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Spring practice brings competition across the board

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For Notre Dame football, the 2016 season begins tomorrow, as the Irish kickoff spring practice on Wednesday morning. But for Brian Kelly, the formation of his seventh team begun weeks ago.

“For many that have been waiting for spring ball to begin, tomorrow is the official day relative to our spring count,” Kelly said Tuesday. “But really, since the middle of January our process has begun in terms of building the 2016 football team. It’s just been without footballs.”

After bringing back a veteran football team in 2015, the Irish begin 2016 with a team long on talent but shy on experience. And while the feedback at the next level has been solid on the former players ready to embark on a professional career, Kelly’s comments sounded like something from a financial advisor on Tuesday, understanding all too clearly that past performance doesn’t necessarily predict future results.

“When you turn over the number of players we did this past year, there’s work to be done.”

That work begins—on the field, at least—Wednesday. It’ll include position battles at just about every position, from the high-profile quarterback depth chart to the mix and match of talent at places like offensive line, running back and wide receiver.

“When we talk about spring practice now, we’ll talk about competing in a football manner. There’ll be a lot of competition,” Kelly said. “Virtually at all positions across the board there’ll be some competitive battles, and that’s what we’ve waited for a long time, to go into each spring to know there’ll be spirited competition at all positions.”

 

Removing the redshirts: Rising sophomores ready for spring

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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When Notre Dame kicks off spring practice on Wednesday, a handful of rising sophomores will step into the depth chart for the first time. After a redshirt season (not the preferred nomenclature in South Bend, but still), 11 sophomores will start competing for playing time as their eligibility clocks begin ticking this fall.

Their circumstances will all be vastly different. A season after serving as practice players only (or sitting out injured), some will step into the starting lineup, while others will fight for special teams duty.

Let’s handicap their race to the field as the Irish begin a month of football activities.

 

Shaun Crawford: Assuming Crawford’s healthy and fully recovered after an August ACL injury, we expect him to step immediately into the starting nickel role. A job he was expected to take on last season, Crawford’s August knee injury short-circuited the defensive plans for the Irish from basically Day One.

Roughly seven months after the injury, Crawford might not be full-go for spring ball, but he’ll likely be moving around and in the mix. A year after the Irish played without a nickel, Crawford should provide a missing link there, putting the undersized but physically-talented DB in the mix to be the third cornerback on the field.

 

Tristen Hoge: With multiple vacanies along the offensive line, Hoge could fight his way onto the field at either center or guard. While he spent most of his high school career snapping the football, Hoge’s offseason work and development might allow him to play guard next to Sam Mustipher.

To do that, Hoge will need to prove he’s better than some veteran members along the offensive line. He’ll also need to show that he’s physical ready to step in and fight with defensive tackles. Brian Kelly has praised his work in the weight room in the past, but his offseason gains will be worth watching.

 

Miles Boykin: With the team’s three top receivers gone, Boykin has a huge opportunity in front of him. Now he needs to establish himself this spring, fighting his way into a rotation that’ll be long on talent but short on experience and production.

Boykin could battle Corey Robinson for playing time on the boundary. Or he could line up with Equanimous St. Brown in Will Fuller‘s spot on the wide side. At nearly 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds last year, size and physicality is on his side, wherever he lines up.

With Mike Denbrock on the look out for guys who can step in and fill the gap, Boykin has a great opportunity this spring to open some eyes.

 

Mykelti Williams: Few spots on Notre Dame’s roster are as thin as the safety depth chart. And after sitting out 2015, Mykelti Williams has a chance to seize a starting job next to Max Redfield with a good spring.

Drue Tranquill continues to recover from his second torn ACL. Avery Sebastian is healthy, but mostly an unknown. A year after learning from the sideline, Williams needs to show that he’s taken great strides, especially as Todd Lyght looks to solidify the back end of the defense.

Little is known about Williams after a redshirt season. But there’s an opportunity there for the taking if Williams is a quick study this spring, so keep an eye out for the Indiana native.

 

Josh Barajas: After struggling to stay healthy and in shape for much of his freshman season, Barajas has health going for him at a time when the rest of his position group seems to be recovering from injuries. That should allow him to get in the mix this spring, taking key reps as the defensive staff looks for a place to play one of the more highly-touted recruits in the class.

Barajas projects to be a SAM linebacker, but with injuries impacting guys like Greer Martini and Te’von Coney, he could easily see time at Will or Mike as well. Mostly the spring will be utilized to see if Barajas can take some of his unique traits and add something to a defense that’s desperate to replace some of the playmaking Jaylon Smith made in 2015.

 

Asmar Bilal: Another linebacker who infuses athleticism into a defense looking to replace the ultimate athlete, Bilal will spend the spring proving he’s not a tweener. At 215 pounds last season, that might be too small to be an in-the-box linebacker.

Of course, Brian VanGorder built a reputation around utilizing sub-packages and finding ways to turn players of all shapes and sizes into weapons. Bilal certainly has a great toolkit, and with a shortened depth chart, Mike Elston will get a good look at the Indianapolis product this spring.

 

Ashton White: Another athletic defensive back given a chance to fight at a position that’s far from settled. While Nick Coleman had a chance to learn on the field as a freshman, White took things in while saving a year of eligibility, retaining a fifth year and joining a very large group of first-year contributors in a reloaded secondary.

White has good size and length for a cornerback, where he’ll likely compete this spring. With Nick Watkins, Crawford, Coleman and senior Devin Butler all trying to find time opposite Cole Luke, White’s got a chance to either get in the mix in nickel and dime packages of find a home on special teams in 2016.

 

Elijah Taylor: After spending last season learning, Taylor enters an interior defensive line mix that’s got some talent but not necessarily the depth Keith Gilmore wants. The closest thing to a run-stuffing nose guard in this group of defensive linemen, Taylor’s brute strength might be what helps him see the field, especially if he’s able to impress this spring as the defense keeps Jarron Jones’ snap count down.

It’s hard to be a imposing player in the trenches if you don’t put the time in off the field, and we’ll see if Taylor’s year with Paul Longo helped prepare him for a depth chart that’ll likely see him behind Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah as well. But the Cincinnati prospect was an early target by this defensive staff and he could begin grinding his way up the depth chart this spring.

 

Trevor Ruhland: What to expect at guard this season is anybody’s guess. If it’s not Hoge, it could be senior Colin McGovern. But Ruhland is another guy who could emerge—especially with news that the coaching staff is potentially cross-training John Montelus with the defensive linemen.

Ruhland doesn’t profile as a tackle, which seems like the position with less depth and flexibility. But if Alex Bars (still working his way to full health) isn’t the guy there, then there’s a chance some of the other shuffling could benefit Ruhland on the inside.

Another guy worth watching when the spring roster comes out, mostly to see how much heft he put on after weighing 292 on the fall roster.

 

Micah Dew-Treadway & Brandon Tiassum: At this point, I need the spring to differentiate between Dew-Treadway and Tiassum. Both are stout defensive linemen who were listed last year at either 6-4 or 6-3.5. One weighed 300 pounds, the other weighed 302. Neither was a quintessential blue-chipper, with each guy a three-star prospect, though an early offer and commit to Notre Dame.

The road to the field doesn’t look open for either, unless they’re able to provide some pass rush. The interior of the defensive line is one of the underrated strengths on this roster. The strong side defensive end is manned by Isaac Rochell, perhaps Notre Dame’s best front seven player.

Dew-Treadway was on campus last spring, able to get a jump start on his college career along with Hoge, Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney. Tiassum is another Indianapolis product who’ll bring some athleticism to the field along with his 300-pound frame.

Both guys came to campus as need-based recruits. We’ll see how close they are to being able to fill that need this spring.

 

 

 

Swarbrick discusses Campus Crossroads, athlete pay

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick speaks during a news conference at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. Notre Dame is moving to the Atlantic Coast Conference _ yet keeping its football independence. The school will play five football games annually against the league's programs, but will be a full member in all other sports. The Irish will have access to the ACC's non-BCS bowl tie-ins. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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With Notre Dame’s ambitious Campus Crossroads project still in process, the transformation of the House that Rockne Built will be ready to display come 2017. Irish athletics director Jack Swarbrick talked about the endeavor with CBS Sports’ Jon Solomon, with his comments interestingly positioned considering the landscape of college athletics.

When announced, the Campus Crossroads project was considered the school’s most ambitious—and expensive—with a price tag estimated at $400 million. While that number certainly made certain alums bristle, the idea to utilize Notre Dame Stadium for more than just six football games a year was paramount. More to that point, in the school’s announcement video, they stated the “audacious goal of bringing academic, athletics and student life together.”

Swarbrick talked about that mission this week, especially in an era where major universities continue the trend of building sports-only dorms, athlete-only facilities with lazy rivers and other lavish perks that fly in the face of amateurism and the stated goal of the NCAA.

“Given the current debate in the country of what college athletics should be, we think this is a pretty powerful symbol of what we think it should be,” Swarbrick said. “You can combine the two, you can combine them every day of the week, and it works.”

Swarbrick also gave some additional details on the progress of the stadium, discussing some interesting updates on the addition of another entrance to the field as well as some added room in the notoriously “cozy” bench seats. (Yes, he confirmed the Jumbotron, too.) He also talked about a potential price drop for some tickets, as the stadium recalibrates pricing as they add thousands of premium seats.

“We’re giving America’s increasing girth a little more room in the seats so we’re effectively taking a seat out of each row to make it a little better,” Swarbrick said. “We’re going to cut a second way for players to get on the field instead of both teams going through one tunnel so we’ll lose some seats that way.”

Notre Dame plans to add 3,000 to 4,000 premium seats — something the school has never had. The loge level’s seating areas will consist of rolling back chairs, counter-style tables, in-seat wait service and personal tablets for every two seats. The club level offers an outdoor heated overhang, cushioned seats, an indoor club space, and all-inclusive food and drinks.

“Some seats (throughout the stadium) will reduce in price because we’ve never done location-based pricing at Notre Dame,” Swarbrick said. “Every seat is the same price no matter where you sit at the stadium. We’ll probably take an opportunity to adjust that a little so there will probably be some cheaper seats.”

Lastly, Swarbrick expanded on previous thoughts about paying college athletes for the licensing rights to their  names, images and likeness (NIL). Swarbrick, himself a very accomplished attorney, takes a fairly progressive view on the subject, one that he’s stated before.

Here were his comments to Solomon.

“You can argue in order to capture your name, image and likeness, you ought to be able to sell your autograph,” Swarbrick said. “What you can’t have is some booster paying somebody $50,000 for their autograph. If it’s not a real market transaction, you haven’t really sold your autograph. So you need a mechanism that ensures its true value and not a bogus value, and I think some sort of group licensing, managed by a third party, is the way to do it. It’s what they do in the professional leagues, of course. … For me (group licensing) doesn’t do violence to the notion that they’re still students. The music student can gain some benefit from their talents. We’re not paying them to play in the band.”

Swarbrick believes an agreement on NIL will be the next piece of legislation that Power Five conferences tackle, along with regulating agent relationships.

 

Five things we’ll learn: Countdown to spring practice

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With the university’s spring break in its final days, football will return to South Bend next week. But before Brian Kelly addresses the media to discuss the state of the program as the Irish embark on spring practice, let’s dig into five things we’ll learn before the Blue-Gold game on April 16.

 

What’s the identity of Harry Hiestand’s new-look offensive line? 

Quenton Nelson seemed to spill the beans on one of the biggest questions heading into spring, tagging Mike McGlinchey as his partner on the left side of the offensive line. That leaves three vacancies across the line, with spring likely dedicated to finding the best men for the job.

The health of Alex Bars seems to be one of the first storylines to follow. If Bars is full-go for spring after suffering a broken ankle against USC, he’ll likely seize a starting job. Whether that’s at guard or tackle remains to be seen. Bars saw limited time at guard in 2015, though he certainly has the length and athleticism to take over at right tackle.

The center battle focuses on Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge. Mustipher filled in rather capably behind Nick Martin last year, another interior lineman developed into a center under Hiestand. Hoge is the only true center on the roster, a young player who earned kudos from Kelly throughout his redshirt campaign, largely for the work he put in developing his strength.

If Kelly and Hiestand believe both Mustipher and Hoge are among the five best offensive linemen on the roster, they’ll both play. We saw that with Matt Hegarty and Mike Golic, two versatile interior players who cross-trained. But that was before the Irish built up a treasure chest through recruiting, with former blue-chip recruits like Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus entering their fourth years in the program (Montelus is a candidate for cross-training, spotted with the defensive linemen in offseason workouts).

There’s no urgency to find a starting five this spring—especially with Tommy Kraemer getting to campus this summer and potentially throwing his hat in the ring for a job. But with an offense that might be best suited for a rough and tumble style of play, building that identity through the men up front starts now.

 

Will a simplified defense be rolled out this spring? 

Joe Schmidt? Gone. Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day? The NFL awaits. Take away long-time contributors Elijah Shumate, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara and the Irish defense will rely on a new group of young, talented and inexperienced players to fill the gaps.

Awaiting that group is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense. A complex, multiple, attacking scheme, the third-year defensive coordinator’s system demands a level of preparation and understanding that—put kindly—wasn’t always met by his players.

Athletically, there were growing pains and legacy issues. A veteran roster built for Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme certainly wasn’t a good fit. But this spring will likely showcase players brought in by VanGorder, athletes capable of executing the vision that Kelly and his coordinator have for this unit.

But they can’t do that without proper comprehension.

With Schmidt gone, junior Nyles Morgan is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker. A productive player as a freshman (even through significant growing pains), grasping the plethora of responsibilities that come with the position is Job One this spring.

But that responsibility doesn’t fall on Morgan alone. The offseason was likely spent at 30,000 feet, with VanGorder and the defensive staff hopefully evaluating big picture items like communication and core philosophy. These fifteen practices give the staff a chance to implement some of their findings before the broken coverages and blown assignments start counting for real.

While he’s turning into a whipping boy in some circles, VanGorder deserves credit for fixing last offseason’s two major challenges: up-tempo offenses and the triple option. This offseason the focus should be strictly internal—how to optimize a defense that too often was its own worse enemy.

Don’t expect a lot of explanation from Kelly or VanGorder when asked for updates on their progress. But that doesn’t mean the wheels aren’t already in motion.

 

Can Max Redfield lead the secondary? 

Notre Dame’s senior safety ended last season on an immensely disappointing note—sent home from the Fiesta Bowl for a rules violation. Redfield’s response to the discipline was also a head-shaker, a tweet and extended explanation that looked inward, but delivered mostly empty words when action is what’s desperately needed.

It’s Redfield’s final season in South Bend, a journey that’s taken some twists and turns but still could end with the senior safety maximizing his talents and leading the secondary. He’s got all the tools necessary to succeed in the Irish defense. Now he needs to also take on leadership, a steadying voice as the last line of defense in Todd Lyght’s secondary.

Finding a starter next to Redfield is the next step. Avery Sebastian returns for a sixth year. Drue Tranquill recovers from another ACL tear. A slew of young and untested safeties will have their chance as well.

But it all starts with Redfield. The Irish desperately need a stabilizing force at safety, a struggle since Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta headed to the NFL.

 

What should we expect from the upcoming quarterback battle? 

The Irish have three quarterbacks capable of leading a major D-I program. In Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush, Mike Sanford’s position room is crowded with talent, a second consecutive offseason with a major position battle primed to become a national story.

That’s about where the similarities to last spring end.

In many ways, the Golson-Zaire spring battle gave the Irish coaching staff the blueprint on how not to handle this spring. Granted, Golson’s impending free agency added a wrinkle that this spring won’t have. Not to mention the buy-in of the candidates involved—all three quarterbacks, Wimbush included, seem happy to be in South Bend, at least through 2016.

For those looking for clarity leaving spring, they’ll likely be disappointed. Assuming Wimbush redshirts (a plan Kelly acknowledged), both Kizer and Zaire have room for improvement in their respective games. They’ll be getting to know a rebuilt offensive line and a wide receiving corps short three leading receivers, including one of the nation’s best in Will Fuller.

Expect to hear the term “skill development” from Kelly next Tuesday, taking the spotlight off any perceived position battle. It’s likely more than just lip service, as the bar has been raised for both starting candidates, with the internal expectations driving this battle all the way to fall camp.

 

Team 127 had an identity. What will Team 128 look like? 

There was no shortage of leadership on the 2015 football team. The Irish could’ve easily trotted out six captains (and would have, had Ronnie Stanley not run afoul with those pesky Notre Dame meter maids.)

Contrast that with this year’s football team. Finding and developing leadership on the current roster may be one of the most important parts of spring practice.

Senior wide receiver Corey Robinson won the right to lead the entire student body. You have to assume he’ll manage to get a ‘C’ on his chest. But to do that, Robinson’s buy-in as a football player needs to be absolute. Notre Dame’s renaissance man very well could be college football’s most impressive student-athlete, but he’ll need to lead from the front, finding his voice as one of the tenured members of this football team.

From there, looking at resumes won’t necessarily lead you to team leaders. The fifth-year options are limited. Role players like James Onwualu may be candidates to ascend, though Kelly has often talked about the benefit of having your best players also be your best leaders.

That could mean Isaac Rochell is ready. Same with Mike McGlinchey along the offensive line. While they lack the fanfare of former teammates like Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley, they will be frontline players on a very talented roster.  There’s no shortage of leadership at quarterback either, though navigating those tricky dynamics will test even the most capable coaching staff.

This is Kelly’s seventh spring practice since he took over a program in desperate need of a reboot. He’s done that, elevating not just the talent on the roster but the infrastructure that surrounds the program. That blueprint will come into play this spring as another team with great expectations begins to form its identity.

Notre Dame Pro Day set for 16 former Irish athletes

DeShone Kizer , C.J. Prosise
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Notre Dame will have 16 former Irish football players returning to campus to take part in their Pro Day on March 31. After having the second-most players in Indianapolis at the annual NFL Scouting combine, expect the NFL to descend on South Bend as the Irish have a handful of prospects capable of being early-round selections.

As mentioned last week, Everett Golson will be back in South Bend, with Notre Dame confirming the former Irish quarterback will throw to his old teammates in his most important audition for NFL teams. Golson played out his eligibility for Florida State but wasn’t invited to the combine.

Also returning to campus is former Irish safety Eilar Hardy.  Hardy started 13 games for Bowling Green last season, finishing fourth on the team with 82 tackles while also chipping in two interceptions.

Here’s the entire list of participants:

Chris Brown
Amir Carlisle
Sheldon Day
Matthias Farley
Will Fuller
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Eilar Hardy
Nick Martin
Romeo Okwara
C.J. Prosise
KeiVarae Russell
Elijah Shumate
Jaylon Smith
Ronnie Stanley
Ishaq Williams

Of note, Chris Brown was a late scratch at the combine, choosing not to test. He’s likely to put together some very impressive numbers to go along with a very solid senior season. KeiVarae Russell will also test for the first time, sitting out in Indianapolis as his broken leg and stress fracture continued to heal. Both expect to open some eyes.

Amir Carlisle, Matthias Farley and Jarrett Grace will also get their first chance to impress an NFL team. Farley has been training with former Irish linebacker Kerry Neal in Chicago, working alongside C.J. Prosise and Brown to prep. Expect to see a leaned down Farley, who played last season at 210 pounds but will likely be closer to 190 by the end of the month. We’ll get to see Ishaq Williams on a football field again as well, the former Irish defensive end hoping to resurrect his football career after two seasons away.

Pro Day will also likely be an important time for Jaylon Smith. After NFL teams examined Smith in Indianapolis, they’ll come back roughly six weeks later to see the progress he’s made.