Thursday, April 13, 2017 10:30 am
Five takeaways amid Irish spring practice
CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette
SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame wrapped up its 12th session of spring practice Wednesday, meaning only two more remain before the team's annual Blue & Gold game on April 22.
Thoughts and observations on the Irish entering the final phase of spring ball:
1. Winging it with Wimbush: Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the presumed 2017 starter, has drawn praise from teammates on two fronts. He is decisive in the huddle, communicating plays quickly and confidently. They also said he is demonstrating vocal leadership.
"Our chemistry is really good with him," wide receiver Miles Boykin said. "He's just a great all-around quarterback. Our tempo is nice."
These are the progressions you'd need to see from a guy about to be a first-time starting quarterback. As for Wimbush's actual play, it's hard to gauge from spring practice, but in addition to the obvious arm strength there is good touch on his throws. Clearly, it's Wimbush's job to lose, and coach Brian Kelly has said as much.
2. The battle for No. 2: Since there's no competition at quarterback, even as Ian Book receives a significant share of repetitions to prepare as Wimbush's backup, the most compelling battle is unfolding at wide receiver. Who's the No. 2? Don't be surprised if Chase Claypool (yeah, him, the big Canadian) emerges as the starter opposite Equanimeous St. Brown.
Right now, I'd say the top candidates are Claypool, Boykin and Kevin Stepherson, figuring C.J. Sanders will be in the slot. Clearly, this is a potential breakout year for the 6-foot-5, 224-pound Claypool, who has elite measureables, but there are consistency concerns. Claypool is getting a lot of first-team reps this spring. Diminutive former walk-on Chris Finke demonstrated impressive short-area quickness while catching 10 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns last season. The wild card is Deon McIntosh, probably the fastest player on the team. He blows away teammates with his speed, but this is a kid who has yet to play in a college game.
3. What's in a name: Tight end Alizé Jones made headlines by pondering a name change, which has overshadowed his impressive work on the field. He's learning a new offense and getting comfortable after serving an academic suspension for all of the 2016 season, but the once-prized recruit appears right at home. He's big and smooth, as advertised. You can tell he's put a lot more effort into his blocking. He didn't catch 13 passes as a freshman in 2015 by accident, and that was just scratching the surface.
4. Stepherson's cranky hamstring: It's probably nothing, but maybe it's something. Stepherson has been limited in recent practices because of what Kelly is calling a "lingering injury" in his hamstring.
"It was pulled again," Kelly said. "Has not responded well. We're treating it pretty aggressively with anti-inflammatories. He has not needed PRP, but he just hasn't been right."
Yeah, it's only April, but considering all the buildup surrounding Stepherson, who surpassed Sanders for a starting job midway through the 2016 season, it is disappointing not to see Stepherson build on the momentum of last season's strong finish. This could be a moot point by fall camp, but it's worth noting, especially since so many Irish receivers in recent years have been beset with nagging injuries and have played hurt with various ailments.
5. Youth is served: While Drue Tranquill is still working some at safety, new defensive coordinator Mike Elko has put Jalen Elliott (14 tackles as a freshman in 2016) on the fast track, giving him plenty of first-team reps at safety with Devin Studstill and Nick Coleman. For Tranquill, the handwriting is on the wall as far as a move to the "rover" position.
Tranquill would be the dean of the secondary if he did stay at safety, but spring practice has seen the coaches give Elliott and Coleman (a converted cornerback) as much on-the-job training as possible.
They still need Tranquill's voice with the defensive backs because of his leadership and knowledge of the defense. But Elko, recognizing the need for playmakers in the secondary, is intrigued by the speed and athleticism of the Studstill-Elliott tandem. No doubt, Studstill will be a season-opening starter. The only question is how they divide the other spot.
"We’re playing the safety position quite differently than we did before,” Kelly said. “Nick Coleman has done some really good things. He’s extremely athletic. We’re in the process of continuously developing his understanding of the defense. Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill are still in that programming mode in terms of doing all the little things right. I know Mike Elko really likes those two kids."
As counterintuitive as it sounds, the differences between free safety and strong safety in Elko's scheme aren't that dramatic.
“I think you’ll see we’re going to be situationally playing guys that make sense at the time of the game: first, second and third down,” Kelly said. “It’s not going to be one guy and that’s it, in all situations. They’ll have to know both positions, and they can independently work themselves onto the field at the same time."