Let the Battles Begin (Offense)

The departure of three offensive linemen removes 106 career starts. The top three pass-catchers (142 receptions, 2,210 yards, 19 TDs in ’15 alone) are gone as well.

Most football coaches will say they’ve wiped the slate clean at the end of a season and that all spots are open for competition heading into the spring.

That’s true – to a certain extent – although a proven track record goes a long way toward determining some of the starters the following season.

In the first of a two-part story, Irish Illustrated assesses Notre Dame’s offense for the fall with the start of summer conditioning about to commence in June.

Some spots were nailed down last fall or this spring. Among those who are no-doubt-about-it starters are X receiver Torii Hunter Jr., left tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Alex Bars. Tight end Durham Smythe will share the position with Alize Jones and others, but when healthy, he clearly has an extensive role within the Irish offense.

The rest of the positions on offense will be determined this August.

QUARTERBACK

DeShone Kizer vs. Malik Zaire

Overview: A year ago, Zaire would have been included among the no-doubt-about-it starters. But fate sidelined Zaire for the last 11½ games of the season, and Kizer emerged as a potential star with big-play, game-on-the-line capabilities by passing for nearly 2,900 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 63 percent of his passes.

Spring: Zaire narrowed the gap that Kizer created during the 2015 season by showing his own explosive nature in the running game, including a darting, cut-against-the-grain touchdown run in the Blue-Gold Game that could prove valuable in the red zone, where the Irish perennially struggle. Brian Kelly declared the battle for the quarterback spot open competition heading into the summer.

Projected winner: Kizer – His end-game prowess, better passing accuracy, and ability to carry out a game plan wins him the job. Zaire remains in play in the red zone and/or when the Irish are looking for a more ground-based attack.

RUNNING BACK

Tarean Folston vs. Josh Adams

Overview: Unlike the quarterback position, one football is enough for the top two running backs, particularly with Adams’ outside zone running ability and Folston’s between-the-tackles prowess. Adams established himself as a big-play threat in the absence of Folston and C.J. Prosise last year. The Irish need the veteran play and chain-moving ability of Folston to improve their short-yardage/red-zone efficiency.

Spring: As Folston continued his comeback from a torn ACL, Adams and fellow sophomore Dexter Williams got the bulk of the carries. Williams narrowed his distance from the two front-runners by showing the ability to hit it between the tackles.

Projected winner: Folston – The lines of demarcation are fuzzy, however, and that’s good. Both can help the Irish play winning football in the running game this fall. Notre Dame needs both to be productive. They can function together in harmony. Keep in mind, however, that like Prosise, Adams is physically-gifted enough to take carries away from Folston if he can improve his pad-level consistency and short-yardage productivity.

W RECEIVER

Corey Robinson vs. Equanimeous St. Brown vs. Alize Jones vs. Miles Boykin vs. Chase Claypool

Overview: No position on the Irish roster is as scrambled as this one. May is almost complete and we still don’t know whether Robinson will give it another go after suffering another concussion. Does the fact that no announcement has been made indicate that Robinson continues to feel the effects of his latest concussion? St. Brown battled injuries in the spring as he did in the fall. Jones is going to play this position regardless who else emerges. Boykin is a big, inviting target. Claypool, an incoming freshman, is an incredibly gifted athlete who said recently that he’s preparing to play W.

Spring: Jones and Boykin took the most reps at the position with the former creating a second position for himself. St. Brown had shoulder problems, as he did in the fall, and battled through the pain in the Blue-Gold Game to catch a pass after he suffered an injury. Robinson was sidelined shortly after the start of spring drills.

Projected winner: Jones – Again, whether he’s the full-time starter at this position or a guy the offense utilizes in multiple ways, Jones is going to get his snaps at W, particularly with a healthy Durham Smythe at tight end and the return of Tyler Luatua. A healthy St. Brown – provided Robinson doesn’t return – gets the most reps among the true wideouts at W.

Z RECEIVER

Corey Holmes vs. C.J. Sanders vs. Chris Finke

Overview: A ton of experience walked out the door with the loss of understated Amir Carlisle, who quietly finished third on the team in receptions with 32 for 355 yards and a touchdown. Torii Hunter Jr. also played the position, so by virtue of his shift to X receiver, the only player with a substantial background at the position is C.J. Sanders, and he’s coming off a hip injury and limited use as a freshman. Finke, despite his walk-on status, is a factor.

Spring: Holmes, who preserved a year of eligibility in ’15, emerged as one of the most pleasant surprises of winter conditioning with his eye-opening speed numbers. Sanders was sidelined virtually from the outset of spring with the hip injury that looked like it would hinder him for some time heading into the summer. Finke may actually have shown more in the 15 practices than Holmes with his ability to get open against linebacker coverage.

Projected winner: Holmes – All things being equal, the coaching staff would love for Holmes to win this job. He’s a junior, he’s got the most physical tools, and if he can translate his track speed into football speed, he’s got a chance to do quite a bit of damage with eligibility carrying him through the 2018 season. There’s no telling how much Sanders’ physical setback will impact him when camp begins. That will be something to monitor during the summer. Finke will surprise and work his way into the rotation. If Kevin Stepherson is the next best receiver on the roster, he could shift from the X, where he’s unlikely to take reps away from Hunter.

CENTER

Sam Mustipher vs. Tristen Hoge

Overview: Mustipher, a junior, has been in the program longer than Hoge, a sophomore. But Hoge was an early-entry freshman in the spring of ’15, so the gap in terms of practice time is not as extensive as the one-year class difference normally creates. That being said, Mustipher – who gives away two inches to Hoge – is the more physical player of the two.

Spring: Head coach Brian Kelly crowned Mustipher the winner of the battle fairly early in the spring while offensive line coach Harry Hiestand left a bit more doubt by saying Hoge remained in the competition. Still, Mustipher logged virtually every snap with the No. 1 unit.

Projected winner: Mustipher – Of the offensive battles listed, this is likely the most one-sided. Hoge will be a factor somewhere along the line, perhaps at guard. Both Mustipher and Hoge are hard-nosed, blue-collar players. Mustipher is the more effective player at the present time.

RIGHT GUARD

Hunter Bivin vs. Colin McGovern

Overview: Although Steve Elmer was inconsistent at times, particularly in pass pro, he was a veteran football player who could plow people in the running game when he got his pad level down. His decision to bypass his final year of eligibility and enter the “real world” was one of the most underrated losses on the team.

Spring: Of the five offensive line positions, this was the only one where there was no degree of finality to the decision-making process. Alex Bars started out at right guard this spring with Bivin working the right tackle spot. Bars’ ability to protect the edge prompted an early switch. Bivin was never declared the starter, although the vast majority of No. 1 reps he received certainly implied it. McGovern suffered a concussion early in the spring and didn’t get nearly as many No. 1 snaps as had been anticipated.

Projected winner: Bivin – His playing experience through three years is almost entirely on special teams. He’s played some tackle, a bit of center early in his career, and now his long-term spot – he enters 2016 with two years of eligibility – almost undoubtedly is guard. The competition for the starting spot is limited. McGovern looks like a career first-guy-off-the-bench player. A greater threat could come from incoming freshmen Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg. Both are projected tackles whereas another freshman, Parker Boudreaux, is slated at guard. If one can show the ability to power run block and hold up in the passing game, he could emerge as a true freshman starter, just as Elmer did in 2013.


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