The biggest stories of spring practice don’t always involve the biggest names.
These are 10 individuals to track as Notre Dame works through spring practice, an off-season regimen as much about building depth as reworking the starting lineup. A positive spring grade for this group could enhance expectations around Brian Kelly’s program that are already set at College Football Playoff levels.
When Matt Hegarty left the program it opened a job along Notre Dame’s offensive line, one Bars is in position to win with a strong spring. Kelly gushed about Bars during bowl prep. Behind the scenes Harry Hiestand praised the freshman too. Recruited as a tackle, Bars could easily grow into a guard. That’s where Notre Dame has an opening heading into spring ball. Last summer’s wrist injury that slowed Bars during his red-shirt season is long gone. The Irish can stage a heated competition with Bars and Quenton Nelson getting long looks.
Word on Cage is he turned in one of the strongest off-seasons on the squad, key for the freshman to make the jump from role player to reliable backup. Cage might not play many more snaps this season than last, but they need to be a higher quality. With Jarron Jones limited following foot surgery, Cage will get ample work. And with Jerry Tilley a surprise in winter workouts with his strength, Cage will face at least some competition too. Cage’s spring weight should reveal plenty about where he stands heading into off-season ball.
Only alphabetical order keeps Golson off the top line. He is the story of spring practice and Notre Dame has plenty of good ones. Can he win the starting job? Does he stick around if he doesn’t? Kelly would be smart to let this competition play out as long as possible. The best-case scenario is both quarterbacks stick. But would Golson accept being No. 1 if Zaire is tabbed No. 1-A? This story in packed with layers. It’s impossible to imagine them all being peeled back during spring ball. Get ready for a month of quarterback questions.
At some point the persistent questions about Grace’s health will be put to Grace himself instead of Kelly. That moment could come shortly as Kelly continues to be optimistic about Grace making a return to form. The middle linebacker job is open with MVP Joe Schmidt out for spring and Nyles Morgan not having done enough to lock down the post. Can Grace actually deliver a hit? Can he absorb one? Those answers might come in April. Even if they don’t, the Irish should get a real idea where they stand with Grace. Starter or not, an available senior linebacker would help.
Even if Grace finishes his miraculous recovery this off-season and Joe Schmidt bounces back from his own broken leg/dislocated ankle, Morgan has to show last season was more than getting thrown into the deep end. The freshman linebacker has to prove he’s learned how to swim. There were enough promising signs in Morgan’s game to believe he could be Notre Dame’s next great inside linebacker, including three-straight double-digit tackle performances in November. The problem was the Irish lost all three of those games and allowed 123 points.
Notre Dame needs a new kicker and punter, with Newsome ticketed for the latter. He took a red-shirt last season, never getting closer to the field than warming up during the holder fiasco of November. Should Malik Zaire win the starting quarterback job, Newsome could take over at holder too. Kyle Brindza averaged a solid 41.6 yards per punt last season, although the Irish were middle-of-the-pack in net punting nationally. Newsome averaged 38.7 yards per punt during his senior year. What strength gains he made in that leg should be obvious during spring ball.
Redfield has shown flashes of the five-star talent he brought to Notre Dame out of high school. Now the rising junior needs a more consistent shine to his game. After getting benched midway through last season and suffering a severe rib injury at USC, Redfield returned for the Music City Bowl and led the Irish with a career-best 14 tackles, although he also got beat deep for a play action score. Notre Dame needs Redfield to become a can’t-take-off-the-field talent with safety depth thin. That evolution has to start now.
When Robinson put up eight catches for 99 yards and two scores at Florida State – never mind the third wiped out by penalty – it seemed to signal the sophomore’s arrival. In retrospect, it was a false start. Robinson scored just once more and had painful drops against Arizona State and LSU. He got shut out of the bowl game and never had more than three catches in any of the season’s final six games. Is Robinson ready to complement Will Fuller? A rededication to football could be required to hit the next level.
Tight End U doesn’t have one entering spring practice, at least not one who’s proven it on Saturdays. Smythe should get the first shot to restart a tradition that flickered last season with Ben Koyack. Asking Smythe to duplicate the work of Troy Niklas, Tyler Eifert, Kyle Rudolph, etc., isn’t fair, but Notre Dame needs an honest receiving threat and capable blocker at tight end. Alize Jones will arrive in the fall. Tyler Luatua, Mike Heuerman and Nic Weishar are waiting for their shot. But Smythe goes first in spring ball.
Who else could cap this list? Notre Dame’s quarterback drama will run through spring and won’t finish unless Zaire or Golson departs. If one quarterback goes it won’t be Zaire considering his investment in the program and inability to get a free transfer. Word around Zaire is he’s clicked with new quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford and believes the Irish assistant can push his game forward. Zaire opens spring ball fully confident he will win the job after leading Notre Dame to a Music City Bowl win and landing the game’s MVP.