Five Questions That Will Shape Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football's 2021 Spring Practices
{{ timeAgo('2021-03-21 10:16:27 -0500') }} football Edit

Five Questions That Will Shape Notre Dame’s Spring Practices

Notre Dame begins Brian Kelly’s 12th spring season with questions at several important positions. It has an offensive line overhaul to manage. Receiver is a quagmire of talented mystery men. Boundary cornerback and free safety need unproven players to claim starting jobs after one-year stopgap moves plugged those holes in 2020. And, yes, there’s the matter of finding a quarterback.

Pressing questions couldn’t be answered last spring, save for a sole padded practice before the world shut down. Now, though, 15 spring practices are back this year, though likely without any outside eyes on them.

Notre Dame won’t likely get answers to all its questions before it goes on hiatus in early May. It can, though, make good progress in working toward them. That’s the whole point of spring ball.

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Can wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. make a strong case to start this spring?
Can wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. make a strong case to start this spring? (Mike Miller)

Here’s a look at five of the most pressing questions and biggest themes of the offseason the Irish coaching staff will need to address.

1. Who’s Going To Emerge At Receiver?

Kelly mentioned “playmakers” four separate times after Notre Dame lost to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff. As in, the Irish need more of them and the discrepancy between their group and the Crimson Tide’s was hard to miss.

The receiving corps will again be a new cast of contributors. Javon McKinley (team-high 42 catches, 17.1 yards per catch) is gone, as is Ben Skowronek and his team-high five touchdown catches. Notre Dame brought in Skowronek as a graduate transfer last offseason, but hasn’t made any external additions this year. That leaves a host of less-proven players who still have the fan base’s fascination to win jobs.

Jordan Johnson is the first name who comes to mind. The former five-star recruit was entirely off the radar during a bumpy freshman year, but his struggles weren’t related to ability. With a better grip on his other duties, he ought to have every chance to start at the field receiver spot. So will senior Braden Lenzy, a former sprinter whose 2020 was derailed by hamstring issues. Top-50 freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr. is looming if neither wows.

At boundary receiver, senior Kevin Austin Jr. won’t likely be a full go as he works back from a twice-broken foot. That leaves senior Joe Wilkins Jr. likely to get the first crack. He gave Notre Dame a spark in the season-opener against Duke, but had only three catches in the other 11 games. Was that four-catch game against the Blue Devils an aberration or a sign of what he could do with more targets? His blocking should help him see the field in some capacity.

Austin’s limited availability means the position won’t be fully sorted out until fall camp, but Notre Dame must find some level of clarity here and wrap up spring feeling like it has at least one trustworthy weapon outside of slot receiver Avery Davis.

2. Who Shines Up Front?

Notre Dame signed 11 offensive linemen from 2019-21. Only two were three-stars. The Irish have a collection of former blue-chip recruits who now have a chance to grab one of the four vacated starting spots. All five will be empty in the spring as returning center Jarrett Patterson recovers from a November Lisfranc injury.

It’s possible Patterson, a high school tackle, finds himself playing on the edge again as a senior. Junior Zeke Correll, who started twice in his place last season, has exclusively worked at center and could force the issue if he builds on his respectable 2020 showing this spring.

What if tackle becomes a less pressing spot to fill, though? There are no shortage of intriguing candidates there.

Junior Andrew Kristofic and sophomore Tosh Baker are former four-star recruits who saw time in mop-up duty last year and will hop into high-stakes battles. Junior Quinn Carroll and fifth-year senior Josh Lugg figure to be in the mix too. There might not be a need for Patterson to kick out to tackle if two of them stand out.

There are a lot of ways this can go. Narrowing it down by the end of spring would be ideal. About the only thing that’s clear now is Patterson is going to start somewhere.

3. Can Any Of The Quarterbacks Push Jack Coan?

Coan should be viewed as the early favorite to start because he’s the only quarterback who currently is a known. The range of outcomes is narrower with him than if the Irish trotted out someone else. That doesn’t mean Notre Dame won’t give the others a shot, though. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees indicated all will get a chance.

Jack Coan started 18 games at Wisconsin from 2018-19 and is the best bet to start for Notre Dame.
Jack Coan started 18 games at Wisconsin from 2018-19 and is the best bet to start for Notre Dame. (Dan Sanger)

Will freshman Tyler Buchner, sophomore Drew Pyne or junior Brendon Clark (who is battling knee issues) give him a run for the job and give the competition some real juice? Or will Kelly and Rees wrap up the final spring workout understanding Coan is the clear starter, even if they don’t say so until August?

It seems hard to believe a trio with seven combined college pass attempts would push an 18-game starter in the Big Ten, but this spring is the chance to determine the size of the gap between Coan and the field and if it’s worth holding an elongated quarterback competition in training camp.

4. What’s The Defensive End Succession Plan?

Notre Dame had two fifth-year seniors ready to slide in for a pair of draft picks in 2020. Any competition was window dressing — Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes were going to start.

Their replacements, though, are less clear. Last season’s sack leader Isaiah Foskey looks like Hayes’ heir at the vyper end spot. Rising senior Justin Ademilola was Ogundeji’s main backup, but don’t be surprised if Notre Dame experiments with sliding two-year starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa out to end.

Tagovailoa-Amosa upped his production as a pass rusher in 2020, making a move out to end easier to envision. Ademilola had impressive moments in 2020 (2.5 tackles for loss, 12 pressures in 132 pass-rush snaps), but didn’t quite have the same sample or impact Ogundeji had in 2019 that made him a clear projected starter.

That’s not to say Ademilola can’t claim the job, but adding an interior player to the strong-side end competition feels likely.

5. Will Notre Dame Need To Snag A Grad Transfer CB Again?

The Irish opened 2020 spring practice without any clarity at boundary corner, hoping they’d get some from the group of underclassmen fighting for the job. They never had the chance. Heading into fall camp with little grasp on the position was uncomfortable, so Notre Dame plucked former N.C. State corner Nick McCloud from the transfer portal. He slid into the role and gave Notre Dame reliable play as a one-year bridge.

The position is in the same spot once again. Junior Cam Hart, a 6-3 converted receiver, was McCloud’s backup, but rarely saw the field outside of garbage time. Will 5-11 junior TaRiq Bracy get a chance after Clarence Lewis usurped him in November, or is he strictly a field corner? If the answer is the latter, a host of freshman and sophomores look like the primary competition.

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This is the quintessential spring battle. It’s a chance for young and unproven players to demonstrate they can be trusted and earn a non-scout team job. Save for Hart (and perhaps Bracy), most everyone competing at boundary corner hasn’t had that opportunity before.

Where do sophomores Caleb Offord and Ramon Henderson fit after anonymous redshirt seasons? Could early enrollees Philip Riley or Ryan Barnes make a strong impression like Lewis did in 2020? How far ahead of all of them is Hart? Is moving Lewis over to boundary a desirable option?

Notre Dame likely won’t answer all of these in 15 practices, but it needs to have an idea if its in-house candidates will suffice at an important position or if it will need to dip into the grad transfer market again for some security.

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