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Notre Dame Football 2016 Spring Football Practice: Nickel Coverage In Focus

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A recap of all the football things going on after Notre Dame's 10th spring practice.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

practice 1

Spring football just began and now its somehow almost over. Today marked the 10th practice for the Fighting Irish and the 4th media viewing period with another 30 minute peek at the beginning of the team's workout. Don't forget, this Saturday the media will be able to watch the full 2-hour practice so check out our report this weekend as it's bound to be thorough.

QUARTERBACK

For what it's worth this was the first media viewing where Kizer came out first instead of Zaire. Perhaps they split it up that way with Zaire working first until the 8th practice? Regardless, both continue to split reps with Wimbush working with mostly walk-ons this Wednesday.

Brian Kelly made some interesting comments about his quarterbacks after the workout. On Zaire he mentioned how the offense evolved after his injury and Malik is doing some things now for the first time which they installed in the middle of last year under Kizer. He also said Zaire needs to work on his balance, communication, and footwork.

For Kizer he needs to work on making reads across the whole field, and improving his red zone efficiency and consistency. Kelly also had this to say on the competition:

"They both probably can't play at the same time. So one is going to be unhappy. I can't keep them all happy, and we're not going to go into the season with a team that does not have an identity."

As per usual, no decision of naming a starter will come this spring as Kelly has said before. But whoever wins the competition should feel pretty good about their position, I'd say.

RUNNING BACK

Once again Josh Adams and Tarean Folston rotated in with the starters on Wednesday. One quick note is that today's workout was the first witnessed by the media in which Justin Brent got reps before Dexter Williams with the second unit. Perhaps Brent is Doing Good ThingsTM?

WIDE RECEIVER

Corey Robinson continues to be out with his concussion. The rising senior was at practice but only on the sidelines in sweats. Kelly said he'll be seeing a specialist this week. We can speculate on his future for the fall but it's looking like Robinson may not return to the lineup this spring with only 4 practices and the Blue Gold Game remaining.

With Robinson out for the last couple weeks there's been a small bit of shuffling among the receivers. Namely, the "W" spot to the boundary side of the field is now being manned by Equanimeous St. Brown with Torii Hunter (X) and Corey Holmes (Z) rounding out the starters.

The second group continues to feature Miles Boykin (W), Kevin Stepherson (X), and walk-on Chris Finke in the slot.

Following practice Kelly mentioned that injured slot/return man C.J. Sanders is targeting a late June return from hip surgery and that the July workouts will be very important for him to regain strength before the season.

TIGHT END

Nic Weishar was working with the first-team today during the opening tempo drills with Durham Smythe sitting out on the sidelines. Kelly was asked about Smythe afterwards and intimated that they are taking things slowly with him as he builds up his workload after missing so much time last year.

Alize Jones continues to work (primarily, from what the media has seen thus far) with the second-team. Although, there is an "11A" formation the team is using now which features one tight end on the field and Jones outside at the "W" receiver position.

Kelly reiterated with the press that Jones is a great pass catcher and that he needs to keep working on his in-line blocking. He also mentioned that Jacob Matuksa--former high school tight end moved from the defensive line before spring--has better hands than they expected.

OFFENSIVE LINE

For the first time all spring we've seen the same starting unit in consecutive practices opened to the media:

McGlinchey (LT), Nelson (LG), Mustipher (C), Bivin (RG), Bars (RT)

Byrne (LT), Ruhland (LG), Hoge (C), Harrell (RG), McGovern (RT)

Consider that a leg up for Hunter Bivin who appears to have jumped into the lead at right guard. Can he hold on to that position all the way through the fall? FYI, this starting lineup could all potentially return for 2017 which would be nice.

Kelly was asked about Sam Mustipher at center and said he's been doing a good job but that they haven't given him as much responsibility that was on Nick Martin's plate last year, which is to be expected. Right now, the quarterbacks are helping out more with setting protections..

DEFENSIVE LINE

I'm anxiously awaiting Saturday's full practice viewing so we can get a better handle on the depth up front. Right now there's little to report.

Kelly talked about Jarron Jones and said the 5th-year senior was a bit tentative and still looking to build his confidence after missing so much football. That's understandable.

LINEBACKER

With only 4 scholarship players and no movement of positions it's been a rather dull spring for the linebackers. Onwualu (SAM), Morgan (MIKE), and Bilal (WILL) continue to work with the first-team defense as Barajas backs up Morgan in the middle.

One interesting note is that when the defense went to its first-team nickel it was Bilal coming off the field in exchange for the extra corner. In terms of experience that makes perfect sense but obviously last year the WILL (aka Jaylon Smith) wasn't coming off the field. What they appear to be doing (for now, at least) is moving Onwualu inside next to Morgan in nickel defense.

Bilal and Barajas patrolled the middle of the defense with the second-team nickel unit. The injured Coney and Martini were participating in warm-ups with their sweats on but didn't go further than that. Neither are coming back for spring.

DEFENSIVE BACK

With junior Nick Watkins sidelined for the rest of spring thanks to a broken arm we saw rising sophomore Nick Coleman moved up to the first-team opposite Cole Luke at corner. The backups are now Butler and White. I'm interested to know how much Butler's foot injury is still bothering him because if he's relatively healthy he does not appear to be favored ahead of several others.

By the way, Kelly said Watkins had 4 screws and a plate put into his arm and they expect him back in 6 weeks.

The nickel coverage units therefore were Luke and Coleman at corner, Shaun Crawford at nickel, with Studstill and Tranquill at safety. The second unit saw Butler and White at corner, Cole Luke at nickel, with Redfield and Sebastian at safety.

After practice, Kelly expounded that they are getting Luke work at nickel in an effort to build depth at that position. Good idea! He went on to say that they didn't like some of the matchups last year with an opponent's slot receiver on our SAM linebacker because of our inability to play an effective nickel corner.

Once again, Shaun Crawford got more praise for some more PPP (Praise Per Practice) mega-points. He's the clubhouse leader this spring by a country mile.

Kelly talked about how they love Crawford's man coverage skills and how vital that ability is when he doesn't have the luxury of using the sideline to defend like a typical outside corner. Crawford's speed and instincts were also praised as they feel very comfortable with him tracking fast receivers across the field or down the seams.

SPECIAL TEAMS

New holder alert! New holder alert!

Trust nothing to get by the astute Notre Dame Media Corps as they immediately noticed today that DeShone Kizer was not holding for field goals in the beginning of practice. Moving forward, it'll be Montgomery VanGorder handling those duties.

Kelly said they wanted to get Kizer away from that extra work (BK's comments today made it feel like Kizer is going to be the quarterback to me, but what do I know) and that Yoon was privately championing for VanGorder to hold anyway.

Yoon's also improved his leg strength. Coming off a freshman All-American season Kelly said they felt comfortable with Yoon from about 43 yards and now that's improved to the 47 to 50-yard range.

For now, the punt returners are Torii Hunter, Kevin Stepherson, and Chris Finke. When asked about the kick returners Kelly mentioned it has been Josh Adams and Dexter Williams back deep but that they've only worked on it once with the lack of outdoor practices. He said that's a work in progress that could change in the coming months.