Five Things We’ve Learned Through Five Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football 2021 Spring Practices
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Five Things We’ve Learned Through Five Notre Dame Spring Practices

Notre Dame is one-third of the way done with spring practice, and the samples for judging its progress are two Zoom sessions with Brian Kelly and players plus 15 total minutes of video.

As the Irish hold their sixth spring practice out of 15 Thursday morning, some major questions are still left unsettled — as would be expected for the timeframe and the circumstances. There’s still enough available information, though, to reach some conclusions about what has developed so far.

Here is a look at five things we have learned since the Fighting Irish opened spring practice on March 27.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football quarterback Jack Coan
Jack Coan is vying for Notre Dame's starting quarterback job. (Notre Dame Athletics)

1. Jack Coan And Drew Pyne Splitting Reps

No matter how difficult is to overlook the experience gap between Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan and sophomore-to-be Drew Pyne — and it is difficult — nothing is official yet in terms of naming a starting quarterback. Until it is, they’ll likely continue splitting first-team snaps.

“Those guys are getting equal reps with the first and second groups,” Kelly said. “A good battle there. We evaluate that day to day. One day we see some good things from Drew, then Jack does some really good things. That’s a battle that continues to take shape.”

Pyne drew positive reviews for his winter workout leadership and his ability to learn the offense quickly. He’s not relinquishing the job just because Notre Dame brought in an 18-game Big Ten starter who led a team to a 10-4 record and a division title. Still, Coan feels like the favorite to win the job in time. Pyne’s goal is to make the competition last longer than expected.

One name not in the mix right now is early enrollee freshman Tyler Buchner, a top-125 player in the 2021 class. He’s a gifted athlete and the best runner of the five quarterbacks, but owns one year of high school starting experience to his name. He didn’t play as a senior due to California’s COVID-19 restrictions. He has had good moments, per Kelly, but he’s starting from behind.

“Tyler just got here, and he hasn’t played football for a year,” Kelly said. “There’s some development that has to take place there.

“The basics are what he’s trying to feel good about today. He has some work to do from that perspective, but he’s a quick study and a really good athlete.”

2. Position Moves

There are two position switches of note Kelly addressed — one directly, the other less so. Two-year starting defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is moving to strong-side defensive end as part of the defensive scheme tweaks new coordinator Marcus Freeman is making.

In the last two seasons, Tagovailoa-Amosa has amassed 39 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Per Pro Football focus, he had 34 run stops in that span.

“He’s going to play some defensive end for us, the big end position,” Kelly said. “He’s certainly capable of giving us the solid technique necessary to play that big end position. He has the size, has the strength, he has put on some weight. He’s excited about it.”

On offense, it appears Jarrett Patterson is destined for tackle after starting 21 games at center. Kelly did not outright confirm it, but his comments after the first spring practice hinted at it.

Josh Lugg is going to play at tackle, but most likely will slide into the guard position when the season starts,” Kelly said. “You’re going to see a big battle for one of the tackle positions and one of the guard positions.”

The key phrase is “one of the tackle positions.” Both 2020 tackles are gone. Lugg, with eight career starts, is a natural replacement. But he’s not likely to end up there, Kelly said. No one else at tackle has the prior equity to have earned a starting role at this point.

By deduction, that leaves Patterson as the only other candidate who could realistically prompt Kelly to view one of the tackle jobs as locked up. Kelly also called Patterson’s replacement, Zeke Correll, the starting center.

Patterson isn’t practicing in full this spring as he recovers from November foot surgery.

3. Being Multiple

One of Freeman’s changes to the Notre Dame defense from Clark Lea’s scheme will be more variety in the defensive fronts. Under Lea, Notre Dame had four defensive linemen on the field nearly all the time, even if one or two of them was standing up. The exception was usually on third down and in sub-packages, where a linebacker (sometimes two) would stand up at the line and either blitz or drop into coverage.

The three-man front will be more prevalent under Freeman, and not just on third down.

“Our defensive structure will incorporate on first and second down will incorporate more of a multiple look,” Kelly said. “We were much more of a four-down defense. We will have a hybrid of three and four down on first and second down.”

The practice video Notre Dame has released contains clips of the defense in three- and four-man fronts. The 6-3, 282-pound Tagovailoa-Amosa’s move to the outside is a logical one in a three-man alignment.

4. Blake Fisher Gets A Chance

Notre Dame has 14 early enrollees from its 27-man freshman class on campus this spring. So far, one of them has taken some first-team reps in the available clips — Blake Fisher, the five-star offensive lineman who was the highest-rated recruit in the group. Practice video has featured him at left tackle, battling sophomore Tosh Baker.

Baker himself is a former top-150 recruit billed as a future left tackle. Even if this ends up being his job, Fisher taking some first-team snaps is significant and a sign of how the staff views him as a possible immediate contributor. At 6-6 and 330 pounds, he’s already big enough to play there.

Baker is a year older, but not notably more experienced. He played in garbage time twice in 2020. Can Fisher be the first freshman offensive lineman to start for Notre Dame since 2017?

“Left tackle is an interesting one,” Kelly said. “Blake Fisher out there with Tosh Baker, those two guys battling it out.”

5. Joe Wilkins Jr.'s Opportunity

With rising senior Kevin Austin Jr. recovering from two foot surgeries, someone had to take first-team reps at boundary receiver this spring. Many of them have gone to classmate Joe Wilkins Jr., a rotation player a year ago who caught seven passes. He has been frequently included in the practice videos Notre Dame has released.

Austin is expected back for fall camp. Given the buzz around him heading into last spring and Notre Dame’s need for a dynamic receiver, he’s going to get a chance to be a top target. Former Irish receiver Chase Claypool raved about him in an NFL Combine interview in 2020. He shined in last year’s lone spring practice and in his brief cameo against Louisville.

Until Austin is back and looks like the player many envision him to be, the boundary work is Wilkins’. This spring is his chance to force his way into the rotation in some capacity no matter what Austin does.

Notre Dame’s staff trusted Wilkins to play in a tight receiver rotation a year ago. He sparked the passing attack in the season opener, with four catches. He’s a strong blocker, and the Irish lost their two best blocking receivers. He can play boundary and field receiver. In a room short on proven commodities, there may be a role for him.

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