Position Battles To Watch

With spring practice two weeks away, these are the position battles most worth watching. It’s about much more than the quarterback position.

When Notre Dame kicks off spring practice on March 16, the competition between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer at quarterback will grab most of the attention.

That’s how quarterback battles work. They suck up oxygen, dominate press conferences and force head coaches in creative answers that aren’t answers at all. That’s how it went last year when Everett Golson and Zaire went head-to-head during a spring practice that was never going to reveal Notre Dame’s starter.

This spring will be much the same. And totally different.

Brian Kelly won’t name a starting quarterback during spring practice. That doesn’t mean there won’t be a winner in that competition before training camp kicks off in August. It just means the winner will be Notre Dame’s program. Because with Zaire and Kizer on the roster, Kelly will have two trusted starting quarterbacks for the first time in his Irish tenure.

There are tougher questions at other positions where it’s not clear if Notre Dame has the material to make a College Football Playoff run. That’s why these spring position battles are more interesting than Zaire vs. Kizer.

Hunter Bivin vs. Colin McGovern
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

OK, so they don’t play the same position. And they’ll probably both be in the starting lineup when spring practice opens. But when Alex Bars returns to full health from the broken ankle suffered last October, that’s when this competition between senior reserves gets interesting. Is Notre Dame best served with Bars at right guard and Bivin at right tackle? Or is the best look Bars at right tackle and McGovern at right guard? Assuming Mike McGlinchey moves from right tackle to left, Notre Dame has three players to fill two slots on the right side of the line. Bars will start somewhere. But where he starts may depend on the spring progress of Bivin and McGovern.

Sam Mustipher vs. Tristen Hoge
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

Notre Dame will struggle to replace a two-time captain center who’s likely to be a mid-round pick this spring. But, the Irish have recruited well for this reality in Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge, a couple national recruits the Irish targeted early in their cycles. The smart money is on Mustipher considering he’s a year older, but Hoge was one of the first prospects targeted by Harry Hiestand in the sophomore class. Does Hoge have the physical strength to hold up in the trenches after a red shirt season? Does Mustipher have his confidence right after getting spot duty and learning from Nick Martin?

Equanimeous St. Brown vs. Will Fuller’s ghost
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

The hype train about St. Brown has been rolling for months, even after a freshman season where his biggest impact was on special teams before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Still, Fuller didn’t do much as a freshman either before he started breaking records as a sophomore. St. Brown doesn’t have the speed of Fuller (who does?), but he’s got incredible size and athleticism. Kelly said repeatedly last year that he wanted to play St. Brown more but Fuller was too good to let that happen. With Fuller gone and Notre Dame lacking a big-play threat in the passing game, St. Brown has an incredible opportunity to step forward.

Avery Sebastian vs. Mykelti Williams
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

Sebastian has been plagued by injuries during his college career, part of the reason why he’ll be a sixth-year senior in South Bend. Williams hasn’t seen the field yet after a red-shirt year. But he’s a product of Warren Central, which produced Sheldon Day and ranks among the state’s better programs. The football IQ to compete at safety as a sophomore should be there. With Drue Tranquill limited by his second ACL tear and Notre Dame needing a replacement for Elijah Shumate, these two safeties should get plenty of work during spring ball. If they don’t impress, early enrollees Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill might.

Asmar Bilal vs. Josh Barajas
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

Both linebackers took red shirts last fall but they didn’t have identical seasons. Bilal won Scout Team MVP and made a believer of Kelly. Barajas suffered a hamstring injury early in camp, fell out of form and rebounded in November. What positions do these sophomores play? Do they compete against one another at the Will position? Surgeries to Te’Von Coney and Greer Martini, plus the exits of Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace mean there’s opportunity. Can Bilal win a starting job? Does Barajas get a look behind Nyles Morgan? There’s plenty of intrigue about these two, both former four-stars and in-state talents.

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