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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

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Since Mike Elko was hired as Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator in mid-December, speculation about his favorite toy has both hindered and furthered any conversation about the Irish defense. The uncertainty of how Elko would deploy a rover at Notre Dame limited the discussion, yet that same uncertainty led to enough speculation to allow the discourse to meander in circles unabated.

Wednesday’s first spring practice provided the first hard data about the safety/linebacker hybrid. Well, at least it provided as much of a glimpse as the first practice of spring football can.

Many expected that initial peek to feature senior Drue Tranquill. Instead, junior Asmar Bilal had the opportunity to impress Elko and Irish coach Brian Kelly. Tranquill may get his chance soon, though.

“I really think it’s going to be a week-to-week matchup situation,” Kelly said. “You’re going to look at the teams that could stress that position with a slot receiver versus a tight end …

“I think what you’ll find at the rover position is there is some versatility based upon the opponent.”

At 6-foot-2, 229 pounds, Bilal could feature prominently against physical, run-based teams.

“We think Asmar is a guy that physically can run with most detached or tight ends or backs coming out,” Kelly said. “In the role we’re going to ask the rover to match up. We’re not going to ask him to run vertically or play corner routes. We think [Bilal] is a physical guy at the point of attack, a guy that is agile enough to play in space, yet not put him in a position where he’d have to play more of a safety in that positon right now.”

When the time comes for a more coverage-based rover, that may be when Tranquill steps forward. If not him—perhaps he is deemed too necessary at safety—sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan both have experience in coverage, as a cornerback and a safety by trade, respectively. Neither is primed to crack the depth chart at those positions, but could readily provide some depth at rover. Come summer and fall, incoming freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, also a safety, will nearly certainly join the grouping. His late recruitment came about largely because Elko sees the consensus three-star recruit as a prime candidate at rover.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense more flexibility than a traditional linebacker. Sure, Tranquill may be preferable in coverage to Bilal, but Bilal should still be more serviceable in that role than junior linebackers Te’von Coney or Josh Barajas. Similarly, Tranquill would presumably provide more run support than sophomore safety Jalen Elliott. In an era when offenses thrive on forcing defenses into mismatched packages, the rover can alter some of that algebra.

‘POWER RUN TEAMS’
Part of Kelly’s explanation for Bilal’s moment as the rover debutante hinged on the first third of Notre Dame’s 2017 schedule, pointing to “some power run teams in the first month of the season.”

As always around these parts, the below rushing stats do not include sacks or the yards lost via sack as the NCAA statistics do.

2016 Temple: 2,720 rushing yards on 535 attempts for 31 touchdowns and an average of 5.08 yards per carry; the Owls threw for 3,324 yards.
2016 Georgia: 2,632 rushing yards on 509 attempts for 18 touchdowns and an average of 5.17 yards per carry; the Bulldogs threw for 2,515 yards.
2016 Boston College: 2,122 rushing yards on 538 attempts for 16 touchdowns and an average of 3.94 yards per carry; the Eagles threw for 1,869 yards.
2016 Michigan State: 2,222 rushing yards on 444 attempts for 14 touchdowns and an average of 6.13 yards per carry; the Spartans threw for 2,668 passing yards.

Bilal’s physicality very well may be necessary in the coming September, especially against Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack. Bilal getting an extended run at rover makes sense even against Boston College. The Eagles’ offense may have been paltry in 2016, but any successes it did enjoy came on the ground.

For context’s sake, last season Notre Dame rushed for 2,123 yards on 410 attempts for 18 touchdowns and an average of 5.18 yards per carry. The Irish threw for 3,051 yards. This paragraph of statistics is not presented to start a rush:pass distribution debate, nor is it to insinuate Notre Dame was a power-rushing offense. Rather, it is simply an offense most readers of Inside the Irish are presumably familiar with.

For further context’s sake, Bob Davie’s New Mexico led the NCAA last season in rushing yards per game. (That statistic did not account for the NCAA’s inclusion of sacks, but given how few the Lobos suffered, they likely would have still led. The following statistics have had sacks’ results removed from their totals.) New Mexico rushed for 4,621 yards on 676 attempts for 48 rushing touchdowns and an average of 6.84 yards per carry. The Lobos threw for 1,389 yards.

Kelly encouraged by first practice’s pace; Kraemer gets chance on OL at right tackle

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If there is ever a day to not jump to conclusions, it is the first day of spring practices. Irish coach Brian Kelly underscored that sentiment after Notre Dame’s spring debut. Frankly, tat sentiment should prevail over the next six-plus weeks. Nonetheless, Kelly praised his players, new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and new offensive coordinator Chip Long. Fitting, considering Kelly spent much of Tuesday’s preview press conference lauding new director of strength and conditioning Matt Balis.

“To point out anything in particular after day one would be a little bit foolish on my part, but I thought overall, generally speaking, I really liked the management of our defense and how it’s being taught in all aspects,” Kelly said. “I really love the tempo we were able to run at offensively today. You didn’t have the typical sloppiness of the ball on the ground and guys not executing at a high level, so I’m pleased with that from a first day.”

True to his stated intentions, Kelly left the offense primarily in Long’s hands and instead checked in on all aspects of the first practice in helmets and shorts (no pads).

“Normally my priority is making sure the offense is running the installation effectively, that we’re doing the things necessary that makes the offense run as it is supposed to,” he said. “That’s not my priority right now. My priority is making sure our coaches are emphasizing the things that we want. Today was about evaluating the personnel and where they are.”

Evaluating that personnel does not include setting the depth chart just yet. Though sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson largely worked with the third unit Wednesday, Kelly indicated that does not necessarily signal Stepherson’s current standing.
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Kelly discusses “grit,” injury updates and OL options

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The new offensive and defensive coordinators received more of this winter’s headlines than Notre Dame’s new director of strength and conditioning, but Matt Balis received the brunt of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s praise Tuesday.

“Anytime that you go into the offseason and you make a number of changes, what influences your team the most is your strength and conditioning,” Kelly said in his spring practice preview press conference. “We have a whole new staff of five in there that are influencing our guys over the last eight weeks. I think they’ve done a great job.”

In years past, Kelly may have issued similar compliments regarding Balis’s predecessor, Paul Longo, but Kelly would have been basing the sentiments off Longo’s past and second-hand reports. This year, Kelly began attending the early a.m. workouts in person after exit interviews with individual players after last season indicated his presence would be preferred.

“It allows me to clearly spend and develop a deeper relationship with all of the players, not just offensive players, but all players,” Kelly said. “Secondly, a better understanding of who needs certain time with me at certain times of the day. I’m able to touch so many more players in the program by being accessible to them in that fashion.

Kelly intends to employ similar tactics in this spring’s 15 practices. New offensive coordinator Chip Long will have control of the offense, while Kelly instead works with each and every position group. Rather than become consumed by the intricacies of the offensive game-planning or the fundraising for the Campus Crossroads project, Kelly will focus on the intangible aspects needed for a successful 2017 rebound.

“I was not focused on the traits that I needed to build in this football team,” he said. “I’m not worried about that anymore. I’m going to let other people take care of that.”

The spring practices will focus on those traits, such as attention to detail, laser focus and grit, per Kelly.

“To answer a million questions about depth chart, competition is very important,” he said, preempting about half a dozen primed questions. “There is a winner and there is a loser in everything that we do. We clearly understand that, but I’m less interested in those things and more interested in continuing the process and developing those traits within our football team.”

Quarterback Distribution
Junior Brandon Wimbush will get the majority of practice reps, and Kelly expects those will help grow Wimbush’s confidence.

“If he goes out and throws an interception, he doesn’t have to hang his head,” Kelly said. “He does so many good things that he can have confidence that he’s going to be successful, because what we’re looking for is not perfection from these guys. It’s excellence.”

Sophomore Ian Book will receive about 40 percent of the spring practice reps, Kelly said.

Offensive Line Candidates
Though Kelly stuck true to his opening comments and did not delve into any position’s depth chart, he did acknowledge the uncertainty on the right side of the offensive line, a “competitive situation.” Specifically, Kelly cast a wide net by mentioning five names in the mix for those starting positions: graduate student Hunter Bivin, senior Jimmy Byrne, junior Tristen Hoge and sophomores Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer.

“I think it will kind of take care of itself,” Kelly said. “We know who the guys are on the left side, and I think [senior center] Sam [Mustipher] has had a really good eight weeks, as well. There are four or five guys that get an opportunity now to get in there and compete right away.”

The known “guys on the left side” would be graduate student tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior guard Quenton Nelson.

Injury Report
Kelly addressed three injuries lingering from last season, all with much optimism. Junior Shaun Crawford’s recovery from a September Achilles tear has gone much quicker than would have been expected.

“He’s jumping, has change of direction. You’re going to see him extremely active in the spring,” Kelly said. “I don’t see him in a contact position at this time, but he won’t be cheated this spring. He’s really going to use spring as an opportunity for him to continue to grow as a football player.”

Notre Dame has depth, though unproven, at cornerback, and it will be only bolstered by Crawford’s progress. Senior Nick Watkins and sophomores Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn all will compete for playing time on the edge. The spring roster released Tuesday indicates juniors Ashton White and Nick Coleman have indeed both moved to safety.

Sophomore receiver Javon McKinley is also ahead of the expected rehab schedule after breaking his leg in a late-October practice. Kelly indicated he would also partake in a limited capacity during spring practice.

Senior defensive lineman Daniel Cage has been cleared to practice following concussion issues hampered him in 2016.

1 Day Until Spring Practice: A Look at the Defensive Line

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In a few hours, Irish coach Brian Kelly will meet with the media to preview Notre Dame’s spring practices. Exactly 24 hours from this posting (scheduled for 9 a.m. ET), the Irish will be on a football field wearing helmets working on actual football activities.

The biggest question facing them in that practice and the subsequent 14 this spring comes up front. Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front? If so, who will those linemen be?

For the second-consecutive year, Notre Dame lost two defensive linemen to the NFL, presuming both Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones do indeed follow in the footsteps of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara. A year ago, though, it was clear Rochell and Jones were ready to lead at the defensive point of attack. Rochell had, in fact, led the Irish defensive line with 63 tackles in 2015. Looking for that candidate this year is a much more opaque process.

Just how barren is the position’s past performance? Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen recorded a grand total of zero sacks in 2016  and only 5.5 tackles for loss.

Looking at previous experience, senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, 3 for loss) may have inside tracks on starting positions. If able to stay healthy, senior tackle Daniel Cage has shown enough talent to join them, but concussions have plagued Cage for two seasons now. He finished last season with 10 tackles, 0.5 for loss, and made 18 in 2015, with four of those behind the line of scrimmage.

After those three veterans, defensive line coach Mike Elston has an inventory of unknown and unproven commodities. For that matter, one could argue Tillery is a veteran in title only after the immaturity displayed to close last season.

Sophomore end Daelin Hayes arrived at Notre Dame the most highly-touted recruit in the Irish class of 2016, a rivals.com five-star. He earned enough playing time in last year’s tumultuous season to notch 11 tackles. Classmate Julian Okwara followed his older brother’s footsteps to Notre Dame, though he was and presumably is further along developmentally than Romeo was at the same point in his career. The younger Okwara’s four tackles last season may be underwhelming, but the fact that he earned playing time at all is promising.

Seniors Jonathan Bonner and Jay Hayes and sophomores Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem will complete the springtime competition at end, with the younger two primed to pass their elders thanks in part to the fresh slate presented by new defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

The cupboard at tackle this spring is even leaner than at end, at least once past Tillery and Cage. Only senior Pete Mokwuah (one tackle) and junior Elijah Taylor (three) made it onto the field last season, and as their statistics bely, neither of which was in much of a notable fashion. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will provide further spring depth, but both could be passed by freshman Darnell Ewell on his first day in the summer. Of the entire incoming freshman class, the four-star Ewell may have the best chance to contribute in 2017, aside from the top-flight tight end duo. That is both a testament to the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Ewell’s talent and a commentary on Notre Dame’s depth chart at defensive tackle.

For that matter, it is the facts supporting that commentary that make the potential addition of Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano so intriguing. Pagano visited Notre Dame over this past weekend.

Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailo-Amosa will join Ewell in the middle, while Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will attempt to further the youth movement started by Okwara and Hayes when they arrive this summer.

Somewhere in this mix of 18 linemen—19 should Pagano see fit to join the fray, but only 13 for the spring—Elson, Elko and Kelly would like to find seven or eight genuine contributors to fill out a full rotation. When only five returning linemen recorded double-digit tackles last season, identifying those contributors becomes the challenge. That process begins tomorrow.


Previous Positional Group Spring Previews
Offensive Linemen
Tight Ends/Receivers
Running Backs
Quarterbacks
Defensive Backs
Linebackers
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Amid mixed results in drills, Rochell & Jones look back at Notre Dame’s 2016

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Whether or not combine drills affect defensive linemen’s draft status can be debated. If the drills do, former Irish end Isaac Rochell did himself a favor Sunday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Former Irish tackle Jarron Jones, however, may hope the drills are largely for show. After all, how often does a defensive tackle need to sprint 40 yards? And if that is a necessity, what might it say about the defense as a whole?

Jones’s 40-yard dash time of 5.33 seconds placed him No. 49 of the 51 defensive linemen at the combine. Rochell’s 4.89 put him in the middle of the pack at No. 30. Rather than discuss those times, though, most questions for those two focused on Notre Dame’s struggles last season.

“My biggest thing with our season last year is we had an identity issue,” Rochell said. “We lost a lot of really good players. This time last year you had eight, nine guys here [at the combine]. We had a lot of positions that had to be filled with younger guys.”

Counting both offense and defense, Notre Dame sent a total of 10 players to the 2016 combine, an invite-only event, including defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara.

“A lot of people were switching positions, some playing positions they weren’t used to,” Jones said. “…Each and every week, we had someone new on the d-line. We had a hard time, especially the young guys, figuring out who we were.”

Some of that turmoil may help Jones improve his draft stock, as he maintains hopes of going in the first two rounds of the late-April Draft. During his Notre Dame career, the 6-foot-6, 316-pounder played in both a 3-4 scheme and a 4-3 alignment.

“I understand defenses a lot more,” he said. “I understand both schemes. I’m versatile enough to play any position.”

Jones logged only 22 reps in the bench press and offered a mere 20.5-inch vertical jump, a distant last among defensive linemen. His prodigal wingspan, though, may help compensate for the difficulty jumping over a desk char. Jones blocked six kicks in his Notre Dame career.

Rochell, meanwhile, delivered 25 reps on the bench press, good for 13th among the 49 defensive linemen who did the drill, and a 31.5-inch vertical. He measured 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds.

Jones on Notre Dame’s 2017 defense
Jones’s brother, sophomore linebacker Jamir, has kept him apprised of events back on campus.

“They’re gonna be really good next year,” the elder Jones said. “I have great faith in that. I’ve been talking to my little brother Jamir, and he says the new d-coordinator is really whipping them into shape with the strength coach.”

Asked who he sees stepping forward this fall in the wake of his and Rochell’s departures, Jones mentioned seniors Andrew Trumbetti and Daniel Cage, as well as junior Jerry Tillery.