Notre Dame begins its preparations for the 2015 season Friday at Culver Academics in Culver, Ind, and there aren’t many position battles heading into camp — just at left guard — with so many players returning.
But there are a few questions we’ll have answered over the coming weeks involving these players:
Quenton Nelson/Alex Bars
The pair of redshirt freshmen exited spring practice without much separation between them in Harry Hiestand’s left guard competition. Both came to Notre Dame as natural tackles, though the 6-foot-4, 325 pound Nelson has a little more ideal size for guard than the 6-foot-6, 318 pound Bars (though Bars and Steve Elmer are about the same size, and Elmer is locked in as a guard).
Coaches described Nelson as the more physical player while Bars has the edge in terms of technique. Both came to Notre Dame as highly-touted recruits — Rivals gave Nelson a five-star rating and Bars four stars — and they’ve each impressed coaches and teammates during December and spring practices.
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Expect this competition to last a few weeks into preseason practice before Hiestand & Co. settle on a starter right around when the team begins preparing for Texas in earnest.
With Prosise impressing as a running back during spring practice, Greg Bryant ruled out for the season and good depth at slot receiver, all signs seem to point toward the senior working out of the backfield quite a bit. But we’ll find out this month if Prosise’s spring cross-training was sustainable and not a springtime mirage.
While Tarean Folston has proven to be a durable running back who can carry 20 or more times per game, Notre Dame will need a No. 2 running back in September and Prosise looks like the best bet to be that guy, unless freshmen Dexter Williams and/or Josh Adams blow coaches away in August. If Prosise indeed is primarily used as a running back, expect his role to be roughly similar to Theo Riddick’s in 2012 as a guy who can take handoffs but also motion out of the backfield to create mismatches with opposing defenders.
Smythe enters preseason camp as the favorite to win Notre Dame’s starting tight end job, but that’s based largely on seniority — he’s the only upperclassmen with experience (one catch, seven yards) on the depth chart. He’ll have to prove that he’s a capable blocker to fend off sophomores Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar and talented true freshman Alize’ Jones.
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Jones is the wild card here. Notre Dame doesn’t like to play freshmen tight ends if they can’t block (which is why Luatua, a physical blocker, played last year) so the onus will be on Jones to prove he’s good enough in that area of his game to warrant playing time this fall.
Schmidt proved to be the hardest player to replace on Notre Dame’s injury-riddled defense last year, with his communication and positioning skills as well as rock-solid tackling ability earning him the team’s MVP award. He fractured and dislocated his ankle Nov. 1 against Navy but is expected to be ready for preseason camp, where he’ll take on increased responsibilities from where he was last year.
With Schmidt, graduate student Jarrett Grace and sophomore Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame has an Ohio State quarterback situation at Mike linebacker. While Schmidt, obviously, won’t follow Braxton Miller’s lead and play wide receiver, coaches did say he could see time as a Will linebacker this fall.
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Schmidt wasn’t able to work at Will during spring practice as he recovered from his injury, but nobody knows Brian VanGorder’s defense better than the fifth-year graduate student, so he should be a quick study flipping between Mike and Will. Which leads us to the final player…
Schmidt’s window to play Will opens when Smith slides over to play Sam (outside) linebacker, where he cross-trained during spring practice. VanGorder & Co.’s goal in moving Smith around is to keep opposing defenses from scheming against Notre Dame’s most talented defensive player, with the hope he can build off his Butkus Award finalist 2014 season.
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Smith’s ability to play both Sam and Will gives Notre Dame outstanding flexibility to get its three best linebackers on the field for any situation. Against more passing-oriented offenses, Smith, Schmidt and James Onwualu could be the go-to trio, while against running teams Smith could move outside, Schmidt over to Will and Morgan/Grace at Mike.
VanGorder and Mike Elston have a wealth of talent with which to work at linebacker, and figuring out how to use it is an awfully good problem to have.