Getty Images

Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterbacks

23 Comments

As is usually the case in football, the play of Notre Dame’s quarterback in 2017 will largely determine the direction of its season. A dominant defense can occasionally ease that burden (see Notre Dame, 2012) or an undeniable running game might shift opponents’ attention (see Alabama, 2012), but the Irish are not likely to enjoy either of those luxuries this fall.

Thus, it will fall to the quarterback to set the tone. That is, it will fall to rising junior Brandon Wimbush.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Entering spring, Wimbush and his five career passing attempts sat atop the Irish depth chart, presumably by a comfortable margin. The clear-cut nature of his status as starter could be seen by some as a precursor to Notre Dame peace of mind, but the lack of a known backup can induce even more anxiety than a quarterback competition.

RELATED READING: Four days until spring practice: A look at QBs

This is not to entice panic. Wimbush could remain healthy the entire season, yet sophomore Ian Book or senior Montgomery VanGorder could still be called upon in a competitive situation. Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long fully intends to utilize zone-reads and run-pass options. If Wimbush takes one hit to the head, time may be needed to rule out a concussion. Whoever backs up Wimbush would be needed to keep that drive moving forward.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: Four offensive positions to watch in Notre Dame’s spring game (April 21)

Not only did Notre Dame hope to see an understanding of the playbook and overall leadership from Wimbush this spring, but Long and Irish coach Brian Kelly undoubtedly sought consistent competent performance from another quarterback on the roster.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Book will back up Wimbush, pending all pertinent parties remaining healthy. Before anyone takes Book’s performance in the Blue-Gold Game (18-of-25 for 271 yards and one touchdown) to spark talk of a quarterback competition, Kelly put the damper on that immediately following the game.

“No, there’s no quarterback controversy,” Kelly said in no uncertain terms. (more…)

Time spent at fullback & slot has Tony Jones ready at RB

Rivals.com
33 Comments

It wasn’t that Tony Jones needed a year to get ready for college football. He didn’t. That is not why he spent his freshman season preserving a year of eligibility on the sidelines. Rather, Notre Dame already had two proven options at running back as well as a third option in the speedy Dexter Williams.

“That was a conscious decision on our part not to play him [last year],” Irish coach Brian Kelly said, “more than he wasn’t necessarily ready to play.”

So Jones sat. Did he want to? Would anybody?

“At first, it was tough, but I talked to my family and stuff,” Jones said following the Blue-Gold Game. “… I just learned from [junior] Josh [Adams] and [former Notre Dame running back Tarean Folston] and Dex, learning from their mistakes and what they did good, taking advice from everybody, just learning how college is really like.”

His impatience was not as apparent to others, including the rising junior Williams.

“[Jones] definitely handled it well,” Williams said. “It gave him a chance to learn the system. Even though we’re in a new system now, he still picked up on the system just sitting out, and he had the chance to get bigger, faster, stronger. He handled everything pretty well.”

A bigger, faster and stronger Jones will likely chip away at some of Williams’ carries. In fact, he might even take some away from the established starter, Adams.When asked if Jones could fit into the running back rotation in the fall, Kelly said if is no longer a consideration whatsoever.

“Honestly, he’s in it,” Kelly said in early April. “He’s a guy that if at any time we wanted to call him a No. 1, we could call him a No. 1. He’s done all the things to build that trust with us in terms of protections, catching the ball out of the backfield. He’s earned that through his work this spring.”

RELATED READING: Tony Jones shining in spring practice

Typically, pass protections and running routes will limit young running back’s opportunities. If an inexperienced back only excels at running the ball, anytime he enters the game, the defense will key on the ground game. If it happens to be a pass, apparently the would-be tacklers will have a clear path to the quarterback anyway.

With Jones, Kelly said that is not the case. Without playing a collegiate snap, pass protection is something Jones has down. How? Well, he has been protecting the passer longer than he has been rushing the ball.

“Growing up in little league and stuff, I played fullback,” Jones said. “I never ran one route then, I just stayed in and blocked.

“Thanks to my dad for that one. He was my coach who put me at fullback.”

But how does a fullback-turned-rusher excel so much at running routes that Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long calls the rising sophomore the “most natural” at receiver of the three backs? Shouldn’t the comparably-veteran Adams and Williams have the edge on their presumed backup?

Thank the surplus of Florida high school football talent for that. One of the perks of going to a high school football powerhouse such as IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) is sometimes upperclassmen talent forces young talent to find other positions. IMG already had a highly-touted running back when Jones was a freshman.

“I played slot like half the year, and then I moved to wideout, and then I came back to running back,” Jones said.

Assuredly, he enjoyed that positional shuffling more than he enjoyed spending 2016 on the sidelines, but perhaps not by much. Either way, both—and, for that matter, include his time at fullback in pee-wee ball here, as well—played parts in Jones now being on the precipice of a notable debut season.

RELATED READING: Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Friday at 4: Questions answered & questions open-ended; Kelly to be less ‘forthright’

Getty Images
37 Comments

For those tiring—or long tired—of the “Where Notre Dame was & is” sequence, today’s running backs entry should stand as welcome news. Only the quarterbacks remain, tentatively slated for Monday morning.

The concept has been purposefully simple. Remembering the top concerns and comforts of two months ago helps illustrate what may or may not have been accomplished during the spring practices. The intent has not been to be overly optimistic. Whether the series has been or not lies in the eye of the beholder, like most things in this life. As of Friday’s sunrise, it seems optimism has been the sentiment most retained.

“The ‘where Notre Dame was and is’ articles give us optimism based on comparison and not wishful thinking,” mikeyaccblog commented Friday before yours truly had even considered rising from bed. “Almost all positions have been covered, and all point to depth, talent and improvement. We would be remiss if we didn’t recognize that.”

By no means is mikey wrong. The question of the running backs coming into the spring was would there be a suitable No. 2. At this point, it seems the Irish have two such capable backs, if not actually two or three starter-quality options. The depth at receivers is, with the exception of junior Equanimeous St. Brown, unproven yet still quite tantalizing. At linebacker, Notre Dame lacks that thorough depth but its starters are quite proven and should post some notable tackle totals by the end of 2017.

Perhaps those positive aspects stick to memories because good things often do, especially when they match improving weather and coming vacation days. Thinking about a dynamic offense all summer is certainly more enjoyable than pondering a lack of defensive line assurances while turning hot dogs.

Tap the brakes, though. And this is not meant to welcome the pessimism and apocalyptic musings often seen following these articles. The topic here is not the coach, the director of athletics or the Notre Dame Board of Trustees. The topic here is measuring springtime progress and optimism.

“After a crappy season though we want to view the changes as all positive – and particularly on the defensive side I think,” DPU Man ND Fan posted. “I get that, and I agree that these seem like solid steps in the right direction. But are we deluding ourselves into thinking that this level of transition can ever be seamless and easy?”

DPU’s concern is valid. He can continue to advise other fans to at least remove their feet from the pedal on the right. He need not worry about the Irish themselves. None of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long or defensive coordinator Mike Elko gave even a slight indication the Irish had completed a seamless and easy transition in the final days of spring practice. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Getty Images
14 Comments

Two months ago, the question was would Notre Dame have a reliable backup behind junior running back Josh Adams. It would have been quite a leap to have expected Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long to face the question of, “Is it difficult to get three running backs involved?” Yet, Long answered that query the day before the Blue-Gold Game closed spring practice.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Only Adams entered with much experience. His classmate Dexter Williams had 39 carries for 200 yards and three touchdowns last season (and seven for 21 and one in his freshman campaign), but by no means does that qualify as college-tested. Adams, meanwhile, already has 275 rushes for 1,768 yards and 11 touchdowns in his career.

RELATED READING: Five days until spring practice: A look at RBs

No matter what depth emerged behind Adams this spring, his numbers would rise. Sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., could have appeared to mimic every one of his position coach’s college moves, and Adams would remain the starter.

With early enrollee C.J. Holmes around, as well, Long and running backs coach Autry Denson had a full stable of options to start the spring as they looked for Adams’ primary backup. Rushing would not be their only metric. Naturally, pass protection is a vital piece of a college back’s skillset, but Long also has a track record of incorporating his backfield as receivers. In one season at Memphis, Long’s backs caught 51 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns. By comparison, the Irish running backs caught 33 passes for 275 yards and one score in 2016.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Much time and energy has been spent relaying praises of junior tight end Alizé Mack this spring. The only player on the Irish roster to receive close to that many platitudes the last two months would be Jones. In no uncertain terms, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly made it clear Jones is ready to lead the way, with or without any college experience (he’s without), with or without two upperclassmen ahead of him competing for carries (it’s with). (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Getty Images
33 Comments

With five tight ends—and a sixth coming in the summer—depth was not a concern at the position entering the spring. That peace of mind is never a poor starting point. Two months of spring practice later, and the possible uses of that depth may be more intriguing than ever.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Only fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe can claim an abundance of playing time, despite the position’s depth. A year ago Smythe pulled in nine passes for 112 yards and four touchdowns. The production may not have been overwhelming, but Smythe was a clear red zone threat and once he opted to return for one final season with the Irish, he was the presumptive starter.

Rising junior Alizé Jones (now Alizé Mack, but this is the section discussing views of two months ago, so here and only here, he remains Jones) posed as a theoretical threat to Smythe’s starting position, but only in the abstract. Jones missed 2016 due to academic issues. He had not been seen since he caught 13 passes for 190 yards in his freshman campaign.

RELATED READING: Six days until spring practice: A look at TEs

Whether Smythe or Jones led the way for the Notre Dame tight ends, offensive coordinator Chip Long’s arrival seemed to assure more than one would be involved.

“[Long] utilizes two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said when introducing his offseason hires.

Indeed Long does prefer two tight end sets and frequently involves them in the passing game. At Memphis last season, Long’s tight ends totaled 36 catches for 423 yards and five touchdowns. Notre Dame’s roster of tight ends has combined career totals of 32 catches for 403 yards and six touchdowns.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Mack—sorry for that confusion, but dedication to the gimmick necessitated the usage of Jones through that first portion—received praise and only praise throughout the spring. A sampling:

  • “He’s a perfect fit,” Long said the day before the spring finale. “That’s why I recruited him like crazy when I was at Arizona State. He’s a prototypical [tight end], a guy who can run, who can catch.”
  • “He can do all the things that any tight end in the country can do,” Kelly said. “What has changed Alizé is he’s organized in his thoughts and his day-to-day life. … He knows what he’s doing. He’s really got his nose in the playbook and I just think he’s going to be a really successful player.”

(more…)