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Notre Dame Pre-Spring Notebook

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Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght will work with Houston Griffith again this spring.
Cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght will work with Houston Griffith again this spring. (BGI/Bill Panzica)

Now entering his 10th spring at Notre Dame, head coach Brian Kelly provided an overview of the 2019 roster Friday afternoon prior to the start of spring drills this Saturday morning.

One of the top position battles will be at boundary cornerback, where 2018 consensus All-American Julian Love opted to turn pro this winter following his junior year. Meanwhile, the top backup and heir apparent there, senior Donte Vaughn, is out for the spring because of winter shoulder surgery.

The Fighting Irish staff prefers to keep senior Troy Pride Jr., at field cornerback, where he excelled last season while breaking up 10 passes and intercepting two others. Thus, to compensate for the loss of Love and absence of Vaughn, junior Avery Davis and sophomore Houston Griffith will be prime candidates to make an impact at corner, boundary or otherwise, this spring.

The 5-11, 200-pound Davis — who also changed his jersey number from 3 (which Griffith wears) to 4 — was recruited as a quarterback in 2017 but shifted to running back last spring out of need. With running back featuring five other candidates this spring, Davis will be making his third position switch in as many seasons, and Kelly was effusive in his praise about Davis’ progress during the past seven weeks of winter conditioning.

“Avery is a winner,” Kelly said. “Looking at his physical numbers, they just jump out at you. Comparing him to all the other defensive backs, it just made sense for us to find an opportunity for him. He moves so well, he’s got really good football instincts … I think he can play at the next level at that position. He’s got power, he’s got hands and he’s got a football acumen that’s really high.

“He’s excited, he wants to win, he wants to help our football team. He ranks right up there with speed numbers with Troy Pride. And then it’s explosiveness, strength. He’s going to stick his nose in there, he’s a real good tackler for us. This is projection now, but he can play inside and out, nickel or corner. We don’t have a lot of those guys.”

Davis saw limited time at running back last year, carrying 22 times for 78 yards and catching five passes for 30 yards.

Griffith, now listed at 5-11 ¾, 205, began spring drills last year at cornerback before moving to safety, and then eventually taking on the nickel role later in the season, where he was not completely comfortable, although his 183 snaps were the second-most in the 27-man freshman class, behind defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola’s 189.

“He knows our defense, he’s so much more confident in our defensive structure,” Kelly said. “He’s extremely physical, he’s had a great off season. Of all the defensive backs, he’s probably physically done more than anybody else in terms of changing his body, strength, speed. We feel like he’s ready for that challenge at the boundary.”

This spring, though, Kelly noted that the corners will also be more simplified as “left and right” corner instead of boundary and field. Coverages can also be rolled to the boundary side more, if necessary.

“We don’t want to overload young players, so there will be some right-left going on as well,” Kelly said. “We want to have an open mind in skill set.”


Linebacker Movement

Even before listing cornerback, Kelly said filling out the linebackers spots will be a top challenge and storyline this spring after graduating the 2017-18 tandem of Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, who combined for 606 career tackles, 49.5 for loss and 13.5 sacks.

He confirmed that fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal, who started 10 games at rover last year, will move inside to compete at the Buck vacated by Tranquill (who also shifted from rover in 2017 to Buck in 2018). From there, it’s going to be a Rubik’s Cube of options — and maybe even a time of liberal rotation that the defensive line had last season. There also will be plenty of cross training, with the ones taking turns at the No. 2 unit and vice versa.

“There are a lot of similar players at linebacker,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of guys that are in that athletic, 220-227 range that are all very similar … there’s not one guy with a lot of experience that stands out. We’re going in with an open mind. A lot of guys will get an opportunity."

“Asmar could be with Drew White for six (plays) and then the next one Jonathan Jones with Jordan Genmark Heath with first group, and a lot of mixing and matching. They will all compete and we will need a lot of film on them … It’s going to mix quite a bit before we really get a sense for how this is going to shake out.

"I would just sit back, get some popcorn, we’re evaluating and they’re competing … We need film. We need to watch them and evaluate them. We have to give them time to compete and give them reps to compete.”


In Recovery Mode

In addition to Vaughn, Kelly listed several other players who will be sidelined this spring because of surgeries last fall or this winter, although they might be able to do some limited non-contact or team drills: fifth-year senior cornerback Shaun Crawford, junior center Colin Grunhard, sophomore defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin, and early enrollees Jack Kiser at linebacker and Hunter Spears at defensive tackle.

Fifth-year senior center/guard Trevor Ruhland, who started five games at guard last season and is the front-runner to win the center spot, is also coming back from an arthroscopic procedure, but it is not certain how much he will be able to do.


And Then There Were Two

With Brandon Wimbush opting to use his graduate transfer year at Central Florida in 2019, Kelly said that incumbent senior Ian Book and developing sophomore Phil Jurkovec will have tons of reps this spring.

For Book, it’s about continuing to raise his over game and handle the distractions and details that come with the quarterback position, while with Jurkovec it’s more about building the trust and confidence among the coaches and teammates that he could take the reins and lead if a crisis occurred.

“He wasn’t the next guy in last year; he is now,” said Kelly of Jurkovec. “This spring is crucial to his development.

Jurkovec’s throwing motion seemed somewhat elongated last year, but Kelly noted there won’t be much tinkering.

“We really never touch anything from the waist above — other than the neck above with the mental game,” he said. “We don’t really mess with the mechanics. Once they come here, they are who they are. It’s generally footwork, timing, base and balance, pocket presence, things of that nature.”


Freshman Numbers

The 10 incoming early entrants are listed by number:

Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah — 18

Punter Jay Bramblett — 19

Running back Kyren Williams — 23

Linebacker Jack Kiser — 24

Center Zeke Correll — 52

Defensive tackle Jacob Lacey — 54

Offensive guard John Olmstead — 71

Offensive tackle Andrew Kristofic — 73

Offensive tackle Quinn Carroll — 77

Defensive tackle Hunter Spears — 90


News & Notes

• Senior receiver Chase Claypool will move to the boundary position (W), where Miles Boykin starred last year before turning pro, and Kelly believes it will be a “seamless” transition. Fifth-year senior Chris Finke will remain in the slot (Z), while the X spot that Claypool manned last year will have the most competition for playing time.

• Senior wide receiver Javon McKinley remains on the suspended list because of a Feb. 10 arrest for battery and intoxication, and will be until he clears up all matters legally and otherwise. His court date has been set for April 15, two days after the Blue-Gold Game.

• In addition to Davis switching from 3 to 4, sophomore cornerback TaRiq Bracy is now No. 10 after donning No. 35 last year.

• Kelly confirmed that junior Darnell Ewell is back on defense, where he will work at nose tackle. That was the position he was recruited for back in 2017, but he was needed at offensive guard on the scout team last year.

“Just trying to find role for him,” Kelly said.

• Captains will be named before the spring semester ends and after spring practice concludes.

“They need to go through spring ball … to show a level of accountability that they need,” Kelly said."

• University of Miami head coach Mark Richt will serve as guest speaker at the 2019 Notre Dame Coaches Clinic to be held March 28-30.

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