Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most important questions to be answered over the spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #10 – FOR WHOM DOES OPPORTUNITY KNOCK?
Two potential starters at linebacker are shelved for the spring. Limited this month are a potential starting safety, offensive lineman, running back, cornerback, and one of the team’s top incoming freshmen, early enrollee Daelin Hayes.
Hayes won’t gain the usual leg up afforded to fellow early enrollees because of a prep shoulder injury, though he will be in the mix.
“Daelin will be a guy that we're going to cross-train as an outside guy that could rush the passer from the outside, and we'd like to see if we can teach him some linebacker, as well,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Give him that opportunity.”
Hayes is the lone casualty of note along the deep but inexperienced Irish offensive front. And with Kelly’s wide receivers at full strength and his quarterbacks intact for all intents and purposes (the quarterbacks don’t endure contact in the spring, regardless of relative health) it begs the question: who among the spring roster competitors will hear opportunity knock due in part to the absence of others?
Injury casualties include junior Greer Martini (Mike or Will) and sophomore Te’Von Coney (Will), both out due to off-season shoulder surgery. Likely beneficiaries in their absence? Redshirt-freshmen Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas.
-- Kelly on Bilal: “We'll start him at Will linebacker, but he's going to have to go outside and play some Sam, too. The numbers are such that we're going to have to do that.
-- Kelly on Barajas: “Josh has probably remade himself physically more so than any player on our team, looks really good, he's running well. His numbers were really impressive relative to when he came in where he was injured. He's 237 pounds, he ran 4.76. With those kind of numbers, he can play inside and outside.”
“We feel like he's going to get a ton of work, and maybe ‘multi-positionally,’” Kelly added. “So we can see him both maybe at the Sam position and the Will position. Josh is a guy that'll get a lot of work.”
Not set to cross-train but also inline for ample reps as well is junior Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan. No one is ahead of Morgan on the hypothetical depth chart – and no one is behind him, either. (Martini would have likely have been pitted against Morgan at the Mike if not for shoulder surgery.)
“Nyles is extremely committed,” said Kelly. “I mean, he loves to play. It's clear that he'll get a ton of work this spring to continue to develop and get to the point. This is his time. He knows it. He's got the athletic ability.
“I think it's going to be a great spring. He's got nobody in front of him, and I think that's going to help him dramatically. There's no Joe Schmidt in front of him, and as much as we loved having Joe Schmidt here and as much as we'll miss him, it's going to help Nyles not to have Joe Schmidt here because now he can just go and play and not have a wall in front of him.”
Injury casualties: senior cornerback Devin Butler, junior safety Drue Tranquill, and redshirt-freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford, though the latter has already clocked a 4.52 40-yard dash just seven months removed from ACL surgery.
Asked if Crawford was still shaking off the rust, senior corner Cole Luke offered with a smile, “Not that I can tell. He looks pretty explosive to me.”
Joining Crawford and Luke in the starting competition is junior Nick Watkins while sophomore Nick Coleman and redshirt-freshman Ashton White also in the mix. (White remains at cornerback though he was erroneously listed at safety on the team’s spring roster.)
“Crawford and Watkins and Luke, those three guys,” said Kelly of the top competitors for two starting spots. “It's wide open. Those three are interesting to me.”
Also there for the taking are two-deep (and perhaps starting) roles at safety. Early enrollee Devin Studstill took a few first team reps at the media’s limited practice viewing today, and with Tranquill limited by September knee surgery, a host of potential contributors will have a chance to impress.
So too, for the final time, will Max Redfield.
“I think Max is an interesting young man,” said Kelly. “Any time you come in with a lot of hype and praise and five stars there’s always a lot of expectation. I think the game for him is one that he’s had to learn a lot about the position that he’s playing. He plays a position that requires a lot of football knowledge and he didn’t have a lot of it at the position.
“He’s gained a tremendous amount of football knowledge at the position in a very short period of time. We had to play him and use him in a bowl game situation, which wasn’t very fair to him. He should really have another year with us. Progress has been, I think, steady. It hasn’t been fast but he’s at the cusp of, I think, really putting it together for us.”
Sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian, early enrollee Spencer Perry, redshirt-freshman Mykelti Williams, sophomore Nicco Fertitta and at least two if not three incoming freshmen are part of the ever-evolving safety equation.
Junior (redshirt-sophomore) guard Alex Bars is the only player among the group limited at present. Bars’ immediate future is at guard but that will evolve over the next four weeks and five months.
“I think he starts (begins) inside, but he has the ability to go outside,” Kelly said. “And that's kind of how it ties into what we were talking about with (Tristen) Hoge, (Sam) Mustipher, Bars and (Hunter) Bivin, that kind of grouping.
“I think what would decide that more than anything else is how Hunter Bivin comes along for us (at tackle). Hunter is also part of the equation here, as well, and so I think we throw Hunter in that. So that's going to be interesting how that kind of plays out, that battle.”
The loser of the Mustipher/Hoge competition could also move from center to compete at guard if Bars is clearly better than Bivin at tackle.
Senior Tarean Folston serves as the only player limited by injury. Folston looked strong today without pads but he’s unlikely to take contact this spring.
“He's doing everything with us,” said Kelly. “He's partial (clearance) but he had surgery done on 9/5. He's healed, it's (about) strength and it's really volume for him, but he's in all of our drill work. I suspect that he'll do quite a bit with us. But I don't know if we'll tackle him.”
Sophomore Josh Adams will be tackled and so too will classmate Dexter Williams – though perhaps at a less successful rate than last season.
“He’s going to be a force to be dealt with, and his workouts have been extraordinary,” said Kelly of Williams who, at 210 pounds, ran a 4.51 40-yard dash over the winter. “He's a man right now that does not want to get overlooked, and so he's caught everybody's attention.