Key position battles and questions to watch in Irish spring game
Aidan Thomas | Friday, April 30, 2021
Writing this article, I could try and offer some early preview of the Notre Dame football season, but the fact remains I know just about the same amount of information as I did on Jan. 2 — the day I was processing Notre Dame’s Rose Bowl defeat to Alabama in the College Football Playoff. Besides a couple of slightly unexpected draft announcements (both in and against Notre Dame’s favor), most of what I’d be offering is pure speculation at this point. So, rather, for this first edition of our Irish Insider focusing on the 2021 season, I’m going to look at the key position battles we could see on Saturday in Notre Dame’s spring game. Then, maybe when I’ve seen a little bit of how this edition of the Irish roster is being utilized, I can offer a slightly more informed preview of what the Irish faithful may expect four months from now.
This isn’t as simple as a one-on-one position battle. This position group is a hodgepodge of guys vying for a significant playing time come fall — and what they are allowed to do and how they perform on Saturday will be key. As of now, graduate student Avery Davis looks like the no. 1 receiver, which was backed up by offensive coordinator Tommy Rees in a recent press conference: “Avery Davis is the leader of that group,” Rees said. “He’s been extremely steady, someone that is dependable and we can count on.”
After that, things get hazy. Davis is the only returning wide receiver with more than seven catches last season. Senior Lawrence Keys has had an extremely impressive spring, from what can be garnered from released practice videos; senior Braden Lenzy continues to flash tantalizing speed; and senior Joe Wilkins continues to be steady, yet not necessarily the impact player the Irish want in a starting receiver. We won’t learn much about the perpetually-injured sophomore Kevin Austin on Saturday, as he is not playing this spring, but he could still be a factor in the receiving corps.
And then you get to the younger guys of the group. Irish fans were continuously frustrated by the lack of playing time for first-year receivers Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts, both highly touted recruits. Jay Brunelle is another rising sophomore who could compete for playing time, and then speedster Lorenzo Styles Jr., the only early enrollee in the position group, is another factor.
Offensive line alignment
There are a lot of questions about not only who’s starting, but where they will be on the offensive line. Early enrollee first-year Blake Fisher looks to be a likely member of the starting five, but the return of senior Jarrett Patterson could change that. We won’t be able to know that by Saturday though. Another first-year, Rocco Spindler, has been making a push, and he’s been featured at the left guard position throughout the spring. With Fisher often taking snaps at the left tackle, would Brian Kelly be willing to go first-year-firs-year to protect the blindside? Or could he look to shift the more experienced graduate student Josh Lugg, senior Dillan Gibbons or even junior Quinn Carroll to take that burden on? Having lost four O-line starters, be sure to watch not only who is playing on Saturday, but also where, as Notre Dame has built their success in the trenches, and with a new QB under center in 2021, having another strong offensive line will be key for the offensive unit as a whole.
Who’s the 2nd safety?
This is a thrilling position battle to watch on Saturday. With likely 2021 first-round draft pick Kyle Hamilton out for the spring game, a conglomerate of other safeties will be vying to replace Shaun Crawford and play the position alongside Hamilton this fall. Senior Houston Griffiths withdrew from the transfer portal and is certainly in the discussion, but defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman has gone out of his way to note the strong springs and improvements of senior DJ Brown, junior KJ Wallace, first-year Justin Walters and junior Litchfield Ajavon, while graduate student Isaiah Pryor also figures to be a factor. This is an intriguing battle — and an important one — as opposing QBs will generally try and stay away from Hamilton’s side of the field, so that second safety needs to be ready to be targeted frequently.
One notable statement from defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman this spring? His take on the linebacker room was “We’ll start with the three best linebackers and put them on the field. I don’t care what position.” This is big news for the Irish, who have a strong linebacker room full of experience. Could graduate student Drew White and senior Bo Bauer see big minutes on the field together? So is this a position battle, or simply an intriguing look at how Freeman utilizes his linebackers on Saturday? Look for juniors Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau and senior Shayne Simon to get some playing time, and it will be very interesting to watch who plays some snaps at positions they weren’t featured in throughout the 2020 season.
Who (and how many) on the defensive line?
We’ve got some questions that need answering on the defensive line, despite the strong returning tandem of graduate students Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Will Notre Dame feature a three-man front on Saturday? A four-man? Maybe a touch of both? And who steps up to help the Irish’s dynamic returners on the line — Isaiah Foskey has been a playmaker but not consistent over his two seasons. Sophomores Jordan Botelho and Rylie Mills could become factors as well. Jayson and Justin Ademilola are veterans that should play a role on Saturday. What about first-year Gabriel Rubio? The four-star recruit could also get some playing time, entering as the fifth-best recruit in the Irish 2021 class. More likely, much like Botehlo last season, Rubio may be a bigger factor on special teams — but that unit doesn’t get a ton of work during the spring game, so it’ll be interesting to see what Rubio does on the defensive line if Brian Kelly chooses to give him some work. The defensive alignment and mix of returnees and new contributors will be a big storyline to watch on the defensive line.
These are fewer position battles and more utilization questions to keep an eye on during Saturday’s spring game.
Is Kyren Williams the clear feature back, or is he 1A and 1B with sophomore Chris Tyree?
Notre Dame has a lot of speed, but not too much route-running experience — which receivers are trusted on third down, in the slot, and on more intermediary routes?
First-year Philip Riley is certainly a name to watch… Does he or anyone else push Clarence Lewis and TaRiq Bracy for the starting cornerback spots?
Does George Takacs play a role in the passing game, or will he more utilized as a blocking tight end in running packages?
And, of course,… who’s taking the most snaps under center? Who’s the leader for the QB1 competition? But to get a more in-depth look at that, check out associate sports editor Emily DeFazio’s feature on the QB room heading into Saturday’s Blue and Gold Game.
And lastly, get excited. Because, even for just one day, we’ve got some Notre Dame football in South Bend again.