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Preseason practice officially commences

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Notre Dame officially opened preseason practice Tuesday. That means a game is now only one month away. The Irish did not wear pads in the two-hour session, thus making any conclusions drawn, by definition, hasty. Nonetheless, seeing who is actively in the mix at the outset is the first step toward arriving at proper conclusions in 31 days.

Some of those involved greatly impressed all in attendance. At the top of that list may be junior Shaun Crawford, apparently quite recovered from his Achilles injury. With his theoretical resurgence, Notre Dame truly could have a wealth of talent at cornerback, increasing the chances of sophomore Julian Love buttressing the safety rotation.

On the flipside of both the impression delivered and of the line of scrimmage, sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson apparently mixed displays of talent with frustrating inconsistency.

Stepherson may not have much time to prove he can be relied on thanks to the arrivals and quick implementations of the two graduate transfer receivers. Michigan transfer Freddy Canteen reportedly saw action with the second unit in the slot while Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith got a figurative starting nod as the boundary receiver, bumping junior Miles Boykin down a notch.

Smith’s initial edge could simply be due to him knowing offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme from playing under Long at Arizona State for three of the last four seasons, but one would think now would be the time to educate Boykin, Stepherson and the rest of the receivers rather than simply defer to a prior understanding. As long as Smith is working with the starters, presume he has earned that due to his talent as much as his grasp of the offense.

Finding the proper mix at receiver may take the Irish a bit, but deciding on a right tackle should be a simpler task. Per Hansen, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg were not the only ones with an opportunity there. Freshman Robert Hainsey could make a push, as well, though that seems unlikely in the long-run as of now.

On the defensive line, it makes sense to see some freshmen finding their way into the rotation given the ceaseless wondering this offseason about Notre Dame’s defensive tackles,

That leaves Darnell Ewell as the newcomer in the cold right now, though both Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa would still need to work their way past more upperclassmen to see the field consistently.

Overall, it sounds like the first day of practice was a success for the Irish. Then again, that bar is cleared if day one is devoid of injury while creating some glimpses of potential.

A projected Notre Dame offensive depth chart to open fall camp

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Much of the spring’s analysis, summer wondering and now fall discussion has focused on Notre Dame’s defense — and it was admittedly furthered in this space. Questions obviously surround both the defensive tackle and the safety positions.

RELATED READING: Things to learn: Notre Dame’s defense filled with questions as camp begins

But those ponderings should not be so grand as to block out any conversation of the Irish offense, a unit which just may be the most-potent of Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame. With that in mind, below you will find an attempt at a refresher of a practical depth chart. The qualifier practical is included because it will defer from any listed depth chart. For example, officially listing the starting right guard as the backup center would elicit a number of fruitless and unnecessary questions. If the situation were to arise in a game, though, the Irish would possibly expect senior Alex Bars to move to the middle of the line.

By no means will this be the depth chart in 32 days when Notre Dame kicks off against Temple. That’s why there is a fall camp, right? This is just a starting point for context as some players rise, others fall and a few even switch positions.

Quarterback: Jr. Brandon Wimbush — So. Ian Book — Sr. Montgomery VanGorder or Fr. Avery Davis. The “or” translates to: If a short-term solution is needed, look to VanGorder, but if the situation were to dictate a long-term change, Davis would likely spend a year of eligibility to at least be ready to aid, a la Wimbush in 2015.
Running Back: Jr. Josh Adams — Jr. Dexter Williams — So. Tony Jones — So. Deon McIntosh — Fr. C.J. Holmes, likely to preserve a year of eligibility after suffering a shoulder injury in the spring.

Field, or X, Receiver: Jr. Equanimeous St. Brown — So. Kevin Stepherson
Slot, or Z, Receiver: So. Chase Claypool — Jr. C.J. Sanders — Jr. Chris Finke — Sr. Freddy Canteen
Boundary, or W, Receiver: Jr. Miles Boykin — So. Javon McKinley
Additionally, Arizona State graduate transfer Cameron Smith and freshmen Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong slot into the depth chart somewhere, though where will remain unclear until some practice repetitions are observed. (Such as today’s, possibly.) The best guess this morning would place Smith competing with Stepherson at field, Young competing with McKinley at boundary and Armstrong getting chances at multiple spots.
Tight End: Fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack — Sr. Nic Weishar—Freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet. Smythe and Mack may alternate being 1A and 1B this season, depending on the game plan, but both will certainly be involved. As of now, the freshmen are behind Weishar, but that could change with a solid August from either Wright or Kmet.

Left Tackle: Fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey — So. Liam Eichenberg
Left Guard: Sr. Quenton Nelson — Fifth-year senior Hunter Bivin — Jr. Trevor Ruhland
Center: Sr. Sam Mustipher — Sr. Alex Bars
Right Guard: Sr. Alex Bars — Fifth-year senior Hunter Bivin — Senior Jimmy Byrne
Right Tackle: So. Tommy Kraemer — So. Liam Eichenberg
The freshmen trio of Robert Hainsey, Dillan Gibbons and Aaron Banks fill in the offensive line depth, as well, but it is unlikely any see the field barring multiple injuries this fall.

Notre Dame’s lack of leadership last season an early issue to address this fall; injury update and transfers’ readiness

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When the likes of linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive lineman Sheldon Day and left tackle Ronnie Stanley all headed to the 2016 NFL Draft, Irish coach Brian Kelly knew Notre Dame was losing valuable on-field production. He did not necessarily realize the intangible contributions they were taking with them, as well.

“[I] focused way too much on production and not the process itself and how important it is to have that attention to detail, that laser focus,” Kelly said Monday. “… I let our football team down not focusing on those very important values and that process and went right to production. I just looked to replace production.”

Now a year removed from seeing quarterback DeShone Kizer, linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell embrace the challenges of the NFL, Kelly is attempting to plant the seeds of leadership earlier among his players, and among more of them, at that. The Irish captains were in charge of cleaning the locker room this summer, which inevitably meant every player kept things a bit tidier. By not waiting for the season to embrace a wider array of captains, Kelly hopes it not only stabilizes certain dynamics this season, but also sets a precedent moving forward.

“It kept building some and drilling down deeper to get more leaders to step up outside of those [captains] because they’re going to graduate,” he said. “We needed them to be in those roles prior to being selected as captains.”

It was that void atop the roster in terms of maturity and leadership Kelly said he started to notice just before the 2016 season. Even if the year had gone 8-4, or even better, instead of 4-8, he insisted many of this offseason’s changes would still have occurred.

“Clearly we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season,” he said in a vague reference to a number of arrests last August. “We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.

“Yes, we’d be at this same place regardless of whether we would have had a monsoon or kicked a field goal or went for a first down instead of kicking a field goal.”

Among those now leading the way in Kelly’s view is junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

“The way he handles himself, the way he works, his attention to detail, the way he handles himself on campus, that’s what I want [other players] to model after,” Kelly said. “… He is doing the things necessary that we want others to do, as well.”

Injury updates
As had been reported earlier in July, senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage will not be a part of the team in 2017, though his future beyond that remains unclear. If both his concussion symptoms and knee recover fully, it is possible Cage plays in 2018.

Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor remains 10-14 days away from full health after suffering a LisFranc fracture early in spring practice. Kelly said Taylor is nearly ready, but is not yet moving laterally.

To make up for Cage’s absence and the continued easing back of Taylor, the Irish will give chances to three freshmen in Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Darnell Ewell.

“[Those] freshmen will have to be part of the evaluation process,” Kelly said. “They did some really good things in terms of developing, in terms of strength and power and quickness during the time that they were here.

“They’ll be part of the evaluation process as to whether they can assist in some fashion in the fall.”

RELATED READING: Notre Dame defensive line adds weight as a whole

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford has been given the green light following his Achilles injury last season. Kelly still spoke of caution in bringing Crawford back to a full workload, but that should not be an issue by the time the season begins.

Transfers waiting and ready
Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman has not yet received a ruling from the NCAA pertaining to his request for a waiver of the usual year on the sidelines following a transfer. Kelly said Notre Dame received a briefing Friday indicating the news should come sooner than later, but there is not yet a set timeline.

If Gilman is eligible, he will immediately fit into the two-deep at safety. Thus, until a ruling is issued the Irish must balance getting him ready in case he can play against getting others repetitions in case he cannot.

“What we’ll do is probably get him some work in there to keep him part of the installation and understanding of assignments of what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “He didn’t have the luxury of going through spring ball, so he’s going to have to learn.

“But we’ll also make certain that we have contingency plans. The first three, four days you’ll see a number of guys working at those positions, so we make sure that we cover all the bases.”

Fifth-year senior and Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith and senior Michigan transfer Freddy Canteen are both eligible this season as graduate transfers. They join a receiving corps that lacked a senior before their arrival, which may have been one of the driving reasons Kelly was pleased to welcome both players to Notre Dame.

“Cam is physically fit, can do the things within the offensive structure, knows the offense very well,” Kelly said. “I think immediately he goes out there and is able to compete at a high level right away because he knows the offense.

“… Both of those guys bring a maturity and a focus and attention to detail that I was looking for. A maturity, if you will, to that group that I think we needed.”

Notre Dame defensive line adds weight as a whole

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As Notre Dame begins fall camp, its new depth chart includes some notable weight changes from the offseason conditioning program. Naturally, some of these will lead to much talk of improved fitness and increased strength only to end with no noticeable differences on the field. Others, however, may be indicative of things to come.

Remember, Irish coach Brian Kelly brought in a new “director of football performance” this offseason in Matt Balis who, in turn, brought with him a larger staff to increase the attention paid to each individual player. Based on some of the changes listed below, that focus paid off in a few particular instances.

Presumably, these changes are of the healthy variety and focused on muscle, not a sign Smashburger had a profitable summer.

Added Defensive Line Mass
In a quick glance down the roster, the modest weight added by two defensive tackles earn notice while the substantial weight gain by a defensive end will spark speculation he could be poised to move to tackle.

Senior tackle Jonathan Bonner added seven pounds to his listed spring weight, now titling the scales at 291 pounds, and junior tackle Micah Dew-Treadway added six pounds, now 305. Each of them may need that additional mass to hold the point of attack alongside junior Jerry Tillery. (Tillery was listed at 308 pounds in the spring and is now at 306.)

Meanwhile, senior ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti added nine pounds and 11 pounds, respectively. That brings Hayes to 290 and Trumbetti to 263. This could point toward Hayes moving to the interior of the line, a needed boost to a rotation devoid of both experience and readiness. Trumbetti would then theoretically need some more strength to handle his position that much more in any given game.

Sophomore ends Ade Ogundeji and Julian Okwara each added five pounds, bringing them to 256 and 240 pounds, respectively. One of them could flip sides of the line to aid Trumbetti, as well. (more…)

Things to learn: Notre Dame’s defense filled with questions as camp begins

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In some respects, the wait is over. New football activity is here. In many other respects, competitive football is not yet imminent — Sept. 2 remains 33 days away.

The Irish will need that month to answer a number of questions. There are the obvious unknowns that will only be clarified with genuine games. Will junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush be ready to lead both in word and in action as the unquestioned starter? Will any freshmen emerge as more than special teams contributors from the outset? Will multiple bolts of lightning reduce the new video board to ash the moment it is turned on in Notre Dame Stadium with thousands watching?

Then there are the position battles, position vacuums and general ponderings which might find answers in practice. When Irish coach Brian Kelly meets with the media today (Monday) at noon ET, he will not have any of these questions solved, but he will likely allude to a few of them.

How well will the defense take to defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s aggressive scheme?
Admittedly, this will not be adequately answered until it is seen in measurable ways on a Saturday in September, but its groundwork began in the spring and will continue this month.

By now, everyone can cite last year’s pertinent numbers without much difficulty. Part of that ease is due to the symmetry. Notre Dame sacked its opponent a total of 14 times last season and created a total of 14 turnovers (eight interceptions, six fumble recoveries). If the Irish are to have even a mildly-successful 2017, both those numbers will need to increase by more than a small margin.

Kelly indicated those tendencies were taking root back in March and April. If that growth continues, it will likely be most-readily noticed by watching sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes and sophomore cornerback Julian Love.

For that matter, will someone step forward and make an impact at defensive tackle?
Hayes’ task of sacking the quarterback will become much easier if an interior push prevents the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket to evade Hayes’ rush. Junior Jerry Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner are the presumptive starters at the moment. Tillery has shown the talent necessary to provide the desired effect, but it has been on display inconsistently at best.

If a freshman is to jump into a role anywhere, this may be the position, despite the physicality natural to interior line play at the collegiate level. The class contains three defensive tackles in Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Darnell Ewell. If one or more of them can contribute to a defensive tackle rotation, Elko, Kelly and Hayes would all be grateful.

Who will line up alongside junior Nick Coleman at safety?
After a solid spring, it would be a surprise to see Coleman lose his position as the starter at field safety. Which sophomore, Jalen Elliott or Devin Studstill, will get first crack at boundary safety?

In all of reality, this distinction may not be that vital, but given the lack of experience Notre Dame can enjoy at safety, it would be a relief for Elko to settle on one option and focus on getting that young player ready for September’s bruising schedule.

On the other side of the ball, who will get the nod at right tackle?
Four-fifths of the Irish offensive line is all but carved into stone. Perhaps more importantly, that 80 percent is as experienced as any offensive line in the country. From left to right: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey, senior Quenton Nelson, senior Sam Mustipher, senior Alex Bars and then there is a question mark.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg alternated first-team opportunities throughout most of the spring. Kraemer seemed to have the edge, but by no means was it definitive, and his Blue-Gold Game performance did not do anything to assuage concerns or to dissuade Eichenberg.

Unlike at safety, this decision will matter, as will its timing. Naming a starter and allowing the offensive line to work as a unit for as long as possible will lead to much better cohesion.

With any smoke seemingly dissipated, will sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson reinsert himself into the starting conversation?
Something or other limited Stepherson’s action in spring practice. That seems to have passed, but in that meantime, offensive coordinator Chip Long discovered how imposing the size of Notre Dame’s receivers could be.

To take it to the extreme, Wimbush could drop back against Temple in a two tight end set and look to a quintet of targets with the shortest being junior Miles Boykin at 6-foot-4. The slightest would be junior Equanimeous St. Brown at a listed 204 pounds. (Look for that figure, along with most weights, to be updated and raised in the fall’s depth chart.) At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Stepherson would hardly be a blip on that radar amid those two, sophomore Chase Claypool, junior tight end Alizé Mack and fifth-year senior tight end Durham Smythe. Those five average 6-foot-4 ¾ and 231 pounds.

Stepherson, though, does offer breakaway speed and exhibited big-play potential in his debut campaign. If anyone is going to break through that size to be a featured target to start the season, he seems the most likely candidate.