Spring practice remains undefeated.
It has yet to yield the complete football team, not with a full summer of 7-on-7s, hot afternoons of conditioning, and countless hours in the weight room yet to be conducted.
Yet when spring drills conclude with the annual Blue-Gold Game Saturday at the LaBar Practice Complex, the Irish will head into the next three-and-a-half months deeper, more experienced and more talented than any of the previous five editions of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.
“Hang your hat? To me, that terms means that we’ve got a number of players who can compete at a high level at that particular position,” said Kelly, when asked where he believes the Irish are most equipped.
As many as nine starters return on offense, and at least that many are back on defense for a team that played playoff-contending football through the first seven games, collapsed in November, and then regrouped for a heroic performance in the Music City Bowl victory over LSU.
Coupled with the fact that so many young players participated during the 2014 season, the depth of Notre Dame’s talent is set to reach a crescendo this fall.
Asked to name the areas that he and the Irish could “hang your hat on,” Kelly squeezed in just about every position group on both sides of the football, starting with quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.
“The quarterback position, maybe other than Ohio State…I would take our two quarterbacks over Ohio State’s,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that anybody has a better situation than we do with the two quarterbacks we have.
“Our offensive unit gives us that kind of analogy in terms of you can hang your hat on a number of different positions, whether it be the three running backs we have or a number of wide receivers.”
Kelly didn’t stop there.
“I really like what we have on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “I really like the spring (tight end) Durham Smythe has had. He’s really, in my eyes, picked up where the Notre Dame tight ends need to be when you expect them to step in for the graduating senior. It’s pretty clear that he’s going to be an important part of our offense.”
Part of Kelly’s optimism is predicated on the improvements the team made last season. The Irish went from 27.2 points and 405.8 yards total offense per game in 2013 to 32.8 points (an improvement of 5.6) and 444.9 yards total offense (a 39.1-yard spike) in 2014.
It would not be a stretch to expect even greater productivity with the top two quarterbacks, the top two rushers, nine of the top 10 receivers, and four of the five starting offensive linemen from the LSU game returning.
Defensively, the ground that needs to be covered compared to the offense is much greater. After averaging 12 points per game through the first five, opponents racked up 319 points over the final eight games. Do the math. That’s one point shy of 40 points per every four quarters.
And yet many of the same analogies that apply to the offense coincide defensively. The top 12 tacklers are back, as are the top three interceptors. Notre Dame recorded 26 sacks last year; returning players accounted for 25 of them. Of the players who made 73 tackles for loss, 68.5 belonged to players on the 2015 roster.
In 13 games with 11 starters, there were a total of 143 starts. All but 15 – 11 of which belonged to Cody Riggs – are back.
“The thing for me that I’m most pleased with is the safety play,” Kelly said. “Max Redfield is a different player than he was. Elijah (Shumate), Jaylon (Smith)…those three guys in particular have made a huge impact.
“I like the depth with the young players on the defensive line. I think we’re going to show great depth there. James Onwualu has had a great spring (at outside linebacker).”
That doesn’t leave much to critique. Kelly cited an area on each side of the football.
“From an offensive standpoint, the things we need to work on are depth at the tackle position,” Kelly said. “Hunter (Bivin) has to continue to grow at left tackle. (Alex) Bars and (Quenton) Nelson are both going to play at left guard, and everybody else is really solid.
“Where we have to continue to grow defensively is at the cornerback position,” Kelly added.
But with the development of Nick Watkins this spring, the evolution of Cole Luke in ’14, and the expected return by KeiVarae Russell from academic banishment, the Irish are – on paper – loaded.
What can the Irish hang their hats on heading into the off-season? A whole lot more pegs on the wall than Notre Dame has been accustomed to during the Kelly era.