1 – When Spring Proves Spot On: Tired of hope springing eternal as a fan base this time each calendar year? Consider the following recent spring suppositions that provided a portent when the bullets went live in the fall:
- Spring 2014: We felt Sam Mustipher was wildly inconsistent snapping the football (he was converting to center for the first time). The issue presented at the most inopportune times two seasons later.
On the flip side: Then-sophomore Will Fuller was the squad’s least consistent pass-catcher in spring practices. He subsequently led the team in dropped passes with 13 and 6 in 2014-15, respectively.
Fuller also happened to rank among the nation’s top playmaking threats in this span, offsetting his frustrating case of the dropsies.
- Spring 2015: C.J. Prosise continually ripped off long runs that began with raw power through an initial tackle attempt and ended with a subsequent sprint to the end zone – no Irish defender caught him once he had a half step.
Prosise later evolved into Notre Dame’s best pure runner since Jonas Gray the 2011 senior.
Sometimes it’s okay to trust what you see in the spring.
2 – When it proves to be anything but: Of course, there are plenty of times we were all wrong during this annual six-week period of spring hopefulness and renewal:
-- DeShone Kizer wasn’t just a distant third behind Everett Golson and Malik Zaire following Spring Ball 2015, he was a bad quarterback – one his head coach (briefly) figured might be better off playing baseball.
-- Junior wide receiver Corey Holmes’ clocked a 4.39 40-yard dash prior to last year’s spring session. But his longest gain last fall went for 18 yards…tied for 11th on the squad with tight end Nic Weishar.
-- Speaking of Weishar, the then-junior tight end riddled Notre Dame’s defensive back seven in 1-on-1s and 7-on-7 red zone drills last spring and August. But he caught just three passes (none in the red zone) last season.
And if you think Weishar’s pre-season performances merely illustrated poor defense by the Irish, consider this: Notre Dame’s defense surrendered just two touchdowns to a tight end in 2016 (Miami and Va. Tech).
3 – A Six-Pack of Pressing Questions: Spring Ball 2017 has provided plenty of insight, but none of the items below should decided until the dog days of August Camp:
-- Chris Finke or C.J. Sanders as the lead punt returner? (Sanders is the clear front-runner to retain his kick return role). Finke is likely quicker from catch through about 10 yards, but Sanders has another gear when he gets a step.
-- Senior Daniel Cage: Will he be Jerry Tillery’s key reserve on the nose or starting alongside the junior big man in the middle?
-- Junior Dexter Williams: Part of a three-headed running back monster or the odd man out behind Josh Adams and the surging Tony Jones, Jr.?
-- Senior Andrew Trumbetti: Part of a tag-team with classmate Jay Hayes at defensive end or the position’s definitive No. 2…a sub package player still trying to finalize a role?
-- Starting Right Tackle: Tommy Kraemer or Liam Eichenberg? The perceived backup at the conclusion of this week has ample opportunity to make up ground in the summer and early August.
-- Who’s the Nickel if Shaun Crawford (Sept. 2016 Achilles surgery) isn’t ready to roll in late August?
4 – Long Odds: Notre Dame has won just 5 of its last 16 games when slated as an underdog in Vegas dating back to the outset of the 2013 season. (They were a respectable 5-5 from 2010-2012.)
A hefty pint of your choice the next time you’re in South Bend for anyone that can name Notre Dame’s five “upset” wins in the 2013-present span. Need a hint? Three at home, two neutral, none on the road.
5 – Cooking Chronicles, Continued: Anyone well versed in the “reverse-sear” method of grilling steak, lamb, wings, etc.? Pluses and minuses of which I should be made aware? I considered it for lamb pops on Easter Sunday but wimped out and cooked the old fashioned way.
6 – Youth Shall Be Served: Not including incoming freshmen for 2018, Notre Dame is eligible to return for NEXT (’18) season:
- Five of its eight most experienced offensive linemen
- Four of its six tight ends
- All of its wide receivers
- All of its running backs
- All of its quarterbacks
- Sixteen of its 18 defensive linemen
- Seven of its 9 linebackers
- And all of its 15 defensive backs.
This is subject to annual change as likely future pros Equanimeous St. Brown, Alizé Jones, and Josh Adams (all juniors) make life decisions next winter, but if you’re an Irish fan, the personnel you see on the field this fall will be quite similar to what you see between the lines in 2018 as well.
7 – Futile Forecasting: Feel the urge to peak ahead at Notre Dame’s 2017 slate of opponents? You’d do well not to get too caught up in any foe’s perceived “starting” quarterback, because the following “backup” quarterbacks (or tandem quarterbacks) beat the Irish last fall:
Tyrone Swoopes (Texas) – Worked in tandem with freshman starter Shane Buechele, adding insult to injury as the Longhorns made the dual-triggerman system work en route to recording the season’s first of six upsets over Brian Kelly’s Irish.
Daniel Jones (Duke) – Thomas Sirk was Duke’s do-everything starter but never made it back due to a severe knee injury, officially ruled out for the season in late August. The redshirt-freshman Jones famously handled the Irish defense thereafter, finally eliciting change on that side of the Irish brain trust.
Ryan Burns (Stanford) – Won the job in late August though only as part of a dual-system with Keller Chryst per head coach David Shaw. Burns began the season 4-3 including a win in South Bend…then lost his job to Chryst who finished 6-0 for the Cardinal as a starter.
Of note: Chryst suffered a serious knee injury (specifics not revealed) in Stanford’s bowl win over North Carolina. Both he and the graduate Burns return for the Cardinal this fall.
Will Worth (Navy) – Was Tago Smith’s backup at this point last year. Smith was subsequently lost for the season due to a knee injury and Worth shined in his stead. Junior Zach Abey appears the front-runner to operate Navy’s precision running game at present.
Sam Darnold (USC) – Likely the exception to the “don’t get too excited” rule. Sam Darnold is outstanding, but was beaten out by Max Browne last spring and in August Camp.
– Also last season: Ryan Finley (N.C. State) was named co-starter in August while Tyler O’Connor (Michigan State), Eric Dungey (Syracuse) and Jerod Evans (Va. Tech) did not cement their respective starting gigs until the conclusion of their teams’ August training camps. Army was forced to use its backup quarterback, Chris Carter, against Notre Dame in San Antonio.
(N.C. State’s Finley returns to face the Irish again this fall in South Bend.)
-- Conversely, there were just two “certain” opposing starters at this time last spring that ultimately matched up with Notre Dame’s defense last season – Miami’s celebrated Brad Kaaya and Nevada’s Tyler Stewart. Both lost their battles in South Bend.
Returning quarterbacks often dominate pre-season speculation in college football…but they probably shouldn’t.
8 – Odds and Ends: Notre Dame was 1-7 when it was out-rushed by an opponent last season. Can you name the lone win? Hint: The Irish offense also did not throw an interception in said defeat.
9 – A Final Look: Irish fans have an opportunity to watch their new squad in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. The media will see a scrimmage three days prior. My list of telltale items to watch between the two viewings is as follows:
- Daniel Cage
- Kevin Stepherson
- DT Jonathan Bonner at the point of attack against first string guards Quenton Nelson or Alex Bars
- Is anyone challenging Nick Coleman for a starting safety role?
- How often are Durham Smythe, Alizé Jones, and Chase Claypool occupying the formation simultaneously?
- How long will key special teamer Nicco Fertitta be out of action (apparent wrist injury)?
- Does reserve sophomore cornerback Troy Pride continue to make plays on the ball in 1-on-1 situations?
- Drop/Rush End Daelin Hayes in scrimmage action
- Rover Drue Tranquill in short zone coverage
- The physical, imposing Miles Boykin against the physical, confident Julian Love should that matchup occur a handful of times
Until next week, Irish fans.