Notre Dame will return to the football field tomorrow. The Irish will not be in pads, and it is their only practice for more than a week, and nothing that happens will impact Notre Dame’s showing in Dublin in 178 days, barring injury, but it will still be the first time the Irish have put on helmets since they walloped Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.
Not much can be learned from the first practice of spring, but an injury update should follow the early morning workout, so let’s begin there.
Rumors have circulated about a possible season-ending injury to a running back, ones that have lingered in the cobwebs of the internet long enough to be believed, even if they remain vague. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly should not skirt around the issue Thursday, given either all the running backs will be seen practicing or one won’t be.
There may have been another injury or two elsewhere on the roster in the last two-plus months, but nothing as serious as those smoke signals.
If a running back is injured, it will directly impact one of the spring’s pressing questions: What is the pecking order in the backfield? Rising senior Jafar Armstrong is the presumptive starter, but his potential alone is not reason enough to stymie any challengers, seemingly namely rising junior C’Bo Flemister.
RELATED READING: Spring Outlook — Running Backs
A few weeks ago, this space cautioned, “the No. 2 Irish running back will not be clear cut before the summer.” It stands by that warning, but it also followed that up with the self-awareness of, “it will be repeated in ‘Things To Learn’ columns multiple times between now and [September].”
RELATED READING: Things Not To Learn — Some questions will last well past spring
The fact of the matter is, Notre Dame does not need to settle on a backup running back anytime soon because the names involved provide diverse skillsets. Flemister is a shifty ball carrier, classmate Jahmir Smith mimics a bowling ball and rising sophomore Kyren Williams may have the lowest center of gravity on the team. (That’s a safe bet, considering Williams was the shortest player on the Irish game day roster last season at 5-foot-9 while matching Smith’s 205 pounds.)
Armstrong remains the presumptive starter because he may provide the most complete package, and the Irish will be better served in the slot by rising junior receiver Lawrence Keys, but Armstrong has not withstood the minimum amount of wear at the position, so his understudy warrants more worry than most second-stringers. That role may be filled by a committee, but even a committee has roles implementing an unspoken pecking order. That may not be set in stone this spring — rather, scratch may — that will not be set in stone this spring, but it will at least be written in pencil by mid-April.
Another backup under scrutiny, to no one’s surprise whatsoever, will be Notre Dame’s No. 2 quarterback. A year ago, the spring went so poorly for Phil Jurkovec, it will be how he is remembered in South Bend. That may be with confirmation bias after his time at Boston College or as a lament of what could have been, but it will be the memory either way.
The Irish should not have that problem again with rising sophomore Brendon Clark. The differences between Jurkovec and Clark are vast, from their recruiting pedigrees to their impressions upon arriving at Notre Dame; Clark has done nothing but exceed expectations in his seven months on campus.
RELATED READING: Spring Outlook — Quarterbacks
The Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year honors aside, the offseason will be smoother for all involved if confidence can be instilled in Clark with the two-deep offense and, in turn, Clark can instill confidence in those teammates and his coaches with how he fares throwing to receivers actually on scholarship. (To be fair, Isaiah Robertson and Micah Jones each spent at least some time with the scout team last year.)
The vague concept of two-way confidence may seem a low bar to clear, but as often as not, that is the primary hurdle for a backup quarterback when he reaches the huddle on a moment’s notice on a fall Saturday. No matter the stories told afterward, no single quip can create the needed confidence before taking that snap. That process begins long, long beforehand.
And then there are the usual roster curiosities innate to spring practice. For the Irish this year, that includes a second cornerback alongside sixth-year Shaun Crawford, where rising junior TaRiq Bracy would be the obvious choice if he was two inches taller or 20 pounds heavier; both backup safeties, where the better of the backups could find himself in a needed part-time role; and Buck linebacker, where defensive coordinator Clark Lea has a bounty of options, but few healthy ones.
As much as spring practice yields hype over individual performances — prepare for vaulted summer projections surrounding safety Kyle Hamilton, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and receiver Kevin Austin — solving those roster riddles is the pertinent purpose to these pre-thaw practices.