Of Graduates, Nuts, and Realigned Roles

5th-years (for now), injury updates, and position switches. Spring ball 2015 is underway in South Bend.

A printed, Happy St. Patrick's Day-green roster for the 2015 Notre Dame spring football team handed out to media today includes the services of eight players poised for a fifth season of competition in South Bend.

Pencil (or perhaps an eraser-mate?) would have been more fitting.

Sixty-eight scholarship players including four early enrollee freshmen comprise the team's current list. Twenty additional incoming freshmen will enroll in August. So too will 5th-year transfer Avery Sebastian, and so could suspended senior KeiVarae Russell, plus possibly fellow 2014 exile Ishaq Williams (more on both below).

Add them up (*91) and head coach Brian Kelly has a minor numbers issue. Minor because attrition over the next 4.5 months will likely take care of the problem before Kelly has to address it himself, deciding which graduate students will or will not be part of the 85-man fall roster, the maximum number allowed by the NCAA when student-athletes enroll at the university on August 24.

"We're not official until our athletic academic board stamps them official," said Kelly of listed fifth year scholarship competitors Amir Carlisle, Connor Cavalaris, Matthias Farley, Everett Golson, Jarrett Grace, Chase Hounshell, Nick Martin, and Joe Schmidt "We're still working under the wink and nod kind of deal."

Asked if he and the staff have beyond spring ball and the current semester to determine final roster additions and subtractions, Kelly offered, "Certainly would.  We're getting close.  I think as we continue to have these conferences, you guys can start scratching them off on the list."

Potential veteran additions to the current crop of 68 include cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive linemen Ishaq Williams. Both hope to return to school. One seems more certain to join the football program than the other.

"I'm more comfortable talking about those that I've communicated with effectively, and that's with KeiVarae," said Kelly. "I haven't had much conversation with Ishaq. It's been through third party. I know what KeiVarae's situation is and have had a lot of contact with him. Academically he's making the progress necessary to be back here.

"I can confidently say standing in front of you today he's making all the steps necessary to be back here, be part of our football team this summer."

Asked if Williams has a guaranteed roster spot awaiting him should he meet requirements to return, Kelly answered, "I can't guarantee him a spot, no. There are other factors involved."

Kelly offered that Williams is currently employed. "He's trying to make some money.  Right now he's got to get re-enrolled into school. He's got to re-apply, go through that process. There's some uncertainties there. He's (currently) trying to do the things necessary to have a Plan B if he needs one. He's trying to make some money."

(Editor's Note: *One of Notre Dame's projected 91, sophomore quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, was offered a scholarship last summer after joining the program as a preferred walk-on freshman. Though not directly commenting on VanGorder, Kelly offered in February that such scholarships -- to walk-ons with the program -- are one-year grant-aid situations. Not four-year commitments. Notre Dame's current allotment of guaranteed scholarship spots is at 81, a number that includes no fifth-year seniors other than the incoming Sebastian, nor Russell/Williams.)

THE NEXT PHASE
Three other potential fifth-year players for 2015, Ben Councell, Jalen Brown, and Matt Hegarty will not be with the program. Hegarty will transfer following graduation and be eligible to play elsewhere in 2015 while Councell has decided not to continue his football career.

Though no reason was given, Councell suffered two concussions last season (August camp and Oct. 4 vs. North Carolina) and a third in August camp 2014.

"He chose not to continue to play. We respected that decision," said Kelly. "He was offered an opportunity to continue to play. He's not going to play football anymore. He's just going to get his degree and move on to the next chapter for him. Ben's a great young man and we wish him the best."

"Jalen's situation, he was not invited back. He did not have a spot on the roster. That one's a little bit different.

"Matt's situation, here is a guy that had a lot of starts for us (17). We're in a situation certainly where we had a spot for him on our roster. We thought he would be competing for a starting position. He chose to take another option that is available to him because he's going to graduate."

Asked why he felt Hegarty chose to move on, Kelly offered, "I couldn't really begin to get into what his decision is. I gave him the opportunity to be the starting left guard. He chose another path.  That's all I can really say about it."

Hegarty started the final 11 games of the season at center in 2015. Former center and (expected) returning team captain Nick Martin, will return to the role and be backed up by redshirt-freshman Sam Mustipher and early enrollee Tristen Hoge.

CHAMPING AT THE BIT
Two projected starters are out this spring for the Irish: nose tackle Jarron Jones (November foot surgery) and linebacker Joe Schmidt (November ankle surgery/foot injury), while safeties Drue Tranquill (November knee surgery) and Nicky Baratti (September shoulder surgery) will be limited.

Also on the mend are a pair of Music City Bowl starters.

"We have Will Fuller playing with a cast. He has a hairline fracture of his third metacarpal (hand)," said Kelly. "It's not really going to affect him. He's not going to be able to block effectively, but he's not a great blocker anyways. He's kind of happy about that.

"James Onwualu is still wearing a cast from the LSU game, but it's a light cast. We're doing well.  Everybody's made great progress across the board."

Especially Tranquill, it appears. Less than four months after surgery to repair a torn ACL suffered against Louisville (one in which he completed the contest, almost the entire second half), Tranquill is ready to roll.

Notre Dame's training staff, however, is less aggressive in its approach.

"He's a nut," marveled Kelly of his sophomore competitor. "If we didn't have a training staff, he'd be full-go tackle.

"He could play. That's the kind of physical ability that he had and the way he's rehabbed and trained. He could be cleared to play. That's just unheard of.

"We're not going to do that. We don't have to win a football game in the spring, we already won.  He's (running) straight ahead. We're starting to move him side-to-side. He's doing everything right now. I wouldn't be surprised to see him in a lot of drill work, doing a lot of stuff. He's just been incredible."

Joining Tranquill on the road to recovery is fifth-year senior Jarrett Grace. "He's clear. He's in," said Kelly. "He's going. I couldn't keep him out if I wanted to at this point."

REALIGNMENT
The expected return of Grace elicits a quandary for Kelly. Who starts at middle linebacker next fall?

"We lost some vocal leadership when we lost Joe Schmidt," said Kelly of the season-destroying injury suffered by Grace on Nov. 1 against Navy. "One of the things we know we're going to have this year is that we're going to have Jarrett Grace and we're going to Joe Schmidt. Both of those guys are going to provide a vocal leadership capability on the field, regardless of what happens.

"Let's say they share the position. I'm sure neither one of them wants to hear that. I'm not suggesting that's going to happen. But we've got a very good situation where we have both of these guys that can help us lead there. And we've got a very athletic young player in (sophomore) Nyles (Morgan).

"We think it's a good problem to have. We'll take those kind of problems. Last year during the season we didn't have that kind of luxury. I think it's all going to work itself out. And Joe, he has some flexibility," Kelly continued. "Joe can play Mike and some Will, too. Not that he's going to supplant Jaylon (Smith) at the Will position. I'm not suggesting that either.  I'm not trying to give you a bunch of hypotheticals.

"Let's get Jarrett Grace back into the fold, into the spring, repping out, healthy and back to where he was, and, boy, we got a good situation there."

Kelly noted that the current linebacker depth chart projects as follows:

SAM: James Onwualu, Greer Martini
MIKE: Grace/Schmidt/Morgan (no order)
WILL: Smith, early enrollee freshman Te'Von Coney

"Let's be clear, right? James is a nickel playing sam," said Kelly. "We're matching up 11 personnel with James. If (the opposing offense) gets big, Greer Martini is playing out there. Greer is playing sam.  If you guys are taking score at home, look at your roster as your sam linebackers are James and Greer.

"You have three mikes. Your will linebackers right now are Jaylon and Te'von.
There's a little bit of a backup there at the Mike, but, as I said, there's a little bit of flexibility there with Joe. So you have two-deep and a swing." 

Joining Kelly's quest for depth is senior slot receiver C.J. Prosise. Check that, senior slot/running back C.J. Prosise.

"He's been in the running back meetings," said Kelly. "He'll get a lot of work at running back.
Amir (Carlisle) will not cross-train. He'll stay at the slot receiver. C.J. will get quite a bit of work at running back."

Prosise gives the running backs unit three scholarship athletes for the spring before two incoming freshmen can end a hand next fall.

Kelly added that additional position moves feature senior John Turner from sam linebacker to safety; junior linebacker Doug Randolph to rush end (a nickel/dime package position); and redshirt-freshman defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner to defensive end behind Isaac Rochell on the strong side.

Kelly confirmed that early enrollee Jerry Tillery will work as an interior linemen in both the nose tackle and three-technique role as the staff examines the best fit for Tillery and a host of other young linemen.

 


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