Things to learn: Notre Dame’s defense filled with questions as camp begins
In some respects, the wait is over. New football activity is here. In many other respects, competitive football is not yet imminent — Sept. 2 remains 33 days away.
The Irish will need that month to answer a number of questions. There are the obvious unknowns that will only be clarified with genuine games. Will junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush be ready to lead both in word and in action as the unquestioned starter? Will any freshmen emerge as more than special teams contributors from the outset? Will multiple bolts of lightning reduce the new video board to ash the moment it is turned on in Notre Dame Stadium with thousands watching?
Then there are the position battles, position vacuums and general ponderings which might find answers in practice. When Irish coach Brian Kelly meets with the media today (Monday) at noon ET, he will not have any of these questions solved, but he will likely allude to a few of them.
How well will the defense take to defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s aggressive scheme?
Admittedly, this will not be adequately answered until it is seen in measurable ways on a Saturday in September, but its groundwork began in the spring and will continue this month.
By now, everyone can cite last year’s pertinent numbers without much difficulty. Part of that ease is due to the symmetry. Notre Dame sacked its opponent a total of 14 times last season and created a total of 14 turnovers (eight interceptions, six fumble recoveries). If the Irish are to have even a mildly-successful 2017, both those numbers will need to increase by more than a small margin.
Kelly indicated those tendencies were taking root back in March and April. If that growth continues, it will likely be most-readily noticed by watching sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes and sophomore cornerback Julian Love.
For that matter, will someone step forward and make an impact at defensive tackle?
Hayes’ task of sacking the quarterback will become much easier if an interior push prevents the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket to evade Hayes’ rush. Junior Jerry Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner are the presumptive starters at the moment. Tillery has shown the talent necessary to provide the desired effect, but it has been on display inconsistently at best.
If a freshman is to jump into a role anywhere, this may be the position, despite the physicality natural to interior line play at the collegiate level. The class contains three defensive tackles in Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Darnell Ewell. If one or more of them can contribute to a defensive tackle rotation, Elko, Kelly and Hayes would all be grateful.
Who will line up alongside junior Nick Coleman at safety?
After a solid spring, it would be a surprise to see Coleman lose his position as the starter at field safety. Which sophomore, Jalen Elliott or Devin Studstill, will get first crack at boundary safety?
In all of reality, this distinction may not be that vital, but given the lack of experience Notre Dame can enjoy at safety, it would be a relief for Elko to settle on one option and focus on getting that young player ready for September’s bruising schedule.
On the other side of the ball, who will get the nod at right tackle?
Four-fifths of the Irish offensive line is all but carved into stone. Perhaps more importantly, that 80 percent is as experienced as any offensive line in the country. From left to right: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey, senior Quenton Nelson, senior Sam Mustipher, senior Alex Bars and then there is a question mark.
Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg alternated first-team opportunities throughout most of the spring. Kraemer seemed to have the edge, but by no means was it definitive, and his Blue-Gold Game performance did not do anything to assuage concerns or to dissuade Eichenberg.
Unlike at safety, this decision will matter, as will its timing. Naming a starter and allowing the offensive line to work as a unit for as long as possible will lead to much better cohesion.
With any smoke seemingly dissipated, will sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson reinsert himself into the starting conversation?
Something or other limited Stepherson’s action in spring practice. That seems to have passed, but in that meantime, offensive coordinator Chip Long discovered how imposing the size of Notre Dame’s receivers could be.
To take it to the extreme, Wimbush could drop back against Temple in a two tight end set and look to a quintet of targets with the shortest being junior Miles Boykin at 6-foot-4. The slightest would be junior Equanimeous St. Brown at a listed 204 pounds. (Look for that figure, along with most weights, to be updated and raised in the fall’s depth chart.) At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Stepherson would hardly be a blip on that radar amid those two, sophomore Chase Claypool, junior tight end Alizé Mack and fifth-year senior tight end Durham Smythe. Those five average 6-foot-4 ¾ and 231 pounds.
Stepherson, though, does offer breakaway speed and exhibited big-play potential in his debut campaign. If anyone is going to break through that size to be a featured target to start the season, he seems the most likely candidate.