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Notre Dame focusing on early enrollees in this late spring

Tyler Buchner

Spring practice is always a time for veterans to fine-tune things while underclassmen log needed experience, but Notre Dame may be taking that to an extreme this year. With a program-record 14 early-enrolled freshmen on hand, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has turned over an undue and unearned number of practice snaps to the newcomers, in part because many of them did not play their senior years of high school football, skipping the rescheduled season this spring in favor of getting a collegiate head start.

“They need to come in here, obviously, and get their feet wet,” Kelly said Saturday. “But I want to make sure that they leave the spring going, ‘I got a lot of football and I know where I need to go if I want to be part of a championship football program.’ So it’s important that they get a lot of work and we’re making sure that happens.”

Perhaps most pertinently, that has led to offensive linemen Rocco Spindler and Blake Fisher seeing enough first-team work that multiple B-roll videos released by Notre Dame have included the pair. Needing to replace four starters, the Irish offensive line has enough questions it could certainly turn to one of the youngsters, though both would be a bit extreme, and even one would be an anomaly, starting on the offensive line as a freshman something only Robert Hainsey has done somewhat recently.

“I want them to have so many reps that when they come into (preseason) camp, it’s like they’ve had a full year,” Kelly said. “I know you’re seeing a lot of them. I don’t want to mislead anybody by watching the film and say, ‘Boy, they must be ready to start for Notre Dame.’ We’re just trying to give them as much work as possible. They’re all making progress, but I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

Not to say, too late, but as much as those players getting the work, their impressing with it emboldens reading too much into it, particularly along the offensive line due to those aforementioned holes to fill.

Behind the seemingly viable chance of Spindler or Fisher contributing, the early-enrollee with the most hype is inarguably quarterback Tyler Buchner, who has not played a competitive snap of football since the fall of 2019. (California pushed the 2020 high school football to this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.) When asked broadly about quarterbacks, Kelly highlighted Buchner, but with needed disclaimers.

“The guy, if you want to say who has made the most progress, it’s probably Tyler Buchner, just because he hasn’t played or hadn’t played a lot when he got here,” Kelly said. “His motion is really fluid. He’s throwing the ball very well. He’s learning a lot.

“He’s got a lot to learn about our offensive structure and just the nuances now. He knows football. He’s very smart, tremendously smart. You tell him something in a meeting and his recall is amazing, but just because you know it, it doesn’t happen naturally. He needs reps, but he’s made a lot of progress.”

While that is a healthy serving of backhanded compliments, it is a telling shift from earlier in Notre Dame’s spring practices, when Kelly simply noted that Buchner had progressed to smiling on the field.

When it comes to Spindler getting work at guard on the first-team, that is in part to keep other guard possibilities getting work at tackle in case senior Jarrett Patterson ends up back at center for a third season. From the outside, that is not the Irish plan; junior Zeke Correll will start at center and Patterson will kick out to tackle. But Kelly is not willing to concede that as a sure thing yet.

“At this time, I don’t think Zeke has given us anything other than what we saw last year, where he started doing a nice job but we’re not closing our minds toward any combinations on that offensive line, and I say that because I want to keep it competitive,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to give Zeke the starting job at center because I want to keep competition.”

Throughout Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame, there has always been an emphasis on getting the five best offensive linemen on the field and figuring out their alignment from there. That is why Patterson worked at center in the first place. So when Kelly challenges Correll like that, it may have some teeth to it.

“He’s not the starting center yet. Jarrett Patterson can play that center position and we’re a good football team.”

In that case, the Irish would need to find two tackles, with fifth-year Josh Lugg a prime candidate, otherwise, he may start at guard.

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