<span class="vcard">Keith Arnold</span>

Notre Dame v Syracuse

Post-spring stock report: Offensive Line

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If there was one thing made very clear leaving spring practice it was the state of the offensive line. After three years of restocking the depth chart, the Irish should be very good up front.

As mock draft prognosticators everywhere have pointed out all weekend, Brian Kelly did very well for himself by talking Ronnie Stanley into returning for his senior season. While we first reported that Stanley received only a second-round evaluation from the NFL’s advisory board, Stanley—at least 365 days before next season’s draft—is finding himself in the conversation for the No. 1 pick.

Setting that silliness aside (not Stanley’s draft ceiling, but rather the fact that we’re even having that conversation now), Stanley’s return turns a position of strength into a unit that could very well be dominant. With Nick Martin spending spring healthy and playing center, a mix of veterans and ascending youth creates a nice depth chart to make Harry Hiestand’s position group one that should be ready to dominate in the trenches.

Let’s get a look at the post-spring depth chart and check out some movers and shakers after a revealing spring practice.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr. (6-5.5, 318)
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.* (6-4.5, 325)
C: Nick Martin, GS (6-4.5, 301)
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr. (6-5.5, 315)
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.* (6-7.5, 310)

LT: Alex Bars, Soph* (6-6, 316)
or Hunter Bivin, Jr.* (6-5.5, 302)
LG: Alex Bars, Soph.* (6-6, 316)
C: Sam Mustipher, Soph.* (6-2, 305)
RG: John Montelus, Jr.* (6-4, 310)
RT: Colin McGovern, Jr.* (6-4.5, 315)

OT: Mark Harrell, Sr.* (6-4, 306)
OG: Jimmy Byrne, Soph.* (6-4, 295)
C: Tristen Hoge, Fr. (6-4.5, 281)

*Denotes fifth year available

 

STOCK UP

Ronnie Stanley: In his first spring practice at Notre Dame where he was fully healthy, Stanley took the strides forward expected of him. With a key 2015 season in front of him, Stanley is going to play next season with a bullseye on his chest—one that comes from evaluations like this:

Staying healthy and getting better were the keys to spring. That he showed some pretty impressive athleticism (and didn’t get hurt) on a screen pass during the Blue-Gold game were the perks. Now it’s time to see if Stanley can play to the level Zack Martin did, without the ability to fly under the radar of the player-evaluating media members.

 

Nick Martin: Perhaps we’ll see Martin at his best next season. Because after hearing Brian Kelly tell it, Martin played far from there last season, not just hampered by a hand injury, but still feeling the lingering effects from a serious knee injury suffered late in the 2013 season that robbed him of lower-body strength.

With Martin back at center, the Irish offensive line should be able to line up its five best players, led by the returning captain and Stanley. Getting healthy and stronger at the point of attack were key. Using his football IQ—and pairing it with the physicality necessary to be dominant—are necessary to have a top-flight center in his fifth season.

 

Mike McGlinchey: We’re looking at McGlinchey as a returning starter, not technically true considering McGlinchey only played in that role during garbage time against USC and getting his first start against LSU. But McGlinchey looks comfortable in the starting lineup, a position he nearly found himself in after spending last spring as the team’s right tackle.

But McGlinchey took a big step forward this spring, as the imposing right tackle will be a key to keeping everything together if the Irish are going to have the powerful ground game many expect. A natural athlete who has earned praise for his work on the practice field, McGlinchey gets his opportunity to show off on Saturdays this season, a key building block up front.

 

Steve Elmer: After struggling at tackle to start last season, Elmer slid back inside to guard after a rocky start, finding his footing on the interior, where he played as a freshman. It was one piece of a four-man shift, helping the Irish solidify their front five.

At his best, Elmer is dominant. At his worst? Well, the tape looked pretty bad. This spring was spent ironing out some technical mistakes, the type that come from moving around and being thrown to the wolves early.

A cerebral player who also has a tremendous physical skill set, Elmer enters his junior season poised to put it all together. That started to show itself this spring.

 

Quenton Nelson & Alex Bars: I’m pairing these two together because get ready to see them stuck together for the next few years. Nelson emerged as the starting left guard as practice wore on, though Kelly committed to getting Bars the snaps needed to advance his craft—either platooning with Nelson or somewhere else.

But after Ronnie Stanley moves to the NFL, expect these two to line up next to each other on the left side of the offensive line, with Bars playing tackle and Nelson mauling people from the guard spot. That Bars isn’t thrown in is a luxury that not many coaches have, and Kelly’s already called Bars one of the most natural talents he’s had in 20-plus years.

In all likelihood, Bars is the sixth man on this offensive line, capable of coming in at tackle, even if Hunter Bivin is listed as the No. 2 behind Stanley. So after a redshirt year for both talented youngsters, these two represent the future of the Irish offensive line. And we’ll get to see them compete come September.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Colin McGovern: Last year, I got the feeling that McGovern was making his move—a versatile lineman capable of stepping in if needed. But watching Nelson and Bars jump past McGovern, and hearing other names come out of Brian Kelly’s mouth, it’ll be interesting to see where McGovern fits into the puzzle this season.

He’s likely the next offensive tackle off the bench behind Bars, and if injuries pile up he’ll have a chance to be in the thick of it. But in a critical spring where the depth chart is showing its strength—offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said he has ten offensive linemen he feels can contribute, Kelly tabbed seven of eight—McGovern is likely in that group, but near the bottom.

That’s not the spring I expected from him, but he’s still likely capable of helping Notre Dame win.

 

Sam Mustipher: If we’re looking at the last two seasons, we’ve seen plenty of movement at center, with Martin’s injuries and Matt Hegarty’s surprising departure. Enter Mustipher, who’ll serve (or is listed as) the team’s second-string center. That’s a big responsibility for a convert to the position, really only seen at the position these 15 practices.

There were a few shaky snaps this spring game, including one roller, that have some worried about Mustipher. But with Tristen Hoge likely redshirting this year before getting into the battle for a starting job, Mustipher is the guy who gets the first call—and this spring didn’t necessarily convince anybody that he was ready to do it.

 

STOCK DOWN

Hunter Bivin: This might not be fair because we only saw limited reps, but count me among the skeptics that Bivin is ready to be on the field as a left tackle. Once a promising recruit, Bivin has jumped around the offensive line trying to find a proper fit, but backing up Ronnie Stanley doesn’t look like the best one for him.

Entering his junior season, it’s way too early to cast Bivin off. And his struggles getting on the field speak more to the strength of those ahead of him than to anything he’s not doing.

But against a far from elite set of defensive ends in the Blue-Gold game, Bivin struggled protecting off the edge. That puts the onus on Stanley to stay healthy and Bars ready to compete, because through my eyes, Bivin still needs some work before he can hold his own at left tackle.

 

Mark Harrell: One of the veterans along the offensive line, Harrell spent last Blue-Gold game at center, a few wayward snaps getting him noticed for the wrong reasons. Entering his fourth season in South Bend, Harrell spent this spring buried on the depth chart, a long road between him and the field.

Originally targeted by Ohio State coach Ed Warinner when he was in South Bend, it’s hard seeing where Harrell fits into the puzzle in 2015. But he’s got the type of versatility, not to mention experience in the system, to be an interesting test case up front. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t look possible for him to see the field unless injuries strike or the Irish are winning comfortably.

Brindza, Daniels and Riggs sign FA contracts

Luke Massa, Kyle Brindza
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While Ben Koyack was the only former Irish football player selected in the NFL Draft, the football careers of three other Notre Dame players continue. Kicker/punter Kyle Brindza, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and cornerback Cody Riggs all signed free agent contracts on Saturday.

For Brindza, he’ll have a shot to win a roster spot for his hometown team, the Detroit Lions. Notre Dame’s all-time leading kicker will compete with veteran Matt Prater for the placekicking job, with his versatility potentially bringing some value as well. Brindza himself tweeted that he worked out for the Lions just a few weeks before the draft—so the team must’ve liked what they saw.

Daniels signed with the Minnesota Vikings, who took a shot on another Notre Dame player, joining a roster filled with John Sullivan, Robert Blanton, Harrison Smith and Kyle Rudolph. He’ll also compete to join a receiving corps that lacks a top-end playmaker for young quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, though the Vikings added Mike Wallace via a trade this offseason and drafted former blue-chip recruit and Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs in the fifth round.

The foot injury that derailed Riggs senior season also likely killed his draft hopes. But Riggs signed on with the Tennessee Titans as a free agent, detailing his thought process with Irish 247’s Nick Ironside, who was embedded with Riggs over the weekend.

“I felt like (Tennessee) was the best option for me to play in and I felt comfortable with them on the phone,” Riggs told Irish 247. “They didn’t draft any corners this year so I felt like it would be the best situation for me and they have a great coaching staff.”

Riggs is studying for finals as he finished his one-year Masters of Science and Management after earning his degree at Florida, making the most of the graduate transfer rule.

 

Ben Koyack drafted by Jacksonville in seventh round

Stanford v Notre Dame
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Notre Dame snapped its draft drought when tight end Ben Koyack finally came off the board in the seventh round. Selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Koyack was the 229th overall player taken and the 16th tight end to be drafted.

A native of Oil City, Pennsylvania, Koyack was a regular for the Irish offense, their top participant from a snap-count perspective among skill players. While early projections (at least those in the media) had Koyack among the highest profile tight ends in the draft coming into the 2014 season, a modest season that had evaluators vexed even before an underwhelming Senior Bowl slid Koyack down most boards.

Still, the Irish veteran gets Notre Dame on the board and continues a great run of NFL tight ends. While he wasn’t a first or second-round pick, Koyack joins Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert and Troy Niklas among the tight ends drafted under Brian Kelly.

While the Jags only won three games last season, they have a young quarterback in Blake Bortles and some emerging skill players. Now he’ll just need to make the roster, at a position group that features free agent acquisition Julius Thomas and a crowded depth chart that now has five tight ends.

 

Post-spring stock report: Wide Receivers

William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge
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What a difference a year makes.

After DaVaris Daniels‘ career was ended during the Frozen Five debacle, Notre Dame’s receiving depth chart had exactly one catch to pair with Everett Golson, a 50-yard heave against Oklahoma that still serves as the biggest play of Chris Brown‘s career.

Yet even with a group of unproven receivers, in 2014 the Irish passing offense was the most prolific of the Kelly era, with sophomore Will Fuller emerging as Notre Dame’s most prolific sophomore in school history. Joined by a supporting cast that was more than viable, the entire unit returns for 2015, making this position group—even before the infusion of four intriguing freshman—one of the roster’s great strengths.

Let’s take a look at where this group stands after spring practice with a look at the depth chart and stock report.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

X: Will Fuller, Jr. (6-0, 180)
W: Chris Brown, Sr. (6-1.5, 195)
Z: Amir Carlisle, GS (5-10, 192)

X: Torii Hunter, Jr.* (6-0, 190)
W: Corey Robinson, Jr. (6-4.5, 215)
Z: C.J. Prosise, Sr.* (6-.5, 220)

X: Corey Holmes, Soph.* (6-.5, 184)
W: Justin Brent, Soph. (6-1.5, 205)

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility.

 

STOCK UP

C.J. Prosise: Even if his stock is on the rise as a running back, Prosise cemented his place among the top 11 players on the offense, a lofty place to be when you consider the talent piling up. Capable of being a true crossover player, expect to see Prosise all over the field, wreaking havoc on defensive coordinators while keeping opponents honest as they try to account for Will Fuller.

Even if his biggest move this spring wasn’t at wide receiver, Prosise had a huge spring.

 

Will Fuller: This was the type of spring where you could almost expect an established player to take it easy. But even with a cast on his hand, Fuller’s long touchdown during the Blue-Gold game served as a reminder that the Irish’s most dangerous weapon is only going to improve in 2015.

There was plenty of work to be done for Fuller this spring, with him learning to play as a marked man in 2015. And as Mike Denbrock aptly said this spring, Fuller can be as good as he wants to be. The good news? He expects to be better—and that showed this spring.

 

Chris Brown: I’m taking this one on a hunch from UND.com’s Jac Collinsworth. So maybe this is the year where the light goes on for Brown. And as he approaches his final season in South Bend, let’s hope it is.

Physically, there’s nothing not to like about Brown. He’s filled out his frame, but is still the speedster that got behind the Oklahoma secondary. And after an uneven three seasons, it appears that Brown understands the type of consistency that’s demanded from him.

Projecting Brown’s numbers in 2015 is a difficult proposition. But with Fuller likely pulling a safety over the top and Notre Dame’s ground game keeping opponents honest, there’s absolutely no reason that Brown can’t have a monster year.

 

Torii Hunter: For all the talk of Hunter spending this spring with the baseball team, at the time of the Blue-Gold game, Hunter had a whopping three at-bats, giving you an idea as to where his future lies. That’s on the football field, and Hunter spent the spring reminding people that he’s got a chance to be a very productive college player.

Hunter’s versatility is ultimately what led me to give him the final “buy” grade. And as Prosise spends time in the backfield, Hunter could take some of those snaps, though he’s capable of playing both inside and out for the Irish.

Ultimately, there’s only one football. And even if I’m struggling to find catches for Hunter, he did his best to remind the coaching staff that he’s deserving of a few more.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Justin Brent: As much as I wanted to elevate this grade to a buy, I’m still skeptical of Brent’s ascent—considering he had to dig himself out of quite a hole after last season’s off-field escapades to just get back to neutral. So credit the young player for working hard this spring, and scoring a nice touchdown in the Blue-Gold game.

With perhaps the most imposing physique in the wide receivers room, Brent looks like an upperclassman. But if he wants to see the field he’s going to have to start thinking and behaving like one, both on and off the field. Consider this spring a step in the right direction, but I’m going to have to see more before going all-in.

 

Corey Robinson: Nagging injuries took Robinson out of the mix this spring. And while he’s still developing into a complete wide receiver, there are really bigger worries than Robinson not getting the most out of 15 spring practices.

Still, it’s Robinson’s third season in the program. After a nice sophomore campaign, he’s an upperclassman now, and it’s time to see the flashes of brilliance turn into consistent play. With a stacked depth chart his numbers might not explode, but situationally the Irish have a huge weapon with Robinson’s Spiderman hands and Inspector Gadget arms. Now he’s got to make the leap.

 

Amir Carlisle: For all the wonder if Carlisle was even coming back for a fifth year, the grad student earned nothing but praise from Brian Kelly for his work this spring. And it really shouldn’t be a surprise considering his successful transition to the slot receiver spot last year.

Carlisle may not be the electric running back most had pegged when he transferred from USC. But he’ll give opponents problems in space and should get his opportunities down the middle of the field.

 

Corey Holmes: The depth chart might not allow it, but Holmes showed a promising future this spring. With a silky smooth game that was reminiscent of a young TJ Jones, Holmes went up and made a tough catch down the middle of the field in the Blue-Gold game, a nice reward for a young guy with four seasons of eligibility remaining.

It’ll be up to Holmes to create urgency for his career, because the depth chart isn’t all that giving. But there’s a fine technical receiver ready for his opportunity, and its up to him to create it in 2015.

 

STOCK DOWN

Empty. 

 

OVERALL TREND

Buy. This might be my favorite position group on the roster, and that’s without considering what Miles Boykin, Jalen Guyton, CJ Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown on campus yet.

Put simply, this group is miles from the ones that surrounded Michael Floyd early in Kelly’s tenure. The Irish staff isn’t lacking a viable No. 2 to put across from All-American candidate Will Fuller, it’s trying to figure out who to keep off the field.

Ultimately, the receivers production will come down to how this offense wants to operate. Expect the big plays to go up, even if the yardage and catch numbers go down. And if Malik Zaire gets more time on the field, it’ll be a ton of deep balls and a lot more running — with passing totals closer to his LSU numbers than a standard Everett Golson aerial attack.

But from top to bottom, next year’s roster—and really, if Fuller stays, the 2016 roster as well—could be the most talented group of wide receivers to be on campus together at Notre Dame. So I’m expecting big things from this group.

Swarbrick’s not ready to talk about 13th game

Kelly Swarbrick Jenkins
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After watching TCU and Baylor get jumped by Ohio State after the Buckeyes rolled Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship, Big 12 conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby openly wondered if his conference was hurt because it didn’t have a 13th game.

That worry—and the fact that the Big 12 is now likely pursuing legislation that would allow such an event to take place—has Notre Dame fans wondering about their place in the postseason, if the Irish get into a beauty pageant for one of the final spots in the four-team playoff.

Some Irish fans wonder if the lack of championship game means Notre Dame will eventually become full members in the ACC. Some are campaigning for an annual faceoff with Hawaii (sign me up).

And Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has heard all the concerns. He spoke with ESPN’s Heather Dinich about the situation, not exactly worried about the future implications.

“You wouldn’t believe the number of letters I get from fans with proposals on how to get a 13th game,” Swarbrick told ESPN from the College Football Playoff spring meetings. “It’s just crazy. All of them have one common feature about them: There’s not a chance in hell the other school or conference would be willing to do it. Honest to goodness, I get the most creative letters on this topic; it’s crazy.”

At a time of year where little topics have no choice but to become big stories, the worry of exclusion is now the topic de jour, finding a root in Irish fans deepest worry—being stuck on the outside looking in if Notre Dame happens to have one less victory than other CFB Playoff contenders.

Not surprisingly, Swarbrick takes the long view on the subject. It’s no surprise that one of the principal architects of the CFB Playoff isn’t ready to jump to any conclusions after the first season of the wildly successful format.

“It’s not that there’s a 13th game,” Swarbrick explained. “It’s always going to be against a really good opponent. It’s the conference championship game. It’s not the aggregate number, it’s who you’re playing.

“There are going to be years where a team looks like they’re going to get in and gets upset in their conference championship game and they don’t get in. Did the 13th game help them? No. I’m not saying that’s a reason to do it or not do it, I’m just saying one year’s worth of experience with this system is way too small to draw any conclusions about how it will play out over time.”

 

Both Swarbrick and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talk about scheduling often, acknowledging Irish independence as a major reason why Notre Dame doesn’t hide from playing one of the most challenging schedules in the nation. So while Big 12 fans point to the last weekend of the season, they should be just as likely to question some of the cupcake non-conference games both teams scheduled.

With playoff hopes sky high for Notre Dame in 2015, a schedule that features an opening stretch against Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech, and also has the Irish facing off with Clemson, USC and Stanford shouldn’t be much of a worry.

As Swarbrick is all but saying, win the football games and the rest will take care of itself.