Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Practice Report: Depth chart takes shape

Get the ins and outs of Wednesday’s open practice for the media, from the best plays to the best players to the biggest questions heading toward the Blue-Gold Game.

Practice Report: Offense - Tim O'Malley

Notre Dame took to the LaBar Practice Field Wednesday morning for the squad’s sixth practice outside of 13 completed to date.

Absent from the proceedings was sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. Asked about his speedster post-practice, Irish head coach Brian Kelly answered that Stepherson was “taking care of a personal matter” but that he expected the Florida native to be available for Saturday’s Blue Gold Game.

Stepherson has purportedly battled a hamstring injury for the bulk of the spring.

Backup junior guard Trevor Ruhland worked the exercise bike today while early enrollee C.J. Holmes moved among his position mates in the backfield during drills, often holding a football in his left arm – his right still in a sling to protect a separated shoulder suffered early in spring camp.

FIRST, SECOND, THIRD

The first unit offense during today’s opening “Tempo” skeleton drill was comprised of quarterback Brandon Wimbush, running back Josh Adams, receivers Equanimeous St. Brown (field/X), Miles Boykin (boundary/W) and Chase Claypool (slot/Z) and tight end Durham Smythe.

The offensive line (left to right) was commensurate with each odd-numbered practice we’ve seen to date: Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Alex Bars, and Tommy Kraemer.

The second unit offense included redshirt-freshman quarterback Ian Book, junior running back Dexter Williams (redshirt-frosh Tony Jones, Jr., took his spot mid-drill), with Chris Finke (X), Javon McKinley (Z) and C.J. Sanders (W) as the targets. Nic Weishar was the tight end.

Book’s offensive front showed (left to right) early enrollees Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks, junior Tristen Hoge, 5th-year senior Hunter Bivin, and redshirt-freshman Liam Eichenberg.

The third unit in front of quarterback Montgomery VanGorder was unfinished up front (four offensive linemen) due to Ruhland’s absence from the second group. Walk-on Sam Bush, redshirt-freshman Parker Boudreaux, walk-on Logan Plantz, and senior Jimmy Byrne worked as LG, C, RG, RT, respectively. 

Senior Tyler Luatua worked as the tight end flanked by walk-ons including Mick Assaf, captain Austin Webster, and Keenan Centlivre.

The running back was Deon McIntosh.

Though junior tight end Alizé Jones again did not take part in tempo, he most often worked with the first unit offense throughout practice.

RUNNING BACKS AND OL

Talented, injured (shoulder) freshman C.J. Holmes has a tough row to hoe if he hopes to earn scrimmage time this fall, because the trio of ‘backs partaking in daily reps are intriguing at worst – outstanding at best.

Adams remains the top dog but if you’d not watched the Irish over the past two seasons there’d be no reason to think the lead runner wasn’t Tony Jones. He ripped off a 60-yard touchdown run to the boundary that included making two miss in phone booth space before hitting full speed and outrunning a secondary that included the speedy Nick Coleman.

Jones lined up in the slot in empty sets on occasion (tackle-to-the-ground reps) and was part of a split backfield (the old “Pro Set”) with Josh Adams in the segment as well.

He also beat Nick Coleman for a touchdown in 1-on-1 red zone drills though I think a few of our subscribers did as well…

-- The spring is back in Dexter Williams’ step (watching a redshirt-freshman star in your stead will do that to a guy) after a mid-March ankle injury. Williams received ample reps in a tag-off four-minute drill with the first unit, scoring a touchdown to conclude it. He’s at full speed after his second step and like Jones, does not waste time looking for anything other than a north-south opening.

Williams is also in the running for multiple special teams roles. He worked as a backup gunner today in punt coverage and if you recall was heavily involved in kickoff coverage last season.

-- I was told today by a colleague that Kelly referred to Deon McIntosh as the offense’s “fastest player” – and that he was “technically” such. In other words, he does not yet play to his straight-line speed.

-- If I had no previous experience watching the Irish, the following would be my OL rankings after four practice viewings this spring:

1.) Quenton Nelson: You can hear him make contact from 40 yards away.
2.) Mike McGlinchey: Locks out pass-rushers with arms after establishing in his pass set.
3.) Alex Bars: Physical and gets to the second block pretty quickly
4.) Sam Mustipher: Classic battler inside. When he loses initially he can still seal the penetrating defender out of the play.
5.) No idea. Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg both get a nice push when I watch.

Today’s 3-on-3 OL (T/G/C) vs. DT/NT/MLB drills were highlighted by the following notes:

  • Good push by Eichenberg to open an outside lane.
  • Nice seal by Bivin
  • Hoge locks out Martini on interior gain
  • McGlinchey one-arms Okwara to keep him at bay
  • Nelson with a brutal shot on Dew-Treadway upon the snap
  • Kraemer nice push vs. Hayes

-- Considering the veteran starters and pro talent it has up front, if Notre Dame does not run the ball successfully and consistently this season – as in at least 10 of its 12 regular season games – there should be a formal investigation.

WIDE RECEIVERS

There’s no more intriguing group – and I mean in recent Notre Dame positional history – than the big-bodied bunch Brian Kelly has available exiting spring ball.

The lack of progress and continual cloak and dagger explanations surrounding Stepherson this spring has had an ancillary affect on the group – it’s afforded Miles Boykin a chance to come into his own as a pass-catcher. And that’s what Boykin does – he catches passes. It was previously an issue in his game, one exacerbated by a broken finger last spring. (Courtesy a Deshone Kizer bullet.)

Today Boykin was the starting W receiver with 2016 breakout Equanimeous St. Brown moving from W to the X position vacated by Stepherson. That pairing, combined with Claypool and Alizé Jones as a motion tight end, is stunning from a physical standpoint.

Their highlights today were as follows:

Miles Boykin: A diving catch (of a pass that was high…that’s how much ground he made up) for 20-plus yards in a late-practice 4-minute drill. He followed with another high-point grab of a Wimbush pass for 9 yards to stop the clock.

Boykin beat Nick Watkins in a one-on-one drill (off coverage was demanded by the staff on this rep), running a post-corner-post to shed the senior corner. (Watkins previously one a rep vs. Boykin in press coverage, one that elicited the following from cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght: “Dominate him every time, Nick!”).

After catching a slant touchdown in 7-on-7 red zone (against Julian Love, no less) from the 10-yard line, Boykin could not secure a back-shoulder fade in a red zone drill but it was mostly good coverage by Donte Vaughn.

Alizé Jones: Good luck opposing defenders. Seriously. Chip Long’s offense has Jones working as a fullback motioning into patterns, as a classic H-Back getting lost behind scrimmage prior to running a wheel route at the goal line, and then running crossing routes, both mid-range and shallow before releasing him down the seam.

With due respect to the already proven St. Brown, Jones is the team’s toughest coverage assignment. He blocked with more authority than the last time you saw him in 2015 as well. (Lord I would hope so…that was ugly.)

We don’t see every rep, but I assume Jones also possesses the best hands on the team, because he engulfs the ball with his hands rather than receives it.

As noted above, Jones scored on a goal line play in which he motioned across the backfield pre-snap and simply outran his defender to the goal line. He also beat Jalen Elliott for a corner-route score in red zone action.

Chase Claypool: Saw a mild chink in the armor of Irish Illustrated’s oft-celebrated athlete: he has concentration drops.

Claypool continuously gains separation from defenders (perhaps even more so than does Jones) but it’s clear he’s still not a finished product and he might not be in 2017. He is, however, dynamite down the post and seams and running underneath crossing routes where he continually separates from safeties and linebackers.

Claypool continues to work as a first-string gunner on punt coverage (opposite Julian Love). At one point, Claypool ran a go-route vs. safety Ashton White (off coverage) in which he ran by the former cornerback before the latter could turn to give futile chase. Proving an equal opportunity offender, Claypool then ran by safety Devin Studstill for a deep corner route as well.

EQ St. Brown: Did not end practice well, getting called out by his head coach for taking himself out of the final live drive (then denying he took himself out), but was listed by Kelly post-practice as one of the non-captains that the head coach knows he can count on when the chips are down next fall.

St. Brown’s work as the X receiver in practice seems to point to a need due to Stepherson’s lost spring. The junior target beat Julian Love (off coverage) in one-on-one drills but could not shake the physical corner previously in press coverage. He was not heavily involved late due to apparent hamstring tightness.

Chris Finke: Here are my notes on the rising junior target:

  • Finke outfights Vaughn in press coverage (1-on-1)
  • Finke catches deep post route for touchdown in tag-off scrimmage (walk-on Temitope Agoro defending)
  • Finke can’t secure back-shoulder TD vs. Agoro (red zone)
  • Finke catches out-route touchdown vs. Watkins (red zone)
  • Finke catches crossing route vs. Vaughn (1-on-1)
  • Finke runs by Coleman for corner route TD (red zone)

At present, Finke works as the No. 1 punt returner ahead of C.J. Sanders and St. Brown.

Across the Field: Durham Smythe introduced Nick Coleman to the former’s additional 11 off-season pounds, drilling Coleman in 1-on-1 drills to create easy separation for the catch...Nic Weishar beats Nicco Fertitta down the post for a 20-yard grab…C.J. Sanders is obliterated by Asmar Bilal in a live 11-on-11 rep (backfield swing pass). That was targeting, fellas…Early enrollee Brock Wright with a touchdown on the same backfield wheel route (to the same side) that previously garnered a score for Alizé Jones.

Javon McKinley with a beautiful corner route catch despite outstanding defense by Coleman…Captain Austin Webster beats Julian Love by a yard for a 40-yard go-route touchdown.

Apropos of nothing:

  • Austin Webster makes a lot of noise when he runs…
  • McKinley is the only Irish receiver not to wear gloves in practice…
  • Alizé Jones remains the squad’s biggest cheerleader when not in the game. “Here Come the IRIIIIIIIIISH!!!” following a touchdown run by Wimbush (detailed below)…
  • Quote of the day: “Did I blow the (‘darn’) whistle!? Get back out there!” – Brian Kelly to the offense in what looked like the last rep of a live scrimmage session.

BRANDON WIMBUSH
Notre Dame’s offense took the turf with 1:05 remaining, the announced goal of the drive by special teams coordinator Brian Polian was “a winning field goal.”

Against the first team offense on the first snap from his own 40-yard line, Wimbush escaped immediate pressure from the edges, ran over the vacated left side and destroyed the angles of the entire secondary for a 60-yard touchdown.

(I suppose the only downside was he theoretically would have put the Irish defense back on the field with more than 50 seconds remaining to protect a 5-6 point lead…)

Wimbush previously ran a RPO (run-pass-option) in which he encountered backup middle linebacker Jonathan Jones in open space in the backfield. Though he was not allowed to tackle the protected quarterback (Wimbush wears a red shirt in practice), Jones was allowed, again, in theory, to touch him.

Wimbush’s sharp cut up the field instead left Jones grasping at air. (“Whooooo Jonathan!” came the chorus from Wimbush’s offensive peanut gallery on the sidelines).

Notre Dame has an outstanding athlete at quarterback – easily the most sudden of the Brian Kelly Era and probably dating back to Carlyle Holiday – had Holiday been allowed to operate in a proper offense, that it.

(Tim Prister said of Wimbush’s 60-yard touchdown run today: “That’s Tony Rice.”)

But the need for better touch on the deep ball is apparent.

It could be a timing issue, but such excuses won’t matter in September. A missed opportunity for six points is the same regardless of the reason behind it.

To nitpick, Wimbush had a poorly thrown red zone pass picked off by early enrollee Isaiah Robertson (covering Smythe) and the quarterback also threw to Smythe in double coverage in the end zone two snaps later.

Of note: Standout plays made by the Irish defense will be chronicled today by Pete Sampson – it wasn’t totally one-sided as it appears in the offense’s practice report.


Practice Report: Defense - Pete Sampson

Notre Dame’s open practice on Wednesday morning offered some new insights into the Irish defense and confirmed a few notions established before spring practice even started. Before jumping into a position-by-position breakdown, here’s how the defense aligned from a depth chart perspective.

Starting lineup: Daelin Hayes (weak-side end), Jerry Tillery, Jonathan Bonner, Jay Hayes (strong-side end), Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Drue Tranquill (Rover), Julian Love (field corner), Nick Watkins (boundary corner), Nick Coleman, Jalen Elliott

Second Team: Julian Okwara (weak-side end), Daniel Cage, Micah Dew-Treadway, Andrew Trumbetti (strong-side end), Jonathan Jones (Mike), Te’von Coney (Buck), Asmar Bilal (Rover), Troy Pride Jr. (field corner) Donte Vaughn (boundary corner), Isaiah Robertson, Devin Studstill

Third Team: Ade Ogundeji (weak-side end), Brandon Tiassum, Pete Mokwuah, Khalid Kareem (strong-side end), Jamir Jones, Josh Barajas, Robert Regan, Ashton White, Temitope Agoro. There was another walk-on in this group, but didn’t spot him. D.J. Morgan rotated in, but also ran with the “fourth team” too, as did Barajas.

Spent a lot of time watching Mike Elko during the morning session, but more so listening to the defensive coordinator. It’s not that he doesn’t yell, it’s more that he spends a lot of time talking to the players like a teacher as much as a coach. He wants to make sure his message is delivered clearly, which doesn’t require transmitting it at volumes that would blow out a speaker.

Another coaching point that makes an impression is how the defensive backs are split into two groups, meaning Todd Lyght just coaches corners while Elko takes the safeties. Considering the complexity in coverages and the volume of defensive backs required to play nickel and dime, having two fulltime assistant coaches back there seems like a no-brainer. While Brian VanGorder spent time with the safeties last year, that position is Elko’s specialty.

Defensive Line

As much as Brian Kelly has protested during spring ball that Notre Dame has more material on the defensive line than people think, it’s not entirely clear what that means.

Is Jerry Tillery a more dedicated football player than the one that ran a student government campaign last spring? Sources indicate that’s the case. Kelly has said it too. Is Daelin Hayes a potential impact defensive end? Definitely. He had an impressive tackle for loss on Wednesday and celebrated with Jaylon Smith’s “bowling move” celebration. On another snap Hayes delivered a punch to Mike McGlinchey’s chest strong enough that it rocked the fifth-year senior backward. Hayes then took advantage with speed, chasing down Brandon Wimbush.

But beyond Tillery and Hayes it’s hard to pick out impact players. Jonathan Bonner looks like a quality three technique, but he’s not Sheldon Day. Can Jay Hayes give the Irish what Isaac Rochell did last year? Hayes has more ability than Andrew Trumbetti in terms of size and strength. Daniel Cage continues to work his way back after that season-ending concussion last fall. The Irish need him to be a 30-snap player, probably at a minimum.

Beyond that group it’s down to Julian Okwara, Micah Dew-Treadway and Elijah Taylor when he returns. It’s remarkable how much an injury to a role player off last year’s team affects the outlook at this position. The Irish just don’t have a lot of quality depth here.

One player who’s impressive physically even if he’s never played is Ade Ogundeji. Few players added more weight than the sophomore, who took a red-shirt last season. Basically, he looks exactly like you’d want a defensive end to look. Not sure there’s a player on the team with a better wing span relative to his height.

Linebacker

Drue Tranquill’s move to Rover creates a couple interesting dynamics. For starters, the Irish will likely start a defense where all three linebackers are captains. Secondly, Tranquill was so good at the position on Wednesday that it makes you wonder why he was ever playing safety. The senior was that impressive, not just flying up field but also covering in short spaces.

One Tranquill play that turned everyone’s head was a blitz off the edge when he tackled Brandon Wimbush and Tony Jones Jr. at the same time as the quarterback tried to hand off to the running back. Incredible speed to get up the field. Then a few snaps later Tranquill lined up over Javon McKinley in the slot and took the sophomore receiver right out of the play for an incompletion. Don’t take this as Tranquill was perfect and erased every offensive threat that came his way. But he was very, very impressive in a new position.

Nyles Morgan took a knock to his knee midway through practice and stayed down on the turf for a couple seconds. Jamir Jones tried to sub in for Morgan and the middle linebacker waved him off, wanting to stay in the rep. Eventually the coaches pulled Morgan for a few snaps. He returned later in the practice.

Hit Of The Day: Asmar Bilal launching C.J. Sanders in the backfield. Absolutely destroyed the junior receiver.

Not a ton to report on Greer Martini at the Buck position or Te’von Coney behind him. Overall, it seems the Irish will have five linebackers the staff can trust in Morgan, Martini, Tranquill, Bilal and probably Coney. Next up would be Jonathan Jones, who carries himself like a middle linebacker in terms of leading the defense. 

Cornerback

I mentioned this to another reporter during the practice viewing that Julian Love might end up being the prospect I’m most wrong about in nearly 20 years covering Notre Dame football. And I thought Love was going to be a good college player. I just didn’t think we’d see a four-year starter and two-time captain. But that’s what Notre Dame has on its hands in Love, who just seems to make every play and every tackle. Physically, there’s a lot to overlook with Love, who’s not that big and not that strong. But he seems to make up for all of it with how he plays the game.

OK, that was the good news. The bad news was the tackling. Early in practice the defensive backs and wide receivers got together for some one-on-one tackling drills in a couple different formats.

The first drill had the wide receiver lay down on his back with a ball in his hands. Four yards away, a defensive back did the same (no ball) so their helmets were pointed at one another. The coach blew the whistle. The players got off the ground as quickly as possible. The defensive back tried to tackle the receiver. I charted 15 of these reps. I put the defense down for eight “wins,” but more than half of those were a scholarship defensive back tackling a walk-on wide receiver.

In some cases the defensive back couldn’t even get a hand on the offensive player. In others, the defensive back got thrown to the ground. Basically, the Irish still need a lot of work here. Isaiah Robertson did “win” against Chase Claypool. Troy Pride Jr. took down Chris Finke. Donte Vaughn got C.J. Sanders.

In the next tackling drill the defensive backs and wide receivers were both standing, 10 yards apart. The receiver and defensive back would then run at an angle toward one another, creating the opportunity for a hard cut for the offensive player. Again, the defensive backs struggled. Nick Watkins got beat by Equanimeous St. Brown. Troy Pride Jr. got wiped out by Chris Finke.

Despite all this cornerback still appears to be solid, particularly with Shaun Crawford close to a full comeback, according to Brian Kelly. A Watkins-Love-Crawford group in nickel would be one of Notre Dame’s better trios under Kelly, at least on paper. And Vaughn-Pride would rank as the best back-up corner group the Irish have had.

One more thing on Watkins. He carries himself like a big-time cornerback. Is he the next KeiVarae Russell? Probably not. But physically, this kid is long with good size/strength. Should be in position for an excellent senior season.

Safety

On a podcast earlier in spring practice a reader asked if interior defensive line or safety was the bigger concern. The thought was interior defensive line because of depth and the nature of the position. Also, the Elko Effect factored because Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator (and one of the best teachers on the staff) will coach safeties. And still, there’s a real debate about the biggest question in the Irish defense heading toward the Blue-Gold Game.

Elko has a lot of work to do to get this position in shape for September.

And Harrison Smith isn’t walking through that door. 

Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott got virtually all the first-team work on Wednesday but it’s hard to say either distinguished himself as a true front-line player. Coleman has struggled with tackling but covers well for the position. That could be his greatest strength, the ability to roll up on a slot receiver and run with him after the snap. But when it comes to making a tackle in the open field, that remains a concern.

Devin Studstill and Isaiah Robertson got the second-team work, with Robertson making an impressive interception in the end zone on an underthrown ball by Brandon Wimbush. Robertson was also nowhere to be found on a 50-yard (plus) touchdown run by Tony Jones Jr. to his side. But in terms of looking the part, Robertson does it best. There’s a lot to like here, but the Irish probably won’t rely on a freshman safety (again) in a lead role. Studstill also had a nice pass breakup during the goal line drill.

Nicco Fertitta practiced with a cast on his left hand. While he put himself out there for contact, he clearly was in pain when taking hits. And yet, he still remained one of the better tacklers at this position.


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