On paper, this should be a rebuilding year for Notre Dame. After their second College Football Playoff appearance in three years, the Fighting Irish sustained substantial personnel losses on both sides of the ball and saw Clark Lea, their star defensive coordinator, take the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. A step back would seem to be in order.
But this is Notre Dame. Head coach Brian Kelly has turned over the roster before and the result has been four consecutive double-digit win seasons. With a talented group of players itching for their chance to play and a schedule that appears to be favorable, more success is expected in South Bend this coming fall.
Notre Dame's numerous position battles will begin to play out over the next month as spring practice has begun. Curious Irish fans will be looking for information on these five storylines – along with many others – during the upcoming workouts.
5 Storylines to Watch During Notre Dame's Spring Practices
At all schools, the quarterback position grabs the most attention. That is especially true at Notre Dame. Ian Book, after three years as the starter, is gone and his replacement still must be determined. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan is the odds-on favorite to win the job. The Sayville, New York, native led the Badgers to the 2019 Big Ten Championship Game and the Rose Bowl, completing nearly 70 percent of his throws with an 18:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. But the Notre Dame staff also wants to get a good look at rising sophomore Drew Pyne and early enrollee freshman Tyler Buchner. Assuming Coan gets the starting nod, the play of Pyne and Buchner this spring could be the start of the 2022 quarterback battle.
2. Finding targets
If it seems like a case of deja vu at receiver, there's good reason. Prior to last season, the Irish needed to replace two starters and Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy were expected to emerge as the two primary pass catchers. As spring begins, the Irish find themselves saying good-bye to Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek while hoping that the oft-injured Austin and Lenzy finally step forward. Austin is still unavailable this spring while Lenzy will be pushed by several players with four years of eligibility remaining, including Jordan Johnson, Xavier Watts, and Lorenzo Styles.
3. Putting the offensive line together
Notre Dame had one of the most experienced offensive lines in America last year and as a result, 2021 will be a season of change up front. The only known is that Jarrett Patterson will start somewhere. But with Patterson sidelined this spring while he recovers from a foot injury suffered near the end of last season, every spot will feature players looking to claim a starting job. Zeke Correll is expected to lock down the center position and if he does, that would bump Patterson outside. Josh Lugg also will probably start somewhere and highly touted youngsters Tosh Baker, Michael Carmody, Rocco Spindler, and Blake Fisher could factor into the rotation.
4. Adapting to Marcus Freeman's defensive scheme
When Freeman took over as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, he said that he will adapt what he does to the talents of his personnel. It will be interesting to find out how he feels he can best use the Irish defensive players. There could be more three-man fronts and a greater emphasis on playing fast and free. But putting the right pieces in the right places will be the first step.
5. Replacing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at Rover
There is no one person on the Notre Dame roster that can replicate Owusu-Koramoah's production. But there are options with significant upside. Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor may be in the mix but he also could be plugged in at the safety spot next to Kyle Hamilton in the fall. Where he gets reps this spring will be telling. Similarly, linebacker Jack Kiser could get a look there as well. Paul Moala is an option and will get some time this spring after suffering an Achilles injury in the fall. Freshman Prince Collie may be a factor in the fall, but he has yet to arrive on campus.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
(Top photo courtesy of und.com)