The first headlines of Notre Dame’s spring focused on rising sophomore center Jarrett Patterson, the sudden and unexpected starter. Looking at the projected Irish depth chart, he will not be the only sophomore to warrant attention leading up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 13.
Notre Dame signed 27 players in the class of 2018, pushing the limits of the roster more than ever before in head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure and utilizing the ability to technically count early enrollees as parts of the previous class so as to stay under the limit of 25 scholarships per year. As true freshmen, only linebacker Bo Bauer appeared in as many as 12 games, while six more burned a year of eligibility by playing in more than four games (receiver Kevin Austin, defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, linebacker Shayne Simon, defensive back Houston Griffith, cornerback TaRiq Bracy and safety Paul Moala).
Now, though, as many as 17 of the 27 are firmly within the functional Irish two-deep.
“They’re starting to understand what it takes, the grind of it,” Kelly said Friday. “… They kind of ride the bus a little bit in that first year. It’s kind of nice. Now they have to get in. They have to dig. They understand how hard it is now. There’s a different kind of commitment level that this group has. It’s starting to show itself.”
Not coincidentally, a bulk of those 18 are in the mix at the positions Kelly has already identified as the most ripe for competition this spring: linebacker, cornerback and receiver.
Rover Shayne Simon will be up against junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah while Bauer and Jack Lamb get chances in a linebacker derby that could be chaotic enough Kelly advised finding a bag of popcorn to enjoy while watching it.
“A lot of these guys are going to get opportunities to play inside and cross-train at Mike and Buck,” Kelly said. “… It’s going to mix-and-match for quite a bit until we really get a sense of how this is going to shake out.”
Moving from safety, Griffith becomes Bracy’s stiffest competition for the starting role as boundary cornerback, with Noah Boykin perhaps the top backup behind senior Troy Pride. At receiver all four of Kevin Austin (pictured above), Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys and Joe Wilkins look to work their way into the rotation behind senior Chase Claypool and fifth-year Chris Finke.
“To the wide field, that’s where some competition opens up for us,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some guys obviously with athletic ability that can get over the top of coverages.”
In both instances at cornerback and receiver, the very top of the depth chart has proven experience, only for there to be an utter void past that. Not that such concerns Kelly much.
“When you really dig down, there’s some young players, but there’s enough veteran presence at every position that it makes you feel pretty good,” Kelly said. “You’re not just turning it over to some guys who haven’t seen it, haven’t been around it, don’t know what it’s like, haven’t been on the road, haven’t been in that kind of atmosphere before.
“So I’m much more about giving them the opportunity and they know what a standard of excellence is, and they have to live up to it.”
Someone will end up on the losing end of those competitions, no matter how much Kelly might give credence to the concept of an in-season rotation at linebacker. Whomever that is, playing time might be scarce.
While they may not technically be in the two-deep, one of the running back duo of C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith will also end up in that boat, becoming the fourth option behind junior Jafar Armstrong, senior Tony Jones and the sophomore counterpart.
Ademilola will not lack for competitive action, nor presumably will safeties Derrik Allen or Paul Moala, the only backups at the position at least through the spring.
Lastly, there is, of course, quarterback Phil Jurkovec. He is within the two-deep, but barring injury is unlikely to play a vital role this season.
“More than anything else, when you sign that class, they really need this offseason to really understand what it takes to put themselves physically in a position to compete at the highest level,” Kelly said, fittingly just after the critical conditioning portion of that offseason.