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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s preseason dotted by questions at complementary positions

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If anyone has not noticed, a thought has been unnecessarily slipped into a few pieces of late. “Senior Brandon Wimbush will claim that honor [of starting against Michigan],” this past Monday’s Leftovers & Links slipped in. A week prior, “If Wimbush struggles against Michigan’s defense … spot relief could be a needed change of pace.”

Wimbush’s 99-to-2 entry made it clear, “Wimbush will take Notre Dame’s first offensive snaps against Michigan.” Junior quarterback Ian Book’s entry had set that tone already, “Book will back up senior Brandon Wimbush this fall.”

All that said, doubled down upon and taken off the board, there could yet be an Irish quarterback competition this preseason, beginning with tomorrow’s practice. Freshman Phil Jurkovec could conceivably impress enough to at least challenge for Book’s backup duties.

Given how well Book played when called upon last season, with the glaring exception of throwing an interception returned for a touchdown at Miami, suggesting he could lose his backup role may come as a shock. First of all, notice that verb choice: could, not should. It is merely a possibility.

Jurkovec arrives more highly-touted than any Notre Dame quarterback since five-star Dayne Crist arrived to succeed another California product who first arrived in South Bend in a limousine. (Read: Jimmy Clausen.) It has been a full decade since a prep passer of Jurkovec’s caliber donned a gold helmet. Common sense and Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian say to stop short of expecting Jurkovec to shine in his freshman season, but it is somewhat logical to think he could instigate some roster churn.

That churn may simply be a challenge. Jurkovec might not pass Book because instead he forces Book to raise his game as Wimbush supposedly boosted his own in the spring and summer. Such pressure would still hold an effect, even if not this season.

No matter who backs up Wimbush in 2018, Notre Dame’s ideal includes the No. 2 quarterback playing in only blowouts. Looking forward, though, if two months on campus are all it takes for Jurkovec to push Book, then that makes it all the more likely Jurkovec bypasses Book by 2019. The broadest view begins to wonder about roster turnover if Book realizes he will never be the Irish starter. The focused look raises expectations for Jurkovec as a sophomore starter next season, or in 2020 if Wimbush returns for his final season of eligibility after performing well this year.

Every snap senior running back Dexter Williams (center) does — and does not — take this preseason will be scrutinized more than ever, only in part because of the unproven depth chart behind him. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

In a similar vein, the pecking order at running back will tell a good deal about the future, but the impact there will also be distinct this season.

Much attention will go toward noting which unit senior Dexter Williams works with and how much. Summertime speculation dictates as much. With or without Williams, questions abound for running backs coach Autry Denson. Can any of his four young backs elevate himself as Notre Dame’s third option? (Those four being sophomore positional-newbies Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis, and freshmen Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister.)

At least one more reliable back, in addition to junior Tony Jones and Williams, is an absolute necessity. Denson undoubtedly prefers a minimum of two. If Williams does end up sidelined for the first few games of the season, that additional trusted ballcarrier will suddenly be the No. 2 option, a duty including 6-10 carries and two dozen snaps each week.

Whoever claims that spot will have a chance to supplant Williams and, even if not doing that, gain an edge for next season’s depth chart when Williams will not be a factor in any regard whatsoever.

Armstrong and Davis provide the most intrigue, moving from receiver and quarterback, respectively. Armstrong’s skillset best replicates Williams’, while Davis could add an entire comforter’s worth of wrinkles to Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long’s schemes. Meanwhile, Smith and Flemister offer the ever-alluring thoughts of the unknown.

One of those four will be absolutely needed this season. Two will probably get 20-plus carries. As of now, guessing which is a baffling task.

Guessing who will start at rover is a simpler question, with senior Asmar Bilal yet the frontrunner. However, some credence must be given to sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and freshman Shayne Simon. Both were recruited with this exact position in mind, Simon more so than Owusu-Koromoah due to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea having a full cycle to identify his target.

With that in mind, either one overtaking Bilal would not speak solely to the upperclassmen underperforming, even if it has been a career staple to date. A change in the starting lineup may not occur over the next month, but Simon getting snaps alongside senior middle linebacker Te’von Coney at any point in preseason practices would point toward such a move being on the table by midseason.

Jalen Elliott (No. 21) started all 13 games last season, but his first-string gig may be in jeopardy this preseason. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

A similar dynamic could unfold at safety, where four-star freshmen Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen immediately threaten the roles of juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill. Add in junior Alohi Gilman, now eligible after sitting the requisite year following his transfer from Navy, and the newcomers at safety have already inspired drastic roster shifts. Most notably, senior Nick Coleman, a 14-game starter at the position, took spring snaps at nickelback. Three other former safeties moved up to linebacker, at least in part due to their own skillsets: junior D.J. Morgan and sophomores Jordan Genmark Heath and Isaiah Robertson.

That prompted attrition leaves few options at safety other than implementing some of the infused talent. Preseason practice is the time to decipher if Griffith will start over Elliott or only rotate in as the third safety.

One more position to worry about for those desperate for controversy … kick returner. Senior Chris Finke is likely to retain punt return duties, at least to begin the season, but with C.J. Sanders gone to SMU, someone will need to field the opening kickoff against Michigan. (Or, pending a coin toss, the kickoff to begin the second half.) Freshman receiver Braden Lenzy and his blazing track speed is an obvious candidate. Freshman cornerback Tariq Bracy had pertinent success in the return game in high school. Other options — sophomore receiver Michael Young and freshman receiver Lawrence Keys spring to mind — will certainly get chances.

These are ponderings that will largely extend past head coach Brian Kelly’s time with the media today (Thursday) at noon ET. For sanity’s sake, let’s hope they gain some clarity before 7:30 ET on Sept. 1.

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No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, running back/receiver, sophomore
No. 7 Brandon Wimbush, quarterback, senior
No. 7 Derrik Allen, consensus four-star safety, incoming freshman
No. 3 Houston Griffith, consensus four-star safety, early-enrolled freshman
No. 3 Avery Davis, quarterback and running back and receiver