Today is the first official day of spring for the North Temperate Zone and as we escape the clutches of winter's frosty touch (not quite yet where I live with an inch of snow on the ground) the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame open March practice this morning. This is Brian Kelly's 4th spring ball in South Bend as the team begins official preparations for the school's 126th season of football later this fall.
For the next month we'll be able to get our fix of Irish football culminating in the 84th Blue-Gold Game on Saturday, April 20th at 1 PM inside Notre Dame Stadium.
Here is the full schedule for the spring practices:
- Wednesday, March 20, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, March 22, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, March 23, 10:45 a.m.-1 p.m.
- Monday, March 25, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, March 27, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, April 3, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, April 5, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, April 6, 10:45 a.m.-1 p.m.
- Monday, April 8, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, April 10, 8-10 a.m.
- Friday, April 12, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, April 13, 10:45 a.m.-1 p.m. (Full Access for Media)
- Monday, April 15, 8-10 a.m.
- Wednesday, April 17, 8-10 a.m.
- Saturday, April 20, 84th Blue-Gold spring football game, 1 p.m.
Head coach Brian Kelly held his spring press conference yesterday and pburns had a nice recap of that for you to read. Now I'll look toward some of the issues and positional battles that will occur over the next 4 weeks.
*Players available do not reflect injuries.
Starters Returning: 1/2
Players Available: 2
Spring Storyline: Who's Punting?
Looking to Step Up: Kyle Brindza
With the transfer of quarterback Gunner Kiel made official yesterday and offensive tackle Tate Nichols unable to compete because of his knee injuries that gave the Irish 2 extra scholarships to work with for the 2013 season. Kicker Nick Tausch applied for a 5th year and was accepted back to the team.
This will bring some competition back to the place kicking duties and hopefully relieve junior Kyle Brindza of having to literally do everything (kickoffs, field goals, punting) this spring without much rest.
Place kicking should be fine, but the team needs to find a new punter with the loss of Ben Turk. Brindza has some experience from high school and cross-trained at punter since arriving in South Bend. He has a big leg but will he have all the intricacies down to hold down the starting job or will the team be looking at walk-on 5th-year senior transfer Alex Wulfeck to take the job when he arrives this summer?
Starters Returning: 3/4
Players Available: 12
Spring Storyline: Replacing Zeke Motta at Safety
Looking to Step Up: Jalen Brown
Jamoris Slaughter was denied a 6th year of eligibility that would have meant an entire returning set of starters for the Irish secondary in 2013. Alas, it was not meant to be. However, the depth here has done a complete 180 from 2 years ago (or even 1 year ago) and there should be a great combination of players fighting for an opening safety spot and jockeying for position as backups at the other positions.
Replacing strong safety Zeke Motta will be a major priority this spring and I expect a dog fight between Austin Collinsworth (returning from a season ending injury in '12) and rising sophomore Nicky Baratti (ahead of schedule recovering from off-season surgery). I like the former to win that battle but Elijah Shumate could insert himself in to this race depending on what the coaches want to do with him this spring.
Corner should be very interesting to watch even with both starters returning. Senior Bennett Jackson should be out for a while with an injury (although Kelly said he's ahead of schedule) so that will offer players the opportunity to run with the 1st team for perhaps the next month. Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson are returning with ample experience, while Lo Wood is healthy after missing 2012 with a torn Achilles tendon.
My eyes will be on Brown to step up and run alongside freshman All-American KeiVarae Russell with the 1st team defense this spring. I've thought Brown has acquitted himself well on the field in mop-up duty and he has the prototypical size for a corner in Diaco's system. I think this is a big spring practice for the Texan as he can solidify himself as the first corner off the bench in September and become a front-runner to take Bennett Jackson's starting job in 2014.
Starters Returning: 3/4
Players Available: 10
Spring Storyline: A Life Without Manti Te'o
Looking to Step Up: Jarrett Grace
Pburns recently chronicled Michael Floyd and Jimmy Clausen's historic performance against Nevada to open the 2009 season. That game was noteworthy, among other reasons, for being Manti Te'o's first at Notre Dame. Now, the Fighting Irish will navigate the dark and mysterious waters without one of the program's most inspirational leaders and productive players.
One can imagine the team stepping over some construction in the Gug on their way to practice as workers build a new wing in the facility to house all of Manti's 84 awards he won last year. That's an allegory, or something.
Even with the loss of Te'o things are looking pretty solid across the linebacker corps. 5th-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are back to help fill the loss of No. 5 although Fox will probably miss a lot of time this spring recovering from off-season surgery. This should give plenty of opportunity for the President of the NDWC (that's the Notre Dame Werewolf Club) in Jarrett Grace to assert himself as the program's Mike linebacker for the next 3 years.
Grace's performance this spring will likely determine if Fox & Calabrese continue sharing reps at the Will LB spot, or if one of them moves over to Mike. In Kelly's press conference yesterday he mentioned Calabrese as a candidate at Mike so there will be more competition for Grace to deal with.
There shouldn't be too many more questions at other linebacker spots besides seeing how much trust Ben Councell has earned from the coaching staff knowing Jaylon Smith will be coming in during the summer, or if a couple players like Anthony Rabasa and Romeo Okwara find new positions.
Starters Returning: 2/3
Players Available: 8
Spring Storyline: Building Quality Depth
Looking to Step Up: Chase Hounshell
If all goes according to plan this shouldn't be a very dramatic spring for the big boys up front on defense. Nose guard Louis Nix has been working out in Arizona with a handful of teammates so he should be in great shape. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt will still be freakishly large and still look like he could play receiver. I see little reason to push these two studs that much for the next month and the focus should be on building depth behind them.
The Irish will go about replacing 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore this spring but fleet-of-foot rising sophomore Sheldon Day has the inside track there after a successful first season last year. Nipping on his heels could be the highly touted and more physically imposing Jarron Jones who took a redshirt as a freshman in 2012 and may be pushed hard by the coaching staff to make a big impact on his first year on the field.
My player that needs to step up is redshirt sophomore Chase Hounshell. After seeing the field a little bit as a true freshman he missed all of 2012 with a shoulder injury. Hounshell wasn't a big-time recruit and I'm not looking for him to make a big splash this spring and fall but if the team can get some decent minutes out of Chase then that will likely give Notre Dame 8 bodies on the defensive line for a legitimate deep and battle-tested rotation.
The talent has been accumulated by Diaco & Kelly, now this spring should be about cultivating the deepest defensive line in recent memory for this program.
Starters Returning: 3/5
Players Available: 10
Spring Storyline: Finding a Center
Looking to Step Up: Matt Hegarty
Many eyes will be on the offensive line this spring as the team looks to replace long-time starting center Braxston Cave and the overachieving right guard Mike Golic.
There will be a few storylines this spring but they are all interchangeable with the movement of players to different positions or someone grabbing a starting spot by the start of April. As I mentioned in Engineering the Fall Depth Chart a few weeks ago, I expect Nick Martin to solidify a starting role at right guard this spring, although Brian Kelly did mention in his presser that he is in line to battle for the spot at center.
BK also mentioned that priority #1 this spring is figuring out the center position and then worrying about guard. If Hegarty can step up (he's 100% and ready to go after heart surgery) I like him to start at center and Martin to find a home at guard after a couple weeks.
Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Ronnie Stanley as he comes back from elbow surgery. Also, I'm pretty sure the staff loves Steve Elmer more than any other 2013 recruit. With his size and early entry he has an opportunity to make some noise at the tackle position. I'm certain that Christian Lombard will remain at tackle but maybe not if these players come on strong over the next month.
Starters Returning: 0/1
Players Available: 4
Spring Storyline: Finding Pass Catchers
Looking to Step Up: Ben Koyack
The bad news is that this is a unit with very little production catching the ball, but the good news is that all four (and it will be five when Smythe arrives in June) are talented and redshirt junior Alex Welch is healthy and 100% again.
I'm confident that Troy Niklas basement is a good solid quality tight end and hopefully Welch stays healthy and is able to show his skills as a blocker and pass catcher. I think the team really needs Ben Koyack to step up this year and be an impact player. Using the 247 Composite rankings he's the 4th most talented player on the roster (not including the incoming freshmen---he'd drop to 7th then) and it's about time he started making some waves.
Kelly mentioned in his presser that he loves the burst from freshman Mike Heuerman, so keep an eye out for his big body in passing situations.
Starters Returning: 2/3
Players Available: 10
Spring Storyline: The Spotlight is on the Class of 2012
Looking to Step Up: Davonte Neal
T.J. Jones and Davaris Daniels are back manning the outside positions and it sounds like Brian Kelly is ready for Double-D to take the next step into ELITE status. I'd welcome that.
The focus this spring will be on replacing Robby Toma in the slot and building depth throughout the ranks. As a super recruit many eyes will be on Davonte Neal to become a regular on offense instead of fair catching punts all year.
The depth here will certainly be fun to watch. Ferguson, Brown, Smith, Prosises, Onwualu, and Robinson should all be working to see the field behind a trio of starters.
Starters Returning: 0/1
Players Available: 4
Spring Storyline: Establishing a Pecking Order
Looking to Step Up: Amir Carlisle
Kelly's comments during his press conference reinforce the notion that this is George Atkinson's battle to lose. He should have every opportunity to prove he is THE MAN this spring.
We know what we're going to get from Cam McDaniel and he'll do his thing but I think it's important for Amir Carlisle to assert himself as a No. 1 type of back. I still remained worried about his size though.
This will be Will Mahone's first spring practice so keep an eye out for him too.
Starters Returning: 1/1
Players Available: 4
Spring Storyline: Rallying Around Golson
Looking to Step Up: Andrew Hendrix
One fewer body here with the loss of Kiel but we're slowly transitioning in to this being Golson's team. With Kelly's comments yesterday it sounds like Golson is fully embracing the role as the offense's leaders both on and off the field.
Rees is the ultimate known commodity so the onus really falls on Hendrix to not just drift away as a forgotten man on the roster. It's best for everybody on this team if he can make some noise this spring and prove he is a viable option this fall and as a 5th-year senior.
- Rivals is listing 1/4 inches for the player's heights above. We'll see if that is a new feature on the official Notre Dame depth chart. Anyway, George Atkinson is 6-1.25 and 217 pounds. That's 1/4 inch taller and 7 pounds heavier.
- Baratti lost 5 pounds---perhaps a side effect of off-season surgery?
- Brindza is now at 236 and might be cross-training at middle linebacker soon.
- Chris Brown is now up to 191 pounds and if accurate he's put on a ton of weight over the past 18 months.
- Carlisle gets dropped down to 5-9.75 and is still listed at 185 pounds. I still don't think he weighs that much, but I may change my tune after seeing him this spring.
- Collinsworth lost 8 pounds and is now under 200. Kind of strange because he was supposed to be pretty healthy in November. Maybe the staff wants increased speed and is looking for him at nickel and not strong safety?
- Ben Councell drops down 3/4 of an inch to 6-4.25 but is now a beefy 248 pounds (+8 lbs.) which is great to see for someone who was kind of stringy his first two seasons. He now weighs the same as Spond.
- Sheldon Day is listed at the exact same size---I thought he'd put on 10 pounds or more.
- Incoming freshman Steve Elmer is 6-5.5 and 317 pounds, now that's a large rookie.
- Justin Ferguson loses a full inch and a half down to 6-0.5 and loses 4 pounds (192 lbs). That's kind of a head scratcher for someone who was supposed to be a big strong possession-type receiver. He's an inch taller than TJ Jones but the same weight.
- Golson is now officially below 6 feet tall (5-11.75) but has an extra pound to him. The march towards 190+ continues, hopefully he gets there by August.
- Grace adds 8 pounds to get to 248 where the coaches are going to be more comfortable with him in the middle.
- Very encouraging news to see Mark Harrell at 305 pounds (+18 lbs.) after just one year in the program. I think he goes from automatic backup to serious contender in the interior at that weight.
- Hegarty has lost 5 pounds, another instance of off-season surgery possibly having an effect. 291 for a center does give me some pause that he'll be starting but he could get that weight up over 300 by the start of the season.
- Freshman tight end Mike Heuerman comes in at a slim 6-3.5 and 218 pounds. That's pretty much a large receiver and he's significantly smaller than the other tight ends on the roster.
- Koyack has gained 8 more pounds and is up to 261---I swear he must have the heaviest bones in the world because he's never looked an ounce over 235 to me at any point in his career.
- Lombard is up to 322 after adding 13 pounds.
- Nick Martin has lost 6 pounds and is down to 284---kind of concerning that the two odds on favorites to win jobs on the offensive line are both under 3 bills.
- Neal has added 7 pounds to his wiry frame coming in at 178 this spring.
- Louis Nix is listed at 357 (+31 lbs.) and wow! Either that's very wrong or Nix was doing a lot of eating in Arizona. Or it's very possible he weighed much more than he was listed at last year.
- Romeo Okwara has put on 19 pounds and is at 258---that's great size for the Cat linebacker position.
- Freshman wide receiver James Onwualu comes in at a jacked up 6-1 and 215 pounds. If he can prove himself as a blocker I think he plays this year with that kind of size.
- C.J. Prosise has added 12 pounds (220) and that's some good size for a guy cross training at receiver.
- Freshman Corey Robinson is officially listed as 6-4.25 and 197 pounds. That's not nearly as tall as many believed but if that weight is accurate he's bulkier than I thought.
- KeiVarae Russel has packed on 8 pounds and is up to 190.
- Shembo adds 8 pounds to get to 258.
- Elijah Shumate got a lot bigger moving from 198 to 213---that looks like a weight a safety will play at and not a nickel corner.
- Curiously, Springmann is down 16 pounds to 284---that's pretty light for someone listed at 6-5.5 and playing defensive line.
- Ronnie Stanely comes in at 6-5.5 and 318 pounds---that's a 14 pound weight gain coming off injury. He could get huge over the next year.
- Good Lord, Stephon Tuitt is listed at 6-6.25 and 322 pounds---that's 19 extra pounds. He has the potential to be one of the freakiest athletes in recent history whenever he shows up at the NFL Combine.
- Safety John Turner lost 1.5 inches on his height (now 6-0.5) but added 13 pounds to get to 220.
- Justin Utupo added 23 pounds (now 281) which should solidify his presence at defensive end for the remainder of his career.
- Chris Watt is up to 322 pounds, a gain of a dozen. That will boost his NFL stock if he continues playing at a high level in 2013.
- Alex Welch has shed 5 pounds and is down to 245.
- Freshman quarterback Malik Zaire checks in at a strong 6-0 and 208 pounds.