End of Spring Break means return to business at hand

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Notre Dame returns to practice next Wednesday, two weeks since it last took the field for practice. With the university on break this week, it’s been a nice calm before getting back to the business at hand of improving this football team before fall camp.

And there is work to be done.

Before we get back to actually talking about real football, consider this a weekend checklist of players I’m looking forward to tracking when the Irish get back on the field:

Malik Zaire: So that whole open competition thing at quarterback lasted around 15 minutes, which was about as long as anyone should’ve expected. But Zaire is a key cog to the Irish offense, and getting a look at him taking full field, full offensive system reps will be fascinating illuminating.

Heading into his senior season, Zaire was a run first, sub-50 percent passer. A big time summer on the national circuit, including a really impressive stint at Elite 11 camp, and a great senior season have many believing he’s a late blooming dual-threat quarterback that could be a very good one.

Interestingly enough, the Irish’s two quarterbacks feel like polar opposites. Golson was a prodigious high school talent, putting up record-breaking numbers in South Carolina. Zaire was relatively late on the scene, with basically one season of elite game tape.

Now working with Matt LaFleur, let’s see how Zaire is progressing.

Michael Deeb: I fully expected Deeb to be one of the early contributors of the freshman in 2013.

Boy, was I off.

Now there is literally nobody standing in the way of Deeb stepping into the starting lineup. Especially this spring, with only Deeb, former walk-on Joe Schmidt and fifth-year Kendall Moore available at inside linebacker.

Strategically, keeping Deeb’s eligibility clock from starting was smart, especially with veterans Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox playing alongside Jarrett Grace. But he’d better get a jump start on earning some playing time before he sees the reinforcements arrive this summer.

Ben Koyack: It wasn’t too long ago that Koyack was all but expected to be the next great Notre Dame tight end. As elite of a recruit as there was at the position, it’s taken three full seasons for the Oil City, PA native to reach his potential.

With Troy Niklas gone, the door is open for Koyack to take charge of the position. He’s got the size to play attached to the line, enough athleticism and speed to be productive in the open field, and one season to establish himself as an NFL prospect.

This is an important spring for Koyack. Nobody else at his position has seen the field. He’s the standard bearer for how things should be done. And if there’s a guy that’s likely to catch Brian Kelly’s attention as taking “the leap” forward, expect it to be Koyack.

Joe Schmidt: Count me as one of those fascinated intrigued by Schmidt getting his chance to be a starting inside linebacker at Notre Dame. While his size almost immediately disqualified him from playing for Bob Diaco, Schmidt is the type of athlete that could be effective playing sideline to sideline in Brian VanGorder’s system. But it’s just too soon to tell how good Schmidt.

Almost just as important as Schmidt’s contributions on the field is what his success means on the recruiting trail. A recruited walk-on turning into a successful starter at one of the most high profile programs in the country is music to the ears of bubble recruits that may be weighing non-BCS scholarship offers with a chance to play for the Irish.

As Kelly and his staff look to optimize numbers and play as close to the 85-man scholarship roster limit as possible, having a success story among their recent recruited walk-ons will help bring other potential contributors to campus.

It’s certainly not a risk many can afford, but it’s already the type of opportunity that has fellow Mater Dei football prospect Sam Bush doing the same thing. Our friends over at Irish Illustrated caught up with the 6-foot-4, 285-pound offensive lineman and he relayed the message the Irish coaching staff sent to him.

“They said there’s no better guy that you could have in that situation,” Bush told Irish Illustrated. “He came in as a preferred walk-on, put his heart and mind to it. It’s sort of a cliché, but it’s like Rudy, be the first guy in, last guy out, work up the food chain. Now he’s getting substantial playing time and on scholarship.”

If the Irish get key snaps from players like Schmidt every couple years, it could be contagious.

Max Redfield: If you were to believe the coaching decision in the Pinstripe Bowl, Brian Kelly was telling the truth when he felt like Redfield needed to get an opportunity to play. The freshman started the final game of the 2013 season after being largely anonymous in 2013, leading to him entering spring as the presumed starter at free safety for the Irish.

While we know the verbiage and responsibilities are changing for the linebackers, we have yet to hear what’s going to happen in the secondary. (I expect things to simplify significantly.) But whatever it is, expect Redfield to play a large part in those plans. The move of Matthias Farley likely signified some self-scouting and a change in priorities for the back end of the defense.

If we’re to believe that Redfield will hold down one job, what happens at the other safety position will be fascinating. You could make an argument for Eilar Hardy, Elijah Shumate or Austin Collinsworth to start along side of Redfield. And James Onwualu is too good of a football player to be shifted to defense and shelved for the season.

Whether it’s sub-packages or new coverage schemes, the spring developments at safety, and Redfield’s development into a key starter, are worth watching.