Notre Dame fifth-year defensive end Jay Hayes announced he will finish his college career elsewhere Friday evening via Twitter. With one year of eligibility remaining, Hayes will be immediately eligible wherever he ends up thanks to his graduation in May.
“I just want to thank the University of Notre Dame for the love and support they’ve poured into me,” Hayes wrote. “I will [sic] like to thank the coaching staff for granting me my release as a graduate transfer. ND is a special place to grow as man on and off the field. I’ve learned so many valuable lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I’m going to miss the relationships I’ve established along with all the guys on the team. It’s nothing but love for y’all.”
Hayes’ transfer comes as a bit of a surprise to a defense that was returning 10 starters, now nine. Some foreshadowing may have been offered just before Easter when he was absent from a practice, explained by Irish head coach Brian Kelly as “academics” with no further elaboration.
Without Hayes, rising-junior Khalid Kareem will become a pivotal piece of the defensive line, likely splitting snaps with either Ade Ogundeji or Julian Okwara, while Daelin Hayes remains the starter at the other end spot. Between the quartet of rising-juniors, the two positions are not short of experience or talent, while rising-sophomore Kofi Wardlow, incoming freshman Justin Ademilola and linebacker-turned-end rising-junior Jamir Jones offer needed depth.
Hayes finishes his Notre Dame career with 39 tackles, including 27 last season with one sack. He played in 26 games across three seasons, preserving a year of eligibility his sophomore year after injuries to veterans like Sheldon Day forced Hayes into action as a freshman in 2014.
Playing those three games did not necessarily sit well with Hayes at the time.
The Irish roster still projects to have 88 players, three more than the maximum allowed by the NCAA.
Asked a simple question about Devin Studstill, Notre Dame safeties coach Terry Joseph used it to make a broader point. The fact that his overview came in response to a thought of the rising-junior safety implies the point applies to Studstill, but it also sheds light on all the Irish safeties.
“All those guys are in the mix because nobody has done enough up until this point to pull away,” Joseph said Thursday.
That includes not only Studstill, but also rising-juniors Jalen Elliott (pictured above) and Alohi Gilman, rising-sophomore Jordan Genmark-Heath and, even as he spends some time working at nickelback, rising-senior Nick Coleman. After spending the last week or so at safety, as well, early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith joins the mix of options still under consideration at safety.
They each have flaws, but to Joseph that is hardly an exclusionary distinction, as long as each player is aware of his shortcomings.
“You can be a good player with limitations when you understand what your limits are and you don’t put yourself in position to get exposed,” Joseph said. “… When you realize what you can’t do, try to stay away from that situation.”
Obviously, avoiding a particular situation is largely dictated by an understanding of assignments and pre-snap reads. Thus, logic points to what has occurred after eight spring practices: The most game-tested players are faring best — Elliott and Gilman have shown the strongest grasp of their responsibilities. Joseph assumes that is due to their advantage in experience. Elliott has appeared in all 25 possible games during his two years at Notre Dame, including starting all 13 last year. Gilman started 12 games and played in 14 as a freshman at Navy before last summer’s transfer.
“Those guys don’t really have a lot of panic to them,” Joseph said. “They’re calm and put themselves in position that they need to be in.”
That is not to say they do not also have their areas needing improvement. Gilman in particular needs to reintegrate himself into the mindset of a defensive contributor rather than a scout team role player. In that latter duty last season, Gilman did not need to worry about reads or assignments. He was simply mimicking that week’s opponent.
Now, Gilman must work through each progression, check each route, understand the offense as much as the defense.
“Alohi is a guy who is very athletic, has great instincts, a guy that can play from sideline-to-sideline,” Joseph said. “… Now you want him to go past the speed limit a little bit yet still be under control. He was so excited to get back into the mix after spending a year on scout team.”
Gilman’s and Elliott’s experience helps them stay just ahead, if ahead at all, of the likes of Coleman. His athleticism and physicality is a large part of the reason he is under consideration at nickelback. The exact nature of that position, though, requires just as much understanding and anticipation as the safety spot does.
“If you were just testing him in a combine setting, [Coleman] would be off the charts,” Joseph said. “From a skill standpoint, he has the tools to be a starter at a Power Five school. Now it’s about refining those tools to become a great football player. A lot of that starts above the shoulders.”
Such went the theme as Joseph discussed each of the players under his tutelage. Gilman needs to get back in the habit of reading the offense. Coleman needs to understand the position a bit better. Genmark-Heath has “to be a better guy in space and in the deep part of the field.”
These critiques will likely continue well into preseason practices in August. Joseph at least hopes so, figuring that open competition will keep the entire group involved. It will also serve to give incoming-freshman Derrik Allen a chance to crack the rotation.
Whoever finally does enough to pull away, Joseph insisted he will not be bound by anything other than that performance in determining his starters. With his arrival this offseason (replacing defensive coordinator/safeties coach Mike Elko after he left for Texas A&M), Joseph touted a clean slate.
“At the end of the day, I love them all, but the truth of the matter is, the two best guys are going to run out there against Michigan on Sept. 1,” he said. “I don’t care what grade they’re in, I don’t care what jersey number [or] how long they’ve been here.
“At the end of the day, the two best guys are going to run out there.”
That is 149 days away, if anyone is curious, meaning those players have that long to make their skills and qualities stand out more than the limitations each one has and, given human nature, will continue to have.
Notre Dame’s receivers hope for a big-play future, unlike their past
Although Notre Dame lost its two leading receivers from 2017, one to the NFL draft and one to repeated off-field mistakes, the need to find replacements is less urgent than it is at running back. That is not an inherent good thing. Rather, it is a reflection of the lack of production from last year’s receivers.
As a group, they totaled 12 catches of 30 or more yards last season, led by four from NFL-bound Equanimeous St. Brown. The returnees accounted for only six of those, with three of them coming from Chase Claypool in just one weekend, against Wake Forest in early November. The receivers are well aware more is needed moving forward.
“After last year and what we are able to do on offense, and what we were not able to do, our focus is helping in the passing game and being more explosive,” receivers coach Del Alexander said last week. “Showing a dimension in the offense that we haven’t used yet … there is a focus and determination to be playmakers and be fast and take advantage of secondaries.”
Aside from Claypool’s nine catches for 180 yards and a score against the Demon Deacons, the returning Irish receiver with the best, arguably only, track record of big plays is obviously Miles Boykin. Plenty has already been said about the rising-senior, an unavoidable result after providing the season highlight moments before the season ended. That memory somewhat obscures Boykin’s entire 2017 production of 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. Both he and Claypool need to focus on the basics before reaching playmaker status.
For Claypool, those fundamentals are coming while not fully cleared for practice as he recovers from shoulder surgery. If he taps into those a bit more, Alexander argues Claypool could reach unexpected levels.
“Chase is an angry and physical blocker, he is an emotional player,” Alexander said. “We have to try to channel that emotion into, ‘Take this step right here.’ He just wants to make the big play.
“Even with his size, speed and strength, it is difficult for him to free himself up. If you’re playing against an All-American cornerback, you’re playing against a guy that has been playing for four years and really understands where you are aligned and anticipating what you’re doing.
“We really need to focus on Chase and his football IQ so that he can use his talents.”
Continuing with the big-play theme, only rising-senior Chris Finke can also claim a reception of greater than 30 yards last season, a 48-yarder from Ian Book in mop-up time against Miami (OH). Pulling in only five other catches for 54 yards may not speak to a plethora of potential beneath the surface, but that is exactly what Alexander expects thanks to Finke’s broader understanding of football, something of an inverse to Claypool.
“At this point in the game, Finke knows everything,” Alexander said. “… We’re doing so many little things with Finke that help him have a knack for the game outside of the playbook. That’s his spring, because he understands exactly what we want, he knows the playbook.
“At the same time, we’re talking about leverage, we’re talking about using his height to gain an advantage, using his quickness, timing on breaks and anticipation of people around him. With Finke, we’re doing some things that help you play for a long time.”
Finke’s quickness fits alongside the speed of rising-sophomore Michael Young and fifth-year Freddy Canteen, the two names Alexander offered along with Finke’s when discussing true top-end speed. Including rising-junior Javon McKinley, they form what may be the back-end of Notre Dame’s primary receivers.
Especially in the case of McKinley, the concept of being among the starters is quite the ascension considering he spent last season working with the scout team while rehabbing a leg injury. That time kept him away from Alexander.
“[McKinley is] in both groups, he can roll in with the first or the second group,” Alexander said. “His progress has been good. He’s made some plays. There have been some opportunities that he’s missed, but like most guys, he has a different determination because he is going into year three and he wants that opportunity for his family to see him play.”
It is conceivable, maybe even likely, early-enrolled freshman Micah Jones finds himself in a similar scout-to-contributor transition a year from now. Even with his January arrival, Jones is behind the rest of the receivers in both understanding and development, as should be expected of any freshman. If he had come in with the three other receivers in his class, Jones would have at least had the support of their presumed struggles. By Alexander’s math, being the only freshman is 10 times that difficulty.
“His advantage won’t show up until we get to [summer] camp,” Alexander said. “For him, we’re not going to slow down because we have a veteran group. He’s chasing his tail and trying to chase everybody out in front of him.”
This spring, Jones is somewhat limited in team-wide drills, primarily getting work in one-on-one matchups or seven-on-seven drills.
When joined by incoming freshmen Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin and Lawrence Keys, the quartet will fulfill Alexander’s preferred promise to his charges.
“Everyone in that room will be replaced one day. They decide how soon.”
Two backs without a single college carry key to Notre Dame’s 2018 ground game
No matter how Notre Dame goes about it, replacing 1,830 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground will be difficult. That kind of production does not come around readily, especially when it comes from only two players, one of which accounted for 1,430 yards and nine touchdowns in mounting a brief Heisman campaign.
That is the task ahead of the Irish and, more precisely, running backs coach Autry Denson. In rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above) and rising junior Tony Jones, Denson has two possibilities with plenty of room to grow. Their stats alone speak to the potential for more:
Williams in 2017: 360 yards and four touchdowns on only 39 carries, a 9.2 yards per attempt average, in 10 games. Jones in 2017: 232 yards and three touchdowns on 44 carries, a 5.3 yards per attempt average, in 12 games.
Combining the concept of health with the opportunity created by the loss of NFL-bound Josh Adams, those numbers should increase. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has already said the rushing game’s future may hinge on Williams’ development — with development, it becomes a viable two-back attack. A two-back attack will have a starter nominally, but Denson hopes neither accepts the fate of a No. 2 back.
“There’s no way to prepare to be No. 2,” Denson said last week. “Every one of those guys has the mindset from a preparation standpoint that he is preparing to be the starter, so when his opportunity comes about, he is ready to take advantage of it.”
Given the natures of the running back position, though, Denson will likely need more than just those two upperclassmen. If the 2017 Irish season underscored any football truth, it pertained to the slim odds of keeping running backs healthy. Ankle injuries and muscle tweaks limited Adams, Williams and Jones throughout the season, creating the chance for Deon McIntosh to rush for 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries. C.J. Holmes also took eight carries for 32 yards as a result of those injuries, getting activated into an active duty role in case McIntosh, too, went down with an injury. (Both McIntosh and Holmes have since been dismissed from the program due to violations of team rules, and with Notre Dame currently four projected scholarships above the NCAA maximum of 85, speculation about either or both returning to the team before the fall seems unfounded at best.)
Avoiding those injuries is just this side of impossible. Denson joked he would need a glass bubble, perhaps even on gamedays, to keep all the backs healthy. Accepting that reality, the progress of early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith and rising sophomore Jafar Armstrong becomes more important than the usual third-stringers’ growth.
Smith has already impressed Denson with his ability to retain information, furthering the options he would offer a game plan if needed.
“[He is] kind of a cross between speed and power,” Denson said. “Catches the ball a lot better than I thought he would, and retains information really well. His academic IQ and his football IQ are mirroring up really well.”
Armstrong continues to split his time between receiver and running back, though Denson wants as much time with Armstrong as possible. Armstrong spent last season working as a receiver. If Notre Dame can prove he is a viable running back, his presence could suddenly create a variety of formation difficulties for defenses.
“The fact that he can play both, you can never have too many guys that play multiple positions,” Denson said. “We run a spread offense. It’s about getting the best five guys on the field from those skill positions and just trying to threaten the defense with the best players possible.”
The biggest obstacle between both Smith and Armstrong and a plethora of playing time may be the same challenge that limited Williams at points the last few years. Jones was an exception to the rule, not one disproving the rule, of young backs struggling in pass protection. Having lived through that experience himself once upon a time, Denson offered an understandable explanation for that struggle.
“When you’re in high school, usually these guys are the best player on their team, so they aren’t called to block a whole lot,” he said. “They usually have the ball in their hands, one way or another.
“It’s that, but it’s also that our playbook is a lot bigger. Understanding where you fit into the protection when the protections are called, that just takes repetition.”
One luxury of having so few backs is it guarantees Smith and Armstrong get those repetitions this spring, and they will almost certainly need that understanding this fall when either Williams or Jones sprains another ankle.
Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offense searches for reloaded skill positions
When returning 10 starters on defense, much of the springtime conversation will focus on offensive skill positions. Notre Dame needs to replace two starting receivers, Heisman-candidate running back Josh Adams and primary tight end Durham Smythe.
Who fills those voids will not be determined this spring, but the conversation has at least begun.
In a “strengthening” running back situation, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the position will be most dictated by rising senior running back Dexter Williams’ development.
“It starts with Dexter and his ability to maintain himself in a position where he can be on the field for all three downs,” Kelly said Thursday. “That’s pass protection, play-action fakes, all the little detail things that go along with playing the position.
“It’s something that he’s been below the line on. He’s shown this spring he understands how important that is and he’s above the line on those things.”
If Williams does not grasp all those aspects of the offense, the ones not focused on taking a handoff and finding a hole, then rising junior Tony Jones’ role will only increase.
“Tony’s been really, really steady in everything he’s done,” Kelly said. “He’s healthy, very coachable, and so we like that combination right now.”
The options at running back are limited. In addition to Williams and Jones, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith and receiver-turned-running back/receiver Jafar Armstrong are around to take carries.
The possibilities at receiver are far more numerous, albeit just as uncertain. All indications point to rising senior Miles Boykin establishing himself as a primary option, and rising junior Chase Claypool continues to recover from shoulder surgery. After those two, questions abound.
“We’re going to find that we’ve got seven-to-eight guys that we can work with,” Kelly said. “We’ll find out what the best rotation is there. We’re going to be solid there. … We have to find something at the receiver position that gives us good balance.”
Rising senior Chris Finke, rising sophomore Michael Young and rising junior Javon McKinley lead the way of that mingling handful. Clearly, there could be depth at receiver, especially if the summer yields further development. Such depth already exists at tight end, the only quality at that position Kelly espoused, which makes sense given how many tight ends are recovering from injury.
Not all 10 returning defensive starters will start. On paper, Notre Dame needs to find only a linebacker to complete its starting defense — a rover, in particular, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill moving to Buck linebacker, leaving the hybrid role available for a newcomer. In reality, the Irish need to find a safety or two, and that has not happened yet this spring.
“Defensively, we still need to emerge at the safety position,” Kelly said.
That need prompted Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea to move early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith from cornerback to safety last week. Griffith offers “contact skills,” tackling and an “ability to play the ball in the air,” the same traits Kelly often touts when discussing a new candidate at safety.
“All in all, halfway through we’ve learned a lot more about our football team,” Kelly said. “We’ll continue to do that on the back half.”
Mock Draft Season There is a reason the phrase begins with a four-letter word. It is inane, fruitless, futile. The exercise never ends and has essentially no payoff. Nonetheless, with the NFL Draft only three-plus weeks away, spending 45 seconds on the seasonal speculation makes some sense.
Notre Dame will likely produce two first-round picks this cycle in offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Various mock drafts project Nelson to go in the top 10, perhaps just outside of it, while McGlinchey looks to be a top-20 pick, as well. Picking in those ranges is as much about a team’s roster needs as anything else, especially when selecting an offensive lineman.