Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell
AP

Spring stock report: Defense

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With tidbits coming out of Saturday’s open-to-the-media scrimmage, the state of the Irish roster is slowly coming into focus with just two practices left before the annual Blue-Gold game. While a two-hour workout will likely lead us on as many wild goose chases as it does clear up questions, that’s what spring is all about—matching up what eyes see and ears hear, all while knowing it could all go up in smoke by the time the pads go back on in August.

Regardless, the reports are mostly favorable after watching the Irish scrimmage in Loftus over the weekend. And our stock report focuses on a few key contributors, most moving from the sideline to the starting lineup.

 

STOCK UP

Nyles Morgan. That Morgan looked like a dominant, dynamic presence in the middle of the Irish defense might be the biggest story of the spring. It certainly is a story Brian Kelly didn’t think was being discussed enough.

“There’s not been a lot of talk about Nyles Morgan, which is kind of interesting,” Kelly said over the weekend. “Here’s a guy who didn’t play much last year and stepped into the middle linebacker role. There’s always a lot of talk about Coach VanGorder’s system and it’s so complicated and you’ve got to communicate, and no one’s really talked about Nyles and it’s because he’s been that good this spring.”

Catching up via social media, you’d be hard-pressed to find a report that didn’t rave about Morgan’s performance on Saturday. Pair that with his media availability last week—Morgan looked and sounded like a guy not short on confidence—and it’s looking like life after Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith won’t be all that bad, especially once Greer Martini returns from injury.

Productivity sounded like the name of Morgan’s game on Saturday. Here’s a quick tidbit on Morgan from Bryan Driskell’s practice report at BlueandGold.com:

Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan was arguably the team’s most impressive performer during practice. There is no doubt he was the top performer on defense. Morgan was dominant during the inside run drills by quickly diagnosing the play, beating blockers to the point of attack and arriving at the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage. Morgan spent the entire practice around the football.

His instincts against the run were impressive, as was his ability to diagnose between run and pass during team periods. On a sprint out during the final team period, quarterback DeShone Kizer was rolling to his right and Morgan read the play perfectly, flew through his gap and blew up running back Justin Brent, who was the secondary contain blocker. Morgan also blew up quarterback Malik Zaire on a speed option play in which he made a decisive read and used his top-notch speed to quickly arrive into the backfield.

Morgan was very good in coverage. He quickly reads crosses and takes good angles to the ball. He had good depth on his zone drops and played the ball well. The only time he got beat was by sophomore tight end Alize Jones on a red zone corner route, but Kizer missed long.

That should be music to the ears of Irish fans, and a huge piece of the 2016 defensive puzzle moving forward.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame’s bionic man could turn into a Swiss Army Knife next season. Tranquill will be set loose next season, all over the field if reports are a glimpse into the future.

Tranquill’s versatility might overshadow the fact that he’s played his way into an every-down role as a starting safety. But there sounds to be some comfort growing in coverage for Tranquill (not necessarily his strong suit thus far) and an expanded knowledge base can’t hurt as the Irish put him all over the field trying to exploit mismatches.

Still mid-recovery from his second ACL injury in as many seasons, Tranquill needs to keep his speed up, especially if he’s going to be asked to cover receivers in space. But a tackling machine on a defense that definitely needs his consistency, it’s been a great spring for the rising junior.

 

Shaun Crawford. Another ACL recovery that looks to be making great progress, Crawford might be playing his way into a starting cornerback job in addition to serving as the team’s nickel back.

The loss of Nick Watkins to a broken arm opened up reps for Crawford at cornerback across from Cole Luke and he seems like the quickest fit for the job. But that might take him away from the all-important nickel job, an inside-cover slot that allows Crawford to use his surprising physicality and his nose for the football.

It won’t take long for comparisons to Antoine Winfield or perhaps, more currently, the honey badger Tyron Mathieu. But the fact that Crawford’s even out on the field right now making up ground should be good enough.

“I’ve exceeded expectations I had for myself by just being able to play in the (Blue-Gold) game,” Crawford told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister. “I think I’ve only missed one game my entire time playing football, so it was really hard missing an entire season, even missing practice.”

 

Isaac Rochell. Approaching his second season with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, Rochell could take a big step forward in 2016, an awards-level caliber player who could wreak havoc from the big defensive end position.

It shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Rochell was the defense’s third-ranked player, according to PFF College. But until he steps up his pass rush game, he’ll be a somewhat one-dimensional end, especially on a defense crying out for someone to get to the quarterback.

That improvement was evident, per multiple reports from practice. The physical skills are there—Rochell was spotted out-quicking Sheldon Day during some of UND.com’s practice reports last offseason. But adding some versatility to his pass rush game would be a huge addition to the defense, and a credit to Gilmore.

 

STOCK DOWN

Nick Watkins. After being the beneficiary of some late-season injuries in 2015, it’s Watkins who now has to work from behind entering the upcoming season. A broken arm that should be healed in six weeks cost him the second half of spring practice, a difficult blow dealt to a talented cornerback who looked to have a leg up in the race for KeiVarae Russell’s open job.

Summer workouts—run by a strength staff that now has former Kelly lieutenant (and Buffalo head coach) Jeff Quinn on it—will be critical in Watkins development. The Irish need a cornerback who can hold up in man coverage. Watkins seems like the best option, especially if it allows Crawford to freestyle and serve as the team’s primary nickel back.

 

Jerry Tillery. This might be a harsh assessment, but the days of being a precocious freshman are over. Tillery is coming off a debut season where he spent the final game watching after an off-field rule violation, and needs to add some urgency to a career most have high hopes for.

With great size and ridiculous athleticism, Tillery still looks the part of an All-World defensive lineman. But any comparisons to Stephon Tuitt will be blown away if Tillery doesn’t make a huge leap in 2016. Remember, Tuitt went from a mostly anonymous freshman (who also missed a game because of a rule violation) to an All-American sophomore who challenged for Notre Dame’s sack record.

Fair or not, that’s the bar set for Tillery—especially with Sheldon Day gone and Tillery slotted for the three-technique. It’s not impossible. But that big move hasn’t happened this spring.

 

NEED MORE INFORMATION

Jarron Jones. Another defensive lineman who is absolutely critical to the defensive structure, Jones has had an up-and-down spring practice as he continues his recovery from a knee injury that kept him off the field for all but 14 plays against Ohio State.

While the Irish only need him healthy come the first Sunday of September, Kelly talked about the challenges Jones has faced this spring. He also knows what kind of player he has once the bright lights go one.

That hesitancy is understandable. But a full-strength and fully-motivated Jones is an impact defender. Pair him with a top-of-his game Tillery and the interior of the Irish defense could be one of the more dynamic in the country.

 

Max Redfield. Don’t kick dirt on Redfield just yet. Nor should you read too much into the ascent of early-enrollee freshman Devin Studstill. A freshman making a big move during spring drills is one thing. A true freshman being trusted on the back-end of the defense during game situations is another.

Redfield has all the tools needed to be a productive college football player. He was done no favors by playing in a bowl game as a true freshman. But he’s entering his third season under Brian VanGorder. That means the mental lapses that have plagued his game need to be eliminated.

We’ll see if the timeshare this spring was a motivational tactic or a kickstart of the eventual transition to the Studstill era come August. Until then, I expect Redfield’s final season in South Bend to be a surprising positive.

 

Spring stock report: Offense

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
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With the majority of spring practice in the books, there’s no better time to take stock of the offensive personnel.  While Brian Kelly and key assistants Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock have focused on skill development as they reboot the depth chart, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some moves and shakes on the big board as roles emerge.

Fresh off a Saturday scrimmage session inside Loftus, let’s run through some of the players who have made big moves this spring.

 

STOCK UP

Corey HolmesFrom a sophomore redshirt to a potential replacement for Will Fuller, Holmes may not be the second coming of Notre Dame’s best deep threat, but he’s certainly made a play to take an open job at a position that needs to replace three starters.

After experimenting at Fuller’s X spot, an injury to C.J. Sanders and a need to find Holmes a job has resulted in the rising junior taking some snaps at slot receiver. With sub-4.4 speed and very good shake, that creates a nice situation at a position that’s really in need of unproven receivers to step up.

 

Sam Mustipher. Most expected a spirited competition at center between Mustipher and rising sophomore Tristen Hoge. Well Mustipher ended that by the end of Day One, all but penciled into the starting lineup as the heir apparent to Nick Martin from jump street.

Compact, physical and already at home with the first unit, Kelly’s been complimentary of Mustipher this spring, a key development for an offensive line with high hopes.

 

Tarean FolstonCount me as someone who didn’t expect to see much from Folston this spring. But the rising senior is back and moving well after his 2015 season was ended after three carries with a major knee injury.

Competition does interesting things. And for Folston, seeing Josh Adams and Dexter Williams learn on the job last year likely helped bring the Florida native back with an urgency that may not have existed before the injury.

Weighing more but leaned out at a powerful 214 pounds, Folston has taken to new running back coach Autry Denson and has claimed a leadership role in the running back room.

“It’s human nature for somebody like Tarean, who is highly competitive, to be harder on himself,” Denson told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister. “I would say he’s trending ahead of schedule in my book.”

 

The Tight Ends. After a run that produced NFL tight ends and elite production, Irish tight ends took a step back in 2015, relegated to supporting roles after Durham Smythe‘s regular season ended against Virginia. But Smythe has returned strong and both Alizé Jones and Nic Weishar are ready to take steps forward in 2016, with the position’s evolution likely to help in the red zone and in short yardage situations come 2016.

Tyler Luatua‘s transfer likely resulted in defensive lineman Jacob Matuska switching sides of the ball. But Matuska’s transition has been smooth, already expected to step into the blocking role Chase Hounshell filled last season. Mike Denbrock revealed that Jones was seeing time as a jumbo W receiver, a boundary player who could add some physicality and create mismatches on the edge.

“We’re trying to find where he can best impact our football team against Texas,” Kelly said Saturday. “I think it’s apparent by what you saw today that he’s a guy that can go down the field vertically…He’s a guy that we need to find a role for. He can’t be in a rotation as the third tight end on the field.”

With a veteran presence in Smythe and a potential breakout player in Jones, the depth chart is filled with top-shelf talent. Add in a rebuilt receiving corps likely facing some growing pains and the tight ends could be primed for a bounce back.

 

Torii Hunter. Hunter is Notre Dame’s best wide receiver. Looking over the stat sheet from the last few years, that means the rising senior (with two seasons of eligibility remaining) could be ready to do some very big things.

Hunter was clocked at 4.42 in the 40-yard dash before spring practice began, speed not many expected out of him. But with the deep ball throwing skills of both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire (not to mention a bullish running game that’ll keep defenses honest), it could be Hunter that replaces Fuller as the home run threat.

 

STOCK DOWN

Corey RobinsonNotre Dame’s student body president has been mostly absent this spring, a concussion keeping him off the field and requiring a meeting with a specialist next Tuesday. That could result in Robinson returning to a depth chart that needs his senior leadership—or deciding that he’s best served pursuing one of his many other interests.

Kelly spoke about Robinson’s status on Saturday, supportive of the due diligence being put in to a serious matter.

“You have these evaluations, and I think his family will be involved in it, so you can make a great decision on where you want to go,” Kelly said. “I think he’s doing this because he certainly cares about playing football. If he didn’t, he probably wouldn’t go through this evaluation, he’d just say I’m done.

“Clearly he thinks football is important, and he wants to get the kind of medical expertise necessary to make an informed decision. We’re supportive.”

 

NEED MORE INFORMATION

Right Guard. Count me among those who thought that Colin McGovern might be the one to emerge at right guard. But after a concussion held McGovern out of a handful of practices, he might just be best suited for a sixth man job—especially if Hunter Bivin finds some comfort on the inside.

Sophomore Tristen Hoge is in the running for the guard spot as well, though he’s had a relatively quiet spring. It feels like a two-horse race between McGovern and Bivin, with McGovern capable of backing up at tackle and Hoge capable of providing relief at both center and guard.

If history tells us anything, Harry Hiestand and Kelly prefer veterans in the trenches. And from listening to comments last week, both McGovern and Bivin seem destined to play.

 

 

 

 

Notre Dame opener against Texas shifted to Sunday, September 4

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A season-opening game against Texas is about to get even bigger. The Longhorns athletic department announced that they’ve adjusted the date of their game against Notre Dame, moving it back to Sunday, September 4, to take advantage of a national time slot on Labor Day weekend.

Texas men’s athletic director Mike Perrin released the following statement:

“When you hear Texas Longhorns and Notre Dame Fighting Irish it grabs everyone’s attention,”  Perrin said. “That’s a historic sporting event that fans worldwide want to see. This schedule provides a wonderful opportunity to play the game in an exclusive window so everyone can see it. We discussed it quite a bit and took into account all of the factors in making the decision. Now we are thrilled to take part in this showcase opportunity for both of the schools, our teams and passionate fans. In a weekend full of key college football match-ups across the country, these great institutions and storied programs will meet at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in a stand-alone spot on the college football calendar. That is tremendously exciting for all of us involved.”

The opening weekend of college football often features high-profile match-ups mixed in with some softer scheduling. Saturday already features USC and Alabama facing off at AT&T Stadium in Dallas and Wisconsin playing LSU in Lambeau Field. Other intriguing non-conference games include UCLA at Texas A&M.

With Monday night featuring Ole Miss versus Florida State in the Citrus Bowl, moving Notre Dame-Texas to Sunday gives the Longhorns and Irish center stage on Sunday.

Kickoff hasn’t been set, but Texas has announced it’ll be an evening start. The Irish blew out Texas last year to open the 2015 season, winning 38-3.

No surprise, but Kelly confirms QB battle won’t end this spring

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Brian Kelly confirmed what many of us knew all along. No resolution to a spirited quarterback battle is coming soon.

On Wednesday, Kelly caught up with the media to talk about the progress made during the Irish’s first 10 spring practices. And with all eyes on the quarterback battle between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, Kelly acknowledged that they weren’t close to deciding anything.

“I don’t think we’ll make a decision after spring,” Kelly said.

And with that, a battle that we thought might go all the way up until Texas week just essentially got extended until at least fall camp—with Kelly explaining in one sentence why the decision is a difficult one.

“The two quarterbacks are really good players,” Kelly continued. “Each one of them has different things they need to work on.”

For Zaire, it’s learning some of the many things he missed during a regular season that ended after six quarters. That’s turned spring into an installation and learning period for the veteran of the depth chart, something that wasn’t necessarily unexpected.

“I think one thing we’re realizing is we did a lot of things offensively that we did not do with Malik in camp that we did as we evolved offensively during the year. There’s a lot of things he’s doing for the first time,” Kelly said.

Pair that with returning from a significant injury and shaking off the rust—things that impact basics like footwork and balance—and it makes it very difficult to measure these quarterbacks apples to apples.

“It’s hard to evaluate strictly who’s ahead of who because we’re installing for him,” Kelly said.

Kizer’s spring has a different flavor. After putting together one of the more impressive debut seasons in recent memory, the bar has been raised by the staff as they ask Kizer to be more than just a complementary part to the offense.

“For DeShone, it’s what I’ve talked about before. It’s across the board reads, it’s red zone efficiency. It’s consistency,” Kelly said.

With two quarterbacks and one football, Kelly knows that he faces a difficult decision. Even if the flavor of this battle is much different than the one that took place last season, it’ll still leave one quarterback on the sideline serving as a backup, hardly the expectation for two competitive kids.

“They’re both No. 1s. They both probably can’t play at the same time,” Kelly acknowledged. “One’s going to have to be the starter and somebody’s going to be unhappy, but I can’t keep them all happy. We’re not going to go into the season with a team that does not have an identity. We’re going to have an identity as to who we are and that doesn’t mean we can’t play more than one quarterback. But we’ll have a quarterback and we’ll get that established.”

Notre Dame mailbag: Now Open

CLEMSON, SC - OCTOBER 3: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish gather prior to the game against the Clemson Tigers at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Tyler Smith/Getty Images)
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Questions with spring practice winding down? Drop them below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

(If there’s interest, we also might hold a video mailbag at Facebook. Throw in your votes for that, too.)