When discussing key spring figures for Notre Dame, a few names jump to mind immediately.
Quarterback Jack Coan. Receivers Kevin Austin Jr., Jordan Johnson and Braden Lenzy. Safety Houston Griffith. Offensive linemen Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey.
Those are among the often-identified players who could shore up key positions and help keep Notre Dame’s ceiling high in a year of transition. They’re former top recruits, experienced backups pushing to be starters or, in Coan’s case, a well-discussed newcomer. Each has done at least one of these things: started games, played meaningful snaps or had high expectations placed upon him by virtue of ranking or small-sample impressions.
Not to be overlooked, though, are those who are getting their first real opportunity to earn trust and claim an important role or those in a now-or-never situation.
Here are five under-the-radar players to monitor this spring, even if that monitoring consists of scouring three-minute video clips the team will provide from practice, listening to coaches’ comments and the May 1 Blue-Gold Game. All of them have played fewer than 300 career snaps. Some weren’t than highly ranked as recruits. Their listed class year is their fall 2021 status.
(I wrote about cornerback Cam Hart in a recent Friday Five, so I won’t touch on him here, but he fits the theme).
1. Wide Receiver Joe Wilkins Jr (Sr.)
The sometimes-forgotten man in the receiver discussion made a four-reception cameo in the season opener to help wake up a passing offense that hit the snooze button for a half. Though Wilkins had just three catches the rest of the season, he was in the rotation as the main backup to Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek.
With Austin’s injury recovery likely preventing him from being full-go this spring, Wilkins should get plenty of snaps with the first-team at boundary receiver. He can play boundary and field and impressed as a run blocker last season. A healthy and explosive Austin and Lenzy probably cut into the ceiling for him, but he can force his way into the rotation regardless of their presence with a strong spring.
McKinley and Skowronek were Notre Dame’s best run blockers a year ago, and both are gone. At minimum, Wilkins figures to see the field on run downs when Notre Dame is in multi-tight end sets. He did in 2020 and was targeted on a few play-action throws in those situations.
2. Offensive Tackle Tosh Baker (Soph.)
Baker is much less under-the-radar than others here, but there wasn’t a path to playing time as a freshman with Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey locked into the tackle spots. He wasn’t on the two-deep in 2020.
That doesn’t lessen the intrigue around Baker, who looks every part of a left tackle. He’s 6-7 and 300 pounds with agility and nimble feet perhaps best displayed in his high school basketball highlights.
Jarrett Patterson may end up moving from center to tackle, but he’s likely to be short of full participation as he recovers from November foot surgery. That leaves a path for Baker to slide into the middle of the spring competition to fill both tackle spots, where he’ll battle with a collection of other former four-star recruits.
Notre Dame hasn’t been afraid to play underclassmen at tackle before. Hainsey and departed guard Tommy Kraemer started at right tackle as sophomores. Ronnie Stanley was Notre Dame’s left tackle as a sophomore. Will Baker exit spring as one of Notre Dame’s two best options there? Is he ready for the job now?
3. Offensive Lineman Andrew Kristofic (Jr.)
Kristofic was listed as Eichenberg’s backup, but only replaced him in mop-up duty. When Eichenberg briefly left because of his swollen eye against Florida State, guard Aaron Banks who slid out to replace him instead.
What does that mean for Kristofic’s 2021 outlook? Is that a sign he’s not an easy elevation to the top spot on the depth chart? The lack of answers there makes it hard to say that No. 2 designation really separated him from the pack of players who could end up at tackle in 2021 –Baker, Patterson, Lugg and junior Quinn Carroll. Few, if anyone, outside the Gug have watched him practice since his first fall camp, way back in August 2019.
Still, Kristofic should be in the thick of the process of filling four vacated starting spots on the line. If not at tackle, it seems reasonable to think he could end up starting inside, where he may take some snaps this spring anyway.
4. LB Jack Kiser (Jr.)
Whoever replaces Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at rover will do so in designation only. Notre Dame doesn’t have an athlete with his blend of speed, fluidity and explosion, which allowed him to excel in covering the slot, defending the run and blitzing.
Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is keeping the rover label, but scheme and personnel changes leave one wondering exactly what the role will look like. Whoever claims it might not be asked to do all the things the Butkus Award winner did.
Notre Dame needs production there, though. Kiser provided that in his one spot start at buck linebacker (now called Will linebacker) and worked at rover in 2020 as well. He may push Marist Liufau at the Will spot, but there’s a plausible scenario where both prove to be two of Notre Dame’s best three linebackers.
Graduate senior Isaiah Pryor moved from safety to rover early in the 2020 season after Owusu-Koramoah’s No. 2, senior Paul Moala, tore his Achilles Oct. 10 against Florida State. Moala will likely be limited this spring.
Kiser’s workload fluctuated in 2020. After that eight-tackle (2.0 for loss) game against South Florida, he played just 13 defensive snaps the next two games. He cleared 20 three more times, but also combined for six snaps in the two games against Clemson and one against Alabama. Struggles in coverage were a bugaboo that popped up a few times.
Still, he had enough equity built up with former defensive coordinator Clark Lea to earn meaningful defensive snaps. That’s not nothing. Kiser displayed some playmaking ability too. Can Freeman get another gear out of Kiser? If so, he seems like a starter and potential breakout player in 2021.
5. Safeties K.J. Wallace (Jr.) And D.J. Brown (Sr.)
Freeman didn’t coax Griffith out of the transfer portal to stick him on the bench. A former top-50 recruit, Griffith will get every chance to win the starting safety job next to Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton, though, will be limited due to offseason ankle surgery. Someone has to take his spring snaps.
Wallace and Brown should be in the mix for them. The latter was the main nickel back in 2020, producing OK results. He won’t be locked into that job. The extra work available gives both more chances to impress.
Even if neither pushes or beats out Griffith, there’s the nickel back role to consider. Freeman’s 2020 slot corner at Cincinnati, Arquan Bush, played 483 defensive snaps. It’s an important role in his defense, if he carries over some of his concepts, and in college football overall. Bush had two interceptions, three pass breakups and 2.0 TFLs. Brown, in 243 snaps, had two pass breakups. Notre Dame needs more impact there.
Owusu-Koramoah was basically Notre Dame’s slot corner in 2020 in sub-packages. If not him, it was often Shaun Crawford, with Brown taking Crawford’s safety spot. Wallace, a former cornerback, could fill the slot corner role or play safety in nickel situations where Freeman deploys Hamilton in the slot or blitzes him.
It feels like a now-or-never offseason for Brown and Wallace. If Brown isn’t the nickel back or a starter, it’s likely at least one of those jobs goes to someone younger. After a redshirt year and an injury, Wallace is still largely an unknown, and Notre Dame isn’t short on underclassmen defensive backs.
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