Speculating Spring (Part I)

With veteran linebackers Smith and Schmidt gone, the competition at the Will and Mike spots will be conducted with predominately young and unproven prospects.

With the commencement of Brian Kelly’s seventh spring drills at Notre Dame about a month away, Irish Illustrated begins the process of asking and (trying to answer) the questions most often asked in the days leading up to the 15 practice sessions.

There are no shortage of inquiries with the loss of significant personnel such as running back C.J. Prosise, wide receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown, tight end Tyler Luatua, offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin (and possibly Steve Elmer), defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, and defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate.

In many instances, we won’t have answers to questions, but rather, educated speculation because a) spring practice will determine the answers and b) the coaching staff is seeking the answers right along with the media/fans.

So we’ll throw out a series of questions over the next month, speculate both in this series of stories and in podcasts, and try to consider as many variables as possible in an attempt to reach some spring conclusions, many of which undoubtedly spill over to the summer and fall.

QUESTION: What did Notre Dame learn from the Fiesta Bowl experience in preparation for and in the game against Ohio State?
SPRING SPECULATION: Nothing earth shattering. The preparation for the bowl on campus went well. The focus/frame of mind was to end the 22-year Notre Dame drought between major bowl victories.

Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
When the Irish arrived in Scottsdale, things didn’t go quite as smoothly. Two defensive starters (Max Redfield and Jerry Tillery) were excluded from the game. Injuries bit the Irish at cornerback (Devin Butler) and along the defensive line (Sheldon Day), and then the most significant injury of all (Jaylon Smith) occurred early in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Irish never led and played on the fringes of competitiveness, never threatening to win, but still pulling to within 10 points in the third quarter with a chance to make a run that ultimately didn’t materialize. Notre Dame’s defense just didn’t have enough to give the offense a chance for another DeShone Kizer-led comeback.

Despite the 16-point loss in the season finale and a few weeks after a demoralizing last-second loss at Stanford, Brian Kelly’s squad played with the heart of a champion in 2015, taking two great teams (Clemson and Stanford) to the wire and preparing against what ultimately was a better Ohio State team – even without defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Adolphus Washington.

The fact that 10 Ohio State players with eligibility remaining declared for the NFL draft signifies just what a pack of talent Urban Meyer had collected, which propelled the Buckeyes to a national title in ’14 and nearly a playoff spot in ’15.

It was a tough way for the Irish to finish a season that had some magic sprinkled in, but it was a temporary setback compared to the positives that rose to the surface. Now, Kelly heads into his seventh season with a brand new contract stabilizing the foundation even further.

The arrow – despite the significant loss of talent and numerous areas of rebuilding – is still pointing up.

QUESTION: So, about this quarterback competition…
SPRING SPECULATIONS: This is the first of many questions pertaining to one of the strongest, most promising positions on the team. Malik Zaire, the starter going into ’15, will be back from a broken ankle suffered in Week Two with DeShone Kizer coming off a noteworthy first season of game competition, which included a handful of game-winning drives and a level of leadership few on the outside knew he possessed.

Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
There will be no resolution to the quarterback position this spring, either publicly or privately. Kelly and his staff will not name a starter by the conclusion of spring and the competition will be kept open-ended to maintain a high level of motivation. Notre Dame will emerge from spring drills with a bright, positive light shining on the position while another promising signalcaller, Brandon Wimbush, receives limited reps as the Irish prepare him for a red-shirt season to compensate for the year burned in ’15.

Zaire will come back fired up and ready to go, just as he did when he was working behind Everett Golson and when he was named the starter. He will benefit from the steadier personality of Kizer, who showed a coolness under pressure that should help fine-tune Zaire’s fiery demeanor. Likewise, Kizer’s attention to detail will be sharpened by the competition Zaire provides through his sheer desire and athleticism.

Look for Zaire to get plenty of opportunities to help shore up Notre Dame’s red-zone offense, which remained one of the shortcomings under Kizer’s direction. Despite the fact that Kizer proved himself to be a more than competent runner, Zaire offers an even greater dimension.

Kelly has said he wants to utilize both of their talents. That’s been the goal of many a head coach through the years, usually with diminishing returns. It won’t be easy come fall, but in spring drills, one can paint a picture as pretty as the rhetoric can be crafted.

Translation: It’s all good in the spring, but don’t look for solutions because those won’t come until the fall. A two-quarterback system always has some bugs to work out, and if one is clearly chosen over the other, concerns will arise because of the inherent nature of the position, particularly if the ultra-competitive Zaire slides into the No. 2 spot.

QUESTION: How will the linebacker positions shake out?
SPRING SPECULATION: Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt are gone. That means the Irish need a new Will (Smith) and Mike (Schmidt) linebacker…and no, Will Smith and Mike Schmidt will not be filling those roles.

Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om
It’s nothing but unproven youngsters to try to fill those holes, and that means all pre-spring speculation is open to individual interpretation with no conclusions at the present time.

Nyles Morgan is the expected heir apparent for Schmidt at Mike, but Morgan couldn’t get in the rotation in goal line situations, let alone between the 20s. That’s a telltale sign that Morgan was still having difficulty finding run fits, which was blatantly obvious when he replaced an injured Schmidt as a true freshman in ’14.

Te’von Coney was listed as Smith’s backup throughout the ’15 season, but when he entered the lineup for an injured Smith in the Fiesta Bowl, he saw brief action before dislocating his left shoulder, which will keep him out of any meaningful reps/contact in the spring.

Junior-to-be Greer Martini is an intriguing prospect. He filled in as a freshman out of necessity in ’14, but for two years now, he’s been Notre Dame’s go-to guy against option football with two more triple-option-based offenses (Navy and Army in back-to-back games) coming up in ’16.

Does Martini have the athleticism to earn a starting spot on a regular basis? Off-season surgery likely will prevent an answer this spring, and upon his return, he’s not going to unseat James Onwualu at Sam linebacker. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder loves what Onwualu offers intellectually at the position, and now that he’s in his third year at the position with Schmidt’s brainpower no longer available, look for Onwualu to be a mainstay.

Where does Asmar Bilal fit in? Will he be groomed as a replacement for Onwualu in ’17, or does he compete for the open Will linebacker spot with the graduation of Smith and the injury to Coney? Will Martini – who shows great anticipation and instincts – be given a chance to battle Morgan for the Mike, or does he slide to the Will in Coney’s absence and offer stability? Or does he remain as Onwualu’s back-up in Notre Dame’s base defense?

What about Josh Barajas? One of Irish Illustrated’s highest-rated prospects from the ’15 recruiting class never launched in his rookie season, arriving in less than ideal physical condition and then preserving a year with injuries. He was projected as a Sam linebacker, but with both inside spots available, is he a candidate for one or both?

Plenty of intrigue at linebacker this spring.

QUESTION: How will the tight end position shake out?
SPRING SPECULATION: When the 2015 season began, four of the five at the position were expected to return in ’16. The fifth – Chase Hounshell – seemed like an afterthought after moving over from an injury-plagued assignment at defensive tackle.

Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com
Hounshell proved to be a competent blocker with some potential to be even better in ’16. But he chose to take a sixth year of eligibility elsewhere. Tyler Luatua – a pure blocking tight end in 2014-15 – will leave Notre Dame at the end of the semester and transfer to Brigham Young.

The immediate impact of these two decisions came on the ’16 recruiting trail. Notre Dame was prepared to take an incomplete grade at tight end with verbal commitments from Brock Wright and Cole Kmet in the Class of ’17. Rather than start the recruiting process late with a tight end and likely coming up short or landing someone with limited talent, the Irish followed through with their plan and took a pass at tight end.

So Notre Dame goes into the spring/fall of ’16 with just three tight ends – Durham Smythe, Aliz’e Jones and Nic Weishar -- unless someone else shifts there. That’s a talented trio, but with the way injuries impacted the position in ’15, the number is a bit concerning.

There’s speculation that former prep tight end Jacob Matuska – who actually started for the Irish on the interior defensive line 15 games ago (vs. USC in ’14) – will shift to his former position on offense to balance the depth chart.

Matuska would need to trim down from his 2015 playing weight (295), and his role almost undoubtedly would be that of the one played by Luatua and Hounshell. But the competition at interior defensive line has picked up considerably since that start against the Trojans in ’14. He’d have a better chance of contributing at tight end in ’16 than he would at defensive tackle.

In the meantime, a healthy trio of Smythe-Jones-Weishar is an exciting proposition, particularly the former two with Weishar a capable No. 3.

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