Notre Dame was set to open spring practice this week but pushed back the start until March 18th after hiring a bunch of new coaches. Not a bad idea, if you ask me. The weather will be a little nicer and it gave the likes of me a little more time to write pieces like this.
In contrast to last spring there are not a lot of holes to fill on defense which opens up a bunch of different questions to ask heading into the 2015 season.
Shumate & Redfield: Dynamic Duo or Still Leave Us Wanting More?
I may not be the only one who feels this way but the careers of Shumate and Redfield are absolutely zooming by so quickly. They're also the most highly touted safeties on the roster and neither have been able to live up to those considerable standards set back in high school.
With the severe lack of experience at safety the leadership and accountability provided by both of these athletes on the back end is going to be crucial to a productive spring. Let's also go ahead and say a prayer that neither suffer any injuries because there's just no room for those kind of set backs.
In many ways, Shumate and Redfield hold the keys to a truly improved defense. There are reasonable levels of experience and production at all levels of this side of the ball but even with these two upperclassmen at safety it's been quite some time since there were difference makers on the back end of the defense.
The Health of Tranquill, and Hey, Where's He Playing Anyway?
Drue Tranquill tore his ACL against Louisville back on November 22nd. It's been less than 4 months at this point and even back on National Signing Day, just 3 months post-injury, we received the optimistic news from head coach Brian Kelly that Tranquill would be available for spring ball on a non-contact basis.
Brian Kelly says Drue Tranquill is "so far ahead" in his recovery. Was squatting 315 pounds 2 1/2 months after ACL surgery. #NotreDame— JJ Stankevitz (@JJStankevitz) February 4, 2015
Obviously, that's awesome news for Tranquill who appears on the path to a freakish recovery from a serious injury. Even without tackling ball carriers later this month this begs the question where he'll be lining up and continuing his learning. With the lack of bodies at safety it would seem Tranquill would provide some stability and much needed help at that position, however, absent some weight loss you have to wonder how much of a long-term future a rising 225 sophomore has at the back end.
Tranquill was used at both safety and outside linebacker last year in a little bit of a flexible role. I'm wondering if we see that kind of role continue or if the staff decides to settle him down at one position only.
Does Nick Watkins Solidify Himself as the Third Corner?
No one on the Fighting Irish had a quieter freshman season than Nick Watkins last year. One could even say that burning his redshirt was a bit of a waste. That school of thought certainly wouldn't be ridiculous as Watkins played in 11 games and didn't even register one tackle.
However, consider that experience (however small) should help the Dallas native get more acclimated to a bigger role in 2015, one in which he'll likely be among the top corners for Notre Dame.
Also consider that expected starter Keivarae Russell won't be back until the summer, Farley will likely stay at nickel or move to safety, and Devin Butler is a prime candidate to move to safety. This could easily thrust Watkins into a spring starting role opposite Cole Luke for the spring and at worst the third corner in the fall. Will he be ready for a big increase in responsibility this month?
What Do We Realistically Expect from Jarrett Grace?
This week will make it 17 months since Grace's devastating ankle/lower leg injury that forced him to miss the second half of the 2013 season and all of last year's campaign. It wasn't only Tranquill who had positive injury news from Brian Kelly on NSD, but Grace too is said to be close to his former health.
As great as that sounds there are still major questions to be asked about Grace even if he is legitimately healthy and somewhere close to his old athleticism. The biggest of those questions is whether he's been able to cut enough weight and provide enough speed to still play linebacker in Brian VanGorder's 4-3 system.
Grace's last official weight was listed at 253 pounds--a size more fit for a defensive end. If he comes into spring at around 240 or under can he effectively play inside linebacker? Or would he be better suited as a jumbo-sized run stopping SAM linebacker similar to the role Ben Councell filled sparingly last year?
Who is Running with the First Team at Mike Linebacker?
We may hear an update on the status of Joe Schmidt at Brian Kelly's press conference today but it appeared to be trending the way of a non-contact situation at best in recent weeks. If so, there will need to be someone who is able to take the first team reps during scrimmages and tackling drills.
If we were to take a poll on the situation there's no doubt that Nyles Morgan would win the fan's hearts as the Mike linebacker to take Schmidt's position in the spring--likely with some spirited debate as to whether Schmidt ever gets his job back to boot. The smart money is on Morgan taking those reps in the spring as I'm sure the coaching staff will love pairing him with Jaylon Smith and accelerating the rising sophomore's progress.
What happens after spring once Schmidt comes back fully healthy is going to be one of the biggest questions for fall camp.
Can Tevon Coney Enter the Two Deep?
Coney was among a trio of talented linebackers in the 2015 recruiting class but he's the only member of that group to already be on campus and soon to take part in spring practice. Due to that early enrolee status he's always been considered a prime candidate to play on special teams as a freshman but is it possible that Coney will make a legitimate impact at linebacker too?
His physical development will surely help his quest to play linebacker this fall and will make it easy for the staff to get him involved early on this spring. Also, it is expected that linebackers Doug Randolph and Michael Deeb will be moving to defensive end which almost automatically provides Coney the chance to nip at the heels of the two deep right out of the gate.
Will Any of the Young Defensive Ends Step Up?
If the rumors are true that Deeb and Randolph are in fact moving to end we'll be looking at one vicious competition at this position during the spring--among a group that is largely full of underclassmen.
With Randolph and Deeb there's also Okwara (the lone senior), Blankenship, Trumbetti, Hill, and Jhonny Williams plus any snaps from Isaac Rochell who plays outside on occasion. Among the fan base establishing a consistent pass rush off the edge may be the top priority of spring so this group has its work cut out this month.
With Jarron Jones Out Who Eats Up the Middle?
Jones is definitely out for spring while recovering from a lisfranc injury and leaves a rather large hole on the interior of the defense as the starting nose guard. A collection of linemen now get their chance to clog the middle.
Jacob Matuska (289) is the oldest of the bunch. Daniel Cage (325) is much larger and gained a little bit of experience last year as a freshman. Pete Mokwuah (325) also offers enormous size but took a redshirt during his first year on campus. Even early enrollee freshman Micah Dew-Treadway (280) could offer some depth if need be.
This could turn out to be the most important position for creating quality depth during the spring. The number one guy is out and a group of relatively inexperienced players need to provide some trust in the coaching staff that a legitimate backup and third option can be ready for fall camp.