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Spring Practice Video Breakdown: Day One

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Our friends at Fighting Irish Media had cameras rolling during day one of spring practice. They put together a highlight reel from the day’s work.

Let’s over-analyze it!

* Play one features Torii Hunter Jr. connecting with Malik Zaire, a pretty throw put perfectly between the underneath coverage from Nick Coleman and a late-arriving safety (Nicco Fertitta, maybe?).

Hunter’s emergence this spring will be interesting to watch. If you’re listening, it appears that he heads into the season as a presumed starter. That makes sense when you look at the departures, but it’s also a huge show of faith in a receiver who has yet to make an impact.

Things going for Hunter: His speed, for one. I certainly didn’t think the rising senior had 4.4 jets, but maybe that’s a product of not seeing him put in a position to use them.

* That’s Chris Finke welcoming Devin Studstill to college football. Even the walk-ons can burn you, Devin!

That’s not to say that Finke hasn’t been impressive. Hailing from the same high school that produced Malik Zaire, Finke caught Brian Kelly’s eye last fall, even earning some press conference mention as a guy who was sure-handed enough to be trusted in the punt return game.

Finke blows by Studstill, who was caught flat-footed, but then does a less-than spectacular job of transitioning from catch to run, hitting the ground instead of striding into the end zone.

Pete Sampson tweeted that he thinks Finke’s days as a walk-on aren’t for long. I’m in agreement, and maybe sooner than later if there’s an open spot or two in the 85 this fall.

* Everybody’s got their eyes on Nyles Morgan this spring. The heir apparent at middle linebacker shows some versatility, breaking up a DeShone Kizer pass to tight end Durham Smythe.

* Myles Boykin runs a hitch in front of fellow sophomore Ashton White. Both guys are intriguing young players who could start seeing some time on the field this season after redshirting. White was listed as a safety on the spring roster, but is playing cornerback here. That’s likely a sign that he’s got the type of positional flexibility that’ll help him find the field if needed.

* Pretty nifty play by cornerback Nick Watkins, who breaks on the ball from Kizer to sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown. Watkins gets a hand on the pass, tips it into the air where it’s intercepted by Drue Tranquill.

Yep, that’s right. Tranquill—a rehab freak—is out there running 7-on-7 less than six months after tearing his ACL, the second time in two seasons. The addition of Tranquill and Shaun Crawford back into the secondary is huge, two difference-makers who could immediately elevate the play of the unit.

Worth noting senior linebacker James Onwualu out there with Nyles Morgan and Asmar Bilal — the closest thing to the first string as we’ll get on Day One. That’s where most people want to see Watkins, running with the starters and making plays.

It’s 7-on-7, so nobody should blow their stack just yet, but it’s a nice benefit of getting a start in the Fiesta Bowl and going into spring ball with momentum.

* Another nice breakup by Morgan. It’s as if the people cutting this video knew Irish fans were worried about Morgan’s ability to play well in coverage. (Weird!)

* We just heard about Corey Holmes‘ 4.39 forty and 41-inch vertical. Seeing him hit the ground for a 4-yard gain on a quick slant from Malik Zaire does nothing to get us excited about that breakaway speed, but it might be the first pass we’ve seen Holmes catch.

After two seasons buried on the bench, it’ll be interesting to see how much Holmes can contribute. He’s always reminded me a little bit of TJ Jones, mostly because he’s a smooth athlete with nice speed, but also because physically there’s nothing overly intimidating about him. But as the personnel on this roster (especially among the skill players) has improved, it just takes time to break through, especially if you’re lacking a dominant trait.

* So THAT’s the Torii Hunter that has the coaching staff excited. Running under a beautiful deep ball from Kizer, Hunter torches rising sophomore Nick Coleman on a go-route.

Anybody worried that the vertical passing game was going to leave the offensive arsenal with Will Fuller gone can relax. There are plenty of guys who can get behind opponents, especially with the running game the Irish will likely feature.

* The president, Corey Robinson, makes a nice catch on a dig route. Another pretty ball by Kizer and nice concentration by Robinson, making a tough grab look smooth.

* That’s White stepping in and breaking up a pass to Finke, with Zaire throwing the deep flag route into man coverage.

 

 

 

The future is now for Max Redfield

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Notre Dame needs Max Redfield. The senior safety is one of the lone familiar faces on a defense short on experience and on a roster that only returns nine starters.

As Redfield enters his final season of eligibility, he’s still looking to play up to the lofty expectations that followed him from Southern California to South Bend. After the year’s first spring practice, head coach Brian Kelly was asked about Redfield, his development and what to expect from him come September.

“Max is an interesting young man,” Kelly said. “Anytime you come in with a lot of hype and praise and five-stars, there’s a lot of expectations. I think the game for him is one that he’s had to learn a lot about the position that he’s playing. He plays a position that requires a lot of football knowledge and he didn’t have a lot at the position and he’s gained a tremendous amount of football knowledge in a very short period of time.”

Like all learning curves, Redfield’s has always been smooth. On the field, his breakout performance against LSU in the Music City Bowl had preseason pundits like Phil Steele predicting an All-American junior campaign. But an early-season injury made 2015 a frustrating one, and a curfew violation that got Redfield sent home from the Fiesta Bowl only compounded the situation heading into the offseason.

Kelly acknowledged a hand in some of the struggles. After looking like a redshirt candidate, the Irish coaching staff blew a season of eligibility by starting Redfield in the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers.

“We had to play him and use up a year, which really wasn’t fair to him, in a bowl game situation, so he really should have another year with us,” Kelly conceded.

Press Notre Dame’s head coach a little bit harder and Kelly might also concede that never in a million years did they think Redfield would be the type of player to stick around for five years in South Bend. Nor did they think it’d take a full four years to develop Redfield into the cornerstone that this unit desperately needs on the back end.

While his athleticism has never been questioned, Kelly discussed some of the offseason priorities for the rising senior, namely some physical tweaks to Redfield’s game— lengthening his backpedal, smoothing out some of his movement skills. But the real work will likely come with the immediacy of the situation and an extra dose of maturity, as Redfield has only one more shot to prove his worth on the football field.

The light turned on for safeties Kyle McCarthy, Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta later in their very productive Notre Dame careers. On a day that’s built for optimism, Kelly seemed genuine in his belief that the same will happen with Redfield.

“The progress has been steady,” Kelly said. “It hasn’t been fast, but he’s at the cusp of really, I think, putting it all together for us.”

Randolph injury headlines spring roster moves

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Doug Randolph‘s career at Notre Dame is over. The reserve defensive lineman will no longer compete on the field, as a spinal injury has ended his career.

Randolph wasn’t expected to battle for a starting job, though he was a contender to take snaps in the weakside defensive end rotation. Now he’ll serve as a student assistant, similar to the role Tony Springmann filled after injuries took him off the field.

With a newly released spring roster, here are few other changes that caught my eye:

Fifth-year candidates Nicky Baratti and John Turner are no longer with the program. Offensive lineman Mark Harrell is with the team. As is long-snapper Scott Daly, as always assumed. Interestingly, graduate student, and former walk-on, Josh Anderson is still on the spring roster.

Starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones is the only other fifth-year starter while Avery Sebastian stays in South Bend for a second season after arriving as a graduate transfer from Cal last summer. An early-season foot injury qualified him for a sixth year of competition.

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Two big position switches are in the mix, mostly to bolster the depth chart behind some front-line options. Rising senior Jacob Matuska is moving from the defensive line to tight end. After being listed as a 295-pound defensive lineman as a junior, Matuska is down to 275 pounds on the spring roster (Kelly had him pegged at 271) and he’ll likely fill the role of Chase Hounshell as an in-line blocker.

Matuska, a very good tight end as a high school player, already impressed the staff with his athleticism during testing.

“One of the numbers that really surprised me was Matuska. We moved him over to tight end, 6’4½, 271, and he ran 4.9,” Kelly said. “So there’s a big in-line guy for us that ran a whole lot better at 4.9.”

John Montelus is working with the defensive line. After spending the last three seasons as an offensive lineman, Montelus will try and add some depth to the interior of the defensive line.

An intriguing body type and power player, watching Montelus brawl from the other side of the line will be interesting. After showing up as a 340-pounder out of high school, Montelus has reshaped his body, opening this spring at 310 pounds. Whether that helps the Massachusetts native break through remains to be seen.

Redshirt freshman Ashton White will work with the safeties this spring after being listed as a defensive back as a freshman. He’s up to 190 pounds after being listed at 182 last season.

***

Kelly also finalized the remainder of his football staff. While the position coaches and coordinators stay the same, Kelly detailed the comings and goings of the analyst and GA staff.

Harland Bower will be one of the team’s defensive graduate assistants. He’s replacing Mike Hiestand, who will be the defensive coordinator for NAIA program Ave Maria. Clay Bignell is the team’s other defensive GA, replacing former Irish captain Maurice Crum, who took a full-time staff job at Indiana State. Bignell was a GA last year at Northwestern (along with former Irish QB Tommy Rees) and was a standout linebacker at Montana State as a college player.

Pryce Tracy moves from special teams analyst to offensive graduate assistant. He replaces Ryan Mahaffey, who is now the offensive coordinator at Northern Iowa. Marty Biagi will be the new special teams analyst. He spent last season at South Dakota and before that coordinated special teams at Southern.

Former Wisconsin center Donovan Raiola remains at offensive GA while Matt Mitchell takes on Jeff Quinn‘s analyst role. Quinn will remain within the program, the former head coach at Buffalo and trusted Kelly confidante replacing Aaron Wellman as the assistant director of strength and conditioning. Wellman was hired by Ben McAdoo to run the New York Giants strength department. He had been with the Irish for one season after running Michigan’s strength department.

 

Spring practice brings competition across the board

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For Notre Dame football, the 2016 season begins tomorrow, as the Irish kickoff spring practice on Wednesday morning. But for Brian Kelly, the formation of his seventh team begun weeks ago.

“For many that have been waiting for spring ball to begin, tomorrow is the official day relative to our spring count,” Kelly said Tuesday. “But really, since the middle of January our process has begun in terms of building the 2016 football team. It’s just been without footballs.”

After bringing back a veteran football team in 2015, the Irish begin 2016 with a team long on talent but shy on experience. And while the feedback at the next level has been solid on the former players ready to embark on a professional career, Kelly’s comments sounded like something from a financial advisor on Tuesday, understanding all too clearly that past performance doesn’t necessarily predict future results.

“When you turn over the number of players we did this past year, there’s work to be done.”

That work begins—on the field, at least—Wednesday. It’ll include position battles at just about every position, from the high-profile quarterback depth chart to the mix and match of talent at places like offensive line, running back and wide receiver.

“When we talk about spring practice now, we’ll talk about competing in a football manner. There’ll be a lot of competition,” Kelly said. “Virtually at all positions across the board there’ll be some competitive battles, and that’s what we’ve waited for a long time, to go into each spring to know there’ll be spirited competition at all positions.”

 

Removing the redshirts: Rising sophomores ready for spring

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When Notre Dame kicks off spring practice on Wednesday, a handful of rising sophomores will step into the depth chart for the first time. After a redshirt season (not the preferred nomenclature in South Bend, but still), 11 sophomores will start competing for playing time as their eligibility clocks begin ticking this fall.

Their circumstances will all be vastly different. A season after serving as practice players only (or sitting out injured), some will step into the starting lineup, while others will fight for special teams duty.

Let’s handicap their race to the field as the Irish begin a month of football activities.

 

Shaun Crawford: Assuming Crawford’s healthy and fully recovered after an August ACL injury, we expect him to step immediately into the starting nickel role. A job he was expected to take on last season, Crawford’s August knee injury short-circuited the defensive plans for the Irish from basically Day One.

Roughly seven months after the injury, Crawford might not be full-go for spring ball, but he’ll likely be moving around and in the mix. A year after the Irish played without a nickel, Crawford should provide a missing link there, putting the undersized but physically-talented DB in the mix to be the third cornerback on the field.

 

Tristen Hoge: With multiple vacanies along the offensive line, Hoge could fight his way onto the field at either center or guard. While he spent most of his high school career snapping the football, Hoge’s offseason work and development might allow him to play guard next to Sam Mustipher.

To do that, Hoge will need to prove he’s better than some veteran members along the offensive line. He’ll also need to show that he’s physical ready to step in and fight with defensive tackles. Brian Kelly has praised his work in the weight room in the past, but his offseason gains will be worth watching.

 

Miles Boykin: With the team’s three top receivers gone, Boykin has a huge opportunity in front of him. Now he needs to establish himself this spring, fighting his way into a rotation that’ll be long on talent but short on experience and production.

Boykin could battle Corey Robinson for playing time on the boundary. Or he could line up with Equanimous St. Brown in Will Fuller‘s spot on the wide side. At nearly 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds last year, size and physicality is on his side, wherever he lines up.

With Mike Denbrock on the look out for guys who can step in and fill the gap, Boykin has a great opportunity this spring to open some eyes.

 

Mykelti Williams: Few spots on Notre Dame’s roster are as thin as the safety depth chart. And after sitting out 2015, Mykelti Williams has a chance to seize a starting job next to Max Redfield with a good spring.

Drue Tranquill continues to recover from his second torn ACL. Avery Sebastian is healthy, but mostly an unknown. A year after learning from the sideline, Williams needs to show that he’s taken great strides, especially as Todd Lyght looks to solidify the back end of the defense.

Little is known about Williams after a redshirt season. But there’s an opportunity there for the taking if Williams is a quick study this spring, so keep an eye out for the Indiana native.

 

Josh Barajas: After struggling to stay healthy and in shape for much of his freshman season, Barajas has health going for him at a time when the rest of his position group seems to be recovering from injuries. That should allow him to get in the mix this spring, taking key reps as the defensive staff looks for a place to play one of the more highly-touted recruits in the class.

Barajas projects to be a SAM linebacker, but with injuries impacting guys like Greer Martini and Te’von Coney, he could easily see time at Will or Mike as well. Mostly the spring will be utilized to see if Barajas can take some of his unique traits and add something to a defense that’s desperate to replace some of the playmaking Jaylon Smith made in 2015.

 

Asmar Bilal: Another linebacker who infuses athleticism into a defense looking to replace the ultimate athlete, Bilal will spend the spring proving he’s not a tweener. At 215 pounds last season, that might be too small to be an in-the-box linebacker.

Of course, Brian VanGorder built a reputation around utilizing sub-packages and finding ways to turn players of all shapes and sizes into weapons. Bilal certainly has a great toolkit, and with a shortened depth chart, Mike Elston will get a good look at the Indianapolis product this spring.

 

Ashton White: Another athletic defensive back given a chance to fight at a position that’s far from settled. While Nick Coleman had a chance to learn on the field as a freshman, White took things in while saving a year of eligibility, retaining a fifth year and joining a very large group of first-year contributors in a reloaded secondary.

White has good size and length for a cornerback, where he’ll likely compete this spring. With Nick Watkins, Crawford, Coleman and senior Devin Butler all trying to find time opposite Cole Luke, White’s got a chance to either get in the mix in nickel and dime packages of find a home on special teams in 2016.

 

Elijah Taylor: After spending last season learning, Taylor enters an interior defensive line mix that’s got some talent but not necessarily the depth Keith Gilmore wants. The closest thing to a run-stuffing nose guard in this group of defensive linemen, Taylor’s brute strength might be what helps him see the field, especially if he’s able to impress this spring as the defense keeps Jarron Jones’ snap count down.

It’s hard to be a imposing player in the trenches if you don’t put the time in off the field, and we’ll see if Taylor’s year with Paul Longo helped prepare him for a depth chart that’ll likely see him behind Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah as well. But the Cincinnati prospect was an early target by this defensive staff and he could begin grinding his way up the depth chart this spring.

 

Trevor Ruhland: What to expect at guard this season is anybody’s guess. If it’s not Hoge, it could be senior Colin McGovern. But Ruhland is another guy who could emerge—especially with news that the coaching staff is potentially cross-training John Montelus with the defensive linemen.

Ruhland doesn’t profile as a tackle, which seems like the position with less depth and flexibility. But if Alex Bars (still working his way to full health) isn’t the guy there, then there’s a chance some of the other shuffling could benefit Ruhland on the inside.

Another guy worth watching when the spring roster comes out, mostly to see how much heft he put on after weighing 292 on the fall roster.

 

Micah Dew-Treadway & Brandon Tiassum: At this point, I need the spring to differentiate between Dew-Treadway and Tiassum. Both are stout defensive linemen who were listed last year at either 6-4 or 6-3.5. One weighed 300 pounds, the other weighed 302. Neither was a quintessential blue-chipper, with each guy a three-star prospect, though an early offer and commit to Notre Dame.

The road to the field doesn’t look open for either, unless they’re able to provide some pass rush. The interior of the defensive line is one of the underrated strengths on this roster. The strong side defensive end is manned by Isaac Rochell, perhaps Notre Dame’s best front seven player.

Dew-Treadway was on campus last spring, able to get a jump start on his college career along with Hoge, Jerry Tillery and Te’von Coney. Tiassum is another Indianapolis product who’ll bring some athleticism to the field along with his 300-pound frame.

Both guys came to campus as need-based recruits. We’ll see how close they are to being able to fill that need this spring.