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Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game

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There are two common ways of looking at the annual spring game.
It is the last action involving Notre Dame football readily available for public consumption until Sept. 2, 133 days away.
Or it is an exercise rife with contradiction exacerbated by hype, yielding little-to-no reliable intelligence.
Like much of life, the most accurate assessment falls somewhere between those two views.

If junior running back Dexter Williams breaks off two 50-yard-plus touchdown runs, does that mean he will have multiple big plays in 2017? Not at all. It does mean he will likely have more opportunities for them, though. Just like in spring’s previous 14 practices, the Irish coaches will take what they see and apply it moving forward.

The past—and as of Saturday evening, the Blue-Gold Game will qualify as the past—does not dictate the future, but it can influence one’s approach to it.

Aside from Williams (see the second item below for more on him and the running backs), what other players/positions could influence their future roles the most with their performance to close spring?

BIG PASSING TARGETS: Alizé Jones and Co.
In this instance, big is meant literally. Notre Dame has an embarrassment of riches of tall, long, physical tight ends and receivers. Junior Alizé Jones earns specific mention here due to his inaction last season. Irish fans and coaches alike have a better idea of sophomore receiver Chase Claypool and junior receiver Miles Boykin. They have 2016 film to look at.

Jones, however, sat out the season due to academic issues. His on-field performance largely remains a question mark, but if he combines this spring’s praise with his 6-foot-4 ½ frame holding 245 listed pounds, that could turn into an exclamation point.

“He’s a perfect fit,” new Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long said Friday. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.

“The biggest thing about Alizé is he’s taking great pride in his blocking ability right now, his presence of being an end-line guy, his protection and his overall physicality. When you think like that, you’re going to become a better receiver.”

As much as seeing Jones on the field in a pseudo-competitive environment, where he aligns could reveal a lot about Long’s plans for the Irish offense overall. Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe (6-foot-5 ½, 256 pounds) could line up attached to the offensive line—in layman’s terms, down in a stance adjacent to either tackle—with Jones detached or even in a slot positioning. With any combination of Notre Dame’s three large receivers, the two tight end alignment could prove dynamic in both running and passing situations.

RELATED READING: Focus on Notre Dame’s dueling schemes, not the individual players

Jones, and Smythe and the other tight ends, creates those possibilities, but only if his on-field performance meets some of the many high expectations for him.

RUNNING BACKS: Josh Adams, Tony Jones and Dexter Williams
Entering spring, junior Josh Adams was known to be a sure thing, if not even a bell cow. His classmate Dexter Williams could have been seen as a speed back, filling a change-of-pace role.

Leaving this spring, the backfield may boast three genuine options. Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly spared no words in declaring freshman Tony Jones a viable option. Actually, much more than a viable option.

“He is well-ensconced in that rotation,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that if at any time we wanted to call him a No. 1, we could call him a No. 1. He’s done all the things to build that trust with us in terms of protections, catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s earned that through his work this spring.”

Less than 27 hours before the Blue-Gold Game, Long was asked who among the three backs is the best pass-catcher. After diplomatically, praising all three, Long deemed Jones the “most natural” at receiver.

Come Saturday afternoon, do not rejoice a possible Williams’ touchdown burst or a diving catch from Jones. Rather, pay attention to the distribution. Is Long able to incorporate all three backs? If so, then that will likely be an accurate indicator of a similar trend in the fall.

QUARTERBACK: Not just Brandon Wimbush
Obviously, seeing junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush attempt more than a handful of passes in a game situation should be a new and scintillating experience. The more important aspect will come from the exact scenarios he encounters or are simulated.

“He needs to keep growing in the offense,” Long said. “He needs to get out there in that stadium, in that atmosphere, without me back there. Be out there by himself with his 10 other players and execute at a high level, doing a great job on third downs, and doing a great job when things aren’t going well.

“Just take care of the ball, and get out there in different situations, the third downs, two minutes, whatever it may be. Just be out there playing to understand that, feel the speed of the game and just keep taking each play as it has a history on itself. That concentration, that focus. Just getting out there more and more and more. He’s getting better each and every day when we put him in those situations.”

Wimbush has hardly played in front of a college crowd, let alone attempted an out route on a third-and-seven or a hurry-up offense when trailing by four. Long and Kelly have few, if any, questions about Wimbush’s physical traits—Long did cite Wimbush’s footwork as needing improvement—but no one can truly know how he will handle those tasks until they are in front of him. The Blue-Gold Game may be an exhibition, but it is a nationally-broadcast exhibition with ~25,000 fans in the stands. How Wimbush manages in that will be the closest thing yet to a litmus test in his young career.

Sophomore Ian Book will lead the White team. While Wimbush will start against Temple, presuming health, having confidence in his backup would do a lot to reduce coaches’ and fans’ anxieties.

“I thought Ian had one of the best springs on our offense,” Long said. “The last two weeks, he has been tremendous. The way he’s executing the offense, from a redshirt freshman—I’ve been around very few who have been able to raise their game like that in the matter of weeks. He’s a lot more confident, very accurate thrower, throws a very catchable ball. He makes things happen.

“That brings me great peace going into the summer, knowing that we have a very good quarterback there that we get to keep growing and can keep pushing Brandon.”

RIGHT TACKLE: Kraemer or Eichenberg
All spring, sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have shared reps at right tackle with the first-string. The rest of the offensive line—left tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Sam Mustipher, right guard Alex Bars—is set.

Whoever takes more snaps with that unit Saturday does not guarantee himself pole position in the race come fall, but if he performs well, he would certainly become a betting favorite. For that matter, Kraemer may have already done that much.

Note: Sports betting is not yet legal in the United States, and if you find someone willing to offer odds on who will start for Notre Dame at right tackle against Temple on Sept. 2, you may want to reconsider your vices. For example, this posted at 4 p.m. ET on a Friday. Rather than place a wager on Kraemer (or grab the money line odds with Eichenberg), perhaps find a happy hour. You know what to do.

OH, AND A REMINDER
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online: ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.