Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

O’Malley’s Monday Musings

Practice viewings, top-ranked walk-ons, new coach competency, and a mid-spring stock report highlight today’s edition.

1 – Bevy of ‘Backs: The most important takeaway from Notre Dame’s open practice this weekend?

Starting running back Josh Adams had a 70-yard run to open a tackle-to-the-ground scrimmage Saturday. (That sprint purportedly followed about a 50-yard touchdown jaunt on Friday as well.)

And yet he wasn’t the best ‘back (on that particular Saturday) at the LaBar Practice Complex, because redshirt-freshman Tony Jones, Jr., put on a small sample size show.

He can flat out play.

With Adams leading the charge, and 2016 August Camp star Dexter Williams also in tow, Notre Dame should be able to stress defenses with a quartet of backfield threats (QB Brandon Wimbush) this fall.

Jones, for those of you waiting to catch him in action, has impressed head coach Brian Kelly as such:

“He’s 225 pounds. Can catch the all coming out of the backfield. Assignment correct, and can run elusively and get into the second level. He’s a pretty good ‘back. Obviously he was noticeable today in his plays and he got some work with the first group as well. Not just second team reps.”

2 – Initial Observations: It is too early to state any of this? Yes. But that’s what would spring be without knee-jerk reaction:  

-- Cornerback Nick Watkins is among the team’s most improved defenders since you last saw him in action as an emergency starter vs. Ohio State to conclude the 2015 campaign.

-- I wish the designation “defensive tackle” rather than “cornerback” preceded Watkins in the sentence above, because ND has plenty of corners that can play.

-- I believe tight end Durham Smythe will be the team’s most improved offensive player this fall. Because of that, consider the possibilities of the following alignment:

  • TE: Smythe, Nic Weishar, Brock Wright
  • Slot/Detached TE: Alizé’ Jones, Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders
  • X: Chase Claypool, Kevin Stepherson, C.J. Sanders
  • W: Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin
  • RB: Josh Adams, Tony Jones, Dexter Williams

3 – Sign Me Up: I asked new Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko when he’ll step back from his initial, pre-spring evaluations of his competitors and consider who among them are candidates for position changes.

His answer was akin to waves hitting the beach shore for Notre Dame fans long frustrated by the program’s proverbial square pegs being jammed unsuccessfully into round holes.  

“Every minute. That’s the whole evaluation. What can he do? Can he do what we’re asking this position to do? How do I tweak the schemes? How do I tweak the position? We’ve had a couple already move. That’ll probably continue.”

“I do think we did a really good job of trying to do a lot of evaluation through film of last year,” Elko continued. “I watched practice film. I watched camp film; I watched season film. But no, it’s not perfect.”

It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s refreshing to know it likely won’t be stale and stubborn, either.

4 – It’s Just a Glass at 50 percent of its Capacity – After a 4-8 campaign and off-season filled with myriad staff changes in an effort to avoid the big one, Notre Dame Football fans are understandably divided into two groups:

Their glass of remaining optimism is either half-full, or half-empty.

Both in reality, they’re both right.

Half Empty: Brian Kelly fiddled last off-season and the team burned in-season as a result.  (How’s that $150 ticket price for the Michigan State game treating you now, Irish fan?)

Half Full: Any similar criticism regarding off-season 2017 would be unwarranted. Kelly and the program have taken all reasonable steps necessary to ensure success next fall. You can’t erase 4-8, but you can recover from it.

I’ll say it again: From the perspective of the team’s fan base, September performance has never been more important.

5 – Modern Comforts: I watched the end of the North Carolina/Kentucky thriller yesterday on my phone from the Martin’s Supermarket parking lot with my soon-to-be two-year old son, Charlie.

Three days shy of 35 years prior, I watched Michael Jordan beat Georgetown on a 12-inch black and white Sylvania with both of my parents.

Its plug needed an extension cord so the set could reach the coffee table.

Maybe it’s okay if you damn kids run on my lawn after all…
 
6 – Stay True to Your School: What a weekend for North Carolina’s former preferred walk-on Luke Maye, first scoring a career-high 16 points to beat Butler in the Sweet 16, then hitting for 17 including the game-winner prior to the buzzer to beat Kentucky, sending his home state Tar Heels to the Final Four.

(For the sake of reference, Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt began as a “preferred walk-on.” The difference between “preferred” and your garden-variety Rudy is that coach extends an offer – but not a scholarship – to join the program.)

The catch for this “walk-on” power forward? He was the 97th ranked player nationally per ESPN.com in 2016 and was offered scholarships by not only Clemson and Gonzaga, but Notre Dame as well.

I found this old interview with Maye from Scout.com’s Pack Pride (N.C. State) site. Maye, a North Carolina legacy and native of Cornelius, was asked what he’d do if the Wolfpack, Tar Heels, or Virginia were to offer a scholarship:

“I feel like I still have loyalty to Clemson and Notre Dame and Davidson and Charlotte just because they offered me first. I feel like it'd play into my decision, but I will talk with my parents in September and just hear their take on it and then see where it goes from there.”

He clearly made the right choice. But it’s worth noting that Maye could have been in a Final Four with either the ‘Zags – and the 2016 or 2017 Irish – as well. 

Here’s Maye earlier this morning just 13 hours after nailing the biggest shot of the 2017 NCAA Tournament to date:

https://www.google.com/amp/www.sportingnews.com/amp/ncaa-basketball/news/north-carolina-luke-maye-shot-video-8-am-class-standing-ovation/1q8zul73wbz5b1wsguqy2va6lz

Irish head coach Mike Brey needs to land a Maye or two over the next two recruiting cycles.

7 – Foresight: It appeared in the Musings last December: Alex Bars will move to guard, win the spot on the right side, and Notre Dame will be more physical up front because of it.

“I think it’s firmly established at the right guard position,” said Kelly on Saturday following a practice open to the media. “Alex Bars is going to be the right guard. I don’t see that there’s going to be any change there.

“It’s the right tackle position that continues to be a competitive situation with (Tommy) Kraemer and (Liam) Eichenberg still working and splitting reps. Each one of them is a little different. Kraemer at times more physical; Liam a little bit longer, maybe. Longer translates itself into pass pro.”

I love it when a plan comes together.

8 – Stock Report: Way too early? Sure, but what do you want me to do, talk more about North Carolina’s disgusting depth on the hardwood?

  • Up: Notre Dame’s physicality on the offensive line
  • Down: Notre Dame’s underwhelming defensive front
  • Up: Nick Watkins, Josh Adams, Alizé Jones, Claypool, Tony Jones, Watkins
  • Down: Kevin Stepherson this spring vs. last, the safety position at present…and did I mention the defensive front?
  • Up: Chip Long and Mike Elko calling their own shots
  • Down: The bad habits that permeated the defense prior to Elko’s arrival – and thus remain today
  • Up: Shaun Crawford’s super human ability to battle back from injury
  • Down: The reality of a quick-twitch, undersized athlete regaining his form following both a torn ACL and Achilles.
  • Up: Josh Adams as a potential seventh captain
  • Down: Seven captains?

9 – The Dean: I grew up watching Jeff Jeffers and Jack Nolan talk sports on WNDU-TV. (As a teen, I disagreed with them, often.)

Jeff Jeffers died Saturday at the age of 64. By happenstance, he and I were sitting in the lobby of the Sheraton, Nashville, the morning of Notre Dame’s 2014 Music City Bowl matchup against LSU.

We talked at length about our mutual doubts for the afternoon. That a beaten down (mentally and physically) Notre Dame defense could hold up. That the interest to prepare was present in practices held prior. That a team that lost four straight, three in ignominious fashion, would have anything left to give.

Neither of us picked Notre Dame to win (and for Jeff, that’s saying something).

We ran into each other post-game after a thrilling 31-28 Irish victory. South Bend’s Dean of Local Sports caught my eye and offered a knowing tongue-in-cheek response, “That’s why we’re the experts.”

South Bend and Notre Dame lost a wonderful human being over the weekend. Rest In Peace, Jeff. 

Until next week, Irish fans…


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