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Position changes, weight loss and quarterback questions welcome Notre Dame’s spring


Position changes? Check, highlighted by two offensive skill players adding to their descriptions without shedding their previous tags.

Strength and conditioning praise? Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered that as well Monday, noting an emphasis on change of direction bursts.

Positive remarks about the early-enrolled freshmen? Kelly made it three in a row by describing linebacker Bo Bauer as a “tiger” in the weight room and picking out safety Houston Griffith’s skillset as a possible standout this spring.

Obviously, the topic Kelly returned to most as he previewed Notre Dame’s spring practice was that of the Irish quarterbacks. It will be a genuine competition between rising senior Brandon Wimbush and rising junior Ian Book, with Wimbush seeming to have the leg up simply because one or the other needs to take the first snap in the first practice.

“By virtue of a lot of the really good things that Brandon did last year, he’ll go out with the first group,” Kelly said. “But we all know Ian was integral in our last win against LSU, and he deserves an opportunity to compete as well.”

It would not be an honest quarterback competition if Wimbush were to take a noted majority of the first-team snaps, so those will be split between him and Book, although that may be more by day than within each practice.

Throughout last spring, Ian Book knew he was going to be the backup quarterback. This year, the rising junior will be in the mix of a competition to be the starter. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The odds are Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long will still be pondering both quarterbacks after the spring. For now, the focus will be on needed development.

“You always hope that one guy just says, I’m head and shoulders (above),” Kelly said. “If we have that situation, we’re in pretty good position.

“It’s more important that we do a really good job of developing both of the quarterbacks. … What I want to know is that our quarterbacks are equally adept at running it and throwing it, and that wasn’t the case this year. We have to be equally adept, and that’s really going to be the goal of the spring, more so than if one guy separates himself.”

Notice the usage of both. Rising sophomore Avery Davis will still be a quarterback first and foremost, but he will see opportunities elsewhere moving forward. After a year spent on the scout team, spending another offseason watching Book and Wimbush compete would stifle Davis’ development only further. Getting him some time at receiver or possibly on a kick return unit should help counteract that to a degree, and it could perhaps unearth an unexpected fit.

“We want to give him a chance to really continue to develop his skills at quarterback, but when he’s not playing quarterback, we want to see what else he can do for us,” Kelly said. “[Davis is] a very gifted player, and we may try to get him involved in opportunities where he touches the ball other than just in the quarterback position.”

Davis’ part-time move should serve to get him on the field, rather than simply bury him on the depth chart at another position.

“He’s going to be a guy that definitely comes out on the field and helps us next year.”

Rising sophomore receiver Jafar Armstrong will similarly add duties to his workload, but in Armstrong’s case, it is a positional need forcing the issue, not the depth at receiver. The Irish need at least one more running back, and Armstrong will now cross-train there. Kelly compared the intended role to one once manned by Theo Riddick or CJ Prosise.

“[Armstrong is] going to be a guy that I think can touch the ball coming out of the backfield, but can also give us some work at the running back position,” Kelly said.

Kelly did note the summer will see three more receivers arrive on campus, so while Armstrong may be somewhat needed for depth there right now, reinforcements are on the way.

Other positional changes of note
Rising junior Jamir Jones will move to drop end from linebacker. Kelly forecast the move last season as arguably inevitable as Jones’ body continued to grow.

Rising sophomore Isaiah Robertson and rising junior D.J. Morgan will both move to linebacker from safety, presumably candidates at rover as Kelly confirmed fifth-year Drue Tranquill will move to a more traditional linebacker alignment.

Robertson gained 12 pounds from his weight entering the 2017 season, now at 207 pounds, while Morgan added 11 to get to 220, both signs of linebacker preparations.

Dexter Williams (Getty Images)

On Dexter Williams
One other impossible-to-ignore weight change would be rising senior running back Dexter Williams losing 12 pounds. That may be the effects of a second year listening to strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis, it could be renewed dedication to fitness, or it could simply be the positive result of Williams staying healthy.

“This year he’s been healthy,” Kelly said. “He’s made really positive strides in his volume of work, his ability to sustain over a longer period of time. If there was one area where I really feel good about what he’s been able to do is that he’s broken through some barriers as it relates to his volume and his workload.”

Three captains this morning
Kelly will announce three captains at practice this (Tuesday) morning. For the record-keeping of those in the predictions business: As a captain in 2017, Tranquill is a mortal-lock to be one again. Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher emerged as a leader last year, notable considering the two captains then already on the offensive line. Thus, Mustipher will likely join Tranquill.

From there, the likes of rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery or rising junior cornerback Julian Love would seem the obvious candidates.

On ‘Speed School’
Balis’ winter workouts included what Kelly described as a “speed school.” Whereas the NFL Combine’s 40-yard dash is often lampooned as pointless and hardly a football activity for the majority of players, a quick 10-yard dash is pivotal to gridiron success, especially coming off a change in direction. Kelly and Balis identified 1.5 seconds as the mark to get under for a 10-yard dash off a change of direction.

Apparently, only rising junior cornerback Troy Pride could reach that when speed school started, not surprising considering Pride routinely picks up ACC honors in indoor sprints during the winter.

Now, seven others have joined Pride. Kelly relayed this while praising rising senior receiver Miles Boykin, identifying him as one of those seven.

Limited this spring
Early-enrolled freshman tight end George Takacs needed cartilage surgery, so he will be out this spring. Fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar and rising sophomore tight end Brock Wright will both be limited following shoulder surgeries this offseason, each likely in a non-contact jersey. Rising junior receiver Chase Claypool (shoulder) will have similar restrictions, as will fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner as he recovers from wrist surgery, having played much of last year’s end with a broken wrist.

Monday’s Leftovers: Quinn plays key recruiting role; pending position changes; the Notre Dame difference

It was downright remarkable when Irish head coach Brian Kelly turned over the majority of his coaching staff a year ago yet Notre Dame still pulled in a solid recruiting class. This offseason saw only two assistant coaching changes, but one’s impact on Wednesday’s signees was still notable.

Whereas the Irish had secured a few safeties already in December’s early signing period, thus reducing the need for new safeties coach Terry Joseph to hit the ground running full-speed, a need for a couple more offensive linemen was apparent. New offensive line coach Jeff Quinn downplayed his role in retaining the commitment of consensus three-star lineman Luke Jones and closing on three-star tackle Jarrett Patterson on Wednesday. Jones’ commitment was likely always rock-solid, but both recruiting coordinator Brian Polian and Patterson betrayed Quinn’s impact in pursuing the Mission Viejo, Calif., product.

California (and Hawaii) is Polian’s primary geographical focus in recruiting. He has long had success out west (see: Te’o, Manti), and he maintained all his connections along the Pacific during his time as head coach at Nevada. Thus, he joined the obvious offensive coaches — Kelly, Quinn and coordinator Chip Long — on the final visit to Patterson just days before National Signing Day.

“The Patterson situation was a little bit odd because we offered him just as the news that [former Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was heading to the Chicago Bears],” Polian said. “You would think as that was going down that the odds would be against you, and Jeff stepped in and really did a nice job toward the end.”

The four coaches knew their primary competition was UCLA and new Bruins head coach Chip Kelly. Convincing a player to leave the warmth of California and one of recent history’s better recruiters is hard enough. Doing it with a new position coach could easily and reasonably complicate the matter. Instead, Patterson told Blue & Gold Illustrated his conversations with Quinn played a pivotal role in his decision.

“He came over and we watched film together and he showed me different drills and different players he’s coached,” Patterson said. “… He’s a very seasoned coach. He’s been doing this for many years, he knows what he’s doing and he knows the Notre Dame program.”

From Quinn’s vantage, those same conversations seem to be a large part of why he is excited to work with Patterson.

“I had my iPad in his living room talking about football,” Quinn said Wednesday. “He didn’t want to talk about anything else at that point, which was great.

“For me personally to have that ability to really demonstrate to him and show him and communicate to him who we are and what Notre Dame could do for him and what he could do for Notre Dame, that was a huge get for us.”

The Irish did not pull in their top offensive line target in consensus five-star tackle Nick Petit-Frere, but Quinn successfully making the sale to Patterson and keeping Jones in the fold makes for a promising recruiting start.

Tillery flips with Bonner; Tranquill likely to traditional LB role
Defensive line coach Mike Elston said Notre Dame will move rising senior Jerry Tillery to the three-technique tackle position, less in the middle of the line than the alternative and more responsible for generating a pass rush. Fifth-year tackle Jonathan Bonner will then slide to the nose tackle position, having proven last season he has developed the strength necessary to maintain the point of attack.

In theory, the switch should allow Tillery to rely on his length and unique athleticism, as well as brighten his NFL allure.

Rising senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery will move to more of an attacking role on Notre Dame’s defensive line, perhaps better suited to his athleticism unique to an interior player. (Getty Images)

“He’s not an overly-powerful guy, anyway,” Elston said. “He’s an explosive player and an incredible athlete, but when you don’t have that power like a Quenton Nelson has, you better have the right technique or you’re going to get overpowered. We’re working through those kind of technique things that [Tillery] needs to commit himself to.”

On the second level, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea acknowledged the possibility of fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill moving from the rover role to a more traditional linebacker spot alongside rising senior Te’von Coney.

“I think everyone can see Drue Tranquill had a skillset, a talent base that can play multiple spots,” Lea said. “Through the course of the winter and spring we’ll take a look at different options and by the time we wrap up spring, hopefully I have a great feel for what the depth chart is going to look like heading into the fall.”

 ‘A totally different animal’
Next National Signing Day, both Quinn and Joseph will undoubtedly be asked what surprised them or what differences they noted in recruiting for the Irish compared to previous stops. Of the remaining pieces from last year’s staff turnover, one already had Notre Dame experience (Polian), one had not recruited elsewhere (quarterbacks coach Tom Rees), and one’s media availability was spent focused on his newest promotion (Lea).

Offensive coordinator Chip Long and receivers coach Del Alexander, though, shared their observations after completing a full recruiting cycle. For Long, the biggest change was in how he was received at high schools and prospects’ homes. The brand value of Notre Dame created warmer receptions than Long experienced when with (in reverse chronological order) Memphis, Arizona State and Illinois.

“It’s a totally different animal,” Long said. “When you walk in, they make time for you instead of it just being a hassle like some places I’ve been. They make time for you and do whatever they can, because they know what this school represents. … There’s no question, I’ve never been any place with the power of Notre Dame.”

To Alexander — with past recruiting duties at Arizona State, Wisconsin, San Diego, Oregon State and UNLV, as well as three years in a non-recruiting role at USC — the aspect he had to most adjust to was evaluating more than a player’s on-field performances.

“We want to go after the best players in the country, as does everyone else, but at the same time, there are unique qualities that the young men must possess to succeed here,” Alexander said. “You have to sit down and develop a relationship beyond football. You have to sit down and see if this young man is forward-thinking, if he’s thinking about his future in the classroom and in the community.

“At some places, it’s not like that. It’s just straight about football. It’s about winning and losing, it’s about the NFL opportunity. This is about way more than that.”

Fifth-years confirmed
Along with Bonner and Tranquill, Kelly confirmed the seven other players returning for fifth and final years: cornerback Nick Watkins, defensive end Jay Hayes, receiver Freddy Canteen, tight end Nic Weishar, right guard Alex Bars, center Sam Mustipher and punter Tyler Newsome.

Weishar had shoulder surgery recently, per Kelly, but his rehab is progressing as expected. If that limits him in spring practice, Notre Dame may have only rising senior Alizé Mack, rising sophomore Cole Kmet and early-enrolled freshman George Takacs fully healthy at tight end, as rising sophomore Brock Wright had shoulder surgery himself already this offseason.

The experience, depth and talent of the 9 fifth-years will obviously be welcome. Consider how rarely relying on freshmen goes well:

Those 10 teams combined to go 75-55 in 2017.

As a National Signing Day Primer, some mailbag questions
It’s a different National Signing Day
Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s six signees, with some assistant insights
National Signing Day’s Things We Learned & Things We Knew
Notre Dame’s assistant coaches on December’s signed offensive recruits
Notre Dame’s assistant coaches on December’s signed defensive recruits

C’Bo Flemister, consensus three-star running back
DJ Brown, consensus three-star cornerback
Luke Jones, consensus three-star offensive lineman
Jarrett Patterson, three-star offensive tackle
Lawrence Keys, consensus three-star receiver
Noah Boykin, consensus four-star cornerback and a Signing Day victory

Lea won’t forget where he was when the phone rang
Davie releases statement, says he’s appealed 30-day suspension

Shoulder surgery sidelines Notre Dame TE Brock Wright

Add another Notre Dame offensive skill player to the list missing the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU. A shoulder injury will sideline freshman tight end Brock Wright, as first reported by Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated.

Surgery last week will likely limit Wright in spring practice, but its long-term effects are expected to be minimal.

Wright finishes his debut campaign with no catches in 11 games, primarily seeing action as a blocking back in specific situations. That would presumably have been his role in the postseason exhibition, as well.

Notre Dame suspends WR Kevin Stepherson and RB C.J. Holmes
Claypool injured & out

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Claypool injured & out; Kelly on Wimbush’s mechanics & mental makeup

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Notre Dame will be without sophomore receiver Chase Claypool in its Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup with No. 17 LSU. Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Saturday that Claypool will have shoulder surgery this week to repair a joint injured in practice last week. Claypool should be fully recovered before spring practices commence.

“One of those unintended injuries in a one-on-one drill where he goes up for a ball and lands on his shoulder the wrong way,” Kelly said. “… If this happens in the middle of the season, he misses five, six, seven games. On the positive side, he misses one game and he’s back full strength going into the spring.”

For stretches of the regular season, Claypool was Notre Dame’s most-consistent receiver. He finishes 2017 with 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by his nine-catch, 180-yard, one-score performance against Wake Forest.

RELATED READING: Claypool’s drops perhaps a harbinger of Notre Dame success to come

Without Claypool, Kelly expects to move junior Equanimeous St. Brown into the field receiver role and utilize junior Miles Boykin more in St. Brown’s usual spot, the boundary receiver position. Sophomore Kevin Stepherson will certainly factor in more than Boykin in any two-receiver sets.

Fifth-year receiver Cam Smith is also back to full health after a hamstring issue hindered the end of his season.

On Wimbush, mechanics and mental makeup
Whoever the receiver(s), junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush will be the one looking for them. Wimbush struggled through most of 2017, but the final three games emphasized those difficulties. As the Irish finished the season 1-2, Wimbush completed 30-of-67 passes (44.78 percent) for 532 yards (177.33 yards per game) and five touchdowns with four interceptions.

Those struggles led Kelly to declare Wimbush his bowl game starter immediately after the season finale, a loss at Stanford. Kelly doubled down and then some on that sentiment Saturday.

“He struggled in the last couple of games throwing the football, but he has not struggled mentally at all,” Kelly said. “… His issues are mechanical issues. They’re not mental issues. He doesn’t have this weakness that is not allowing him to be the player that he can be.

“We need to fix some things in the offseason, mechanically, that will allow him to the throw the ball more consistently.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly insisted junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s struggles derive from mechanical issues, not any version of a mental block. “His traits, in terms of all the things a quarterback needs in terms of his makeup, he has those,” Kelly said. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kelly credited Wimbush for trying to “fight” through these mechanical issues, but at times that may have led to overcompensating a la a golfer attempting to avoid a slice or a baseball batter trying to get ahead of a fastball.

Wimbush may be a junior, but this was his first year in the spotlight. That spotlight did not bring with it undue and mishandled pressure. Rather, it highlighted his deficiencies that are not as closely monitored when a third-string freshman or a scout team passer.

“We’re really talking about him being a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “Under that scrutiny, we’ve seen that there needs to be some corrections.

“Having said that, he found a way to get us to nine wins and put us in a position to get to 10.”

Avery & Alohi Ascending
Two reserves have caught Notre Dame’s attention in the earliest parts of bowl preparation, though one was drawing notice all season, as well. Through four practices, the Irish have knocked off the rust of a few weeks’ layoff and given the lower parts of the depth chart extended run. Freshman quarterback Avery Davis has stood out in those sessions.

“He’s efficient with the football, very strong runner,” Kelly said. “He’s an athlete that can impact each and every time he has the football in his hands. He’s difficult to defend.”

Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman spent the season defending Wimbush, rather than Davis. Bound to the scout team when the NCAA denied his waiver for immediate eligibility, Gilman pushed the boundary as often as possible. Per Kelly, he would have started at safety for the Irish this year, no qualifiers or conditions applied.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

“He has a great combination of coverage skills at the safety position and the ability to come down and be a sure tackler,” Kelly said. “We really know what we’re going to get from him from what we’ve seen on a practice-to-practice basis.”

Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in November, the least of possible evils
Kelly initially offered the party line when asked about Notre Dame moving its mid-November matchup next year against Syracuse out east to Yankee Stadium in New York City. The remote “home” game will add theoretically-unnecessary travel and stress to an already daunting latter half of the schedule.

Kelly then acknowledged it may not be ideal, but made it clear the other options he was presented were distinctly less preferable.

Kelly said this was the only game in the home schedule with the ready ability to be moved, but knowing the Orange’s fast-paced, spread offense, he wanted to be sure the game was played outdoors. Also knowing there would be a trip out to USC just the following weekend, Kelly advocated for avoiding a late game. Indeed, the Syracuse tilt is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET.

“We wanted to try to make all these pieces work,” he said. “This seemed to be a good way to come about managing all those things.”

The one option clearly not on the table was not moving a home game at all.

Monday’s Leftovers: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, facing LSU, & the early signing period

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The second half of Notre Dame’s schedule finished the season with a 51-22 overall record and featured four ranked opponents, not to mention an under-the-radar Wake Forest team and Navy’s triple-option attack. For six consecutive weeks, the Irish had another distinct challenge awaiting them every Saturday.

Thus, the month-plus off between last week’s loss at Stanford and the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 against No. 17 LSU is a welcome reprieve for No. 14 Notre Dame.

“We probably got a little tired at the end with the six weeks in a row of really tough, quality competition,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “It was a long year for our football team, starting back in January.”

Kelly then clarified he was not referring to a physical exhaustion. The diminished November should not be tied to a new strength and conditioning regimen. Rather, Notre Dame tired in a less tangible manner.

“There were no questions about where we were physically as a football team,” Kelly said. “Emotionally and mentally, we had a long year.

“I remember addressing the team the Monday of the Stanford week with so much on the line — a 10th win and a New Year’s Six [bowl game] — and it looked like they were in biology class. They were staring at me like, really? There was no juice, there was no excitement. They were tired mentally.”

As he has for much of the year, Kelly put the onus on himself. While recruiting over the last week, he said he spent much of the travel downtime pondering how to lighten that load and pace better in 2018.

Some of the weariness was indeed physical. Kelly acknowledged junior running back Josh Adams will “benefit greatly” from the layoff before facing an opposing defense again.

The Irish will fit in 15 practices preparing for the bowl game, beginning this weekend before sending the team home for three full days at Christmas. Notre Dame will then reconvene in Orlando, Fla, on Dec. 26. Allowing the team time at home for the holiday is arguably the greatest perk of landing in the New Year’s Day game rather than the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28.

“It’s great that we can get some work in here, then get a break for our players during Christmas so they can spend Christmas home with the family and then meet back up at the bowl site,” Kelly said. “Playing on New Year’s Day is really good for our football team.”

Some things in this world never change, such as LSU having high-end talent. Luckily [for Notre Dame] some things do, and Leonard Fournette (No. 7) is no longer the Tigers’ leading rusher. Instead, start learning the name Derrius Guice. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
— Of course, facing the No. 17 team in the country is a stiff yet welcome challenge. While this is hardly the same version of LSU that the Irish faced in the 2014 Music City Bowl (a 31-28 Notre Dame victory), Kelly sees one key aspect of the Tigers program that has not changed.

“There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the body types that they bring to the table, but the schemes are a little bit different,” Kelly said, then noting offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, both widely-respected in the coaching ranks. “What Dave does on defense is different, and then certainly what Matt does, he has kind of opened up the offense a little bit.

“More schematically, they are a little bit different, but the kind of athlete LSU is attracting, still great players on both sides of the ball.”

Senior captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill echoed Kelly’s comments regarding mental fatigue, citing last season’s 4-8 debacle as having a tangible effect in its own way.

“Any way you dice it up, it was a long season,” Tranquill said. “Having not gone to a bowl the season before, you start your preparation for the next season earlier, and we got after it in winter conditioning and spring ball and fall camp and into this season.”

To hear Tranquill describe “knowing the stakes of each game” in the second half of the season, one might wonder if a loss in mid-October may have allowed Notre Dame to play looser in November. Obviously, that is nothing but ponderings unless there really are infinite universes with each and every possible permutation of existence occurring within one of them.

Notre Dame senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill will have a decision to make regarding returning for a fifth year or heading to the NFL Draft. (Getty Images)

— Kelly declined to name which players requested feedback from the NFL regarding their draft status, but Tranquill said he was among the group. The feedback usually comes in shortly before the bowl game.

“What I can get better on, what they perceive as my strengths or weaknesses,” Tranquill said he hopes to learn. “… I don’t know that [it] necessarily will [affect his decision]. Obviously it’s feedback and you’ll take all the feedback you can get.”

To anyone skeptical of Tranquill’s chances in the Draft, there may be a point, but it should be remembered this is a player who has suffered two major knee injuries in his career. If he has a chance at an NFL career, he should not put it off for a year, especially not when he will already have an engineering degree in hand.

— A change to bowl preparations this year, the Irish coaching staff has to focus on recruiting even more in December than ever before thanks to the first early signing period, held Dec. 20-22. Notre Dame’s coaches have always spent the week immediate after the season making in-home visits. That may be more of an emphasis over the next three weeks, as well. That should, theoretically, allow for a more proactive January.

“It’s busier now,” Kelly said. “What it will do is it will allow us to focus on [current high school juniors] a little bit more in January than we’ve had in the past.

“We expect, if our players are committed, they’ll sign in December. If they’re not committed, they won’t … which frees up that time I’m normally on the road in January chasing these guys down for a February signing to really focus on [next year’s class], then the remaining spots that we have left.”

— Kelly indicated if one of the 18 current Irish commits were to not sign in December, he would see it as a sign the player needs more wooing.

Long-time commitment and consensus four-star running back Markese Stepp (Cathedral High School; Indianapolis) came to that decision even earlier, announcing he was reopening his recruitment over the weekend.

Notre Dame still has consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith (Lee County H.S.; Sanford, N.C.) in the class, not to mention a well-stocked depth chart already on campus.

— This is perhaps a thought to be explored further following the season, taking into consideration where teams land in the final AP or Coaches’ polls, but with LSU becoming the seventh currently-ranked opponent on Notre Dame’s schedule, it seems safe to presume it has been some time since the slate featured so many, including three currently in the top 10.