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Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s spring concerns focus on the defensive replacements

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 29: Travis Etienne #9 of the Clemson Tigers is tackled by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first half during the College Football Playoff Semifinal Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic at AT&T Stadium on December 29, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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All spring successes need to be taken with multiple grains of salt. Consider some of the highlights of Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game just 11 months ago. Quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis took 13 touches for 54 yards. Michael Young caught four passes for 82 yards. Early-enrolled linebacker Bo Bauer made seven tackles.

In the spring’s aftermath, this space even featured a headline of “Avery Davis’ move bumps Notre Dame’s RB depth from dire to versatile.” It was the last headline Davis would make in 2018, taking 27 total touches for 100 yards in the regular season. Young managed seven catches for 138 yards. Bauer logged 10 tackles.

Such misguided leaps will undoubtedly unfold again in the next six weeks, but some others will hold up better. A few guesses at those lessons …

Who will start at all three linebacker positions?
As said in the position’s Spring Outlook, this begins with fifth-year Asmar Bilal. He will start somewhere, the where partly contingent on his own abilities and party on who emerges elsewhere.

Irish defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea should have a full array of options beginning Saturday, with only early-enrollee Jack Kiser reportedly injured (shoulder). That means sophomores Jack Lamb and Bauer can challenge junior Jordan Genmark Heath and senior Jonathan Jones for reps on the interior while sophomore Shayne Simon and junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah compete at rover. Those six, along with Bilal, should be enough for a two-deep. Its order is just utterly unclear.

Jones has made it thus far in his career without ever impressing much. A year ago, the same could have been said for Bilal, so there is recent precedent under Lea of a narrative changing before a story is finished. Nonetheless, Jones’ lack of impact in the past should give Bauer a viable chance this spring.

The best bet is one of those two separates, Bilal starts alongside him and Simon prevails at rover, the position he was specifically recruited for. But for now, that is simply a best guess. Establishing a pecking order is what spring practice should be used for, at least removing some uncertainty from preseason practices.

Pittsburgh v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 13: Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Panthers scambles for the first down against TaRiq Bracy #35 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the second half at Notre Dame Stadium on October 13, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

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Who will be the second cornerback?
It seems likely senior Troy Pride flips to the boundary side of the field, using his speed and experience to work in isolation. It is just as likely sophomore TaRiq Bracy gets first crack at the field position, if only because he is healthy.

Senior Donte Vaughn has said he had shoulder surgery earlier this winter, and fifth-year Shaun Crawford is still recovering from an ACL tear suffered in August. Now is Bracy’s clearest chance to impress. If he does so, Vaughn might realize he is already pencilled in as a career backup. Crawford would at least be expected to return to nickel back, provided health for once in his career.

If Bracy cannot lap the field with this advantage, then the preseason may be spent with a three-headed debate opposite Pride.

How much should Lea worry about defensive tackle depth, or a lack thereof?
Not to put undue pressure on someone who normally would be fretting about the politics of a prom date right about now, but this comes down to early-enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey. If he looks the part of a day one contributor, then Lea may sleep much better this summer. If Lacey looks like a, well, high school senior, then Notre Dame may have a problem on its hands come September.

Sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin’s return from a torn quad should not be rushed. Nor should early-enrolled freshman Hunter Spears’ recovery from a torn ACL. Without them, the Irish have just Lacey, sophomore Jayson Ademilola and juniors Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish. Those latter three should be just fine getting Notre Dame through the first couple weeks of the season, but in time the workload would have negative effects. A fourth tackle will be absolutely necessary.

And it would appear it needs to be Lacey, simply by the process of elimination. Will he be up to the task? A subpar spring would be cause for immense Irish concern. Holding his own would be a sign of plausibility.

(Sidenote: At a hockey game a week ago, a friend started asking questions about sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec, about the incoming freshmen safeties, about this, about that. Wanting to watch the hockey game happening in front of us, the reply was, “The only name you should look for this spring is Jacob Lacey’s.”

An over-simplification? Absolutely. But the sentiment stands.)

Will new running backs coach Lance Taylor find a third back?
Well, obviously he will, but who among Davis, sophomores C’Bo Flemister and Jahmir Smith, and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams becomes the name to know behind junior Jafar Armstrong and senior Tony Jones?

The Irish running back split right now is stark, going from 1A and 1B to 3A, 3B, 3C and 3D. Those latter four are lumped so closely together simply because they are all unknown.

At the risk of repeating a headline with as little pertinence months later as the Davis example from a year ago, the Blue-Gold Game on April 13 should be a ripe opportunity for Flemister or Smith to enter the summer with momentum.

Lastly, who will be gone?
Notre Dame currently expects to have 89 scholarship players this fall. That will need to be no higher than 85 before Labor Day. The spring position competitions a year ago shook loose a few transfers. Such may occur all over again, something to keep in mind when seeing underclassmen pass seniors for starting positions.

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