Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

What We Want To See

Spring practice opens one week from today. Here’s what we’ll be watching (and listening for) when the Irish return next Wednesday.

Notre Dame will be undefeated next Wednesday morning.

It should stay that way through spring practice, extending a uniquely positive off-season. No, this winter shouldn’t make anyone feel differently about losing at home to Duke, trying to pass 30 times at N.C State or that defensive game plan at Texas. But yes, these past couple months – from staff changes through National Signing Day – warrant another look to see what Brian Kelly 3.0 is all about.

So when Notre Dame kicks off spring practice on March 8 the Irish may be college football’s most intriguing eight-loss program. What do we want to see (and hear) first? Here’s our rundown.

Positivity Sells
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

It’s hard to imagine a kinder, gentler Brian Kelly during spring ball. It’s not his natural style, evidenced by seven years of off-season, pre-season and in-season practices. He demands. Players had better respond. And yet, Kelly tried to change last fall, whether that was “dancing” with the team on the sidelines or apologizing in the locker room after a loss. Kelly even admitted he led last year’s team poorly, a bit of press conference accountability most college coaches don’t naturally accept.

It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that when Notre Dame posted off-season workout videos that Kelly was in the weight room encouraging and in the practice facility supporting. That’s not something we’ve seen much in the past few off-seasons. Will that be a change Kelly carries forward? The players want to see more of their head coach. And if their head coach sees more of them it should give Kelly a better handle on the roster. A better rapport helps everybody.

And what about Notre Dame’s three new coordinators? Mike Elko will be an easy upgrade from Brian VanGorder in tenor with the roster. How will that energy translate? Chip Long following Mike Denbrock will be interesting too in terms of energy. Long clearly has it. On special teams excitement was never the problem, production was. Brian Polian’s experience (and dedicated role) should make for more coherent practice periods.

Right On Guard, Off Tackle
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

The most interesting position battle of spring practice because it involves two positions and could take Notre Dame’s offensive line from good to great if the coaching staff nails it.

What Harry Hiestand must figure out is how the three-man group of Alex Bars, Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer best slot on the right side. Bars returns as a starter but is coming off an uneven junior season at right tackle. He handled himself well at right guard as a sophomore until a season-ending ankle injury. Does Bars shift inside, giving the Irish a massive guard combination with Quenton Nelson? Or does Bars stay on the edge?

Regardless, the Irish need one new starter on the offensive line, with Kraemer and Eichenberg both options if Bars moves to guard. Kraemer was the bigger recruit and worked at guard during training camp last year. But Eichenberg has earned the respect of some vets in the weight room, going head-to-head with Nelson there. To be in the ballpark with Notre Dame’s left guard is impressive.

Could Tristen Hoge be a candidate if Bars stays at tackle? That’s another angle to track. Hoge battled Sam Mustipher for the center job last year, but never threatened to take it away.

Space Rover
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Not since the days of Bob Diaco’s outside linebackers – R.I.P. cats and dogs – will the name of a position in a new defense generate this much interest. In Mike Elko’s scheme the Rover position is a hybrid linebacker/safety type and falls in the secondary part of the 4-2-5. But the Rover will drill in practice with linebackers coach Clark Lea, who said the hunt for the ideal Rover won’t be something the staff rushes. In other words, the coaches will be kicking the tires on a few candidates for the position.

To put that in real roster terms, the Rover could be safety Drue Tranquill or linebacker Asmar Bilal. It could be former middle linebacker Greer Martini or freshman safety Spencer Perry. It will definitely be incoming freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah down the road, but the Irish have a lot of candidates already here to evaluate first.

Too Good To Sit
Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Chip Long probably won’t turbo charge Notre Dame’s offense by the end of his first spring practice. But, how will the new Irish offensive coordinator use the pieces at his disposal? Equanimeous St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson should be back after strong seasons. But how Long deploys Alizé Jones (or is it Alizé Mack?) and Chase Claypool will be the most interesting wrinkles in Notre Dame’s next offensive evolution. Few teams have one physical specimen like Jones or Claypool. Notre Dame, obviously, has two.

Long has said his offense goes two tight ends on 60 percent of its snaps. If that’s the case, Jones may never come off the field. But if that’s the case, it might also make it harder for Claypool to get in. This is all an interestingly good problem for Long to have.

Early Returns
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There won’t be a replay of last spring when early enrollee Devin Studstill challenged Max Redfield for a starting job during spring practice. While that made for an intriguing story (Kevin Stepherson did too), it wasn’t a sign of roster health. Simply showing up shouldn’t put a teenager in position to win a vet’s job, at least not within a program looking to win double-digit games.

That being said, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson will all be worth watching during the next couple months. Wright might be good enough to earn a few reps next season beyond special teams. Holmes probably can’t crack the running back rotation barring injuries, but he could help on special teams too. Robertson could win a second-team job at safety considering what’s in front of him is unproven. It’s hard to see how Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks won’t red-shirt, same as virtually every other offensive lineman during the Brian Kelly era.

It’s a good thing Notre Dame’s early enrollees won’t be a major story this spring. That’s how it’s supposed to be.


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