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Beginning of Notre Dame’s spring marked by position changes

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Just like that, Notre Dame’s undefeated 2018 regular season no longer matters in just about any respect. The Irish start again from scratch on the practice field tomorrow (Saturday), the first of their 15 spring practices.

“What you did last year has no carryover to this year in that just because you know how to do it doesn’t mean you can do it again,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Friday afternoon. “You have to work at it again, and this is work. …

“It’s not knowing how to do it. It’s putting in the time and the effort and the sacrifice that’s really hard. Going back and doing all the hard work, pushing that rock up the hill again is what they have to do again. I get a sense that early on some of them wanted to run up the hill without the rock. They understand that they have to push the rock back up the hill.”

The figurative rock with the most distance to reach the top of the hill is at linebacker, where Kelly anticipated a number of players will get chances to figure out who is playing where, though he did add fifth-year Asmar Bilal will move inside from rover. The other position with the most intrasquad competition awaiting it will be cornerback, specifically the starter opposite senior Troy Pride.

Kelly said Pride will remain on the field (wide) side of most alignments. Junior Avery Davis (pictured above) may not end up at the boundary, but the former quarterback and running back will now get his chance at both cornerback and nickel back.

“Comparing him to all the other defensive backs, it just made sense for us to find an opportunity for him,” Kelly said. “We moved him there and he moves so well. He’s got really good football instincts. We think he has a real chance.”

Davis will not be the only arrival to the cornerback grouping. Sophomore Houston Griffith split the last 12 months between cornerback, nickel back and safety, seeing game action at nickel. Whereas Kelly acknowledged some of the cornerback personnel will utilize a left/right split rather than field/boundary, so as to gain a broader understanding of the defense before narrowing in on a position, he pinpointed the boundary as Griffith’s destination.

“When you see him competing, he knows our defense, he’s so much more confident in our defensive structure,” Kelly said. “He’s extremely physical, he’s had a great offseason. Of all the defensive backs, he’s probably physically done more than anybody else in terms of changing his body, strength, speed.”

Houston Griffith appeared in 11 games as a freshman, having an up-and-down season in limited action at nickel back. He often showed the physical traits necessary for the position, but not always a thorough understanding of the defensive scheme. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Working as the boundary cornerback comes with the challenge of more one-on-one matchups, so that strength and increased physicality could prove vital. It also has the crutch of more coverages naturally rolling over to it, providing a safety net for a younger player.

The other position change of most note is a flip back to an original spot. Junior Darnell Ewell joined the Irish as a touted defensive tackle recruit. In October, he moved to offensive guard, and will now jump back to defensive tackle, where depth is desperately needed.

By Kelly’s vague tone, though, that necessity may not have been the primary motivator to the back-and-forth.

“Darnell is a different case,” Kelly said. “We’re just trying to find a space for him, we’re trying to find a role for him right now. That one’s a little different.”

If it works out for Ewell this spring, it will be in part because of the opportunity presented by the absences of sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) and early-enrolled freshman Hunter Spears (ACL), both of whom Kelly said will be limited to drill work this spring, along with walk-on junior offensive lineman Colin Grunhard, senior cornerback Donte Vaughn (shoulder) and early-enrolled linebacker Jack Kiser (shoulder). Fifth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford (ACL) will likely be even more limited than that. Fifth-year center Trevor Ruhland may take some time to get up to full speed after an arthroscopic surgery.

Senior receiver Javon McKinley will not practice at all until his current legal situation is sorted out. McKinley was charged with three misdemeanors after an altercation with campus police last month.

“He’s still on the suspended list and will be until we clear up all matters legally and otherwise,” Kelly said.