C.J. Prosise

Notre Dame moves back start of spring practice


Whether it’s the Siberian Express rolling through most of the country (sorry, guys) or the grand reshuffling taking place on Brian Kelly‘s coaching staff, Notre Dame announced a delay in the kickoff of spring practice.

Scheduled to start the first week of March, the Irish will now begin practice after spring break, beginning the spring season on March 18. They’ll conclude practice a month later, effectively spacing out their work in the all-important spring season.

Other dates of note include the annual coaching clinic, taking place on March 26-28. Scheduled to be in South Bend are NFL head coaches Bill O’Brien (who will likely chat with Kelly about defensive tackle Louis Nix), and Ron Rivera. Also joining is former Texas head coach Mack Brown and Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Notre Dame’s Pro Day will take place on March 31st. DaVaris Daniels made some news this week in Indianapolis when he told Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman that he’ll be back on campus working out with his former teammates in front of NFL scouts. It’ll also be the first chance for Cody Riggs to show that he’s healthy.

Also of note is the listed date for “Practice 15.” Usually that’s the Blue-Gold game, but with the status of Notre Dame Stadium in flux as construction on the Campus Crossroads project continues, what ends up happening still seems to be up in the air.

Reports of the annual spring game being relocated to Soldier Field or Lucas Oil Stadium have already come and gone, with it looking more and more like neither will be the ultimate destination. That leaves the annual flagship weekend (for both fans and recruits) undecided for now, with Kelly expressing his desire to keep the game on campus if at all possible.



Spring solutions: Tight ends

Notre Dame v Arizona State

After an incredibly impressive run at the position, Notre Dame enters spring practice with nothing but question marks at tight end. After Brian Kelly watched Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and now Ben Koyack churn through his program, he’ll spend spring trying to figure out what exactly he has at the position.

Returning at tight end is exactly one catch, from rising junior Durham Smythe. And before touted freshman Alizé Jones steps foot on campus, Scott Booker (or whoever is officially coaching tight ends after the reshuffle) has some work to do.



1. Durham Smythe, Jr.*
2. Tyler Luatua, Soph.
3. Mike Heuerman, Jr.*
4. Nic Weishar, Soph.*

*Signifies fifth-year of eligibility available. 

It’s worth giving this position group–and the coaching staff’s recruiting efforts–the benefit of the doubt. There’s likely plenty of talent at the position. But before Jones comes in as a bonafide receiving weapon, this foursome needs to prove it can help in both the run and the pass game.



Durham Smythe: Many expected a mini-breakout season last year from Smythe, with the No. 2 tight end in years past capable of chipping in 10 catches or so. But Smythe’s only catch came in a turnover plagued loss to Arizona State, and with receiving weapons plentiful, there wasn’t a lot of usage for Smythe, who served as the primary backup to Koyack.

If the Texas native (and one-time Longhorn commitment) wants that to change before Notre Dame kicks off the season against Texas, he needs to set the tone early this spring. There’s no reason Smythe doesn’t establish himself as the “starter” this spring, though how that’s defined remains to be seen.

While he’s got work to do in the weight room before he can hold his own at the point of attack, Smythe’s drawn nothing but solid reviews from his coaches and looks like the most well-rounded player at the position.


Tyler Luatua: You may have noticed the freshman in the starting lineup against LSU in the Music City Bowl. Luatua was the team’s most capable run blocker as a true freshman, more of a compliment to the 260-pounder than an indictment on Koyack.

Without knowing how Kelly and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford want to run this offense, it’s hard to predict how much Luatua will be used. But he’s more than just a big body, and his ability to serve as an H-back, fullback or downfield option will make him a handful. And it’ll be very interesting to see how a full offseason in the system will transform Luatua’s body. He could very easily be a 280-pounder sooner than later.

Last season, Boise State ran the ball 57 percent of the time. (The Irish ran it 51 percent.) If Sanford brings that attitude to South Bend, Luatua is going to be on the field a lot.


Mike Heuerman: After two seasons in the program, we’re still not exactly sure what Notre Dame has in Mike Heuerman. A highly-touted recruit who had his choice of elite programs to play for before he came to South Bend, Heuerman seems like the bizarro Luatua, a wiry 225-pounder who feels like a tweener at the position.

Getting healthy is the first step for Heuerman. A variety of maladies have kept him off the field, including a sports hernia surgery that put him off schedule in training camp. But spring is the ultimate opportunity for Heuerman to make his move on the depth chart, especially with Nic Weishar possessing a similar skill-set and Jones coming this summer.

It’s a complete hunch, but it’s worth pointing out that Heuerman was a first-team All-Area defensive end during his senior season in high school. And if the Irish are looking for a guy who can rush the passer, it might be worth kicking the tires on Heuerman. Especially if he’s buried on the depth chart.


Nic Weishar: We get our first look at one of the most prolific receivers in Chicagoland high school football this spring as Weishar will get his opportunity to battle for playing time. After looking like he needed some time with Paul Longo, Weishar will have his chance to provide a matchup problem on the outside while also needing to prove he can battle in the trenches.

If you’re looking for an early leader in the clubhouse to warm up the phrase “catch radius,” Weishar might be your dark horse candidate after Corey Robinson. He’s a natural in space and a shiny new toy for the passing game.

If there’s a Tyler Eifert-lite in this position group, it could be Weishar. That’s a lofty comparison to a football player who hasn’t done done anything yet, but we have to remember that before Eifert was a Mackey Award winner and first-round draft pick, he was a 3-star beanpole with a bad back who was nearly a forgotten piece of the roster.

No pressure, Nic.


With smoke circling Gilmore and Denson, coaching staff coming into focus

Autry Denson

On Tuesday, a flurry of reports had Brian Kelly focusing in on the final pieces of his reshuffled coaching staff. They include two likely additions, one transition, and a position shift.

BlueandGold.com reported that North Carolina defensive line coach Keith Gilmore will be reuniting with Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, coaching the same position for the Irish.

Gilmore coached the defensive line for Kelly at Central Michigan for a season before spending two years with him in Cincinnati, also serving as assistant head coach. Gilmore also worked with VanGorder at Wayne State, and shares the Grand Valley DNA that both also possess.

SI.com’s Thayer Evans reported the same news. With corresponding reports shifting Mike Elston to linebackers for Gilmore’s arrival, Tar Heels defensive lineman Tim Jackson seemed to confirm the news via Twitter, with a compliment for his outgoing coach.

While Notre Dame has yet to make any change to the staff official, another former player looks to be close to joining the Irish staff. Record-setting running back Autry Denson is said to have accepted the job as running backs coach. Once again, SI.com’s Thayer Evans confirmed previous reports.

In Denson, Kelly lands another former Notre Dame and NFL player on his staff, joining former All-American and Pro Bowler Todd Lyght, who is already on the recruiting trail for the Irish as the defensive backs coach. Kelly also adds a Florida native, who has experience coaching at the high school level as well as collegiately (Denson was an assistant at Bethune-Cookman.)

Denson had just joined Willie Taggert’s USF staff after leaving Miami (Ohio) where he was will Chuck Martin last season. Other names had surfaced for the position, but multiple reports — including Irish 247, Blue and Gold and Irish Illustrated — have Denson’s deal all but official.

To make room among the nine assistants, veteran assistant Bob Elliott will reportedly be shifting into an off-field role. Elliott was brought in by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who was coached by Elliott along with former secondary coach Kerry Cooks at Iowa.

Elliott battled through a kidney transfer and the corresponding health challenges, staying on the recruiting trail through this cycle as the Irish inked 24 recruits. He’s said to have taken a position inside the program, though that’s still to be determined. That appears to be the fate for former Kelly aide Jeff Quinn, who had been reportedly in line for the quarterbacks coach job before Kelly added former Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.

With Notre Dame’s HR process still in motion, no moves have been announced. But when they are, expect former Irish captain Maurice Crum to be announced as a Graduate Assistant, replacing Kyle McCarthy who is pursuing a career in sports management after a season on the Irish staff.




Notre Dame announces graduate transfer of Avery Sebastian

Mike Jensen, Avery Sebastian

A few days after safety Avery Sebastian announced his intentions, Notre Dame made the commitment and graduate transfer of the former Cal safety official. Sebastian will enroll in graduate school and join the team in June.

“Avery Sebastian is an experienced and versatile player,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “He played safety and contributed on every special teams unit over his career at California. Avery gives us some additional depth in the secondary and also brings a work ethic and excitement to compete that will build throughout the team.”

Sebastian played in 33 games over four years at Cal. While injuries shortened his time on the field, they’ve allowed him to save a season of eligibility–he was injured during the season opener in 2013 and missed the rest of the season–continuing his career in South Bend.

A graduate of Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy in Georgia, the same school that produced defensive lineman Isaac Rochell, Sebastian was a U.S. Army All-American and a highly touted defensive back prospect when he chose Cal out of high school.

Sebastian had his share of options at several prominent programs before deciding to spend next season with the Irish.

“I’m very thankful to head coach Brian Kelly and the rest of the coaching staff and administration for giving me the opportunity to come play at the University of Notre Dame,” Sebastian said in the statement. “I think academically, spiritually and athletically will make Notre Dame a perfect fit. I’ve got one year to make an impact and I plan on making the most of this opportunity. I look forward to joining the Notre Dame family.

“I’m eager to meet my teammates. Like the coaching staff and players alike, our objective is to field a better product than the year before. My hope is that we field one of college football’s best teams this upcoming year. I’ve got veteran experience in the secondary, and familiarity with multiple defenses and opposing offenses.”

For the second season in a row, Notre Dame has taken a graduate transfer to help with depth in the secondary. While Sebastian doesn’t have the playing experience of Cody Riggs, he’s entering the Irish program at one of the least established positions on the depth chart, capable of competing for playing time immediately.

The Irish coaching staff also thinks they’re infusing a good leader and character player in their locker room, especially important at a position group that’s welcoming two freshmen to the fold this summer.

“Avery will help our football team right away, but more important, he is the type of young man that we want in this program,” Kelly said. “Avery carries himself in a first-class manner, on and off the field. He’s also committed to his academics, graduating from both high school and college in three and a half years, respectively.”

Sebastian joins a safety depth chart that’ll start with Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. Drue Tranquill (ACL) and Nicky Baratti (shoulder) will be recovering from injury this spring. Matthias Farley has experience at the position as well, but played in the slot last season and freshmen Nicco Fertitta and Mykelti Williams will begin classes this summer.



Spring solutions: Running backs

Tarean Folston, Daniel Gonzales, Obi Uzoma

After missing out on a running back in the 2014 recruiting cycle, a once crowded depth chart now only features Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Two backs that once worried about having to find snaps will now have all the work they could ever want, with the majority of spring spent doing everything they can to stay healthy.

After two seasons in the program, Folston and Bryant find themselves in different places. Yet both have their plates full.

In Folston, the Irish have a do-everything back that could’ve played a much larger role in the offense if he was given the opportunity to do so. Coming off a breakthrough sophomore campaign, Folston should expect to emerge on a national level in 2015.

In Bryant, the Irish have a thoroughbred who is only now being broken. After a lost freshman season due to injury and a second-season learning the ropes, Bryant may seem like he’s been around the block, but could easily live up to his lofty recruiting expectations very quickly if all goes according to plan.

With Josh Adams and Dexter Williams not on campus until June, the numbers are mighty precarious for spring’s 15 practices. But that doesn’t take away from a position group that’s expected to do very big things.

Let’s take a closer look at a running back duo that needs to take a huge step forward this spring.



1. Tarean Folston, Jr.
2. Greg Bryant, Jr.*

*Signifies a fifth-year of eligibility available.



Tarean Folston: Stay healthy. That’s pretty much the first, and you could almost say, only objective to Folston’s spring season. Stay healthy, get better, and be ready for a breakout season come fall.

Of course, Folston has work to do. While he showed flashes of brilliance during the middle of the 2014 season, working with a still-to-be determined running back coach and playing under new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will test the running back.

After knowing only Tony Alford’s coaching and Brian Kelly’s commitment to the ground game, expect the change of scenery only to help Folston.


Greg Bryant: Long gone is the five-star reputation. Now Bryant finds himself with a much-needed blank slate, and a new relationship developing with his offensive coordinator as well as his running backs coach as he enters his second season of eligibility.

Bryant’s maturity has allowed him to deal with the burden of great expectations thus far in his career. And after showing glimpses of good play during the 2014 season, now we need to see maturity in his game.

That means taking what the defense gives. It means not trying to create a YouTube highlight on every carry. And it means running in the framework of the offense, something that Bryant didn’t always do.

After playing almost too fast last season, Bryant can take this spring to build comfort behind an offensive line that should be elite and a running game that most certainly will be emphasized. While showing a chemistry with Malik Zaire certainly helped late in the season, Bryant’s breakout looks right around the corner… even if it’s taken longer than most expected.