Practice Report: March 28

Pete Sampson and Tim O’Malley break down Notre Dame’s open practice that shed light on key position battles, including quarterback with Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.

Pete Sampson: Offense

Notre Dame again worked inside on Saturday morning with temperatures around South Bend in the 20’s as spring practice continues to be a misnomer. The media got the full practice viewing and I focused on offense for the first time this off-season. Only one injury of note on that side of the ball in Corey Robinson (concussion), who Brian Kelly said had passed his tests and should be back in action next week.

Quarterback

Notre Dame has rotated which quarterbacks got the first-team work during spring practice with Saturday going to Everett Golson. Kelly indicated Friday’s first-team work went to Malik Zaire, although the quarterbacks both worked with the starting lineups both days, it appears.

No question Everett Golson was the sharper of the two, and he should be in pass-first situations. Golson continues to get the ball out quickly and rarely under-throws or over-throws the wide receiver. There were a few passes where Malik Zaire made the reception harder than it needed to be for the receiver or just downright impossible. Golson allows the receivers to run onto the football and he was better than Zaire on the short stuff where there’s some kind of duress with the throw. He had a nice sideline deep ball of about 40 yards to Chris Brown.

When it comes to accuracy, there are so many variables it’s hard evaluate off completion percentage in the 11-on-11 periods. However, when the quarterbacks are throwing into a net, which they did in the middle of practice, that’s a controlled environment where Golson was far ahead of Zaire on Saturday.

The flip side of all this is Zaire’s strengths are contact and running the ball, and he only got to do the latter a little bit on Saturday. On quarterback designed runs, he continues to be the better option over Zaire and it won’t surprise me if he comes into the game to run red zone packages in the fall. As we noted last fall, Zaire is a better natural runner than Golson. That has not changed in one off-season. Zaire did have a very nice 25-yard connection with Amir Carlisle on a roll out to Zaire’s left.

DeShone Kizer remains the No. 3 and didn’t take significant reps with the first/second team, although he did get work at the end of the practice. Against scout team defenders and third-team players, Kizer more than held his own. Notre Dame might have something quality there down the road, but I don’t think we’ll hear much come fall. Curious to see if Kizer is closer to Zaire (assuming Zaire is the No. 2) or closer to Brandon Wimbush (No. 4) next season. 

Running Back

Quiet day for Notre Dame’s top backs, although not so for C.J. Prosise. The Prosise position switch looked like a contingency plan when Kelly announced it this winter, but watching Prosise glide through Notre Dame’s defense on Saturday, the converted slot receiver (and converted defensive back before that) looked like a bona fide major college back. If everyone is healthy, the Irish should have three quality running backs this season, even if two of them have barely played the position in South Bend.

The running backs did get a “run period” early in practice that was basically a 9-on-7 drill, but that was geared more for the offensive line than Folston, Bryant and Prosise. All three had some good moments, more off how well the line blocked the plays than any great individual moves. That period was not full tackle, making it difficult to evaluate the backs. In the full scrimmage late in the practice, Bryant did pick up a 3rd-and-7 reception from Golson, who read Brian VanGorder’s overload blitz to his left, finding Bryant in the flat to the right.

Wide Receiver

Catch of the day: Justin Brent. The freshman wide out adjusted to an over-the-shoulder throw from Zaire, tipping it to himself before making the catch. Mental error of the day: Justin Brent. During the scrimmage Notre Dame’s offense took the field with just 10 men. A few seconds later, at the prompting of the coaches, Brent jogged into the lineup. Hard to know where Brent fits into the mix right now with Robinson out. He worked mainly with the second team on Saturday. Would that be the case if Robinson was healthy? Would Brent bump down to the third team? Hard to say.

Chris Brown had a productive day, including that 40-yard connection with Golson down the sideline. He also picked up a 3rd-and-4 with a five-yard gain during the scrimmage to go with a 13-yard connection with Golson on a 2nd-and-7 play against the blitz. It’s been a long road for Brown to physically bulk up to where he needs to be, but the rising senior appears to have arrived.

Will Fuller didn’t get a ton of opportunities today but made a few decent catches during the scrimmage. Amir Carlisle looked more like the September version of himself than the November version, including that 25-yard connection with Zaire. Carlisle also had the scrimmage’s only touchdown, a five-yard end around type run. He also beat John Turner in the scrimmage for a 10-yard gain. There was one bad drop when Golson drilled Carlisle right in the chest with no defender around.

Overall, Notre Dame has a good but not great group of receivers. Fuller has already proven that he can be among the nation’s best. What Notre Dame has behind him, that’s a lot more uncertain. Plenty of potential, but it’s potential. Side note, signee Miles Boykin attended practice on Saturday with some other Core 6 prospects, including recent commitment Julian Love.

Tight End

Enlightening day for the position, both in terms of the blocking game and the receiving game. Notre Dame might have a new asset in Chase Hounshell, who is a menacing blocking option in the run game yet athletic enough to give you something on routes. He made a nice toe-tapping catch along the sidelines during 7-on-7 drills. He also had no issue throwing himself into linebackers and defensive ends. Malik Zaire was able to run off Hounshell’s blocking more than once, including for a first down in full scrimmage situations.

Liked what Nic Weishar brought to the table getting out on routes. During 7-on-7 drills Weishar connected with Golson and Kizer, once for a big gain over the middle when Golson spotted a busted coverage. It’s the first time I’ve watched Weishar in a practice when he’s gotten significant work. Came away impressed. If that’s Notre Dame’s second-team tight end, meaning a detached tight end rather than an in-line guy, the Irish might have a good one with four years of eligibility remaining.

Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua are your top two guys, in that order, with Smythe looking physically like your classic Notre Dame tight end. Luatua continues to play in more of an H-Back role. He’s down 10 pounds from last season and looks more athletic and agile.

Unclear on the status of Mike Heuerman. He’s not getting any reps with the tight ends and seemed to be playing more a scout team slot receiver role. Telling that when Brian Kelly addressed the tight end position last week that he didn’t mention the former four-star recruit. Surprising development in Heuerman’s career, to say the least.

Offensive Line

Spent most of the day watching the offensive line, where the competition at left guard continues to trend hard to Quenton Nelson. Didn’t spot Alex Bars take a rep at the position with the starters, with the rising sophomore working on the second team.

First group remains Ronnie Stanley, Quenton Nelson, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer and Mike McGlinchey. Second team: Mark Harrell, John Montelus, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Hunter Bivin. Colin McGovern rotated at second-team guard.

Block of the day: Quenton Nelson on Jerry Tillery. Keep in mind, Tillery has been the surprise (and that’s an understatement) of spring ball. The term Tim Prister would use for what Nelson did to Tillery would be “cockroached him” meaning he put Tillery flat on his back. Basically, Nelson posterized the early enrollee. Nelson did get beat badly during a combination block period when he failed to pick up a twisting Romeo Okwara on an inside move. Nelson was off-balance when Okwara arrived and the rising senior shoved Nelson to the ground.

After practice Brian Kelly talked up the returned strength of Nick Martin at the center position and the captain showed that Saturday. In one-on-one blocking drills Martin owned Daniel Cage and Jacob Matuska (twice). Ronnie Stanley was also very good in one-on-one blocking drills, stopping Isaac Rochell and tossing Romeo Okwara. Mike McGlinchey took a good rep against Sheldon Day, who lined up as a wide rushing end.

Among the backups, tough day for Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge. Both had issues snapping the ball, Mustipher’s issues highlighted because they came during the scrimmage. Mustipher also got worked by Tillery in one-on-one pass rush drills. Hoge was going against walk-ons during that practice period and basically held his own. Physically, he has a ways to go in the weight room, although there’s little doubt he’ll get there. Just looks like the standard early enrollee on the offensive line.

As consistent as the line played during the one-on-one blocking portion of practice and during the combination drills, the group was sloppy during the scrimmage with multiple false starts. Not sure what to chalk that up to, although Brian Kelly joked about it before his presser.

Kicking Game

Justin Yoon. Please report to the roster immediately.

Notre Dame opened practice with the kicking game. DeShone Kizer (No. 1) and Malik Zaire (No. 2) did a solid job as holders. Scott Daly (No. 1) and Hunter Smith (No. 2) did a solid job snapping. Tyler Newsome and John Chereson both struggled. Both kickers hit their extra points. Newsome made field goals from 22 and 26 yards. He missed from 29 yards (left), 33 yards (left) and 38 yards (right). Chereson hit from 22 yards. He missed from 26 yards (left) and connected from 29 yards.

Tim O'Malley: Defense

Projected fifth-year seniors Matthias Farley and Jarrett Grace returned to active practice today, both in pads and repping during drills though neither took part in contact.

Sophomore defensive end Andrew Trumbetti remained sidelined with what Irish head coach Brian Kelly today revealed was a virus. He's expected to be cleared Monday and be somewhat involved next Wednesday (April 1) in what is expected to be a very physical practice as the Irish have five days off thereafter for Easter.

With both Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day still sidelined (Day is fine, doesn't scrimmage) for the defensive interior, Notre Dame's first-string defensive front included (from left to right) junior Isaac Rochell, early enrollee Jerry Tillery (nose), sophomore Jay Hayes (DT), and senior Romeo Okwara.

It's the same quartet we've seen in each of our practice viewings.

The second unit base D-Line showed left to right: redshirt-freshman Jonathan Bonner, sophomore Daniel Cage (nose in this instance), redshirt-freshman Pete Mokwuah (he and Cage cross-trained) and in Trumbetti's stead, junior Doug Randolph.

The first- and second-unit linebackers were as follows:
-- James Onwualu (sam), Nyles Morgan (mike), and Jaylon Smith (will)
-- Greer Martini (sam), Michael Deeb (mike), and walk-on Austin Larkin (will)

Joe Schmidt dressed in pads for practice but did not take part in drills, at least nothing after the initial segment in which I thought I saw him running fine in a straight line. The aforementioned Grace took part in all early drills but did not take contact. Kelly expects to turn him loose fully next Wednesday after a light assimilation on Monday.

The defensive backfield again featured Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate at safety with Cole Luke at right cornerback (his spot in 2014), though sophomore Nick Watkins ran with the first unit ahead of Devin Butler as the left corner. Of note: Butler had a very good practice today. (More on that in the sections to follow.)

FRONT FOUR OBSERVATIONS
Most of the day's practice drills included scout team orange or red "beanies" for sophomore Kolin Hill and redshirt-freshman Jhonny Williams. While I never saw Williams in scrimmage action (unless it was with the third-string, late), Hill took his customary spot as the "rush end" with the first unit during scrimmage.

Hill continues to show quickness off the ball in 3rd-down stunting situations, but he's not gained any noticeable weight. I'll be interested to see if Hill remains as a sam 'backer competitor when the spring session ends or if he'll be a full-time package player again in 2015. Today he was a running back when drilling with linebackers.

Jerry Tillery continues to impress with his initial quickness and push thereafter, though he was pancaked by the brutish Quenton Nelson on one particular 9 vs. 9 (no CBs) scrimmage situation. (To be clear, with Day out, Rochell is clearly the best player up front -- that' just less of an "update" than news about Tillery, et al.)

-- Jay Hayes could add 10 pounds to his frame and still look fit at 285. Conversely, both Cage and Mokwuah could stand to lose a Reggie-Ho sized person this off-season. Mokwuah was brutalized on one 9 vs. 9 rep by Sam Mustipher and John Montelus -- the former turning him and shoving him 12 yards off the ball. Mokwuah responded with multiple shoves post-whistle (could have perhaps used one between whistles) and Mustipher returned the favor.

LIke Tillery, Hayes got "The Nelson Treatment" in one rep -- moved well beyond the normal bounds of an acceptable rep. Hayes responded angrily and Nelson didn't seem to care..

-- Jarron Jones was out running around in a few drills today. He might have gained a bit around the midsection but that was predictable for a 315-pounder following foot surgery. Nothing he can't sharpen this summer.

-- Sheldon Day shows plenty of bounce in drills but has yet to take a scrimmage snap that we've seen. He doesn't need too, either, not in the spring.

-- Jonathan Bonner was active today, an observation made relevant by Kelly's comments regarding the redshirt-freshman following practice: "A guy that has come on in the last three days is Jonathan Bonner. His traits are significantly different than anything else we have in the defensive line. Vertical leap is in the mid-30s, strength is off the charts. If you look at his numbers, combine numbers, they match up with elite NFL players. He was way behind in the football aspect coming in (2014)…he's catching up."

Bonner and Rochell rotated on a few snaps inside and back outside in the team's (first-string) nickel package. The initial set showed Kolin Hill, Bonner, Hayes, and Rochell from left to right.

-- Doug Randolph flashed some speed as the No. 2 rush end in scrimmage. His pressure in Malik Zaire's face forced an incomplete swing pass that was wide open.

THE LINEBACKERS
-- Let's skip to the good stuff: on one particular 7-on-7 rep, sophomore mike linebacker Nyles Morgan leapt into the air to break up a Zaire pass. I have no idea who the pass was intended for or what route was thrown, and that's the point: Morgan simply exploded into the air in zone coverage to knock down a pass. It was as if a video game snap presented on the practice field for one play.

Prior, Morgan showed good pursuit (to be expected) and nearly picked off a Golson pass (though it was caught) during further 7-on-7 action. He also shed a Quenton Nelson block to combine for a near-scrimmage stop in 9-on-9 work.

-- Michael Deeb ran better today but I think he's gained too much weight in the legs. Resembles Tyler Luatua's too-big build from last August. Deeb had a nice clean-up hit on the sidelines, but with Schmidt and Grace healthy, I'm not sure where he contributes other than ST, in which case, he'd be better off dropping weight.

-- Though James Onwualu took most first-string snaps at sam, Greer Martini got a few reps with the 1s and the 3s today. More work is probably ideal for a guy new to the position. We'll have an Onwualu story/interview early next week at Irish Illustrated.

During 7-on-7 action, Onwualu took mercy on a crossing C.J. Prosise. That could have been ugly...

-- Walk-on weak side 'backer Austin Larkin (a potential ST contributor next year) took a lot of heat from defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder for (apparently) repeating the same mistake in pass coverage in multiple practices. No one can accuse VanGorder of coaching walk-ons differently than others, because it was extensive…"EVERY SINGLE TIME! DO YOU UNDERSTAND!?"

-- Jaylon Smith offered tremendous coverage on Nic Weishar down the left seam but with the defensive staff allowing 7-on-7 plays to continue indefinitely, Weishar eventually broke free down the right side for a 20-yarder. As defensive backs coach Todd Lyght offered post-play: "That's okay, he'd (Golson) have been sacked three times on that."

-- Early enrollee Te'Von Coney turned an ankle Friday and was fighting through it in Saturday's practice, but that explains his absence on the weak side during any scrimmage action.

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Speaking of coaching stars and walk-ons equally, it's a joy to listen to Todd Lyght instruct his troops.

To Watkins: "Nick, Nick, you have more power than that son. Don't come with that weak (stuff)."

To Connor Cavalaris: "Burst all the way through when you're finishing…keep your eyes up, you're staring down."

To Max Redfield: "Catch with your hands, better break though…"

Lyght and defensive grad assistant Mo Crum rotate often between safeties and cornerbacks during drill work. Lyght's form of instruction is direct, but not demanding. Said Kelly of his new assistant, "Part of teaching is the ability to reach different players. Cole Luke for example is a smooth player. He doesn't play with violent movements. (Lyght) knows how to talk to Cole Luke differently than how he talks to say, Elijah Shumate. But he holds them to the same standard.

"I really like his ability to work with those guys individually as well as talk to the group and stand in front of them but coach each group individually."

-- Of note, Farley is working with safeties this spring after spending last year with the corners. It's (to be hoped) of little consequence as he's set for the nickel role next fall. Current No. 1 nickel in Farley's stead: Connor Cavalaris.

As noted by VanGorder, Farley's competition arrives in the form of freshmen.

-- Devin Butler had a strong practice Saturday. In addition to an eye-opening one-handed grab (drills), Butler stayed with Will Fuller on a deep corner route, (albeit a bad throw by DeShone Kizer), broke up a pass intended for Corey Holmes (from Golson), and again forced a throwaway by Golson for his coverage on Holmes.

Butler added a corner route "pass defended" (not broken up, per se) from Golson to Fuller later, though he gave up a slant to Fuller that Golson missed high one snap later. Golson got Butler deep on a beautiful throw to Brown during the late-practice scrimmage. (Chris Brown has had a good spring from what we've witnessed.)

Butler added a pass breakup near the end of scrimmage.

-- Nick Watkins gave up a post-route touchdown to Fuller late in the 7-on-7 action but began the set by breaking up a (late) Zaire to Brent pass deep down the right side. Watkins almost picked off a crossing route intended for Brent earlier and had a very good day in one-on-one drills one practice prior, earning him a starting spot Saturday. He was flagged late Saturday morning on a go-route to Chris Brown, who as noted above, has been wearing people out.

-- Cole Luke was his usual self, blanketing Brown on a fade route in the end zone (bad throw), and breaking up a pass intended for Fuller. Brown got him once on a well-run comeback with a pinpoint throw from Golson (7-on-7).

-- Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield had a solid day on the back end though they did appear to have one missed communication in 7-on-7 that resulted in a Zaire to Amir Carlisle TD pass from the 20-yard line (red zone, not 80 yards). Of note, backup John Turner missed Carlisle in space on a swing pass and Carlisle managed to never go down despite being hit by four defenders on the sidelines out of bounds.

Turner kicked a ball in celebration of a post-play stop (teammate batted ball at the line) and when VanGorder yelled, "Who did that? Who kicked that ball?" it was none other than the head coach that calmly pointed out the transgressor…

Not a lot of tackling to the ground, so the only available safeties observations were in coverage, and overall, there wasn't a lot open down the seams or post.

-- Turner and Nicky Baratti worked as the second-unit safeties today.

-- Injured sophomore Drue Tranquill was in full pads and backpedaling in drills today, less than five months after ACL surgery. (He does not take any contact, of course).

 

 


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