6 position battles to watch as Notre Dame football heads to training camp
SOUTH BEND – When Brian Kelly convenes his 10th summer training camp as Notre Dame football coach this weekend at Culver Academies, he and his staff will be looking for answers at a variety of spots.
Protecting Book will be an experienced offensive line with tackles Robert Hainsey and Liam Eichenberg as returning anchors. Left guard Aaron Banks is coming off foot surgery but should be ready well before the season opener on Labor Day night at Louisville, and redshirt freshman Jarrett Patterson replaces team captain and three-year starter Sam Mustipher at center.
On defense, returning starters Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman form one off the top safety combinations in the country. A deep and talented group of edge rushers, led by potential high-round draft picks Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, return along the defensive line.
Those are the givens. What about the question marks? Where will the top position battles take place?
Here are six areas to watch for the Fighting Irish in the coming weeks:
With record-setting All-American Julian Love now in the NFL with the New York Giants, senior speedster Troy Pride Jr. becomes the top dog at this spot. A handful of candidates will get a chance to step in opposite Pride, starting with sophomore Houston Griffith, his main running mate during spring practice.
Griffith figures to split practice reps with the likes of Donte Vaughn, TaRiq Bracy, Shaun Crawford, converted running back Avery Davis, senior walk-on Temitope Agoro and four-star freshman recruit Isaiah Rutherford. Vaughn, torched by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the Cotton Bowl, is coming off shoulder surgery, while Crawford missed last season with a foot injury.
“There’s a long list there,” Kelly said after the spring game in April. “All those guys will get a chance.”
Position coach Todd Lyght, a former Notre Dame All-American and NFL Pro Bowl selection himself, must find trusted pieces at slot and boundary corner. If not, Pride could quickly grow bored as opponents throw away from his side of the field.
Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has said the experimentation at linebacker could continue into October. That’s how tricky it will be to replace two-time captain Drue Tranquill and 2018 defensive player of the year Te’von Coney, now with the NFL’s Chargers and Raiders, respectively.
Graduate senior Asmar Bilal (Ben Davis) will fill one of those two voids after moving off the rover position. Versatile Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and homegrown Paul Moala (Penn) will vie for the starting rover spot along with reigning IndyStar Mr. Football Jack Kiser, who missed spring ball due to shoulder surgery but impressed the coaching staff after enrolling early out of Pioneer High.
That leaves one starting spot for a group that includes Shayne Simon, Jordan Genmark Heath, Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Drew White. Besides Bilal with 10 career starts, only Genmark Heath of this group knows what it’s like to start a college game; the Swedish-born San Diegan got the nod in place of the injured Tranquill at Northwestern last year.
Lea, who still oversees the linebackers, will keep tweaking the mix until the right combination clicks into place.
Dexter Williams has taken his vaunted “Juice” and breakaway ability to the Green Bay Packers. It will take a committee to replace the sixth-round pick after he rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in nine games last year.
Redshirt sophomore Jafar Armstrong made a successful conversion from receiver last year, when he rushed for seven touchdowns on either side of an infected knee and bum ankle that cost him three games and considerable momentum.
Redshirt junior Tony Jones Jr., who missed the spring game after dealing with ankle issues last year, has 811 all-purpose yards through his first two seasons. Redshirt freshman Jahmir Smith is the banger in the group.
“Jahmir’s a truck,” Kelly said. “He’d just as soon run over you than miss you, which is fine.”
There’s also C’Bo Flemister and early enrollee Kyren Williams, a St. Louis product who packs a wallop in his 5-9, 209-pound frame and flashed often in the spring.
Two spots are locked down now that Miles Boykin has moved on to the Baltimore Ravens as a third-round pick. Those belong to Chase Claypool, another huge target with a wide wingspan, and self-made slot threat Chris Finke, who doubles as a sure-handed punt returner.
Those two produced more than 1,200 receiving yards and six touchdowns on 99 combined grabs last season while operating in Boykin’s considerable shadow.
Junior Michael Young Jr. is the early favorite to emerge as the No. 3 receiver; he had three catches for 30 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
“My chemistry with Mike is getting a lot better, (knowing) where he’s going to be at certain times,” Book said in April.
Pushing Young is a group that includes Joe Wilkins, Lawrence Keys III, erstwhile track star Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin. As Book seeks to stretch the field at the behest of Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long, he could find himself looking more frequently for the speed threats on the outside.
Three-year starter Jerry Tillery, now with the Chargers, was the only first-round pick off last year’s 12-1 College Football Playoff qualifier.
Replacing his disruptiveness won’t be easy, but Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Jayson Ademilola will duel for that right. The former missed nearly all last season with a broken foot suffered in the opener against Michigan, while Ademilola, whose twin brother Justin is a key reserve at defensive end, is four inches shorter than Tillery but carries similar run-stuffing potential.
Justin Yoon signed with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent after breaking Notre Dame’s career scoring mark in a four-year run that saw him make 81% of his field-goal attempts.
Junior Jonathan Doerer has more pure leg strength than Yoon but has been erratic on kickoffs and in limited placement opportunities. That continued in the spring game, where Doerer missed from 39 yards but connected from 35.
He’ll have to fight off preferred walk-on Harrison Leonard, a Connecticut product with self-professed 55-yard range who came through the same Jamie Kohl kicking and punting camps that forged Yoon’s ability to deliver under pressure.
Follow Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.