Practice Report: March 16

What did we learn during opening day of spring practice? Pete Sampson and Tim O’Malley break down what Notre Dame showed on both sides of the ball.

Offense - Tim O'Malley

Seniority likely determined the order of reps in Notre Dame’s position battles Wednesday morning inside the Loftus Center as seniors Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston took the initial reps at quarterback and running back, respectively, during the squad’s initial Tempo drill.

The backfield pair was joined by an offensive line (from left to right) of Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Colin McGovern, and Hunter Bivin. Bivin’s presence on the right side was notable in that he was Notre Dame’s technical second string left tackle (per the depth chart) in each of the last two seasons though he never saw action in a competitive contest.

Senior tight end Durham Smythe was joined on the perimeter by classmate Corey Holmes (W/Boundary), fellow senior Torii Hunter (Z/Slot) and sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown (X/Field). The only player to rotate in with the group was sophomore running back Josh Adams who replaced Folston late in the five-snap drill.

Running with the 2s: The second unit was run by junior (redshirt-sophomore) DeShone Kizer with sophomore Dexter Williams as his running back. The second string offensive line showed (left to right) junior (redshirt-sophomore) Jimmy Byrne, redshirt-freshman Trevor Ruhland, classmate Tristen Hoge, 5th-year senior Mark Harrell, and junior (redshirt-sophomore) Alex Bars at right tackle.

Junior (redshirt-sophomore) running back Justin Brent rotated in for Williams late in the drill.

Projected for a starting role at either tackle or guard, Bars’ participation is classified as limited at present though today no Irish player sported pads per NCAA regulations. Of note, left tackle Jimmy Byrne is the only member of the 2014 recruiting class yet to appear in a contest for Kelly’s Irish.

The wide receiver trio catching passes from Kizer was comprised of redshirt-freshman Miles Boykin (W/Boundary), sophomore C.J. Sanders (Z/Slot) and junior (redshirt-sophomore) Corey Holmes (X/Field). Sophomore tight end Aliz’e Jones rounded out the unit.

-- The third unit was a skeleton crew that included sophomore quarterback Brandon Wimbush with 5th-year senior running back Josh Anderson. Only two offensive linemen worked in front of Wimbush, walk-ons Sam Bush (at center) and preferred walk-on transfer Logan Plantz (right something or other. Call it guard).

Tight end Jacob Matuska – still #89 but noticeably trimmer and, pardon the generalization “more athletic” in appearance than in his blown up defensive line days of yore – worked among sophomore walk-on Z/Slot Chris Finke, junior walk-on Omar Hunter (W/Boundary) and early enrollee freshman Kevin Stepherson (X/Field).

(If Finke’s name rings a bell it’s likely because you read our practice reports last August that repeatedly offered the then-freshman’s daily torchings of Notre Dame’s defensive backs in one-on-one drills.)

I didn’t see Nic Weishar rep in the drill but likely just missed him rotating in for Jones and the second unit. (We’re 90 yards away from the offense inside the Loftus Center.)

OBSERVATIONS

If you’re scoring at home, the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive front boasts 25 career starts while the C, RG, RT trio today has none. (Today’s second string RT Alex Bars started against Navy and USC last fall, injuring his ankle against the latter, truncating his sophomore season.)

-- Folston sported a brace on his left knee (ACL surgery in September) while Adams featured one on the right side. That’s the norm for Adams who suffered a knee injury during his prep career.

-- Folston showed signs of rust in today’s position drills, moving quickly in and out of cuts and navigating cones and pads easily.

-- Our 30-minute viewing session included quarterback drills with and without defenders. In the latter, Zaire, Kizer and Wimbush repped out of an empty backfield, throwing to the X, slot, tight end, slotted running back, and W receiver, respectively. The only notable catch during the defense-free drill came from Brent, who one-handed a Kizer offering. Brent later dropped a pass that hit him in both hands, negating the previous gem.

-- It was a bit more interesting when cornerbacks joined the fray, but remember, it’s one-on-one with the entire football field to cover so it greatly favors the receivers. Regardless, Stepherson absolutely torched Nick Coleman for a touchdown on a deep post (beautiful throw by Kizer) while Finke did the same (against early enrollee safety Devin Studstill) down the right sideline on a perfect pass from Wimbush.

-- Not to be outdone, Zaire ripped a 15-yard in-cut to Holmes with perfect ball placement (back shoulder) as senior cornerback Cole Luke closed to the front side. While Kizer’s post was the prettiest pass of the day, Zaire’s was arguably the best “in-game” situation throw, simply because of the ball placement vs. a closing defender.

-- Notable during drills (without defenders) was the velocity of Wimbush’s passes to the field (wide) side. It gets there as fast as any quarterback I’ve seen inside the Loftus Center, a string that includes Jimmy Clausen, Everett Golson, Andrew Hendrix (who had a cannon in practice), Gunner Kiel, Kizer and Zaire.

Wimbush’s slant routes tended to be less accurate (too low) with the exception of nice left-to-right offering to the massive Boykin during one-on-ones. Boykin should make a living running that route over the next four seasons.

-- Each of the three quarterbacks showed well on designed rolls albeit to stationary targets.

-- Sophomore slot C.J. Sanders looked sharp out of his break on a well-thrown out route from Kizer. Equanimeous St. Brown no longer resembles Corey Robinson at first glance – St. Brown’s gait is far more natural and he covers ground in a hurry downfield.


Defense - Pete Sampson

Notre Dame worked inside Wednesday morning to start spring practice, which meant the media got an elevated view of the defense to begin off-season drills.

The big picture takeaway from watching 30 minutes of one workout that wasn’t in full pads? That Notre Dame lost a ton of talent off last year’s defense and this is going to be a serious rebuilding job for Brian VanGorder. It’s amazing how much a defense changes when you remove Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Joe Schmidt, KeiVarae Russell, Elijah Shumate and Romeo Okwara. It means the players leading the stretching lines become Drue Tranquill, Max Redfield, James Onwualu, Avery Sebastian, Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. That’s not only a talent drain, it means Notre Dame’s defense will need a personality transplant too. For all the focus that will go to the quarterback competition, to me, how the defense develops is a much bigger story.

This is how the two-deep looked Wednesday:

Big End: Isaac Rochell, Jonathan Bonner
Nose Tackle: Jarron Jones, Daniel Cage
Defensive Tackle: Jerry Tillery, Jay Hayes
Rush End: Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship
Mike Linebacker: Nyles Morgan, Josh Barajas
Will Linebacker: Asmar Bilal, Kier Murphy
Sam Linebacker: James Onwualu, Devyn Spurell
Cornerback: Nick Watkins, Shaun Crawford
Cornerback: Cole Luke, Nick Coleman
Free Safety: Max Redfield, Devin Studstill
Strong Safety: Drue Tranquill, Spencer Perry

Some other personnel notes: Ashton White, who is listed at safety on the spring roster, actually worked at cornerback. Devin Studstill got some first-team work at safety, rotating with Max Redfield. Daelin Hayes spent basically the entire media viewing session working with the defensive ends.

Among the early enrollees, it’s striking how physically ready they are to compete. That’s not a prediction that they’ll play much this season, but none of the five would get blown off the field physically. If Daelin Hayes can get his right shoulder in a good place following off-season surgery, there’s unlimited potential there. Hayes worked at rush end behind Andrew Trumbetti and Grant Blankenship.

Khalid Kareem is listed at 270 pounds but looks like he could add at least another 20 moving forward. It’s not that he’s undersized because he fits in with the group, but this is not the second coming of Stephon Tuitt or Aaron Lynch. I would compare Kareem physically to a freshman Isaac Rochell, meaning a talented player who needs time to grow himself into a college football player.

In some ways I’m surprised Spencer Perry isn’t working with the linebackers already. Not only is Notre Dame hurting there with just four healthy scholarship players, but Perry is built like a linebacker at 6-foot-2, 204 pounds. He’s a broad-shouldered prospect who could be 225 pounds next year without much effort.

Interesting to see Devin Studstill working with the first-team defense in his first practice, rotating with Max Redfield. Studstill did get torched on a bomb to walk-on Chris Finke – don’t be surprised if the sophomore ends up on scholarship down the road – but based on the workload it’s clear Studstill will play a lot this year. On Wednesday the Irish had just three free safeties: Redfield, Studstill and Nicco Fertitta.

Strong safety mixed four different players through the lineup in Tranquill, Perry, Avery Sebastian and Mykelti Williams. Big spring for Williams with all the incoming talent en route, plus Tranquill’s return to health. Notre Dame needs as much safety help as it can get, but Williams also needs to make a move this spring.

Is Asmar Bilal the best athlete on Notre Dame’s defense? I don’t know, but it’s something to watch. Brian Kelly told me last December that Bilal can do some of the same things Jaylon Smith did last year. Even if that’s only true half the time, that means Bilal will play a ton. Up 15 pounds, the sophomore now has the strength to go with his length and range. Really like what the Irish have there.

Not sure where Elijah Taylor, Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway fit into the mix, but all three look physically improved from their red-shirt seasons. Of the three, the hunch is Taylor is the best athlete. Ideally, that group remains on the third-team this season, but ideally hasn’t been associated with Notre Dame’s defensive line health much lately. Dew-Treadway did get some second-team work as an interior defensive lineman.

Impossible to know how healthy cornerback Shaun Crawford is following last August’s ACL tear, but he moved around just fine on opening day. Until the Irish get pads on and hit, saying Crawford is back all the way is premature. However, the sophomore has as much potential as anybody in the sophomore class, Alize Jones included.

New Indiana State defensive coach Maurice Crum Jr. made an appearance today.


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