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Options develop for Notre Dame’s third starting WR, one presumably with speed


Brian Kelly wanted to be clear. While Notre Dame has many questions at linebacker, it has just one at receiver. The latter position is not a foray into the unknown like the defensive middle tier is. The Irish know rising senior Chase Claypool and fifth-year Chris Finke will start at the boundary and slot positions, respectively.

In the search for a third starter, along the wide side of the field, some wonder does persist.

“You have some established players that can play at a high level with Claypool and Chris Finke,” the head coach said Tuesday. “… The third receiver doesn’t have that kind of production, but I think we’ve got a number of guys.”

Kelly then listed off four different options, not including rising sophomore Kevin Austin, more likely an exclusion due to Austin complementing Claypool at boundary than one meant to signal Austin has fallen off the radar. Even as he battled the maturity issues innate to one’s first year in college, Austin showed enough last fall to protect against being written off after only four spring practices, finishing with five catches for 90 yards in 10 appearances.

Kelly did mention Austin’s classmates Joe Wilkins, Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys, as well as rising junior Michael Young (pictured above).

“Certainly a number of guys that we think can give us the kind of play that we need out on the perimeter.”

That perimeter aspect was missing in 2018, despite Claypool’s overall athleticism. Notre Dame lacked outside speed, the type that forces a secondary to worry about its back line as much as the sideline. Such speed is only useful when accompanied by enough strength to work through press coverage without being knocked off one’s route, the type of physical development offseasons are made for.

“When we got back from the bowl game, I always tell our guys, our offense starts in the weight room,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said two weeks ago. “Those guys, the way they have transformed their bodies, it’s been awesome. Those young wideouts, Michael Young — I think Michael is up to a little over 190 and hasn’t lost a step. That added armor helps you get off press.

“It’s what helped [former Notre Dame receiver Miles Boykin] take his game to another level, Chris Finke take his game to another level.”

Long then indicated similar thoughts applied to Keys and Lenzy, in particular, with Lenzy receiving specific praise for his start to spring practice.

“Just seeing that progression this early, tells you these guys are going to be ready to play by the end of fall camp to me.”

Such will be necessary for the Irish passing game to develop past its lack of explosive plays a year ago, a season which saw only three passes gain 50 yards, all more a credit to the receivers’ efforts after the catch then beforehand.

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The question of who will get the first, and the most, crack at those deep balls will last into the preseason, with Lenzy and Young the most likely candidates, especially as Keys spends time learning the slot behind Finke, per Kelly.

But, make no mistake, that is the only question at receiver.

Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame searches for RB ‘consistency,’ sorts out its defense

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Tony Jones has long shown Notre Dame what he could be, but the rising senior running back has rarely turned that potential into routine production. For every standout performance in practice, particularly in the spring, there has been a four-week midseason stretch where he took 12 carries for 25 total yards. For every 51-yard Playoff-clinching touchdown reception, there has been a Cotton Bowl where he warranted all of one target.

Such is the track record that makes a “consistent” characterization stand out, one offered by Irish head coach Brian Kelly on Tuesday after Notre Dame returned to the practice field following spring break.

“We’ve been pleased, in particular, with Tony Jones’ consistency,” Kelly said. “A lot of it has to do with getting a good rotation there because you’re not going to play just one guy. They complement each other well. As we know, [rising junior Jafar Armstrong] can play receiver, catches the ball extremely well. Tony certainly does, as well. We’re looking for that every down consistency from Tony and we’re getting that this spring.”

Kelly also praised early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams’ “elusive quickness,” which has apparently put Williams immediately into the mix alongside rising sophomore Jahmir Smith, while Smith’s classmate, C’Bo Flemister, recovers from a patellar tendon strain.

“We’re seeing some real diversity at the position early on in the spring.”

The ready inclusion of Williams bodes well for Notre Dame, which will need a third running back to emerge behind Armstrong and Jones, simply given the demands of the position. If nothing else, he could be reason to watch the final drives of the Blue-Gold Game on April 13. Of course, impressing there is what made the discussion around Jones of note in the first place.

Shaun Crawford’s road back
The fifth-year nickel back may be an afterthought most of this spring as he spends it sidelined recovering from an ACL torn back in August, but once healthy, Crawford will very much be in the running for playing time.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked him and more,” Kelly said. “We hope that he’s 100 percent and that we can plug him in. We know he’s a capable player for us, so he’ll get every opportunity to compete for that position.”

Somewhat to Crawford’s benefit, the Irish have not been able to work on nickel packages just yet. Too much is in flux at linebacker and at rover, where Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea continue to mix-and-match combinations, to start worrying about sub-packages, even one as vital as nickel.

“We’ve got other issues that we’re trying to deal with right now,” Kelly said. “The nickel is going to play itself out. We think we have some really good options there, moving forward. We’re trying to sort out some other things defensively.”

Even if Notre Dame gets to the nickel packages by the end of the week, as Kelly expected, the reduced reps for youngsters such as quarterback-turned-running back-turned-defensive back Avery Davis and rising sophomore Houston Griffith will put Crawford on a near-even track with them once healthy.

Defensive tackle depth
One of the lesser issues, but an issue nonetheless, for Lea’s defense is the limited number of bodies available at nose tackle this spring. As rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin and early-enrolled freshman Hunter Spears both recover from injury, that has left only early-enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey to back up rising junior Kurt Hinish.

“Lacey looks good,” Kelly said. “He’s got some quickness and size. … It’s really Hinish’s position at this time until we get some more competition from those young kids.”

Way-too-early 2019 game predictions
An offshore bookmaker offered opening lines on some of the biggest games of 2019, putting the Irish as 11.5-point underdogs at Georgia on Sept. 21 and 8.5-point underdogs at Michigan on Oct. 26, while making Notre Dame an 11.5-point favorite against USC on Oct. 12.

This is of note when remembering this space’s speculation about a win total over/under of 9.5 a week ago. Those thoughts gave the Irish a 1-in-3 chance, roughly speaking, of winning in Ann Arbor. As two-possession ‘dogs, though, the book would appear to give Notre Dame a win expectancy closer to zero in the Big House. Yet, the win total over/under was still set at 9.5, suggesting great confidence the Irish can sweep their ACC slate and leaving only the season finale at Stanford as a question mark.

Over/under sets outside expectations for Notre Dame’s 2019
Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart not among Clark Lea’s concerns
Notre Dame lacks safety in numbers, but boasts strength at safety
Notre Dame OL the way its coordinator ‘wants it to be’
Long’s third year about a Notre Dame ‘standard’

Four teams that will go over in 2019 and four that won’t ($)
Manti Te’o, Aaron Lynch visit Oakland Raiders
Tyler Eifert stays with Bengals
Golden Tate goes ‘Show me the money’
NFL draft RB rankings
Revisiting the 2014 college football season with advanced box scores
The NBA has a Kyler Murray of its own

Long’s third year about Notre Dame ‘standard’

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It is an unfamiliar feeling for Chip Long. The Notre Dame offensive coordinator has entered a third season at only one previous coaching stop, lasting four years as the tight end coach at Arizona State (2012-2015). Between the Sun Devils and the Irish, Long spent one season as the offensive coordinator in Memphis.

Now in his third spring at Notre Dame, Chip Long expects to reap the benefits of the time he has spent establishing his system, both on the field and in the locker room.

“If we’re going to have any consistency in the last three years, it has to be that leadership and what kind of identity is this offense going to have, what kind of sacrifice are they going to have,” Long said the first week of March. “… It’s exciting to see a standard. I’m not having to teach guys how to practice anymore. They’re going.”

That on-field leadership will come from a number of rising juniors, perhaps fittingly given their arrival coincided with Long’s. A skim across the top line of the Irish offensive depth chart includes running back Jafar Armstrong, receiver Michael Young, tight end Cole Kmet (pictured above), right tackle Robert Hainsey and left guard Aaron Banks, not to mention tight end Brock Wright as part of many packages and guard Josh Lugg looming as the sixth offensive lineman.

It is the tight ends, in particular, where Long most expects the third year to yield production more than potential.

“They’re both extremely confident, flying around,” he said. “[Kmet] seems a lot faster now, especially without 20 pounds of tape on his ankle anymore. Just a confidence you would expect from a veteran guy at this point.”

That same confidence aspect arose when Long discussed Wright, specifically.

“He’s confident in the offense, he’s not having to think what foot do I step (with),” Long said. “He’s just going. He’s been a surprise right now for us, really proud of him.”

Such confidence will be necessary if the duo are to build on their combined 17 catches for 174 yards and one score in 2018. More than double that in every respect has left the tight end position (39 catches for 370 yards and five touchdowns), and even that was somewhat underwhelming.

And such confidence comes from a coach sticking around, a tough thing to find in the profession. Reaching his third year in South Bend bodes well for Long and Notre Dame in 2019, even if a supposed Alabama flirtation in January threatened to continue Long’s transient style. Irish head coach Brian Kelly joked that conversation focused on local barbeque establishments. Long insisted it was more professional advisement in nature, but nothing more.

“[Nick] Saban contacted me, he wanted to visit about what we do offensively, liked a lot of things we did, especially prepping for Clemson,” Long said. “I like a lot of the stuff they do offensively, and an opportunity to go down there and talk ball for a couple hours. …

“It really wasn’t much more than that. He knew my commitment to Notre Dame. It was a good opportunity to talk some ball after the rough two weeks we had.”

Whether that Tide visit was more than that or not, Long has reached a third year with the Irish, just as the pair of tight ends do, as well, one’s success perhaps very much depending on the other.

Notre Dame offensive line the way its coordinator ‘wants it to be’

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As spring progresses, the conversation around Notre Dame’s offensive line will turn to the four early-enrolled freshmen. Their arrival should, in time, provide genuine depth up front and accelerated development for the next few years, but given the veterans the Irish return, that praise will live only until the season arrives. At that point, the upperclassmen will demand any and all attention.

Notre Dame will trot out four returning starters at Louisville on Labor Day, totalling 55 career starts among them, 45 of which came last year. The smallest of that quartet? Two-year starting right tackle Robert Hainsey (pictured above) at 6-foot-5, 298 pounds. The sole addition to the starting unit, rising sophomore center Jarrett Patterson, is the only other line starter listed at less than 6-foot-6, at the same height as Hainsey and two pounds heavier.

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Size up front may not be the only quality necessary to be an imposing line — clearly, it isn’t, otherwise sumo wrestlers would proliferate the select ranks of five-star recruits — but it does not hurt the cause by any means.

“We are 6’4”-plus across the board,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said a week ago. “We look like a big, powerful offensive line, the way I want it to be.”

Getting off the bus with a certain image is one thing. Development beyond that remains necessary, though, especially as Notre Dame loses two NFL-bound offensive linemen for the second year in a row. That is where Hainsey maintaining his upward trend for a third spring, and then third season, could prove vital. Improving upon his performance last season would indicate Hainsey nears dominance.

“Going through all our cut-ups that we do after the season, a player from our first game to our last game, [Hainsey] might have been our best player on offense,” Long said. “Just the way he executed game-in and game-out. The level of consistency he played with was outstanding. He’s a confident young man, too. You can see that in the way he’s leading.”

If Hainsey is leading, and every aspect of his presentation supports that conclusion, he is stepping into the hole left by those aforementioned soon-to-be NFL players. Another step forward will be necessary, though. Part of the wonder of the Quenton Nelson/Mike McGlinchey and Sam Mustipher/Alex Bars pairings were their hand-in-hand roles along the line. Given Hainsey is dug in at right tackle, the obvious instinct is to look to rising senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, entering his second season at the position and third as a starter.

At 6-foot-6, Kraemer has long been physically imposing, but he may not have been as fleet of foot as Long prefers from his guards. Think of Nelson or Bars pulling to the outside of the line to lead the way on a run play. Getting and staying ahead of the running back takes timing and quickness.

“He had to move better,” Long said. “I like to pull our guys, and we were not very good last year, and we’re not going to lose that part of our offense. If he wanted to be a guy, he needed to do it. He can pull and pull with power.”

Tommy Kraemer (78) and Liam Eichenberg (74) reach their senior seasons as the elder statesmen along Notre Dame’s offensive line, seen here preparing to take the field in the Cotton Bowl. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

In the fall, Kraemer was listed at 316 pounds. The spring roster puts him at 319. Yet, Long credited Kraemer for losing weight over the last two-plus months. Whether that is a roster typo or a broader description of an overall body change, the sentiment suggests a needed and wanted adjustment, one that could have as much a psychological effect as a physical one.

“You just see a much more confident guy out there,” Long said. “He’s stronger, another offseason in the weight room, the way he’s bouncing around out there, he’s way better than he was.”

The parallel developments on the left side of the line will be more typical to those often seen between the first year starting and the second. Even if rising junior Aaron Banks started only six games last season, the expectation is he reach the levels Hainsey and Kraemer did in 2018, especially considering their 2017 rotation essentially equaled half a season of playing time each in their first year, as well.

In other words, aggressive play, occasionally tentative due to inexperience, and thus allowing for the occasional mistake.

“Banks doesn’t have a problem with confidence,” Long said. “He gets going. He makes a mistake — it’s sorry coach — but he’s going to get after somebody, too. It’s just getting him back out there, he’s moving around way better now. He’s a big, powerful man that loves to play.”

Rising senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg fits those second-year starter possibilities, as well, in particular the tentativeness. It was visible throughout 2018 and will be the greatest hurdle to overcome if he really is to become the next name in the line of standout left tackles spanning the length of head coach Brian Kelly’s Irish tenure.

“[Eichenberg] was too tentative at times last year,” Long said. “Because he’s another conscientious kid who doesn’t want to make a mistake. You have to go. This is your second year to start. Let’s have a legit, big-time left tackle with your size and ability. We need to get better movement on the left side, it can’t just be the right.”

Being it remains the springtime, Long’s words all end with a positive takeaway. To some degree, that makes his pointed criticisms stand out — Kraemer’s quickness, Banks’ mistakes, Eichenberg’s tentativeness — the items not to lose sight of despite the shine of other, new arrivals.

Notre Dame lacks safety in numbers, but boasts strength at safety

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The praises of Notre Dame’s defense in the next five-plus months will be two-fold: its starting safeties and its excellent defensive ends, all four of the senior ends, two of which already considered the NFL.

Notice, depth is not included in the safety bit. There was hardly any before spring practice began and when Devin Studstill did not take part in the first practice because he intends to transfer upon graduation this May, the semblance of known depth dissipated entirely. Without Studstill, and rising senior Alohi Gilman limited both by minor injury and by load management, the Irish currently have rising senior Jalen Elliott (pictured at top) and rising sophomores Derrik Allen and Paul Moala available at the position.

In other words, Elliott and not much else beyond theoretical potential, which is partly the reason rising sophomore cornerback DJ Brown cross-trained at safety in Studstill’s absence. The three youngsters have this spring to establish themselves behind Gilman and Elliott before reinforcements arrive in the form of incoming freshmen Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon.

“They’re certainly going to get an opportunity,” head coach Brian Kelly said March 1. “You’re going to see a lot of them. We’ve got guys coming in the fall that we’re really high on, too. Some of this will be their opportunity to get ahead of the competition that’s coming in, and they know there’s competition coming in.”

Moala played in seven games as a freshman, but that was largely in a special teams role. Allen did not make it onto the field for a Saturday. Even Studstill and Nicco Fertitta made only spot appearances in support of Gilman and Elliott, combining for 16 tackles. That led to Gilman and Elliott playing nearly every snap.

When pondering that now, defensive coordinator Clark Lea only thinks of the coming development from the unproven duo — trio, if including Brown.

“Part of this spring is patience and developing depth,” Lea said last week. “For both [Allen and Moala], they are in a position now where they are getting a ton of reps and they’re making mistakes, but they’re learning from them.”

The chance to learn from those mistakes is presumably part of the reason Kelly indicated Gilman will not get a full snap load this spring. His physical playing style in the fall not only yielded two forced fumbles among 94 tackles, but also a particular amount of wear-and-tear.

But he is not the only two-year starter at the position. Elliott works with Allen and Moala through each snap. It fits Elliott’s feelings about the position, which derive from his high school experience on the opposite of the ball. Elliott was not intercepting passes back then as much as he was trying to avoid interceptions.

“I always say safety is like the quarterback of the defense, so being able to elaborate what I wanted to say and be able to put guys in the right places was something I did at quarterback and I think it translated to safety,” Elliott said following his first day tutoring the reserves this spring. “… We have a younger secondary, so making sure I’m leading by example every day, making sure that I’m pushing those young guys and making sure that I’m also not losing myself while doing that, making sure I’m pushing myself in every aspect of the game.”

Elliott’s development in every aspect of the game — from reliable at best, suspect at worst in 2017 to durable mainstay in 2018 to defensive leader in 2019 — makes this shallow depth chart tolerable for Notre Dame and the position a strength as a whole. When Gilman transferred from Navy, his success was presumed, at least once eligible. Elliott’s first two seasons did not inspire such confidence.

Of course, between those two years came a system change, and Elliott now enters his third season in Lea’s design.

“Every year you’re in the system, it gets a little easier, because expectations are understood, performance standards are understood,” Lea said. “We’re in search of that bar right now. We haven’t found it, but that’s what we’re doing every day.”

If nothing else, Elliott and Gilman are that bar for the foreseeable future.