Blue and Gold Illustrated

April 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 17 of 55

18 APRIL 2021 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI A t the conclusion of Notre Dame's first spring practice last March 5, no one had any inkling it would also be the last one. The ensuing week saw the CO- VID-19 pandemic overtake the coun- try and resulted in cancellations or postponements of all sporting events and practices, with the looming pos- sibility there wouldn't even be a 2020 college football season. Ultimately there was, and Notre Dame weathered the health crisis while leaning on an ultra-veteran team that earned a spot in the four- team College Football Playoff for the second time in three years. Because the Fighting Irish possessed a three-year starting quarterback in Ian Book and the most experienced return- ing offensive line in school history (114 career starts), that side of the ball had the benefit of experience to carry them. Meanwhile, there were nine seniors — including fifth- and sixth-years — among 11 starters on defense, plus a successful third-year coordinator in Clark Lea who was in his fourth season in the operation. Notre Dame was compensated for the lack of practice time with a vet- eran foundation and knowledge base. This year the offensive line must replace four potential NFL players, while the fifth (senior center Jarrett Patterson) is recovering from foot surgery and possibly could switch positions, there is a transition at quarterback, and only one wide re- ceiver caught more than seven passes last year (Avery Davis with 24). Defensively, new coordinator Marcus Freeman must replace five starters, among them Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, while trying to build his own identity and acclimate to his new team. Furthermore, the tremors from CO- VID-19 still linger. On Feb. 20, Notre Dame's winter strength and conditioning program was put on pause because of a coro- navirus spike on campus that spilled over into other sports and resulted in canceled games. The winter workouts resumed on March 1, with plans to begin spring drills in the latter part of the month (there was no official announcement from the school yet when Blue & Gold Illustrated went to press on March 9) and then capped with the Blue-Gold Game, possibly April 24. Just being able to complete all 15 allowed spring practices would be a victory unto itself this spring for 12th-year head coach Brian Kelly's troops, and much needed with so many transitions. Looking ahead to the spring drills, here is our take on the position groups, starting with the strongest and mov- ing down the line to where the most questions or issues are for now: 1. RUNNING BACK A classic example of what a differ- ence a year can make. Last spring we ranked this group No. 9 out of 10, and the uncertainty manifested itself when the Irish brought in Stanford graduate trans- fer Trevor Speights in May as a sixth candidate even though he barely played for the Cardinal during an injury-ridden career (and then did not pass the physical at Notre Dame). Fortunately, out of nowhere came sophomore Kyren Williams, who demonstrated consistent ferocity as a runner (1,125 yards and 13 touch- downs), capability as a receiver (35 catches, third most on the team) and fearlessness as a blocker. Top-100 recruit/speedster Chris Tyree quickly established himself as the No. 2 man, and junior C'Bo Flemis- ter became a reliable third option. This position group has come such a long way in a short time that playing powerful four-star freshman Audric Estime (No. 132 overall player nation- ally per Rivals) or classmate Logan Diggs (the Louisiana Class 5A Out- standing Offensive Player of the Year) is more a luxury than necessity in 2021. 2. DEFENSIVE LINE Despite the graduation of ends Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes, we have this at No. 2 again like last year because the interior should be as stout and deep as ever, led by fifth- year seniors Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. When an incoming recruit the cali- ber of Gabriel Rubio (109th overall na- tionally) has to battle just to make the three-deep, that's a promising sign. On the flank, rising junior Isaiah Foskey has demonstrated play-mak- ing star power that could make him a prime NFL prospect. Rotation and development have become trade- marks of assistant Mike Elston's crew. 3. LINEBACKER Just like defensive line, we also have this position group at the same spot as last year — although the SPRING TONIC Notre Dame begins anew, reconstructing its offense and transitioning to a new defensive coordinator 2021 SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW Chris Tyree added significant punch to Notre Dame's ground attack as a true freshman in 2020, rushing for 496 yards and four touch- downs in a complementary role. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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