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

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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’

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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

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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

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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…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Wide Receivers

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Given the inexperience at quarterback and the relative low number of running backs, it seems odd to say there is more uncertainty for Notre Dame at receiver than either of those skill positions. Yet, largely due to unknowns and general inexperience, that is indeed the case. At least at quarterback, the starter is very much settled and at running back, the leader is a known commodity.

At receiver, spring yielded some theoretical clarity, but that will only be genuinely clear come Sept. 2. For those already counting, that is 123 days away.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
The Irish entered the spring expecting continued progress from rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown following his breakout sophomore campaign. After that, little was known. As a reminder, St. Brown finished 2016 with 58 catches for 961 yards and nine touchdowns, including a 79-yard score against Syracuse. Each number in the preceding sentence led Notre Dame, and by quite a margin. Former Irish receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., offered 38 catches and 521 yards, but no one else approached so much as half of St. Brown’s production.

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

Kevin Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season, leading Notre Dame with an average of 18.5 yards per reception. In theory, his speed combined with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s arm strength could force defenses to always respect the deep ball against the Irish offense, perhaps opening up space for the likes of St. Brown or sophomore Chase Claypool and junior C.J. Sanders in the underneath and mid-range.

Furthering the questions around St. Brown’s supporting cast, new offensive coordinator Chip Long has shown a penchant for including the running backs and tight ends in the passing game. That may be beneficial for offensive versatility, but it does no favors for projecting a future aerial attack.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
The exact options and order of those options at receiver remains in flux, but no longer is there a concern over a lack of choices. Specifically, Claypool and junior Miles Boykin stepped forward this spring, presenting the possibility of a starting trio of the 6-foot-5, 204-pound St. Brown, the 6-foot-4 ½, 224-pound Claypool and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Boykin. Such sizable targets creates more of a margin of error for the raw Wimbush.

“You tend to want to miss high more in certain situations,” Wimbush said following the Blue-Gold Game. “You have the ability to put the ball up there and not have it be a perfect throw all the time. Those guys, you saw it today, they’ll go up and make a play for you.”

The possible starting trio’s size plus athleticism also creates opportunities for Long. For one thing, if a receiver catches a pass on a crossing route and ends up on the opposite sideline during an up-tempo drive, he could possibly line up on that sideline for the next snap rather than spend wasted seconds racing back to his original starting position. In this theory, St. Brown and Boykin could readily flip positions.

RELATED READING: McKinley, Boyd show depth in Irish WR corps (includes further discussion of positional flexibility among receivers)
Better balance alongside St. Brown needed at WR

Claypool, meanwhile, would be lining up at the slot position. While some may think his size precludes him from the shiftiness usually requisite the receiver closest to the thick of the line of scrimmage, others see that size and might think of another run-blocker. That versatility is the makings of an offensive coordinator’s dreams.

“It gives you added benefits,” Long said. “That’s our job, to put them in position to make plays. We want to be able to have our base offense and then just get a bigger, faster guy who makes it even better. We’ll tinker it. We’ll find what our guys are best at and put them in position, move them around.

“Being multiple on offense, we can take care of that. We’ll find them a spot, find them their roles, and as they progress, we’ll find where to get them the ball.”

Stepherson is the most-likely backup to St. Brown if the latter ever needs to come off the field and if Stepherson emerges from much spring uncertainty both eligible and in good graces. With that acknowledgement of a cloud of questions, let’s move on rather than fuel speculation.

Junior Chris Finke also fits in well at the field receiver position headlined by St. Brown. At only 5-foot-9 ½ and 177 listed pounds, Finke may seem too much of a shift from St. Brown to fill the same position. At the field position, however, Finke’s ability to maneuver in space could be best utilized.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ pure speed slots him in behind Claypool at the, well, the slot. Of the six receivers mentioned thus far, four, including Sanders, shared a bond with Wimbush before this spring, only furthered during the 15 practices—they came to Notre Dame at the same time and thus spent much time on the scout team developing a rapport. The other two, along with sophomore Javon McKinley (likely providing depth behind Boykin, if by process of elimination than for no other reason), have set to catching up quickly in that regard.

“We were running freshman year together, so we had little bit of chemistry built there,” Wimbush said. “Obviously, the younger guys came in and have done a great job progressing themselves throughout the spring. We’ve built great chemistry.”

That chemistry may most-clearly show itself on back-shoulder throws. To make the reference clear: For a few seasons now, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has feasted on such throws with his favorite target, Jordy Nelson. The receiver begins the route as if on a go or possibly a post route. Something deep. Then, without looking back at the ball, the receiver cuts sharply toward the sideline. If done correctly, the quarterback released the ball before the receiver even cut, anticipating its desired location.

The defensive back, theoretically, doesn’t stand a chance.

“We’re going to run the ball effectively, and if you’re going to drop an extra [defender near the line of scrimmage], we’re going to get a lot of those one-on-one matchups,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “That’s one of the reads in that individual matchup.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE:
In an up-tempo offense, six or seven receivers may seem more shallow than desired. That should be mitigated greatly by Long’s preference to include running backs and tight ends, even two tight end sets, in the passing game. Furthermore, Notre Dame will add incoming graduate student transfer Freddy Canteen and freshman Jafar Armstrong in the summer.

For that matter, two four-star receivers have already committed to the class of 2018.

RELATED READING: Michigan WR Canteen announces transfer to Notre Dame
Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish
WR Lenzy brings speed to Irish

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