With the majority of spring practice in the books, there’s no better time to take stock of the offensive personnel. While Brian Kelly and key assistants Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock have focused on skill development as they reboot the depth chart, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been some moves and shakes on the big board as roles emerge.
Fresh off a Saturday scrimmage session inside Loftus, let’s run through some of the players who have made big moves this spring.
Corey Holmes. From a sophomore redshirt to a potential replacement for Will Fuller, Holmes may not be the second coming of Notre Dame’s best deep threat, but he’s certainly made a play to take an open job at a position that needs to replace three starters.
After experimenting at Fuller’s X spot, an injury to C.J. Sanders and a need to find Holmes a job has resulted in the rising junior taking some snaps at slot receiver. With sub-4.4 speed and very good shake, that creates a nice situation at a position that’s really in need of unproven receivers to step up.
Sam Mustipher. Most expected a spirited competition at center between Mustipher and rising sophomore Tristen Hoge. Well Mustipher ended that by the end of Day One, all but penciled into the starting lineup as the heir apparent to Nick Martin from jump street.
Compact, physical and already at home with the first unit, Kelly’s been complimentary of Mustipher this spring, a key development for an offensive line with high hopes.
Tarean Folston. Count me as someone who didn’t expect to see much from Folston this spring. But the rising senior is back and moving well after his 2015 season was ended after three carries with a major knee injury.
Competition does interesting things. And for Folston, seeing Josh Adams and Dexter Williams learn on the job last year likely helped bring the Florida native back with an urgency that may not have existed before the injury.
Weighing more but leaned out at a powerful 214 pounds, Folston has taken to new running back coach Autry Denson and has claimed a leadership role in the running back room.
“It’s human nature for somebody like Tarean, who is highly competitive, to be harder on himself,” Denson told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister. “I would say he’s trending ahead of schedule in my book.”
The Tight Ends. After a run that produced NFL tight ends and elite production, Irish tight ends took a step back in 2015, relegated to supporting roles after Durham Smythe‘s regular season ended against Virginia. But Smythe has returned strong and both Alizé Jones and Nic Weishar are ready to take steps forward in 2016, with the position’s evolution likely to help in the red zone and in short yardage situations come 2016.
Tyler Luatua‘s transfer likely resulted in defensive lineman Jacob Matuska switching sides of the ball. But Matuska’s transition has been smooth, already expected to step into the blocking role Chase Hounshell filled last season. Mike Denbrock revealed that Jones was seeing time as a jumbo W receiver, a boundary player who could add some physicality and create mismatches on the edge.
“We’re trying to find where he can best impact our football team against Texas,” Kelly said Saturday. “I think it’s apparent by what you saw today that he’s a guy that can go down the field vertically…He’s a guy that we need to find a role for. He can’t be in a rotation as the third tight end on the field.”
With a veteran presence in Smythe and a potential breakout player in Jones, the depth chart is filled with top-shelf talent. Add in a rebuilt receiving corps likely facing some growing pains and the tight ends could be primed for a bounce back.
Torii Hunter. Hunter is Notre Dame’s best wide receiver. Looking over the stat sheet from the last few years, that means the rising senior (with two seasons of eligibility remaining) could be ready to do some very big things.
Hunter was clocked at 4.42 in the 40-yard dash before spring practice began, speed not many expected out of him. But with the deep ball throwing skills of both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire (not to mention a bullish running game that’ll keep defenses honest), it could be Hunter that replaces Fuller as the home run threat.
Corey Robinson. Notre Dame’s student body president has been mostly absent this spring, a concussion keeping him off the field and requiring a meeting with a specialist next Tuesday. That could result in Robinson returning to a depth chart that needs his senior leadership—or deciding that he’s best served pursuing one of his many other interests.
Kelly spoke about Robinson’s status on Saturday, supportive of the due diligence being put in to a serious matter.
“You have these evaluations, and I think his family will be involved in it, so you can make a great decision on where you want to go,” Kelly said. “I think he’s doing this because he certainly cares about playing football. If he didn’t, he probably wouldn’t go through this evaluation, he’d just say I’m done.
“Clearly he thinks football is important, and he wants to get the kind of medical expertise necessary to make an informed decision. We’re supportive.”
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Right Guard. Count me among those who thought that Colin McGovern might be the one to emerge at right guard. But after a concussion held McGovern out of a handful of practices, he might just be best suited for a sixth man job—especially if Hunter Bivin finds some comfort on the inside.
Sophomore Tristen Hoge is in the running for the guard spot as well, though he’s had a relatively quiet spring. It feels like a two-horse race between McGovern and Bivin, with McGovern capable of backing up at tackle and Hoge capable of providing relief at both center and guard.
If history tells us anything, Harry Hiestand and Kelly prefer veterans in the trenches. And from listening to comments last week, both McGovern and Bivin seem destined to play.