For the past two-and-a-half months – since Notre Dame’s 16-point loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl – media outlets far and wide have been speculating about the battles on the Irish spring practice field at the various positions impacted by graduation/early defection to the NFL.
Which positions/areas on the football field would be impacted the greatest? Which position battles would be the most heated? What players would be worth keeping an eye on?
There has been no shortage of opinions.
But what about Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly? Which positions – in addition to quarterback, which always attracts the most scrutiny, particularly this spring – would be of the greatest interest to Kelly himself?
We asked Kelly that question Tuesday at his press conference to kick off the start of spring drills. His response focused on two positions in particular.
• Cornerback – Kelly mentioned three positions, two of which he expounded upon in-depth. The third was the cornerback position, where KeiVarae Russell left following the ’15 season with the potential for a fifth season of eligibility still on the table.
That leaves returning starter Cole Luke, projected Fiesta Bowl starter Devin Butler, who suffered a broken foot the week of the game, junior-to-be Nick Watkins, who started in place of the injured Butler, Shaun Crawford, who was projected as the starting nickel before suffering a season-ending ACL tear during pre-season camp, and Nick Coleman, a sophomore-to-be who threatened playing time at cornerback throughout the ’15 season, but saw virtually all of his action on special teams.
Sophomore-to-be Ashton White has been moved from cornerback to safety this spring. Freshmen Donte’ Vaughn, Julian Love and Troy Pride Jr. won’t arrive until the summer.
Crawford will either win a starting cornerback job or return to his nickel duties.
“Crawford, Watkins and Luke,” said Kelly succinctly. “Those three guys. It’s wide open.”
• Offensive line -- Left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Nick Martin were out of eligibility and off to the NFL when the ’15 season ended. Any time you have more than half of your starting offensive line returning, it’s a pretty decent starting point, although the loss of future first-rounder Stanley and the brains of the operation up front, Martin, was a blow.
Then came the news of the worst-kept secret in the aftermath of the Fiesta Bowl: right guard Steve Elmer would bypass his final year of eligibility to graduate from Notre Dame and pursue business opportunities that came his way, thus ending his football career.
With three spots to fill – senior-to-be right tackle Mike McGlinchey and junior-to-be left guard Quenton Nelson are the only two starters returning up front – the list of possibilities and combinations is extensive.
McGlinchey, at least for now, remains at right tackle, although he’ll likely see reps at left tackle at some point this spring. Nelson appears to be staying put at left guard.
Top candidates for starting spots include junior-to-be center Sam Mustipher, who served as Martin’s backup in ’15; sophomore-to-be Alex Bars, who filled in for Nelson when he battled a mid-season ankle sprain, only to suffer a season-ending ankle injury himself; Hunter Bivin, a senior-to-be with two years of eligibility who will compete for a tackle spot; and sophomore-to-be interior offensive lineman Tristen Hoge, a center by trade who has cross-trained at guard.
“It’s going to be an interesting dynamic with Tristen Hoge, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars and Hunter Bivin,” Kelly said.
McGlinchey’s tackle position will be decided largely by Bivin’s performance. After preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman in ’13, Bivin served as a backup each of the last two years, including Stanley’s understudy at left tackle in ’15.
“What will decide (the tackle positions) more than anything else is how Hunter Bivin comes along for us,” Kelly said. “Hunter is part of that equation as well. That’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”
If there’s one of the above-mentioned group of four competing for three starting spots that definitely is earmarked for a starting assignment – health permitting – it’s Bars, who performed well in Nelson’s absence and offers position flexibility at guard and tackle.
Bars is still in the process of recovering from injury, but when he does, he’ll almost undoubtedly hold down a starting spot.
“Bars is partial (participation for the spring) right now, but he’s really close to being cleared,” Kelly said. “We’ll get work out of him. He starts inside (right guard), but he has the ability to go outside. It depends on how Bivin ties in with Bars, Mustipher and Hoge.”
The Mustipher-Hoge dynamic is interesting and the most open-ended competition. Mustipher, at 6-foot-2 ¼, 305 pounds, fits the dimensions of the center position well. He’s strong and physical. But Hoge, a year younger at 6-foot-4 ¼, 300 pounds, has impressed the staff since his early arrival last spring.
“We’d like Sam to be the center,” Kelly said. “The guy making this hard is Hoge. He’s looked really good. He’s 300 pounds, (he benched) 225 pounds 24 times, and has a 30-inch vertical.”
Kelly said he hasn’t coached an offensive lineman with at least a 30-inch vertical since Joe Staley, a tackle out of his Central Michigan program, who was a first-round draft pick by San Francisco in 2007.
“We’d like to have Sam in there, but with Tristen, it’s changed the dynamic,” Kelly said.
Kelly didn’t mention senior-to-be Colin McGovern, who has spent the bulk of his practice time at guard. McGovern figures to be a key backup with guard-tackle flexibility. But Kelly did mention a player who isn’t on campus yet.
“(Freshman tackle Tommy) Kraemer coming in adds to the intrigue as well,” Kelly said.
If Bars remains inside, the Irish have a pair of dynamic guards in him and Nelson. If Mustipher is ready to start at center, and so is Hoge, the latter could bump to guard, which would push Bars to tackle, although offensive line coach Harry Hiestand likes bulk and physicality between the tackles, which a Nelson-Mustipher-Bars grouping would offer.
If Bivin emerges at tackle, that would keep Bars at guard. McGlinchey’s side of the line could be determined by whether he’s paired at tackle with Bars or Bivin. If Bars is a tackle, he could handle the left side. If Bivin wins a tackle job, it likely would bump McGlinchey to the left side.
• Linebacker -- Gone are Jaylon Smith at Will and Joe Schmidt at Mike. Both received every rep at their positions when they were healthy. There was little-to-no playing time behind them to be had.
That means outside of James Onwualu at Sam linebacker, the Irish have virtually no experience at linebacker, although there are plenty of worthy candidates.
“We’ve got good enough players to play that position,” said Kelly, noting the significance of the loss of Smith/Schmidt. “There are good players on this roster to play Sam, Mike and Will. We’ve got to line them up and get them in the right position.
“It’s our job as coaches to coach them at the level necessary. There’s no excuse for us not to get those kids to play at a high level.”
A clear leading candidate for one of the starting jobs – particularly with Greer Martini and Te’von Coney both out for the spring following shoulder injuries/surgeries – is junior-to-be Nyles Morgan, who has been biding his time behind Schmidt for two years, except when Schmidt went down with an injury late in the ’14 season.
Morgan is an immensely talented athlete/football player who hasn’t been able to find a niche, partly because of Schmidt’s football knowledge, but also because Morgan has had difficulty finding run fits and fully grasping big-picture scenarios.
“Nyles is extremely committed,” Kelly said. “He loves to play. He’ll get a ton of work this spring to continue to develop. This is his time and he knows it. He’s got the athletic ability.”
Morgan has the opportunity he didn’t have before.
“For Nyles, it’s going to be a great spring,” Kelly said. “He’s got nobody in front of him and I think that’s going to help him.
“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 will help Nyles not to have Joe Schmidt here. He can just go play and not have a wall in front of him.”
If Martini were healthy, he’d likely join Morgan at Sam linebacker this spring and seriously contend for a starting spot. Perhaps that battle spills over to the fall, unless Morgan nails down the Mike and Martini can compete elsewhere. Coney played Will linebacker last fall as Smith’s backup and would take No. 1 reps this spring were it not for his recovery.
Two other exciting young prospects are sophomores-to-be Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas. Both preserved a year of eligibility, Bilal because he needed to add some bulk to his 6-foot-2 frame, and Barajas, who arrived last summer too bulky before injuries ravaged his rookie season in the program.
Both played outside linebacker in high school. At a better-proportioned 6-foot-1 5/8, 240 pounds, Barajas likely could play any of the linebacker positions. For the sake of the spring depth chart balance, he’ll likely get snaps at Mike behind Morgan, although with a starting Will spot open, he could compete for the position. Bilal will cross-train at Will and Sam.
“Looking at Asmar Bilal and seeing what his capabilities are, that really is going to be an interesting proposition,” Kelly said. “We think he’s got a lot of ability. 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’ll have to do that.
“Josh Barajas has probably remade himself more than any player on our team,” Kelly added. “He looks really good. He’s running well. His numbers were impressive relative to when he came in. He was injured, but at 237 pounds, he ran a 4.76. With those kind of numbers he can go inside or outside.”
In other words, there are more questions than answers heading into spring, which is what makes the linebacker positions of particular interest to Kelly.
“The linebacker position requires a little more, but I think we’re going to be able to get that done,” Kelly said. “There are players on this roster come Texas that will be able to get the job done for us.”