When returning 10 starters on defense, much of the springtime conversation will focus on offensive skill positions. Notre Dame needs to replace two starting receivers, Heisman-candidate running back Josh Adams and primary tight end Durham Smythe.
Who fills those voids will not be determined this spring, but the conversation has at least begun.
In a “strengthening” running back situation, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the position will be most dictated by rising senior running back Dexter Williams’ development.
“It starts with Dexter and his ability to maintain himself in a position where he can be on the field for all three downs,” Kelly said Thursday. “That’s pass protection, play-action fakes, all the little detail things that go along with playing the position.
“It’s something that he’s been below the line on. He’s shown this spring he understands how important that is and he’s above the line on those things.”
If Williams does not grasp all those aspects of the offense, the ones not focused on taking a handoff and finding a hole, then rising junior Tony Jones’ role will only increase.
“Tony’s been really, really steady in everything he’s done,” Kelly said. “He’s healthy, very coachable, and so we like that combination right now.”
The options at running back are limited. In addition to Williams and Jones, only early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith and receiver-turned-running back/receiver Jafar Armstrong are around to take carries.
The possibilities at receiver are far more numerous, albeit just as uncertain. All indications point to rising senior Miles Boykin establishing himself as a primary option, and rising junior Chase Claypool continues to recover from shoulder surgery. After those two, questions abound.
“We’re going to find that we’ve got seven-to-eight guys that we can work with,” Kelly said. “We’ll find out what the best rotation is there. We’re going to be solid there. … We have to find something at the receiver position that gives us good balance.”
Rising senior Chris Finke, rising sophomore Michael Young and rising junior Javon McKinley lead the way of that mingling handful. Clearly, there could be depth at receiver, especially if the summer yields further development. Such depth already exists at tight end, the only quality at that position Kelly espoused, which makes sense given how many tight ends are recovering from injury.
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Not all 10 returning defensive starters will start.
On paper, Notre Dame needs to find only a linebacker to complete its starting defense — a rover, in particular, with fifth-year Drue Tranquill moving to Buck linebacker, leaving the hybrid role available for a newcomer. In reality, the Irish need to find a safety or two, and that has not happened yet this spring.
“Defensively, we still need to emerge at the safety position,” Kelly said.
That need prompted Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea to move early-enrolled freshman Houston Griffith from cornerback to safety last week. Griffith offers “contact skills,” tackling and an “ability to play the ball in the air,” the same traits Kelly often touts when discussing a new candidate at safety.
“All in all, halfway through we’ve learned a lot more about our football team,” Kelly said. “We’ll continue to do that on the back half.”
Mock Draft Season
There is a reason the phrase begins with a four-letter word. It is inane, fruitless, futile. The exercise never ends and has essentially no payoff. Nonetheless, with the NFL Draft only three-plus weeks away, spending 45 seconds on the seasonal speculation makes some sense.
Notre Dame will likely produce two first-round picks this cycle in offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey. Various mock drafts project Nelson to go in the top 10, perhaps just outside of it, while McGlinchey looks to be a top-20 pick, as well. Picking in those ranges is as much about a team’s roster needs as anything else, especially when selecting an offensive lineman.
A brief sampling:
— Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo: Nelson at No. 11 to the Miami Dolphins; McGlinchey at No. 12 to the Cincinnati Bengals.
— RotoWorld’s Josh Norris: Nelson at No. 8 to the Chicago Bears; McGlinchey at No. 17 to the San Diego Chargers.
— The Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer: Nelson at No. 7 to the Tampa Bay Bucs; McGlinchey at No. 17 to the Chargers.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
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— Familiar praise of Notre Dame’s tight ends rings anew
— Wimbush and Notre Dame’s on-field development aided by not heeding off-field talk
— Rees recognizes Book’s challenge from both sides of the Notre Dame QB competition
— Notre Dame’s offensive line shifts while Wimbush improves accuracy, consistency
— Notre Dame clinches title with last-second win
— Why the Irish? Why now?
— Walk-on players contribute to team’s success in quiet fashion
— Jeff Samardzija shares recipe for double duty with Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet