Five things we’ll learn: Countdown to spring practice

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With the university’s spring break in its final days, football will return to South Bend next week. But before Brian Kelly addresses the media to discuss the state of the program as the Irish embark on spring practice, let’s dig into five things we’ll learn before the Blue-Gold game on April 16.

 

What’s the identity of Harry Hiestand’s new-look offensive line? 

Quenton Nelson seemed to spill the beans on one of the biggest questions heading into spring, tagging Mike McGlinchey as his partner on the left side of the offensive line. That leaves three vacancies across the line, with spring likely dedicated to finding the best men for the job.

The health of Alex Bars seems to be one of the first storylines to follow. If Bars is full-go for spring after suffering a broken ankle against USC, he’ll likely seize a starting job. Whether that’s at guard or tackle remains to be seen. Bars saw limited time at guard in 2015, though he certainly has the length and athleticism to take over at right tackle.

The center battle focuses on Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge. Mustipher filled in rather capably behind Nick Martin last year, another interior lineman developed into a center under Hiestand. Hoge is the only true center on the roster, a young player who earned kudos from Kelly throughout his redshirt campaign, largely for the work he put in developing his strength.

If Kelly and Hiestand believe both Mustipher and Hoge are among the five best offensive linemen on the roster, they’ll both play. We saw that with Matt Hegarty and Mike Golic, two versatile interior players who cross-trained. But that was before the Irish built up a treasure chest through recruiting, with former blue-chip recruits like Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus entering their fourth years in the program (Montelus is a candidate for cross-training, spotted with the defensive linemen in offseason workouts).

There’s no urgency to find a starting five this spring—especially with Tommy Kraemer getting to campus this summer and potentially throwing his hat in the ring for a job. But with an offense that might be best suited for a rough and tumble style of play, building that identity through the men up front starts now.

 

Will a simplified defense be rolled out this spring? 

Joe Schmidt? Gone. Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day? The NFL awaits. Take away long-time contributors Elijah Shumate, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara and the Irish defense will rely on a new group of young, talented and inexperienced players to fill the gaps.

Awaiting that group is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense. A complex, multiple, attacking scheme, the third-year defensive coordinator’s system demands a level of preparation and understanding that—put kindly—wasn’t always met by his players.

Athletically, there were growing pains and legacy issues. A veteran roster built for Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme certainly wasn’t a good fit. But this spring will likely showcase players brought in by VanGorder, athletes capable of executing the vision that Kelly and his coordinator have for this unit.

But they can’t do that without proper comprehension.

With Schmidt gone, junior Nyles Morgan is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker. A productive player as a freshman (even through significant growing pains), grasping the plethora of responsibilities that come with the position is Job One this spring.

But that responsibility doesn’t fall on Morgan alone. The offseason was likely spent at 30,000 feet, with VanGorder and the defensive staff hopefully evaluating big picture items like communication and core philosophy. These fifteen practices give the staff a chance to implement some of their findings before the broken coverages and blown assignments start counting for real.

While he’s turning into a whipping boy in some circles, VanGorder deserves credit for fixing last offseason’s two major challenges: up-tempo offenses and the triple option. This offseason the focus should be strictly internal—how to optimize a defense that too often was its own worse enemy.

Don’t expect a lot of explanation from Kelly or VanGorder when asked for updates on their progress. But that doesn’t mean the wheels aren’t already in motion.

 

Can Max Redfield lead the secondary? 

Notre Dame’s senior safety ended last season on an immensely disappointing note—sent home from the Fiesta Bowl for a rules violation. Redfield’s response to the discipline was also a head-shaker, a tweet and extended explanation that looked inward, but delivered mostly empty words when action is what’s desperately needed.

It’s Redfield’s final season in South Bend, a journey that’s taken some twists and turns but still could end with the senior safety maximizing his talents and leading the secondary. He’s got all the tools necessary to succeed in the Irish defense. Now he needs to also take on leadership, a steadying voice as the last line of defense in Todd Lyght’s secondary.

Finding a starter next to Redfield is the next step. Avery Sebastian returns for a sixth year. Drue Tranquill recovers from another ACL tear. A slew of young and untested safeties will have their chance as well.

But it all starts with Redfield. The Irish desperately need a stabilizing force at safety, a struggle since Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta headed to the NFL.

 

What should we expect from the upcoming quarterback battle? 

The Irish have three quarterbacks capable of leading a major D-I program. In Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush, Mike Sanford’s position room is crowded with talent, a second consecutive offseason with a major position battle primed to become a national story.

That’s about where the similarities to last spring end.

In many ways, the Golson-Zaire spring battle gave the Irish coaching staff the blueprint on how not to handle this spring. Granted, Golson’s impending free agency added a wrinkle that this spring won’t have. Not to mention the buy-in of the candidates involved—all three quarterbacks, Wimbush included, seem happy to be in South Bend, at least through 2016.

For those looking for clarity leaving spring, they’ll likely be disappointed. Assuming Wimbush redshirts (a plan Kelly acknowledged), both Kizer and Zaire have room for improvement in their respective games. They’ll be getting to know a rebuilt offensive line and a wide receiving corps short three leading receivers, including one of the nation’s best in Will Fuller.

Expect to hear the term “skill development” from Kelly next Tuesday, taking the spotlight off any perceived position battle. It’s likely more than just lip service, as the bar has been raised for both starting candidates, with the internal expectations driving this battle all the way to fall camp.

 

Team 127 had an identity. What will Team 128 look like? 

There was no shortage of leadership on the 2015 football team. The Irish could’ve easily trotted out six captains (and would have, had Ronnie Stanley not run afoul with those pesky Notre Dame meter maids.)

Contrast that with this year’s football team. Finding and developing leadership on the current roster may be one of the most important parts of spring practice.

Senior wide receiver Corey Robinson won the right to lead the entire student body. You have to assume he’ll manage to get a ‘C’ on his chest. But to do that, Robinson’s buy-in as a football player needs to be absolute. Notre Dame’s renaissance man very well could be college football’s most impressive student-athlete, but he’ll need to lead from the front, finding his voice as one of the tenured members of this football team.

From there, looking at resumes won’t necessarily lead you to team leaders. The fifth-year options are limited. Role players like James Onwualu may be candidates to ascend, though Kelly has often talked about the benefit of having your best players also be your best leaders.

That could mean Isaac Rochell is ready. Same with Mike McGlinchey along the offensive line. While they lack the fanfare of former teammates like Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley, they will be frontline players on a very talented roster.  There’s no shortage of leadership at quarterback either, though navigating those tricky dynamics will test even the most capable coaching staff.

This is Kelly’s seventh spring practice since he took over a program in desperate need of a reboot. He’s done that, elevating not just the talent on the roster but the infrastructure that surrounds the program. That blueprint will come into play this spring as another team with great expectations begins to form its identity.