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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame searches for RB ‘consistency,’ sorts out its defense

Ball State v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 08: Tony Jones Jr. #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish breaks a tackle attempt by Brett Anderson II #23 of the Ball State Cardinals on his way to a 31 yard touchdown at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Tony Jones has long shown Notre Dame what he could be, but the rising senior running back has rarely turned that potential into routine production. For every standout performance in practice, particularly in the spring, there has been a four-week midseason stretch where he took 12 carries for 25 total yards. For every 51-yard Playoff-clinching touchdown reception, there has been a Cotton Bowl where he warranted all of one target.

Such is the track record that makes a “consistent” characterization stand out, one offered by Irish head coach Brian Kelly on Tuesday after Notre Dame returned to the practice field following spring break.

“We’ve been pleased, in particular, with Tony Jones’ consistency,” Kelly said. “A lot of it has to do with getting a good rotation there because you’re not going to play just one guy. They complement each other well. As we know, [rising junior Jafar Armstrong] can play receiver, catches the ball extremely well. Tony certainly does, as well. We’re looking for that every down consistency from Tony and we’re getting that this spring.”

Kelly also praised early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams’ “elusive quickness,” which has apparently put Williams immediately into the mix alongside rising sophomore Jahmir Smith, while Smith’s classmate, C’Bo Flemister, recovers from a patellar tendon strain.

“We’re seeing some real diversity at the position early on in the spring.”

The ready inclusion of Williams bodes well for Notre Dame, which will need a third running back to emerge behind Armstrong and Jones, simply given the demands of the position. If nothing else, he could be reason to watch the final drives of the Blue-Gold Game on April 13. Of course, impressing there is what made the discussion around Jones of note in the first place.

Shaun Crawford’s road back
The fifth-year nickel back may be an afterthought most of this spring as he spends it sidelined recovering from an ACL torn back in August, but once healthy, Crawford will very much be in the running for playing time.

“He’s done everything we’ve asked him and more,” Kelly said. “We hope that he’s 100 percent and that we can plug him in. We know he’s a capable player for us, so he’ll get every opportunity to compete for that position.”

Somewhat to Crawford’s benefit, the Irish have not been able to work on nickel packages just yet. Too much is in flux at linebacker and at rover, where Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea continue to mix-and-match combinations, to start worrying about sub-packages, even one as vital as nickel.

“We’ve got other issues that we’re trying to deal with right now,” Kelly said. “The nickel is going to play itself out. We think we have some really good options there, moving forward. We’re trying to sort out some other things defensively.”

Even if Notre Dame gets to the nickel packages by the end of the week, as Kelly expected, the reduced reps for youngsters such as quarterback-turned-running back-turned-defensive back Avery Davis and rising sophomore Houston Griffith will put Crawford on a near-even track with them once healthy.

Defensive tackle depth
One of the lesser issues, but an issue nonetheless, for Lea’s defense is the limited number of bodies available at nose tackle this spring. As rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin and early-enrolled freshman Hunter Spears both recover from injury, that has left only early-enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey to back up rising junior Kurt Hinish.

“Lacey looks good,” Kelly said. “He’s got some quickness and size. … It’s really Hinish’s position at this time until we get some more competition from those young kids.”

Way-too-early 2019 game predictions
An online bookmaker offered opening lines on some of the biggest games of 2019, putting the Irish as 11.5-point underdogs at Georgia on Sept. 21 and 8.5-point underdogs at Michigan on Oct. 26, while making Notre Dame an 11.5-point favorite against USC on Oct. 12.

This is of note when remembering this space’s speculation about a win total over/under of 9.5 a week ago. Those thoughts gave the Irish a 1-in-3 chance, roughly speaking, of winning in Ann Arbor. As two-possession ‘dogs, though, the book would appear to give Notre Dame a win expectancy closer to zero in the Big House. Yet, the win total over/under was still set at 9.5, suggesting great confidence the Irish can sweep their ACC slate and leaving only the season finale at Stanford as a question mark.

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