Wednesday, Notre Dame’s first since returning from Easter break.
“He has a bad case of turf toe that will require surgery,” Kelly said. “He’ll go up to the Cleveland Clinic and have that done on Tuesday and… we will have him back late June and fully recovered for preseason camp and into the season.”
Kelly compared the surgical procedure to one that Prince Shembo underwent in the spring leading up to his senior season. Shembo missed a large portion of spring practice but came back and had a strong season at the Cat linebacker spot.
Before the injury, Bonner was providing depth behind Isaac Rochell at the strongside defensive end position. One of the Irish’s most explosive defensive linemen, Bonner is a candidate to provide a pass-rushing presence off the edge after sitting out 2014 and saving a year of eligibility.
To put into context what freshman Jerry Tillery is doing this spring, you have to look back at the last time Notre Dame saw a breakout freshman along the defensive line. It was Aaron Lynch. The lanky, pass-rushing defensive end set the Blue-Gold game on fire, unblockable off the edge in his first semester as an early-enrollee college student.
Jerry Tillery isn’t cut from the same mold as Lynch. At 6-foot-6, 300-pounds, he’s closer to Lynch’s classmate Stephon Tuitt, though the image of Tuitt competing in a triathlon (let alone crowd-surfing on his official visit) is a tough one to conjure.
But Tillery’s dominance this spring has been the story of spring football. And as Jarron Jones recovers from foot surgery and Sheldon Day gives some of his snaps to lesser-established players, the Louisiana native running with the starting defense when he should be going to prom adds another intriguing part to the young Irish defensive line.
“Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery,” Kelly said, singling out Tillery. “He’s just a unique player, one that I can’t remember that I’ve ever coached.”
So what exactly should we expect from Tillery? Lynch’s spring campaign led to an impressive freshman season, where he was named to the FWAA Freshman All-American team, joining Timmy Jernigan and Jadaveon Clowney on the defensive line.
His 5.5 sacks led the team. He finished third with seven tackles for loss. But Lynch’s 14 quarterback hurries nearly lapped the rest of the defense, teasing Irish fans with a dominance that we’d never end up seeing at the college level.
It wasn’t all great for Lynch during his freshman season. His tendency to freelance kept him (and Tuitt) off the field against Michigan, the fourth-quarter defensive collapse likely could’ve used somebody barreling off the edge. And Lynch’s off-field struggles adapting to life in South Bend led him to walk off the team during spring practice, a bizarre departure that went against his family’s wishes, taking Lynch on a road-less-traveled path to being a late-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers.
Tillery doesn’t necessarily look like a pass rusher in the traditional sense. His size and length will likely having him taking reps on the interior of a four-man defensive front, where both Kelly and new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore have praised his technique and skill, comparing him to a seasoned veteran.
Opportunity is another factor. It’s fair to assume that Notre Dame’s best three defensive linemen are Day, Jones and Isaac Rochell. Tillery likely falls into the next tier, though slots best in the positions played by that trio. (Imagine Lynch coming into the program this season—he’d be a plug and play defensive end immediately.)
All that being said, Brian VanGorder will put his best personnel on the field when finding his starting eleven. So that means Tillery will be competing not just with the defensive tackles, but for snaps with defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti, even if the natural fit isn’t quite there.
Notre Dame desperately needs to find a pass rush from the defensive line. Okwara led the Irish with four sacks last season, the lowest single-season leader since Ethan Johnson led the anemic 2009 defense.
Tillery’s impact won’t necessarily be rushing the passer, though it sounds like he’s capable of doing anything he wants after hearing Kelly fawn over him. But after seeing the Irish fall apart at the point of attack after injuries weakened its core, Tillery could be asked to provide stabilization for a defensive tackle position that couldn’t hold up after losing Day and Jones.
Of course, it’s worth pumping the brakes on all of this. Tillery’s ascent is just one of many spring stories where we have been told that the sky is the limit. For every breakout—and Lynch’s numbers were far less dominant than many of us (me included) expected them to be—there’s been a freshman breaking in period that’s been underwhelming.
But Tillery is far from your average freshman. There’s a (presumed) comfort level that he plays with, and an intellect that reminds you of KeiVarae Russell, Jaylon Smith and Corey Robinson, young guys capable of seeing the field early because of their maturity off of it. But both Russell and Smith needed a break to see the field, and Tillery’s likely in a similar position.
So as Irish fans work themselves into a frenzy predicting Tillery’s immediate impact, acknowledging Kelly’s attempt to temper that enthusiasm should be advised. But even if his freshman season is closer to Tuitt’s than Lynch’s, Tillery’s on a trajectory to be one of the next great Notre Dame linemen.
Not half bad for a guy most predicted to play offensive tackle.
In Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate, the Irish have their starting safeties. The success of Notre Dame’s defense will depend on if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
On paper, the duo of Redfield and Shumate match any other back line in recent memory. Redfield’s 5-star pedigree has been well discussed. Shumate’s blue-chip status was well-established as well, an Army All-American and Don Bosco Prep star who chose the Irish over a slew of elite offers.
But the duo has yet to play to expectations. Never was that more apparent than in 2014, when both were given every opportunity to win—and hold onto—starting jobs, but struggled with the transition to Brian VanGorder’s defense.
That struggle sounds like it’s coming to an end. And after both spending considerable time in Brian Kelly’s doghouse last season, the Irish head coach had words of praise for both safeties last week as he gave a status report.
“Their development is clearly evident and so much different than where we were at this time last year or anytime during the season,” Kelly said. “We don’t see the missed assignments. We see clearly two guys that have grabbed a hold of what we’re doing out there, so they’ve kind of settled into two very solid football players back there for us.”
Taking Kelly at his word, the development of Redfield and Shumate couldn’t have come at a better time. Because behind them, the depth chart is scary.
Gone is former captain Austin Collinsworth, whose final season was marred by multiple injuries. Moving on is Eilar Hardy, who will graduate and play out his eligibility at Bowling Green, his 2014 season all but ruined by the Frozen Five academic scandal.
Rising sophomore Drue Tranquill is ahead of schedule as he returns from a late-season ACL tear, but taking spring relatively easy. Nicky Baratti is doing his best to play through another serious shoulder injury while both John Turner and Matthias Farley are providing depth at a position that looks like a good fit for neither player.
Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta hit campus this June. But it’s clear the Irish are going to have to lean heavily on the veteran duo, something that Redfield knows, especially looking back on his benching during the Irish’s November swoon.
“Nobody likes to get benched, but at that time, you have to reflect. ‘I’m getting benched for a reason. The coaches have to have some kind of motive behind this,’” Redfield acknowledged when talking with Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. “So it kind of game me some time to reflect upon it and understand. ‘I’m not entitled to this spot, and I have to earn it every day.’”
That applies to Shumate as well, who made some mental errors that would’ve taken him off the field had the Irish had the luxury of doing so. For Shumate, this is his final season in South Bend, and the last opportunity to put together a season that exceeds expectations, something he managed to do as a scrappy slot defender as a freshman.
A late lightbulb isn’t necessarily rare at safety. Especially in Notre Dame’s secondary. We saw that happen with Harrison Smith after a redshirt and two up and down seasons relegated him to the doghouse. Former Irish GA Kyle McCarthy was just a special teams contributor before turning into a tackling machine in his senior and fifth years.
Zeke Motta struggled before the light went on. As did Jamoris Slaughter. That Shumate stepped into a talented but thin 2012 defense robbed him of the opportunity to learn before doing. Last season was a bit more of the same thing, only his mistakes were magnified by the importance of safeties in VanGorder’s system.
New secondary coach Todd Lyght is two-thirds of the way through spring working with his presumptive starters. VanGorder is spending plenty of time on the back end as well.
In a depth chart filled mostly with question marks, Redfield and Shumate stand alone. Not because they’re proven commodities, but because they’ve already played their way through the fire and come out on the other side.
“I think they really look back on the year and see there were really some tough times for them, but they’re going to be better because of it,” Kelly said.
If the Irish defense is going to be up to the task, Kelly better be right.