Spring football is about fundamentals/technique and individual competition.
You’ve already heard plenty about fundamentals and technique.
As it pertains to individual competition, only a handful of starters from Notre Dame’s 4-8 squad last season are gone: quarterback DeShone Kizer, receiver Torii Hunter Jr., right guard Colin McGovern, defensive linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, outside linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke.
That would seem to indicate that most positions returning in 2017 are set.
Yet there’s plenty of individual competition taking place on the Irish practice field this spring with multiple options under consideration. Below are some of the more competitive areas on the squad so far.
At some areas, there is great competition, but both will play and, in some instances, simultaneously. For example, Durham Smythe and Alizé Jones are both taking meaningful reps at tight end, but offensive coordinator Chip Long likes to employ two-tight end sets.
We’ll use a 1-to-5 “heat index” with the higher the number, the greater the competition. The player’s class and years of eligibility remaining are listed after each name.
• Competitors: Dexter Williams (Jr., 2) vs. Tony Jones Jr. (So., 4)
• Heat Index: 4
• Spring Battle: Josh Adams is the No. 1 running back after rushing for 1,768 yards, a 6.4-yard average and 11 touchdowns during his first two seasons at Notre Dame. When healthy, there’s no doubt who will get most of the carries.
Williams is immensely talented, but hasn’t put it all together yet. He suffered a minor foot injury during practice No. 5 and missed practice No. 7 Friday to take an exam.
Red-shirt freshman Tony Jones Jr. has been impressive, particularly last Saturday during the coaches’ clinic when he snapped off a 47-yard run, caught a 40-yard swing pass, and showed power and elusiveness between the tackles.
Offensive coordinator Chip Long will try to find reps/touches for all three during the fall with his background at Arizona State where the Sun Devils used a group of running backs to accentuate their various skillsets.
• Quote: “(Tony Jones Jr.) is 225 pounds. He can catch the ball coming out of the backfield. He’s assignment correct, and he can run elusively and get into the second level. He’s a pretty good back. Obviously, he was noticeable (during practice No. 5) and he got some work with the first group as well.” – Brian Kelly
• Competitors: Liam Eichenberg (Soph., 4) vs. Tommy Kraemer (Soph., 4)
• Heat Index: 5
• Spring Battle: This is the most competitive battle this spring on either side of the football.
Kelly heaped praise on Eichenberg in the fall, joking that he could play pretty much wherever he wanted on the offensive line based upon his tenacity on the scout squad.
Kraemer is the bigger body of the two and arrived with more accolades than Eichenberg. At least initially, he would have been offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s first choice…and may still be. They’ve alternated with the first unit on a daily basis.
Kraemer is more of a combination tackle-guard, so if he proves to be one of the five best offensive linemen, the possibility exists that Alex Bars – who played guard as a red-shirt freshman and tackle in 2016 -- could bump back outside to tackle, although Kelly sounds set with Bars on the inside.
• Quote: “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 Kraemer and Eichenberg splitting reps.
“They’re a little different. Kraemer is, at times, more physical; Liam is a little bit longer, and longer translates itself in pass pro. Both of them still are on that learning curve, but both of them are really good players.” – Kelly
• Competitors: Miles Boykin (Jr., 3) vs. Receivers not named Equanimeous St. Brown.
• Heat Index: 2
• Spring Battle: Boykin is competing less against St. Brown than he is Chase Claypool, an X receiver. If Boykin deserves playing time, St. Brown likely would pop over to the X and Boykin would play the W.
Boykin is another big body at wide receiver who has excelled on slant/in-routes, dating back to the open practice sessions viewed by the media last year. He broke a slant for 70 yards Friday.
The uncertain status of Kevin Stepherson – he continues to get third-team reps – will go a long way toward determining which wideouts get on the field with St. Brown.
• Quote: “The wide receiver position is really a very competitive situation, including Miles Boykin, who’s having a really good spring. He’s tracking the ball very well and catching it consistently.
“He’s very sneaky. He eats up a lot of ground with those long strides. Before you know it, he’s running past people. There’s a big battle going on out there and what that rotation will look like.” – Kelly
• Competitors: Chris Finke (Jr., 3)/C.J. Sanders (Jr., 2) vs. Second Tight End
• Heat Index: 5
• Spring Battle: Sanders began the 2016 season as the starter, but Finke eventually received the bulk of the reps down the stretch after Sanders caught 17 of his 24 receptions within the first six games. Finke caught eight of his 10 receptions in ’16 over the final six games.
But this has become more of a battle of personnel than individuals. If Long wants to use two tight ends – which he does – Durham Smythe and Alizé Jones will play simultaneously, thus reducing snaps for both Sanders and Finke. Senior Nic Weishar also warrants playing time at tight end, and early-entry freshman Brock Wright is a special talent.
• Quote: “(Sanders and Finke) have a place in our offense. The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They can be effective players, and they will be used accordingly.
“But you can see where this offense clearly is going. We’ve got depth at the tight end position and we’ve got big-bodied wide receivers. We’ve got a very physical offensive line and we’re very deep at the running back position. You guys can figure out where that takes you.” – Kelly
STRONGSIDE DEFENSIVE END
• Competitors: Jay Hayes (Sr., 2) vs. Andrew Trumbetti (Sr., 1)
• Head Index: 3
• Spring Battle: Both have taken snaps with the No. 1 unit. Last weekend, during the coaches’ clinic when media access was extensive, Hayes worked with the first unit. Friday, it was Trumbetti who was working with the No. 1 defense.
Hayes’ size and his ability to play against size likely will win out. There’s a role for Trumbetti as a pass rusher, but Hayes is the clear choice against the run and versus more physical confrontations.
Sophomore Khalid Kareem is the X factor. If he can maximize his abilities in 2016, he could push for playing time, but Hayes is the clear frontrunner.
• Quote: “Jay Hayes is 280 pounds. He’s big and physical, so Jay can give us a lot of snaps if he can continue to grow in the areas he needs to.
“It’s consistency with (Trumbetti) which is something we’re always harping on. He’s got great initial quickness and power but he doesn’t have great arm length, so he’s got to play with great power and leverage and pad level, which are things we’re always talking to him about.” – DL coach Mike Elston
• Competitors: Jonathan Bonner (Jr., 3) vs. Micah Dew-Treadway (Jr., 3)
• Heat Index: 1
• Spring Battle: During Notre Dame’s seventh practice of the spring Friday, Dew-Treadway received first-team reps while Bonner worked with the No. 2 defense. But that likely was more of a test to see what Dew-Treadway was capable of doing with the first unit.
Bonner has playing experience, and after battling the “tweener” tag since his arrival in 2015 – and playing mostly end up to this point in his career – he is much better equipped over the long haul.
If Daniel Cage can reach peak efficiency, which he hasn’t during the first three years of his collegiate career, that could push Jerry Tillery from the nose to tackle, which would then drop Bonner to No. 2 and Dew-Treadway to No. 3. A healthy return by Elijah Taylor likely would push Dew-Treadway out of the picture, at least for now.
• Quote: “(Dew-Treadway) is a big thing of putty that we’re trying to mold into a player. (Bonner) has moved around during his time here, but we’re happy with where he is now.” – DL coach Mike Elston
• Competitors: Drue Tranquill (Sr., 2) vs. Asmar Bilal (Jr., 3)
• Heat Index: 4
• Spring Battle: Tranquill’s playing experience, savvy and leadership likely makes him the starter most if not all of the time. But Bilal, a linebacker by trade, offers a bit more size and athleticism while Tranquill’s pass coverage skills – although limited off the hash – have been honed more than Bilal’s.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if both ended up on the field together – one on each side – in pass rush scenarios. This is less of a competition than it is an effort to get both key players ready for a variety of situations.
• Quote: “Both of them are going to play. Both of them lend themselves to different styles of offense we may see. One is obviously a little bigger, but Drue Tranquill is not small. Asmar brings us a little something different.” – Kelly
• Competitors: Greer Martini (Sr., 1) vs. Te’von Coney (Jr., 2)
• Heat Index: 3
• Spring Battle: It would be a bit of a surprise if Martini was not the name called a vast majority of the time as both the starter and in terms of overall playing time at the Buck. He is experienced in several roles at linebacker, which began his freshman season when he was a key insertion against option football. He needs to be on the field a majority of the time.
Coney certainly is a capable Buck linebacker and the near-certain starter in 2018 when Martini runs out of eligibility. Mike Elko is not a huge proponent of cross-training, but if something were to happen to Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan, one of those two could slide over and form a tandem.
Both will play and both are capable of playing at a high level.
Quote: “(Morgan and Martini) are both alpha guys for us, kind of patrolling things, the little things as we work on the details. I’m really pleased with them. Those guys are an extension of me. I set the course and those guys drive the ship. I’m very grateful to have those two in the room.” – LB coach Clark Lea
• Competitors: Devin Studstill (Soph., 3) vs. Jalen Elliott (Soph., 3)
• Heat Index: 5
• Spring Battle: With Nick Coleman’s move from cornerback to safety, the junior with two years of eligibility has held down the No. 1 field safety spot every time the media has been in attendance.
Studstill and Elliott are competing for playing time at the boundary safety, although both could play field safety. It comes down to consistency, particularly in the tackling department. Studstill, when healthy last year, pursued the ball well. He also had some glaring whiffs.
Elliott offers physicality and has about 10 pounds on Studstill. In the opener last season against Texas, Elliott was on the field in goal-line situations.
This is a healthy competition between two capable but relatively inexperienced players.
• Quote: “We have a number of competitive situations, and one of those is at the safety position between Stud(still) and Jalen Elliott.” -- Kelly