Seven Spring Eye-Openers

Opportunities abound at the depleted receiver corps as Corey Holmes and Kevin Stepherson have emerged, and Torii Hunter Jr. has shot to the head of the pack.

WR-Corey Holmes (Jr.)
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

When the decision was made to red-shirt Corey Holmes during his sophomore season after a non-impactful rookie campaign, Holmes’ name certainly wasn’t on the short list of potential surprises this spring.

But Brian Kelly came into his pre-spring practice press conference gushing about Holmes, who dazzled the strength and conditioning staff with a team-best 4.39 in the 40. Kelly challenged Holmes to convert that track speed into football field wheels this spring.

“There’s track speed, in-line/straight-line speed and then there’s football speed,” Kelly said. “I think that’s been the struggle with Corey in the first couple years, to get that to translate.”

Now past the two-thirds mark of the spring, Holmes has remained at the head of the Z (slot) position as C.J. Sanders recovers from hip surgery.

“Playing fast and playing with confidence, I think (Holmes) is gaining the confidence,” Kelly said. “We’re seeing a different football player. He’s not Will Fuller-speed yet, although he (has been clocked) at the same speed.

“(But) he’s capable. He’s certainly not there yet, but he’s moving and trending in the right direction.”

WR-Kevin Stepherson (Fr.)
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Of the three freshman receivers arriving in 2016, which included four-stars Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley, Kevin Stepherson clearly was the least heralded.

But Stepherson came in as an early-entry freshman in January and has taken advantage of the opportunity. Kelly cited Stepherson early in spring drills, commending him for his ability to consistently catch the football, which is no small feat for a freshman wideout taking passes from the arms of three quarterbacks he’d never caught a pass from before January – DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush.

“I hate to put a lot on a freshman, but he is an outstanding ball catcher,” Kelly said. “Maybe our best right now.”

It was assumed upon signing day that Stepherson would wind up at the X or Z position. He’s worked predominately at X, first behind Equanimeous St. Brown and then Torii Hunter Jr.

Stepherson also has taken reps as a punt returner.

WR-Torii Hunter Jr. (Sr.)
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

Hunter is a bit of an unusual inclusion on this list from the standpoint that he is Notre Dame’s top returning receiver and came into the spring with the expectation that he would take over as the leader of the pass-catching corps.

He’s done that…and then some.

“We think he’s got top-end speed,” said Kelly of Hunter, who clocked a 4.43 time in the 40 prior to the start of spring drills. “Elite speed that can compete with the very best in the country. Torii Hunter would be a guy that can continue to grow into that position.”

Hunter played in the slot last season. But with Will Fuller off to the NFL, he has moved to the X, a position that allows more open field in which to roam and probe defenses.

Hunter won’t get deep as often as Fuller did. Who could? But he has a knack for getting open. He was not a stretch-the-field receiver last season, but needs to fill that role in ’16. He should easily double his 28 catches for 363 yards from ’15.

C-Sam Mustipher (Jr.)
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.om

This is a bit of an unusual name for a list like this since Mustipher was Nick Martin’s backup all last season. But Mustipher has barely played. His is not a name that has come up much until now, and with Tristen Hoge battling to take the spot vacated by Martin’s departure, few expected resolution at this position before the end of spring.

Actually, if you listen to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, the gap between Mustipher and Hoge isn’t great enough to declare Mustipher a winner at the two-thirds mark of the spring. But Kelly has seen enough to declare the center-left guard-left tackle positions on solid ground with Mike McGlinchey moving from right to left tackle and Quenton Nelson well-established at left guard..

“Sam has been very good,” Kelly said. “He’s been very solid and consistent. We put a lot on our center and we’re not giving him as much as we gave Nick in terms of flipping protections. We’re asking the quarterback to do a little more of that.

“But (Mustipher) will gradually fill into those shoes. We’ve been pleased with what he’s been able to accomplish as a first-time center. There’s a lot going on in there, but he’s going to be a solid player for us.”

Mustipher has big shoes to fill, but he is a big, physical, no-nonsense offensive lineman who says little and plays hard. That’s a big piece to a puzzle that needed three new starters after right guard Steve Elmer put away the pads for good with a year of eligibility remaining.

TE-Jacob Matuska (Sr.)
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

It’s hard to believe that 15 games ago, Matuska was a starting interior defensive lineman for the Irish against rival USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Matuska never looked like an ideal fit as a defensive/nose tackle with the significantly increased weight. He and the rest of the Irish defense were pushed around badly that Thanksgiving Saturday in L.A.

Matuska quickly faded into the woodwork in ’15 as youngsters such as Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage got the reps next to Sheldon Day after the knee injury to starter Jarron Jones.

But when Tyler Luatua transferred and Chase Hounshell decided to use his final year of eligibility elsewhere, moving Matuska to tight end made sense. He played the position in high school, and as the weight came off, Matuska began to look the part.

Matuska has the physical skills to be both an in-line blocker and a guy who has the mobility to get on the perimeter and block in space. Anything requiring catching the football is gravy.

“Jacob Matuska has done a really nice job for us,” Kelly said. “He catches the ball better than we thought and is really picking up the techniques as an in-line blocker.”

CB-Shaun Crawford (So.)
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

No surprise that Crawford has emerged this spring, unless you consider that he tore his ACL a mere eight months ago. It’s easier for a smaller guy to recover from a knee injury, but this kid is a freakish athlete who just may be one of the most key additions to the defensive equation.

We’ve discovered through conversations with Brian VanGorder that when Crawford went down in August, Notre Dame didn’t have anyone in the same ballpark to play the nickel position as well as he did.

So the question this spring won’t be whether Crawford will start at cornerback or nickel. He’ll probably start at cornerback, play nickel when the Irish go to it, and stay on the field as much as possible.

“More than anything else, it’s his ability to play man coverage in there,” said Kelly of what makes Crawford such a good nickel candidate. “He’s a very smart, instinctive player.

“You have to have a real good sense of the field (defending the slot). A guy that can play inside is unique in the sense that he has to have really good speed because he has to cover guys coming across the field, going vertical and possess that speed and instinct.”

Crawford checks all the boxes.

S-Devin Studstill (Fr.)
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

It was assumed that Max Redfield – once he used the jaws of life to extricate himself from the doghouse he put himself in during Fiesta Bowl week – would work his way back with the No. 1 unit at some point during the spring.

He has one week left to do it.

Since the first spring observation made available to the media, early-entry freshman Devin Studstill has been running with the first unit at free safety. You can say Redfield has been slowed by an injury or that the coaching staff is really making him earn it.

There isn’t a whole lot of competition at the position, either, since Mykelti Williams was removed from the equation, Nicco Fertitta is undersized and more of a special teams guy, and a third safety in the class – Jalen Elliott – has yet to arrive on campus.

But from the moment Irish Illustrated saw the high school film of the undersized but athletic Studstill roaming the prep secondaries, he was declared a player with four-star talent who had a chance to excel on the collegiate level.

“We’ve been very pleased with what he’s been doing and very happy with the way he’s picked up our defense,” Kelly said. “Excellent ball skills, excellent retention…He’s probably the guy that’s done the most back there.

“He wouldn’t be out there working with the first group unless he had a natural ability to pick up what we’re (teaching) him. He’s making plays, getting lined up, and getting guys in the right position.”


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