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Where Notre Dame was & is: Wide Receivers

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Given the inexperience at quarterback and the relative low number of running backs, it seems odd to say there is more uncertainty for Notre Dame at receiver than either of those skill positions. Yet, largely due to unknowns and general inexperience, that is indeed the case. At least at quarterback, the starter is very much settled and at running back, the leader is a known commodity.

At receiver, spring yielded some theoretical clarity, but that will only be genuinely clear come Sept. 2. For those already counting, that is 123 days away.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
The Irish entered the spring expecting continued progress from rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown following his breakout sophomore campaign. After that, little was known. As a reminder, St. Brown finished 2016 with 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 79-yard score against Syracuse. Each number in the preceding sentence led Notre Dame, and by quite a margin. Former Irish receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., offered 38 catches and 521 yards, but no one else approached so much as half of St. Brown’s production.

RELATED READING: Six days until spring practice: A look at TEs & WRs

Kevin Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season, leading Notre Dame with an average of 18.5 yards per reception. In theory, his speed combined with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s arm strength could force defenses to always respect the deep ball against the Irish offense, perhaps opening up space for the likes of St. Brown or sophomore Chase Claypool and junior C.J. Sanders in the underneath and mid-range.

Furthering the questions around St. Brown’s supporting cast, new offensive coordinator Chip Long has shown a penchant for including the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. That may be beneficial for offensive versatility, but it does no favors for projecting a future aerial attack.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
The exact options and order of those options at receiver remains in flux, but no longer is there a concern over a lack of choices. Specifically, Claypool and junior Miles Boykin stepped forward this spring, presenting the possibility of a starting trio of the 6-foot-5, 204-pound St. Brown, the 6-foot-4 ½, 224-pound Claypool and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Boykin. Such sizable targets creates more of a margin of error for the raw Wimbush.

“You tend to want to miss high more in certain situations,” Wimbush said following the Blue-Gold Game. “You have the ability to put the ball up there and not have it be a perfect throw all the time. Those guys, you saw it today, they’ll go up and make a play for you.”

The possible starting trio’s size plus athleticism also creates opportunities for Long. For one thing, if a receiver catches a pass on a crossing route and ends up on the opposite sideline during an up-tempo drive, he could possibly line up on that sideline for the next snap rather than spend wasted seconds racing back to his original starting position. In this theory, St. Brown and Boykin could readily flip positions.

RELATED READING: McKinley, Boyd show depth in Irish WR corps (includes further discussion of positional flexibility among receivers)
Better balance alongside St. Brown needed at WR

Claypool, meanwhile, would be lining up at the slot position. While some may think his size precludes him from the shiftiness usually requisite the receiver closest to the thick of the line of scrimmage, others see that size and might think of another run-blocker. That versatility is the makings of an offensive coordinator’s dreams.

“It gives you added benefits,” Long said. “That’s our job, to put them in position to make plays. We want to be able to have our base offense and then just get a bigger, faster guy who makes it even better. We’ll tinker it. We’ll find what our guys are best at and put them in position, move them around.

“Being multiple on offense, we can take care of that. We’ll find them a spot, find them their roles, and as they progress, we’ll find where to get them the ball.”

Stepherson is the most-likely backup to St. Brown if the latter ever needs to come off the field and if Stepherson emerges from much spring uncertainty both eligible and in good graces. With that acknowledgement of a cloud of questions, let’s move on rather than fuel speculation.

Junior Chris Finke also fits in well at the field receiver position headlined by St. Brown. At only 5-foot-9 ½ and 177 listed pounds, Finke may seem too much of a shift from St. Brown to fill the same position. At the field position, however, Finke’s ability to maneuver in space could be best utilized.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ pure speed slots him in behind Claypool at the, well, the slot. Of the six receivers mentioned thus far, four, including Sanders, shared a bond with Wimbush before this spring, only furthered during the 15 practices—they came to Notre Dame at the same time and thus spent much time on the scout team developing a rapport. The other two, along with sophomore Javon McKinley (likely providing depth behind Boykin, if by process of elimination than for no other reason), have set to catching up quickly in that regard.

“We were running freshman year together, so we had little bit of chemistry built there,” Wimbush said. “Obviously, the younger guys came in and have done a great job progressing themselves throughout the spring. We’ve built great chemistry.”

That chemistry may most-clearly show itself on back-shoulder throws. To make the reference clear: For a few seasons now, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has feasted on such throws with his favorite target, Jordy Nelson. The receiver begins the route as if on a go or possibly a post route. Something deep. Then, without looking back at the ball, the receiver cuts sharply toward the sideline. If done correctly, the quarterback released the ball before the receiver even cut, anticipating its desired location.

The defensive back, theoretically, doesn’t stand a chance.

“We’re going to run the ball effectively, and if you’re going to drop an extra [defender near the line of scrimmage], we’re going to get a lot of those one-on-one matchups,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s one of the reads in that individual matchup.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
In an up-tempo offense, six or seven receivers may seem more shallow than desired. That should be mitigated greatly by Long’s preference to include running backs and tight ends, even two tight end sets, in the passing game. Furthermore, Notre Dame will add incoming graduate student transfer Freddy Canteen and freshman Jafar Armstrong in the summer.

For that matter, two four-star receivers have already committed to the class of 2018.

RELATED READING: Michigan WR Canteen announces transfer to Notre Dame
Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish
WR Lenzy brings speed to Irish

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Rover
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Safeties
Where Notre Dame was & is: Cornerbacks
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive Line

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Entering spring practice, Notre Dame’s offensive line was viewed as a largely-known commodity, and a trusted commodity, at that. Exiting spring practice, that still holds mostly true, but now there is cause for some skepticism.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Returning four 12-game starters from a year ago is a good place to start when discussing a five-man unit. Fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson provide a strong tandem on the quarterback’s blind side. Moving one step inward, another year of growth should only benefit senior center Sam Mustipher.

Senior Alex Bars started at right tackle all of 2016, but a move in to right guard seemed inevitable entering the spring so as to open up space for either sophomore Tommy Kraemer or sophomore Liam Eichenberg on the end. That was the biggest question: If Bars did indeed move inside to right guard, which sophomore would step forward?

RELATED READING: Seven days until spring practice: A look at the OL

The day before spring practice commenced, Kelly indicated senior Jimmy Byrne and junior Tristen Hoge could also be in the mix on the right side of the line. With both presenting as guards, Kelly’s inclusion of those two names left the door open for Bars to remain at right tackle if neither Kraemer nor Eichenberg proved up to the task.

Naturally, the tutelage of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would be counted on to soothe any concerns along the offensive line. His track record alone merits such faith.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
McGlinchey, Nelson and Mustipher sealed their starting positions. Even if sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes got the better of McGlinchey on a handful of snaps in the Blue-Gold Game, the graduate student has first-round NFL talent, and that cannot be said of any other Irish option at tackle in 2017.

Notice the specification in that previous sentence: “at tackle.” It is necessary to include it because Nelson also looks like a potential first-round draft pick. That left-side tandem remains entrenched in their starting positions following spring’s 15 practices.

The same goes for Mustipher. Hoge could—and someday may—play at center, but Mustipher will start there in 2017 until he offers ample reason to make a change. Skip your hurricane commentary here. If that day’s chagrin wasn’t reason enough to make a switch, then that alone should tell you how stable Mustipher is in the position.

But what about that right side? Halfway through spring practice, Kelly said he was still not sure. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Cornerbacks

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Notre Dame’s defense is far from a completed product. The interior of the defensive line is worrisome. The only item in abundance among the safeties is inexperience. The entire defense is learning a new scheme from coordinator Mike Elko.

But, much like the linebackers, little worry was spent on the cornerbacks before spring practice. Even less need be focused there now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
The Irish return 19 starts at cornerback from 2016, though two of those moved to safety with junior Nick Coleman. Eight of those starts come from rising sophomore Julian Love. His starts came in succession to close the season, and he did nothing to prove himself unworthy of pole position on a starting role come this spring and 2017.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the defensive backfield

After Love, Elko entered this spring with four other worthwhile options on the outside, provided junior Shaun Crawford (Achilles) returns to full health. Along with Crawford, sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride would be competing with senior Nick Watkins.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Sure enough, Love will start. In fact, Kelly has such faith in Love, he vaguely spoke of deploying him at safety in obvious passing downs. One way or another, Love will be on the field nearly every defensive snap. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Safeties

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Entering spring, Notre Dame’s depth chart at safety looked sparse. Moving senior Drue Tranquill to rover may serve the overall Irish defense well, but his absence will be noticed at the back-end of the defense if for no other reason than he would serve as another option among few.

It should be noted, Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko specifically did not say “no” when asked if Tranquill was still working some at safety at the end of the spring practice. It is unlikely Tranquill plays much at his former position, but Elko wanted to keep the option available.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
With nine starts in his freshman campaign, logic indicated rising sophomore Devin Studstill would have the inside track on starting in 2017. Opposite him, a competition would come from juniors Nick Coleman (newly shifted from cornerback) and Nicco Fertitta and sophomore Jalen Elliott.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Also shifting from cornerback, junior Ashton White would be counted on to provide some depth at the shallow position. Early enrollee Isaiah Robertson would be looked to for further depth, as well.

At least, that was the thinking: Studstill … then Coleman, Fertitta or Elliott … then White and Robertson.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Exiting spring, it seems Studstill will be counted on for depth. Rather than him solidifying a starting positon, it was Coleman who separated himself from his peers. Throughout spring, Irish coach Brian Kelly praised the converted corner. For example: (more…)

Rochell drafted in 7th round; three other former Notre Dame players sign

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All the unnecessary draft conversation may have centered on DeShone Kizer, but the quarterback was not the only former Notre Dame player watching this weekend’s NFL Draft with rapt attention. Aside from Kizer, only Isaac Rochell heard his name called. The San Diego Chargers picked the defensive lineman in the seventh round Saturday with the 225th overall pick.

Rochell finished his Irish career with appearance in 49 of 51 possible games and 167 tackles, including 22 for loss and 4.5 sacks. In 2016, he recorded 55 tackles, good for sixth on the team, with seven for loss.

By the end of the evening, three more former Notre Dame starters had signed on with NFL teams as undrafted free agents. It should be noted, many argue the route available for undrafted free agents is preferable to that of late-round picks. An undrafted free agent can choose which of a handful of situations is preferable to him for whatever reason. A late-round pick does not have that luxury, but still makes a comparable salary.

Linebacker James Onwualu opted to join Rochell with the Chargers. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones signed with the New York Giants. Cornerback Cole Luke latched on with the Carolina Panthers.

Onwualu began his Irish career as a receiver before moving to linebacker before his sophomore season. He finished his career with 143 tackles, including 75 in 2016 with 11.5 for loss and three sacks. His 75 tackles finished behind only now-rising senior linebackers Nyles Morgan’s 94 and Drue Tranquill’s 79.

Battling injuries throughout his Notre Dame career, Jones made 105 tackles with 45 in 2016. His 11 tackles for loss were outdone only by the aforementioned Onwualu total.

Luke made 152 tackles in his Irish career, including 48 last season, and eight interceptions.

Three more players from past years’ Irish rosters could yet find an NFL home—long snapper Scott Daly, defensive lineman-turned-tight end Chase Hounshell and running back Tarean Folston. If any or all do not sign, they can still join teams for rookie mini-camps in hopes of making a positive impression.

RELATED READING: Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round