Things Not To Learn: Some Notre Dame questions will last well past spring
Any day now, Notre Dame will announce it has hired a tight ends coach, likely at the same time as it names its new cornerbacks coach. Exactly one year ago as of Wednesday, the Irish announced Lance Taylor would take over running back coaching duties.
In fact, the tight end decision has already been reported by one national writer so reliable, no one else has sought further corroboration beyond the likelihood post-dated to the interview process.
But neither of those hires will be the defining moments of spring practices, beginning in 23 days, even if they will undoubtedly affect the season beginning in 201 days. The memorable sights of the spring will come from a flash or two, or a lack thereof, from rising sophomore quarterback Brendon Clark, from a return to the first-team from previously-suspended receiver Kevin Austin and from half a dozen interceptions from star safety Kyle Hamilton.
Those moments will shed light on the proverbial things to learn, to be discussed at length yet before March 5. Some things, however, will not be learned before the summer …
First-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ impact will not be easily determined this spring, be it in play calling, receiver alignment or offensive line approach. Maybe that should be inherent, implied and obvious in the spring practice settings designed for drills and experimentation, but that will all be overlooked once fifth-year quarterback Ian Book raves about Rees in a post-practice media scrum.
Beyond Book’s inevitable praises, Rees perhaps dabbling with rising junior receiver Braden Lenzy on the boundary in place of Austin or Northwestern graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek should be seen as a springtime test, not a distinct shift in offensive philosophy. (Also, that is merely a hypothetical to illustrate a point.)
When it comes to April 18’s Blue-Gold Game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will presumably tout the play-calling experience for Rees, but working within the parameters of an intrasquad scrimmage is hardly a true simulation of facing an actual opponent. How Rees approaches that final spring practice will hardly be illustrative of his scheme when Notre Dame faces Wisconsin or Stanford or Clemson.
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Frankly, if the Irish offense struggles against the defense throughout the spring, that may be a sign of leaning into weaknesses to diagnose solutions before the summer, part of the entire purpose of the March and April work. A “vanilla” showing on NBCSN in mid-April does not assure a bland offense in the fall; it would simply indicate Rees wanted Notre Dame’s young receivers to understand the fundamentals of his system before broadening the game plan.
All told, Rees’ impact will not be seen on the surface this spring.
Similarly, the No. 2 Irish running back will not be clear cut before the summer. There is a good chance the question of who first relieves Jafar Armstrong remains unanswered past the trip to Dublin, though it will be repeated in “Things To Learn” columns multiple times between now and then, including a direct contradiction to this point in a few weeks, again before the preseason and perhaps both the Navy opener and the home opener against Arkansas.
Rees and Taylor will give Jahmir Smith, C’Bo Flemister and Kyren Williams plenty of chances this spring, and the odds are they will trade days of earning notice. Adding incoming freshman Chris Tyree in the preseason will cloud that competition a bit, but his workload will grow only gradually, leaving plenty of touches for the other three in August.
Notre Dame does not need to identify a No. 2 back at any point, even during the season. Their skillsets may determine opponent-specific usages as much as anything. Though this space and just about every other will continually speculate who will get the most touches if/when Armstrong suffers a nick, that pecking order will be plenty vague after the spring.
There is a chance the next wave of captains may also be vague, but certainly not with a “plenty” distinction. The Irish have the luxury of returning two captains in Book and four-year starting right tackle Robert Hainsey. It is safe to presume each will be captains again in 2020. They may be enough named leadership for the spring, as Kelly has oscillated between naming captains before the spring and waiting until afterward.
Notre Dame returns five defensive starters, with three more warranting that description but for participation technicalities. There is leadership on that side of the ball already, enough to make a captainship delay an issue in logistics, not in effect. Sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford and fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes have both shown natural leadership, in addition to perseverance through injuries, and should fill any void until captains are officially named, at which point it may be a good chance each of them dons a ‘C’, anyway.