Notre Dame Football: 5 Players Who Should See Their Roles Expanded in 2014
After a two-week hiatus, Notre Dame's spring practice has hit full stride. With five practices complete and the 85th annual Blue-Gold game less than three weeks away, Brian Kelly's team has begun a considerable transformation after a disappointing 9-4 season.
With the defense learning a completely new system engineered by Brian VanGorder and the offense returning to its spread roots under Kelly and Mike Denbrock's direction, things certainly look different under the Golden Dome. Those changes have brought new opportunities, especially with the Irish replacing key starters at just about every position group.
Let's take a look at five players who will have expanded roles during 2014.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
Many assumed that Kendall Moore or Michael Deeb would be the primary beneficiaries of the transition to Brian VanGorder's defense. But it's looking more and more like Joe Schmidt will exit spring practice as the starting inside linebacker.
That's quite an ascent for the former recruited walk-on, now on scholarship for the Irish. But it's the exact thing Schmidt hoped for when he gambled on himself and chose Notre Dame over opportunities to play college football elsewhere.
After contributing primarily on special teams, Schmidt looks like the type of linebacker who won't come off the field in VanGorder's scheme. From a base 4-3 set, Schmidt has taken the bulk of first-team reps on the inside. When an additional defensive back comes on the field in passing situations, it's Schmidt and Jaylon Smith providing underneath coverage.
After getting the opportunity to play in 2013 when injuries decimated the linebacking depth chart, Schmidt is ready to step forward and become one of the defense's leaders, capable of playing a position with a diverse role in VanGorder's system.
"I like to think that I can be a well-rounded player," Schmidt told BlueandGold.com early in spring practice. "I want to be able to play in all scenarios. I’m just trying to work on that right now and just see how I can help the team."
While incoming freshman Nyles Morgan has the talent to see the field immediately, Schmidt's doing his best to separate himself from the pack. He opened last week's media viewing session with a pick six of Everett Golson.
For all the talk about the Irish's young wide receiving corps, Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows when he talked about the anchor point for the passing game last week.
"I think the guy that will settle the offense down when we need to get settled down is Ben Koyack right now," Kelly said after practice. "He's a guy we can get the football to and a pretty reliable receiver."
For all the talk of a transition back to the spread, tight end still will be a critical option in the Irish offense in 2014. And Troy Niklas' early departure to the NFL means Koyack will be the one featured at the position.
That's quite a change from this time last year, when Koyack was lapped by Niklas in spring practice after a disappointing sophomore season. But the Oil City, Pennsylvania native put together a nice rebound in 2013 as the team's second tight end, and has all the physical traits needed to stay on the field as both a blocker and pass catcher.
Ready or not for the challenge, the Irish need him to be an every-down player. With redshirt freshmen Durham Smythe and Mike Heuerman still not carrying the heft to be effective blockers, the 6'5", 261-pound senior has drastically improved at the point of attack.
Add in some very efficient production in the passing game and Koyack could turn a late bloom into another nice NFL career for a former Notre Dame tight end.
After three seasons of not playing up to his blue-chip recruiting billing, Ishaq Williams has a great opportunity to make his final season in South Bend count. The 6'5.5", 271-pound senior will line up on the edge of Brian VanGorder's four-man defensive front, tasked with providing a pass rush that disappeared last season.
It's a position where Williams looks like a natural fit. Even if it's one final assignment for the Brooklyn native to master.
"It's a new position, a new system, I'm just trying to get used to it," Williams told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. "It's just a new system. It is whole different thinking process from the 3-4, just trying to get used to the difference right now. It's a 4-3 now, it's more reacting, full go."
Williams has struggled to find his groove at Notre Dame, primarily because he's been stuck behind Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo at the "Cat" linebacker position. But there's nobody on this roster that has Williams' size or athleticism, and he'll be on the field for as many snaps as he can handle.
Looking good at practice has never been a hard thing for the former five-star prospect. On the opening day of spring practice, Brian Kelly sounded optimistic that the light bulb has turned on just in time.
He's one athletic, big dude, and we've been waiting and waiting and waiting like you all have been waiting, and I'm pretty excited right now. We'll see. It's early. I'm going to be very cautious but I'm cautiously optimistic.
After leading the Irish in rushing during the 2013 season's first two games, Amir Carlisle all but disappeared. A late game fumble against Purdue spiraled into a massive reduction in playing time, the culmination of a disappointing season for the USC transfer who finally was playing for the Irish after sitting out 2012 with an ankle injury.
When Brian Kelly announced that Carlisle would cross train at slot receiver this spring, many assumed that Carlisle was the odd man out in a running back race that focused on Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. But Carlisle has embraced the shift to the slot and looks to have found a new home in the Irish offense.
Kelly has pinpointed Carlisle and C.J. Prosise to anchor the Irish at slot receiver. After spending a lifetime at running back, Carlisle has been a quick study at the "Z" receiver spot.
He's just kind of going through the process of finding a home in a sense. Last year he didn't really get into a rhythm offensively at running back, and then he's playing a little bit of slash slot. Now he's playing full-time at the receiver position. I think he's getting into a consistent role. I think that's very, very important for him. It's helping a lot.
Carlisle looked the part of a quick study over the weekend, catching multiple passes during 11-on-11 scrimmaging and motioning into the backfield to carry the ball as well. As Kelly continues his five-year search for the perfect slot receiver in his system, Carlisle has embraced his chance.
"I actually was all for it," Carlisle told Irish Illustrated about the position switch. "A new change, new scenery. I’m always willing to help the team out in any way possible. I was all for it."
After an anonymous first two seasons in South Bend, converted safety John Turner might be the primary beneficiary of Brian VanGorder's schematic shift in the defense. Turner was seen running with the No. 1 defense during the weekend's open practices, a radical change after being off the team's depth chart at safety last season.
Viewed as a tweener in Bob Diaco's defense, the liability is now an asset in the Irish defense. And it's an opportunity that Brian Kelly expects the Indianapolis native to seize.
We all knew about his physical ability. Now he's been given a chance that is an incredible opportunity. ... I don't know if he really had the chance last year, to be quite honest with you. Now he's been given the chance, so I'll be surprised if he doesn't take advantage of it.
During his recruitment, the Irish coaches offered a scholarship to Turner after they watched him at their summer camp, impressed after he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash. Now weighing 217 pounds, Turner has the speed to run and cover inside receivers and the heft to play down in the box.
There's still plenty of time between now and the season opener against Rice, but Turner has gone from anonymous reserve to key cog. That's what spring practice is all about.