South Bend Tribune

Post-spring stock report: Tight Ends

30 Comments

Life after Ben Koyack begins. And really, come 2015 we head into the first year of the Brian Kelly era where the tight end position is somewhat of a question mark.

While Koyack will likely continue Notre Dame’s streak of producing NFL tight ends when he’s drafted this weekend, the 1,000 snap workhorse was a notch below predecessors Troy Niklas, Tyler Eifert and Kyle Rudolph. But he was an every-down player for Kelly’s offense, and while there were some deficiencies in his blocking and pass-catching, the players behind him are still unproven.

This spring, Durham Smythe emerged as Koyack’s successor. It was a later arrival than many expected for Smythe, who had larger expectations heaped on him, mainly because of the success of No. 2 tight ends the past few years. (In retrospect, that should’ve been a credit to Eifert and Niklas, elite athletes that both forced their way onto the field early, and took advantage of top-heavy depth charts.)

Though Scott Booker‘s position group has little experience, it’s a talent-rich position. And while Smythe appears to be a capable candidate to be a leading man, the reality of the position group leads many to believe it’ll be ensemble work for a diverse set of talent.

Let’s take a look at the post-spring depth chart and stock report for the tight ends.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

1. Durham Smythe, Jr.* (6-4.5, 245)
2. Tyler Luatua, Soph. (6-2.5, 250)
3. Nic Weishar, Soph.* (6-4, 241)
4. Mike Heuerman, Jr.* (6-3.5, 225)
or Chase Houshell, GS (6-4.5, 255)

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility

 

STOCK UP

Durham Smythe: With Signing Day excitement and viral videos having Irish fans excited about the impending arrival of Alizé Jones, Smythe’s emergence as the team’s No. 1 tight end this spring got lost a bit in the wash. But the Texas native stepped forward and looks to be the most complete tight end on the depth chart.

It might be hard to believe, but some think Smythe could be an upgrade over Koyack, a confusing notion considering the amount of snaps that Koyack took while Smythe kept the sidelines company. But he’s big enough to hold his own along the line of scrimmage and seems to be a more capable downfield receiver than Koyack was.

Still, we’ve got no body of work to grade the rising junior on. But with three seasons of eligibility remaining, Smythe’s got plenty of time to become a top-flight tight end, and that could start this fall.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Tyler Luatua: After starting for Notre Dame in a two-tight end set against LSU, Luatua came into spring with considerable expectations. Leaned down to 250 pounds to help make his mark in the passing game, it’s still hard to see Luatua serving as anything but an attached blocker in 2015, part of the passing game only in roll-out or play-action situations.

That’s not a knock on a physical player who could do his best work serving as a sixth offensive lineman. And with four full months in the weight room ahead, Luatua has perhaps the most clearly defined role in front of him—adding muscle to a running attack that should be very good this fall.

This might be a tough grade, but it’s still tough to see a full-time role for Luatua.

 

Nic Weishar: After redshirting as a freshman, Weishar made a nice catch late in the Blue-Gold game, reminding everybody that the prolific Chicagoland receiver was ready to try to make his mark on the Irish depth chart. With good length and great hands, Weishar should be an option to play the detached tight end position, though he’ll likely be competing with Smythe and Jones for those reps, an uphill climb.

At 241 pounds, Weishar looks to have built on a frame that desperately needed to add bulk to compete at the college level as a tight end. Until we see more of him in the trenches, we won’t know for sure if he can handle the multiplicity of the position or if he’s relegated to red zone and outside duties. But with some instability at a position that’ll likely be a little lighter come fall, Weishar made some great progress during his first year in the program, though there’s work still to be done.

 

STOCK DOWN

Chase Hounshell: This might be a harsh assessment of Hounshell’s spring, considering every coach who talked about the fifth-year prospect—Brian Kelly included—had nothing but good things to say about his effort and intentions. But with a roster crunch and no certain playing time in front of him, Hounshell spent Notre Dame’s 15 practices auditioning for another program, a long shot to return to South Bend.

The market for Hounshell’s services may be limited at Notre Dame, but with two seasons likely ahead of him thanks to a medical redshirt certainly well earned, Hounshell has an opportunity to rescuitate his career somewhere else. After an injury-plagued four years along the defensive line for the Irish, it’s hard to believe Kelly will keep a fifth-year player who only now started to show leadership traits when he’s got the opportunity to bring Ishaq Williams back to campus.

So Hounshell likely has football in front of him. But barring something surprising, it doesn’t look like it’ll be played in South Bend.

 

Mike Heuerman: Perhaps the most puzzling player on offense this spring, Heuerman was a forgotten man for the Irish. When asked about the tight ends, Kelly mentioned everybody but the Florida native, leading many to believe a transfer is in order.

At 6-3.5 and 225-pounds, Heuerman is a smaller Michael Floyd trying to play in the trenches—only without Floyd’s athleticism. That he’s been unable to gain any weight to his frame in South Bend is a huge mystery, though a variety of injuries have kept him from making forward progress in his career.

While Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph have taken snaps at weakside defensive end trying to find their way onto the field, I expected the Irish to kick the tires on Heuerman at that position as well. He earned All-State honors in high school as a havoc-wreaker off the edge, though he was recruited based on potential as a tight end by many of the finest programs in the country.

At this point, it doesn’t look like that potential will be reached. And what happens with Heuerman’s career is still a mystery. With three years of eligibility remaining, it’s unfair to bury him just yet. But at best he’ll be a niche player in the Irish offense, an H-back type in a system that’s used an H-back for maybe a dozen plays over the past five years.

 

OVERALL TREND

Buy. While the tight end position returns literally one catch to the depth chart, it’s hard to look at this position and not be intrigued. Ultimately, your viewpoint on this group hinges on what you see in Durham Smythe and what you think will be coming with Alizé Jones.

While Koyack held his own last season and will always be remembered for his clutch game-winning touchdown against Stanford, the Irish will be just fine with Smythe taking over. And if the Irish platoon Smythe and Tyler Luatua—who’ll be a blocking upgrade almost immediately—they might be taking a step forward.

Adding Jones to the mix this June is critical. Per his own Twitter feed, he’s up to 238 pounds and snagging one-handed footballs like it’s a hobby. It’s hard to see a world where he’s not an immediate contributor, and the Irish staff believes they have a future star.

So regardless of what happens with Hounshell and Heuerman, a four-man depth chart that finds snaps for Smythe, Luatua, Weishar and Jones is a pretty good place to be.

Would you like to have some past performance? Of course. But Finance 101 reminds us all that past performance isn’t indicative of future results. I’m bullish on this group.

Tillery talks transition to Notre Dame

Tom Loy, 247 Sports
39 Comments

Yesterday was Notre Dame Day, a day long celebration of the university and its many facets. Part of that was a day-long (and still going, thanks to some technical difficulties) digital broadcast covering many different topics.

Freshman Jerry Tillery was interviewed by UND.com’s Jack Nolan, one of our first extended looks at the young defensive lineman who was the talk of spring practice. And after watching the short Q&A with Nolan, it’s clear that Tillery is just as impressive off the field as he has been on it.

The early-enrollee spoke about the transition to Notre Dame from Louisiana, his quick ascent up the depth chart and what it’s like being a member of the defensive line. Originally slated to be on the offensive side of the ball, Tillery talked about how easy the transition has been to Keith Gilmore’s position group.

“The dudes on the defensive line are a lot like me,” Tillery said. “That really helped. Coming in early, I got to understand, and get into the culture, and see how they do things. I definitely try to copy that. And we’re together all the time, so you have to pretty much like each other. It’s been fun. The defensive lineman culture, I love it.”

One thing that was a surprise to Tillery was the praise he received from his head coach this spring. While the media on the beat has covered in great detail Kelly’s compliments for his young defensive lineman, those words of praise don’t seem like they’ve made their way back to Tillery.

“You can’t! I’m not watching coach’s press conferences, come on,” Tillery said with a laugh, when asked if heard or seen Kelly’s comments. “If you’re going to be good—I’ve got too much going on to sit down and watch press conferences…

“It means the world to me. That’s my goal, to come in and impress these coaches so I can get on the field and play football like I love to do. That’s what I came here trying to do and I think I’ve done well.”

Watch the whole interview—including Tillery’s lofty goals for this season—below.

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Post-spring stock report: Quarterbacks

Everett Golson
70 Comments

No position had a microscope on it like quarterback did this spring. In one of the country’s most-watched position battles, Everett Golson and Malik Zaire began their work with new offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Sanford… and—well, that was about it.

For those who had expected a true battle for the No. 1 quarterback job, you have only yourself to be disappointed with. Because it was always Brian Kelly’s intent to develop both Golson and Zaire this spring, not eliminate one of them from the depth chart.

For Golson, the end of last season had many wondering if he was out the door once he received his diploma. For Zaire, quality performances against USC and LSU— and a powerful running style—had turned him into the people’s champion. But both had plenty of areas for improvement, keeping the focus on the here and now even with all eyes looking forward.

Finals are just around the corner, with graduation weekend set for mid-May. While no stock report will be complete until then, let’s take a look at where the quarterback depth chart sits after spring practice.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

1. Everett Golson, GS (6-0, 200)
2. Malik Zaire, Jr* (6-0, 222)
3. DeShone Kizer, Soph.* (6-4.5, 230)

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available

 

STOCK UP

Malik Zaire: While it’s difficult to push Zaire into a virtual dead heat with Golson atop the depth chart, it’s also difficult to find much wrong with the work the young quarterback did this spring. After more than patiently waiting his turn in 2014, Zaire exploded onto the scene in the season’s final two games, and he took that momentum with him into spring practice.

Zaire spent the spring working on his deficiencies. Right now, that’s in the passing game—specifically throwing the ball with proper timing and accuracy on the intermediate routes. There’s no question he’s a significant step behind Golson in that area, a fairly important one at the quarterback position.

But Zaire’s also made it clear that he’s taking leadership seriously. After Kelly chided Zaire last season by joking that he wasn’t falling asleep while eating Chipotle in quarterback meetings after he became a part of the game plan, it’s clear that whether it was a joke or not, Zaire wasn’t living up to the standard that Kelly set for the team’s most important position. And the young quarterback has certainly got the message.

We saw that on the field late last season, with Zaire willing the Irish to victory against LSU. We saw it again this spring, with Zaire unabashed about his intention to be the team’s starting quarterback, and then practicing like it.

As a runner, Zaire has no equal at the position. As we saw with his perfect deep ball to Will Fuller, the vertical passing game will be just fine as well if he’s under center. And while he’s still probably a stride or two behind Golson in the race for the job, it was a successful spring practice for one of the most important players on the roster.

 

Mike Sanford: No, he’s not an actual quarterback. But the work the team’s quarterback coach did with his players this spring deserves mention.

We saw cleaned up footwork in the zone read game, a key to Everett Golson’s season. We saw more focus on the fundamentals. And we probably took for granted just how much work Sanford had to do this spring, all while getting to know the three quarterbacks in his position room.

Ultimately, we’ll know if the teaching took hold when we watch the position play in the spring. But after a Blue-Gold game with no turnovers*, it was a great step in the right direction.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Everett Golson: Brian Kelly called this Everett Golson’s best spring since he’s been at Notre Dame. That alone would usually earn you a “buy” grade, but none of that matters until after May 15.

If Golson returns for summer school and to the Irish, it was a successful spring, and a tremendous job by the coaching staff navigating a very tricky situation. But until then, consider this the ultimate wait-and-see proposition. The ceiling of the 2015 football team is very much still in flux until a decision is officially made.

(It’s worth pointing out that Golson has said all along that he wasn’t going anywhere.)

On the field, Golson looked much better running the football in the zone read game, improved footwork at the mesh point on display during the Blue-Gold game. He protected the football better when he was a runner, something that’s absolutely necessary if he wants to stay on the field. While Kelly said his pocket presence improved, it’s worth pointing out that so did his offensive line and running game. Those two things go hand-in-hand with Golson standing tall in the pocket.

At his best, Golson is one of the finest quarterbacks in college football. At his worst, he’ll be wearing a baseball cap helping call in plays as he watches Zaire run the show. While just about every datapoint suggests he’ll be back in South Bend for the 2015 season, until it’s official, we’re staying neutral on this one.

 

DeShone Kizer: It’s never easy to be the guy on the outside of a two-quarterback battle. But for Kizer, this spring was about learning a new set of fundamentals, and honing his craft for the future.

With Brandon Wimbush on his way in this summer, the battle behind Golson and Zaire will certainly get more competitive. But any drop in Kizer’s hypothetical stock would mostly be a product of recruiting buzz, not anything that happened inside the program. And next year—or whenever the Irish get their next blue-chip recruiting pledge—we’ll start forgetting about Wimbush, too, until he makes a move in South Bend, not on a 5-star list.

Given significant snaps in the second half of the Blue-Gold game, Kizer didn’t wow anybody. He was just one of five passing before giving way to Montgomery VanGorder, a disappointing stat line regardless of context. (But then again, you could understand if Kizer’s head wasn’t 100 percent in it this spring.)

But Kizer has all the physical attributes you’re looking for in a quarterback. So with some time to develop, Kizer is a long play that didn’t do anything to push himself off track.

 

OVERALL TREND

Hold. This rating changes to a buy the minute Golson decides to return, and stays the same even if he doesn’t. With Brandon Wimbush coming in, the Irish will have a four-man scholarship depth chart among the best in the country.

But if Golson departs and it’s Zaire alone at the top, it’s among the most dangerous depth chart’s Kelly’s had since the Crist/Rees years. While Zaire as a starter wouldn’t change the ceiling of this team, any injury to him turns into a dangerous scenario, and could rob the offense of its biggest asset, a power running game built with a quarterback in the mix.

 

Mailbag: Captains, intanglibles and KeiVarae’s return

Malik Zaire, Chris Brown
24 Comments

It’s a weekend edition of the mailbag. Some great questions both in the comments and on Twitter. We’ll keep reopening this throughout the weekend and into next week.

Here goes nothing:

 

steincj36: Who do you think will be the Captain(s) of the team? Who do you think will be the emotional leader(s) of the team?

You could probably make an argument for a dozen guys being capable captains on this team. And that’s a very good thing. In year’s past, here are some guys I’d tell you would be a lock in just about any other season:

Matthias Farley
Corey Robinson (maybe next year)
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Jaylon Smith (if he returns, for sure next year)
KeiVarae Russell (not sure if suspension will let him)
Tarean Folston 
(maybe next year)
Malik Zaire (a lock for next year)

Ultimately, I think returning captains Nick Martin and Sheldon Day will keep the ‘C’ on their chest. They’re the leaders of their position groups, and certainly didn’t do anything to lose that standing.

So if we’re replacing Austin Collinsworth and Cam McDaniel, you’ll probably do it with veteran players. An obvious one is Joe Schmidt. He’s the team’s returning MVP, a charismatic leader who probably should’ve been a captain last season and a more than worthy choice.

A maybe off the radar choice is Ronnie Stanley. Two captains along the offensive line is pretty rare, but so is this offensive line group. And if there’s ever a time to reward a player for making the decision to return for his senior season, it’s a great precedent to set—especially with Jaylon Smith likely looking at a similar decision next year.

As for emotional leaders, I think KeiVarae Russell was a lock to be a captain at Notre Dame, maybe even last season before his academic suspension. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was named a captain, and even if he isn’t, he’ll be an emotional leader.

On offense, we’ll get to Zaire’s natural leadership skills shortly. But he fits the emotional leader tag perfectly. I also think Jarrett Grace and Max Redfield will take on key leadership roles.

 

upthera44: 1. How valuable are Zaire’s intangibles (leadership, ability to rise to the occasion on game day, etc.)? How much should they be factored into the calculus for picking the starter?

Up until I saw Zaire handle the press after the USC game last year, I’d have called his intangibles (and really, intangibles in general) incredibly overrated. But seeing his charisma firsthand and watching him lift a team that was playing for nothing in the second half with effort, motivation and a true winner’s will, I became a believer.

(Candidly, before that game, I thought there was a better chance that we’d never see Zaire as a starter than him taking over the offense.)

Add to that the heart, effort and willpower he put into the LSU victory—and the genuine emotional outburst that came after the victory—I think his elite leadership abilities are a very real factor that the coaching staff is taking into consideration.

Of course, Zaire can be a leader playing a role on the team, even if it isn’t the starting quarterback. And part of the calculus is certainly figuring out how Zaire can lead while also allowing Golson to play a key role in this offense, a still-being-determined formula that’ll truly come into focus come June, when Golson officially commits to being a part of this football team (if not sooner).

But if Golson transfers, this will very quickly be Zaire’s offense. And the team will certainly rally around a pitch-perfect leader who will have plenty of success.

 

 

tampabayirish: It has been announced that San Diego (a great choice) is the likely destination for the 2018 Navy-Notre Dame game. Any word on the location of the 2016 Navy-Notre Dame game?

The report mentioned both the 2016 and 2018 game, and sign me up for either or both. With the Navy’s footprint in the San Diego area and another Southern California game for the Irish (Notre Dame will end the 2016 and 2018 seasons at USC), both schools would have some excitement for that game.

One suggestion: Get it out of that dump Qualcomm Stadium and put it in Petco Park. A Saturday at one of America’s finest venues and in the Gaslamp District would be a great day.

 

@irishpatient: Russell has a long layoff, assuming he’s back, what do we know about his conditioning and understanding of the new defense?

I take it you aren’t following Russell on Instagram? He’s been posting his workout photos from basically the start of his suspension. So if you’re worried about him being in shape, I’ll give you a greatest hits below.

As for his understanding of the new defense, Russell was already deep into the system last August and spent the spring learning it as well, tutoring roommate Nick Watkins on the finer points, when he was pulled from the team. He’s been in contact with the team and coaching staff. And it even sounds like the plan is for Russell to be a lockdown cornerback on the opponents best receiver, pairing with Cole Luke to be a great starting duo.

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Post-spring stock report: Running Backs

Grge Bryant, Austin Larkin
80 Comments

(The first of a multi-part series looking at the positional depth chart coming out of spring practice.)

 

Entering spring practice, the running back position held a unique spot on Notre Dame’s roster. No spot was thinner—with just juniors Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant scholarship players. Yet the duo was also a somewhat proven commodity, a rarity on a roster that relied on a plethora of first-year contributors in 2014.

When Brian Kelly announced C.J. Prosise was cross-training with the running backs, many assumed it was a contingency plan, or at the very least a bridge to the summer when Josh Adams and Dexter Williams hit campus. But with new running backs coach Autry Denson working with the trio, the Irish’s most explosive slot receiver infused that speed into the backfield, turning into a potential game-breaker at a position many felt was already strong.

Let’s look at the post-spring depth chart and check the trends from this spring.

 

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART 

1. Tarean Folston, Jr. (5-9.5/214)
2. Greg Bryant, Jr.* (5-10/205)
or C.J. Prosise, Sr.* (6-.5/220)

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility

 

STOCK UP

C.J. Prosise: Prosise was the talk of the offense, impressing Brian Kelly with his speed and natural running back instincts. Whether it was a 70-yard touchdown run in the team’s biggest scrimmage or leading the Irish in rushing during the Blue-Gold game, Prosise’s emergence has given Notre Dame another offensive weapon and perhaps its most versatile.

What that means come next fall remains to be seen. Kelly talked about Prosise putting up a legitimate battle for the starting job, while also saying he thought he could carve out 10 carries a game for him. Mike Denbrock called him one of the team’s best players.

But Prosise also has a key role as a slot receiver, a position where he led the Irish in yards per catch last year. So a standout spring might not translate to a fall emergence at running back. But wherever he plays, it’s likely going to be a big 2015 for Prosise.

 

STOCK DOWN

Greg Bryant: It’s hard to call this a bad spring by Bryant, but it’s fair to say that this downgrade is the result of missing on his earnings potential. Put simply, all the talk about Prosise overshadowed anything Bryant did—and I’m including an impressive performance in the Blue-Gold game.

But maybe that’s a good thing. After entering as a freshman will ridiculous expectations, Bryant had a huge spring game last year and once again looked poised to erupt as a redshirt freshman. While he led Irish running backs with a 5.4 yards per carry average, he suffered through a midseason slump before rebounding in garbage time against USC and with a big punt return against Louisville.

Bryant has plenty of talent. He’s learning to play within the confines of the system as well. With great hands, special teams ability and a strong offensive line, there’s no reason to think a big season can’t be just around the corner.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Tarean Folston: Brian Kelly knows what he has in Tarean Folston. And that’s a running back who should be poised for a monster season in 2015. While he might not be the fastest or the flashiest, Folston is certainly the smoothest and most natural runner we’ve seen in the Irish backfield for quite some time.

Bulking up to 214 pounds this spring, Folston should be able to move the pile between the tackles, serving as a short-yardage runner when Cam McDaniel inexplicably took those carries last season. It should also make it easier for the Irish to ride Folston as a running option, a spot where he’s thrived when he’s been given enough opportunities.

Folston’s 2014 season saw him average more than five yards a carry for the second season in a row (he also averaged over 10 yards a catch). After averaging less than 10 carries a game through the first five weeks of the season, Folston took over as the team’s primary back and watched his productivity explode.

There’s no reason to wait in 2015. While Prosise and Bryant certainly deserve a significant role in the rotation, Folston is the Irish’s leading man at running back.

 

OVERALL TREND

Buy. It’s hard to look at this position—especially with the addition of Williams and Adams this summer—as anything but really talented. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to the production of guys like Bryant and Prosise to make this group excel. But that’s frankly expected, especially with the perceived commitment to running the football behind a very good offensive line.

While the guy we heard the most about was a receiver just a few months ago, he solidified a group that should do big things next season.