Practice Report: Offense - Tim Prister
There’s only one thing lacking from Brandon Wimbush’s game and it’s significant. It’s also something Wimbush has absolutely no control over until September.
Playing experience is important and it can’t be simulated. The gap between inexperienced player and experienced player can be narrowed between now and the opener against Temple, but not fully achieved.
That’s the bad news. The rest is good. Wimbush is a special young man. From the mature way he handled himself during Thursday’s interview sessions to his command of the offense on the field to his execution of play fakes to his ability to avoid trouble through the air, Wimbush looks the part of big-time quarterback.
His physical skills are of the highest level. Athletic, strong arm, a significant burst at the edge…all the physical tools he needs to be a quality quarterback at Notre Dame.
His decision-making on zone-read plays is decisive and then explosive when he keeps. Saturday, he avoided throwing into traffic. Incompletions were either dropped or overthrown.
He appears to be developing chemistry with long wideouts Equanimeous St. Brown and Chase Claypool, who both get open, which certainly assists the chemistry. If he is having any difficulty picking up Chip Long’s system, it’s not apparent. He is aggressive and decisive, which usually means the kid knows what he’s doing.
The sky appears to be the limit…if he can get past the inexperience that he’ll carry with him into the fall.
The backup quarterback spot is a precipitous fall from Wimbush. Montgomery VanGorder and Ian Book both have gotten reps with the second unit.
VanGorder is the bigger, stronger of the two. VanGorder found Brock Wright on a mid-range pass over the middle and hit Javon McKinley for a score in the red zone. He concluded a red-zone drill with back-to-back touchdown passes to Claypool and Miles Boykin. He also found Tony Jones Jr. out of the backfield for a red-zone score.
Book’s size is a limiting factor, both in his ability to throw the ball over the line of scrimmage and in overall arm strength. When he muscles up and can step into the throw, he shows some promise. Throwing from the pocket is an issue.
Book did find Boykin and Alizé Jones on short back-shoulder throws at the pylon for touchdowns. He also rifled a slant from the 10-yard line to Jones that was a bit too hot to handle. Book hit a wide-open Tyler Luatua for a short score.
Picture Josh Adams without the leg issues of 2016. Picture Josh Adams at his peak. Long-striding, strong, explosive. That’s where Adams is today, one-third of the way through the spring practice sessions.
Adams clipped off a 50-yard run Saturday and had a 70-yarder Friday. He also had a 10-yard touchdown run Saturday. He is a stallion, and if he can remain healthy, he has a chance to be a real special back for the Irish this fall.
Shortly after departing the Loftus Sports Center for the last hour-and-a-half to take the field at the LaBar Practice Complex, Dexter Williams fell awkwardly to the turf on a short pass route defended by Nick Watkins. It looked bad. It looked serious. The first thought was Achilles, which would be a devastating injury.
But after the Notre Dame medical staff checked him out, he was back in action less than 10 minutes later. He had tough, physical runs for nine and six yards late in the 11-on-11 session. He finally limped off again in the second-to-last 11-on-11 series of the day.
Tony Jones Jr. looked every bit the standout that he was coming out of IMG Academy. He’s clearly in the mix with the top unit, along with Adams and Williams. He caught a short touchdown pass out of the backfield in red-zone. After getting stopped for no gain as the defense buckled down, he zipped for a five-yard touchdown run.
Jones would later add a 40-yard swing pass, a 47-yard run and a 15-yard run. Even his runs of six and two yards were physical battles. Brian Kelly lavished praise on Jones following Saturday’s practice.
This is a special young man who gives the Irish three legitimate running back options.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
It was not one of Equanimeous St. Brown’s best days. A deep ball on the first play of a first team vs. first team scrimmage was dropped. But over the course of the weekend, St. Brown’s ability to gain separation on a defensive back when the football arrives is very impressive. He makes red-zone touchdown grabs look easy. There’s every reason to believe at this juncture that he will build upon a dynamic sophomore season.
Chase Claypool has emerged as an inviting target for Wimbush. He’s been running with the No. 1 unit and clearly looks the part physically. He may not get the separation between him and the defensive back quite like St. Brown does, but he’s trending in that direction. Claypool caught a red-zone touchdown pass despite an interference penalty against safety Devin Studstill.
We saw more of Kevin Stepherson than we did earlier this week when he was running with the third unit. Stepherson received second-team snaps Saturday. There was some question as to Stepherson’s health that was discussed on the Irish Illustrated message board, but he did not seem to be hindered Saturday.
He dropped a catchable ball from Book in 7-on-7. He also couldn’t hook up with VanGorder during 11-on-11. Not sure what’s holding Stepherson back at the one-third mark of spring.
Alizé Jones, who was running with the third team early in spring, worked with the No. 1 unit this weekend. He was a standout. He has the downfield athleticism of a wide receiver, but is now working in tandem with Durham Smythe in a two-tight end set with Smythe attached and Jones unattached off the line of scrimmage and on Smythe’s outside hip. Kelly offered ample praise for Jones and for Long’s ability to bring out the best in him.
Smythe is an inspired young man this spring and he’s getting every opportunity to establish himself with the No. 1 unit. He’s quick off the snap. He snagged a red-zone TD pass from Wimbush over Nick Coleman. He later added a touchdown catch at the pylon in front of Nick Watkins. He’s still not a powerful blocker per se, but he’s the best one the Irish have at the tight end position.
Nic Weishar had a red-zone touchdown on a pass from Book over D.J. Morgan, but he has lost reps to Alizé Jones. Brock Wright does not look anything like a freshman on the football field. Tyler Luatua is the No. 4 or No. 5 tight end.
Say what you want about Chris Finke, his size and his former walk-on status. He’s a football player, a productive football player. If he’s playing 50 snaps a game, the Irish have a problem. If he’s playing 20 snaps a game, he can be effective. His competitiveness is in the highest percentile on the Notre Dame team.
Consistency remains the question with Miles Boykin. Watkins batted away a pass from Wimbush to Boykin, but Boykin had a short touchdown reception from VanGorder over Donte Vaughn. He also caught a short pass from Wimbush in 7-on-7. Boykin’s best play of the day was a nicely-run corner route for an easy pitch-and-catch from Wimbush.
Javon McKinley had a short touchdown reception from VanGorder when he beat Nicco Fertitta on an up-out-and-in route. Frequently working with the No. 2 unit was walk-on captain Austin Webster.
Not much to report on left tackle Mike McGlinchey (other than his trimmed down frame), left guard Quenton Nelson and center Sam Mustipher. Those are three sure-fire starters with Mustipher showing some upfield mobility that might have been missing last fall.
Kelly flatly declared Alex Bars the starting right guard. His skills fit that position better than tackle. The No. 1 right tackle spot belonged to Tommy Kraemer Saturday, but Liam Eichenberg worked with the first unit earlier in the week.
Kraemer has a wider body than Eichenberg, but Eichenberg has more mobility, and thus, a better pass-blocking package. Kraemer looks to be growing into a guard, but he is one big man blocking on the edge.
The No. 2 line Saturday featured Eichenberg at right tackle, an improved Trevor Ruhland at right guard, Tristen Hoge (who struggled with some shotgun snaps) at center, and early-entry freshmen Aaron Banks at left guard and Robert Hainsey at left tackle. Not sure about Hainsey’s stature for tackle, but Banks is a big kid who moves with power at right guard.
The No. 3 offensive line: Jimmy Byrne at right tackle, Logan Plantz at right guard, Parker Boudreaux at center, Hunter Bivin at left guard, and Sam Bush at left tackle. Kelly said Bivin would be given a shot at right tackle in the upcoming weeks.
• It won’t be a surprise if Notre Dame’s starting receivers are St. Brown, Claypool, Smythe and Alizé Jones.
• All-Pro Zack Martin and brother/fellow NFL interior offensive lineman Nick Martin were in attendance Saturday, helping Harry Hiestand with the offensive line.
• Also in attendance were future Irish offensive linemen Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons.
• We got a glimpse of how Chip Long will use a two-back alignment. It likely won’t start out that way. It’s usually a back next to the quarterback in the shotgun with a player aligned as a receiver shifting into the backfield.
A good candidate for that shift is Deon McIntosh, a part running back/part receiver who appears to have some burst. We also saw Dexter Williams in the backfield with a slotted Tony Jones shifting into the backfield.
• Punt returners Saturday included C.J. Sanders, Equanimeous St. Brown, Chris Finke and Kevin Stepherson.
Practice Report: Defense - Tim O'Malley
I focused quite a bit on the secondary – the nature of the beast when privy to ample 1-on-1, 7-on-7, and red zone competition.
During scrimmage and team periods, the base first, second, and third units broke down (most of the time) as follows:
DE: Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Khalid Kareem
DT: Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Brandon Tiassum
NT: Jerry Tillery, Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah
Rush End: Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara
Middle: Nyles Morgan, Jonathan Jones, Jamir Jones
Buck: Greer Martini, Te’von Coney
Rover: Drue Tranquill, Asmar Bilal, *Walk-on Brandon Hutson
Boundary Safety: Nick Coleman, Jalen Elliott, Ashton White, Isaiah Robertson
Field Safety: (**Tranquill), Devin Studstill, Nicco Fertitta
Boundary Cornerback: Julian Love, Donte Vaughn
Field Cornerback: Nick Watkins, Troy Pride
— **Tranquill actually began practice (unit work) at field safety (with Studstill as the No. 2) and Bilal as the No. 1 Rover, but that wasn’t how it played out in competitive periods. Studstill ran with the 1s in scrimmage action alongside Coleman with Tranquill as the No. 1 Rover.
— *Defensive coordinator Mike Elko offered the name of walk-on Robert Regan as a player working at Rover. Regan was a preferred walk-on option quarterback brought to the program to prepare the varsity vs. triple-option foes. He moved to safety last season and is now at linebacker. (He’ll still serve as the scout team QB in preparation for Navy.)
— In addition to Hutson, walk-ons Byron Spruell (Buck), Kier Murphy (LB), Temitope Agoro (CB) and Brian Ball (CB) also saw third team action. Ball scrimmaged with the second unit in place of Donte Vaughn to conclude practice.
-- Robertson received plenty of third-team reps despite his listing.
Quality efforts today by current starters Julian Love and Nick Watkins, though Watkins was great early and lost a battle or two late. Watkins broke up a deep ball for Equanimeous St. Brown; it was a bit under thrown. (He recovered nicely but St. Brown had a step.)
Watkins also broke up a pass to Boykin in the end zone (very physical battle) and later registered a leaping breakup of a fade route intended for St. Brown in the end zone. He followed with another quality rep denying Boykin room to maneuver for a high pass in red zone action.
Watkins’ final memorable play however was unsuccessfully chasing half-man, half-gazelle Chase Claypool for the final 20 yards of a slant catch-and-run touchdown early in 11-on-11 competition.
— Love broke up a pass intended for Chris Finke in the red zone, diving to make the play (he had quality coverage throughout the route). He did the same vs. C.J. Sanders but was whistled for interference after manhandling Sanders (at first, legally) off the snap.
Love also broke up an end zone crossing route that was intercepted by a diving Asmar Bilal. He finished his day with a scrimmage breakup against Finke (I think it was Finke…bad penmanship on this note.)
— Not a great day for Donte Vaughn who was beaten (decent coverage) by Miles Boykin on a deep fade route and also by Stepherson on a go route but the ball was overthrown. St. Brown got the best of Vaughn on a goal line back shoulder fade but Brandon Wimbush missed the throw. Boykin and Wimbush connected at Vaughn’s expense on the same throw for a touchdown a few reps later.
— Conversely, Troy Pride broke up two passes intended for Chris Finke, first on a dig route and again in the end zone in 1-on-1 drills.
— Six months removed from surgery to repair a torn Achilles, junior Shaun Crawford was running at full strength as a gunner during live punt return drills (only the gunner and the opposing cornerback are live).
Ample work remains for Notre Dame’s safety group.
Nick Coleman remains entrenched with the first unit. He ran down a speedy Josh Adams after about a 70-yard gain at the outset of scrimmage. Coleman broke up two passes on deep balls (one underthrown) and fared well in coverage drills other than a nice out route by walk-on Captain Austin Webster.
Coleman also worked as a first unit gunner opposite Chase Claypool.
— Nicco Fertitta struggled in coverage drills, losing to Nic Weishar (dropped the pass) and Javon McKinley for an easy red zone touchdown. Weishar beat redshirt-freshman safety D.J. Morgan for a touchdown in 7-on-7 action.
— Isaiah Robertson dove to breakup a in the red zone, was beaten by classmate Brock Wright on an out route, and also by St. Brown on a perfectly thrown back-shoulder fade by Ian Book for a red zone touchdown. Robertson had outstanding coverage but the ball was perfectly placed.
— Jalen Elliott showed excellent coverage vs. Claypool on a goal line crossing route but could not secure his diving interception attempt. Elliott also drew offensive pass interference on Tyler Luatua…and broke up the pass in the process.
— Alizé Jones annihilated Ashton White in a red zone drill to score a crossing route touchdown. (White broke up a pass intended for Jones earlier in 1-on-1 action.) White repped as a No. 2 gunner opposite Dexter Williams. It appeared to be a sprinting White who ran down Tony Jones Jr. on a would-be touchdown run in scrimmage action, much to Jones’ chagrin.
Really bad angle by Isaiah Robertson on Jones’ long run.
— Claypool beat Devin Studstill on a square-in route in the end zone; Brandon Wimbush put the ball on the money. Studstill was beaten by Austin Webster earlier but VanGorder missed the throw.
—Though he went through drills as the No. 1 field safety, senior Drue Tranquill spent most of practice working at Rover when the offense and defense banged heads. There were three rough moments for the rugged Tranquill, predictably each occurred in coverage
1. Pitted one-on-one against Chase Claypool with an entire football field at the latter’s disposal, Claypool blew by Tranquill but Montgomery VanGorder’s pass was badly under thrown and Tranquill recovered to break up the poor pass. (He was flagged on the play, too). Regardless, Claypool had 5 yards on Tranquill after three steps.
2. A rematch between the pair occurred in red zone drills. Touchdown Claypool.
3. Practice ended with Tranquill (aligned at Rover) getting beat by Tony Jones Jr. for a “Winning” touchdown on 4th Down. Jones ran a wheel route (I assume, I didn’t catch his alignment) and secured a well-thrown pass by Brandon Wimbush before absorbing the hit from Tranquill while crossing the goal.
Earlier, Tranquill showed nice ball awareness in the end zone, recovering to breakup up a pass to Brock Wright.
Not a great day for the unit but notably, senior nose tackle Daniel Cage showed a glimpse or two of his old self, drawing a holding call because of a quick get-off in 11-on-11 action. Cage also held the point on an interior run but by-in-large, the offensive front was simply better than the defensive front seven today.
— Jerry Tillery flashed good initial penetration but has to keep fighting the good fight vs. Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, and Alex Bars inside. They recovered well and got Tillery to play high a few times and in football, especially up front, low man wins…
— Micah Dew-Treadway just needs time. What he really needs is last year back. He couldn’t afford a sophomore (redshirt-freshman) season of development lost to a camp foot injury. He’ll receive ample DT reps with Elijah Taylor sidelined for the foreseeable future.
— Love how quickly Daelin Hayes comes off the ball but he has to finish.
— Julian Okwara had a tough go of it vs. Mike McGlinchey.
— Ade Ogundeji was not in pads, instead working on the exercise bike (and also lifting dumbbells).
Backup junior Josh Barajas was not present today. He likewise missed Wednesday’s practice available to the media (illness, per Brian Kelly).
— Both Josh Adams and Tony Jones ripped off runs in excess of 50 yards and were untouched by ‘backers on those snaps. It was not a great day by the normally reliable second level.
Jones absolutely shredded would-be tacklers in space with a stutter cut after breaking scrimmage en route to another sizable gain.
— Dexter Williams ran through a Te’von Coney tackle attempt (Coney had him, but Williams was able to keep his knees/elbows off the ground). Coney later fared well tackling on two short passes immediately after the catch. He was, however, beaten like a drum by Claypool on a catch-and-run across the field.
— Greer Martini came up with a pop of Jones to open the scrimmage but Jones gained two more yards through contact.
— Jonathan Jones shows a good nose for the ball. He worked as the No. 2 Mike during team and scrimmage action. He doesn’t get lost in traffic but he wasn’t shedding today, either. (Hence the myriad long runs).
— Quiet day for Nyles Morgan, though admittedly, I wasn’t watching him much. Like EQ on offense, Morgan is a bit of a given at this juncture, but he was a touch slow to shed on Adams’ long run to open the scrimmage.