The 2015 season did not end well for Notre Dame. Hovering as a College Football Playoff candidate, the Fighting Irish were knocked from consideration following a last-second loss at Stanford to close the regular season. Then a depleted Irish team was handled quite easily by a powerful Ohio State squad in the Fiesta Bowl.
Despite those losses to close the year, last season was a step in the right direction for Brian Kelly’s crew. A 10-3 record, with the losses coming to three of the top four teams in America, considering the rash of injuries is not a bad result. Now Notre Dame readies itself for spring and there are several interesting situations to follow. Here are five.
5 Storylines to Watch in Notre Dame’s Spring Practice
1. QB Carousel?
Entering the season opener, Malik Zaire was the starting quarterback. After his injury at Virginia, it became DeShone Kizer’s team. There was never a doubt all year long as to who was the primary signal-caller. Now there is a gray area. Zaire has resumed some football-related activities and he did win the job before the season. But Kizer had a sensational season after being thrown into the fire in week two. And don’t forget about Brandon Wimbush, a player many believe is the most physically talented of the trio. Kelly stated in early February that he intends on redshirting Wimbush but it is possible that the rising sophomore makes that a difficult decision with his play in the coming weeks.
2. Watching the Young Receivers
When star wide receiver Will Fuller declared for the NFL Draft, it meant that Notre Dame’s top three pass catchers would not be returning. If you include the receiving numbers put up by running back C.J. Prosise, the Irish will lose 70 percent of their passes caught, 75 percent of their receiving yardage, and 80 percent of their touchdown catches. Kelly and his staff have recruited well at the position and have several talented players waiting in the wings. But Equanimeous St. Brown is recovering from a shoulder injury and Torii Hunter Jr. is splitting time with the baseball team. C.J. Sanders, Miles Boykin, Corey Holmes, and tight end Alize Jones are some other players that will look to make an impact in the pass-catching department this spring.
3. Putting the Offensive Line Pieces Together
This is another area where Notre Dame has recruited well and that is good news because the Irish have lost left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Nick Martin to the NFL Draft and guard Steve Elmer to a career opportunity outside of football. There are several scenarios that could play out along the line with one being a move of Mike McGlinchey to left tackle from the right side. Alex Bars will play somewhere, either tackle or inside at guard should Hunter Bivin or Colin McGovern claim the open tackle position. Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge will compete at center and it is possible that the loser of that contest actually wins a spot as a starting guard. It will be up to line coach Harry Hiestand to put this complicated puzzle together in the proper way.
The question is, does Notre Dame have enough bodies at the position this spring? Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith have moved on and Tevon Coney and Greer Martini are hampered by injuries. James Onwualu had his own injury issues late in the season though he will be a go this spring. The missing linebackers provide a big opportunity for two players coming off redshirt seasons: Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas. There also is Nyles Morgan, a former high-profile recruit that has been primarily a special teams performer during his first two years in South Bend. Morgan is slated to take over for Schmidt in the middle and he will have a heavy workload this spring.
5. Pass Rush
The Irish had 25 sacks in 2015, ranking in the middle of the pack nationally. Now, Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day, the team’s two most productive pass rushers, are off seeking NFL fortune. Where the pass rush comes from in 2016 is anyone’s guess. Jerry Tillery will slide into the Day role and he has the talent to become impactful in that spot. Getting pressure from the edge is another matter. Isaac Rochell is great against the run but putting heat on the passer is not his forte. The other end position is filled with question marks. Andrew Trumbetti will get the first crack with Grant Blankenship and Jonathan Bonner pushing for reps. Early enrollee Khalid Kareem also will attempt to make a name for himself, though his long term future may be as Rochell’s heir apparent on the strong side.
Pre-Spring Notre Dame Outlook
These are just five of many storylines. Can Brian Van Gorder’s defensive system work? Will the Irish get production out of tight end? Who plays the corner opposite Cole Luke? Will defensive back Max Redfield finally live up to his potential? And most importantly, can the Irish stay healthy for once? Notre Dame is a team that suffered major personnel losses from last year’s 10-win team. But there is plenty of talent on the roster. The Irish may have a lot of questions, but they also have a lot of potential answers.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.