Notre Dame Football: Final Winners and Losers from Spring Ball
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Eighteen days after Notre Dame football’s final practice session, we’ve had plenty of time to let the spring season sink in.
We’re almost to May, and before we know it, the Irish will be deep in summer workouts, with fall camp around the corner.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s check in on the winners and losers from spring ball. Who stepped up and impressed, and who didn’t? Who stagnated and missed opportunities?
For the winners, we’ll examine players and groups who both improved the most throughout the spring and are best positioned heading into the summer.
As for the losers, it’s tough to name players who regressed based on the small sample of live media viewing. Instead, we’ll consider those who missed out on opportunities and find themselves in crowded situations.
Let’s take a look.
Winners: Running Backs
It’s tough to find a better-situated position group on the roster leading into the summer, so the running backs headline the winners.
We highlighted Greg Bryant on Monday. The sophomore, who rushed for 14 yards in three games last season, had a strong spring and a particularly impressive outing (12 carries for 95 yards) in the Blue-Gold Game.
But the running backs as a group—Bryant, senior Cam McDaniel and sophomore Tarean Folston—consistently proved capable of handling themselves as rushers, receivers and blockers.
Bryant garnered the bulk of the spring attention, but Folston looked complete in the spring game. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Folston was slow out of the spring gates, but he finished strongly. In the Blue-Gold Game, the sophomore carried seven times for 38 yards and notched five receptions for another 54 yards.
And we can’t forget McDaniel, Notre Dame’s leading rusher last year.
The running backs are winners here because of their own spring showings, but it’s a nice bonus for them to play alongside a mobile, dual-threat quarterback—whoever that may be.
Winner: Joe Schmidt
Schmidt has earned all sorts of praise throughout the spring, and as mentioned Monday, he should have a significant role on the defense.
The former walk-on earned a scholarship and played in all 13 games last season. Undoubtedly, his biggest moment came against USC under the lights at Notre Dame Stadium. With less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Irish leading by four, Schmidt broke up a Trojans third-down pass attempt, leading to the rivalry win.
Still, I doubt many would have predicted Schmidt to surge throughout March and April the way he has. It’s that sort of improvement that merits him being a spring winner.
“Right now he can't come off the field,” Kelly said after the spring game. “His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively, he's absolutely integral to what we're doing.”
Winner: Romeo Okwara
It looked to be a developmental spring for Romeo Okwara with the junior shifting from linebacker to defensive end in Brian VanGorder’s new scheme.
Though Okwara lined up with the first-team defense from the very first time we saw the team practice in early March, Kelly made clear that his progress would be an ongoing process.
“I think we’re really in that process of developing his skill set as an edge player,” Kelly said March 19. “That’s going to take some more time. He’s certainly athletic enough. He’s strong enough...We’re now trying to take all of that innate ability and really transferring it as a football player. And he’s not there yet.”
Kelly said they’d need all of spring and preseason camp to ready Okwara. That timetable hasn’t changed, but the sophomore, who totaled 19 tackles (17 in the final seven games) in 13 games last season, progressed nicely throughout the 15 practices.
He posted three sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Afterward, Kelly said Okwara was one of the most improved defensive players.
“I think we found a role for Romeo, one that I think we feel a lot more comfortable where he is,” Kelly said.
By no means is Okwara a finished product, but he made noticeable strides—enough to come out of spring a winner.
Losers: Safeties Not Named Max Redfield
On Monday, we talked about Redfield’s emergence in the back half of spring practice.
While that’s obviously a positive for Notre Dame’s defense as a whole, it doesn’t help the rest of the safeties who are jostling for playing time among a crowded crop.
The Irish didn’t lose any safeties from last year’s squad. Admittedly, senior Matthias Farley has moved to cornerback, but he still provides the versatility to line up at safety in addition to his duties as a nickelback. Plus, the Irish are set to add Cody Riggs in June, although Kelly said in late February they’re looking at the former Florida product first as a cornerback.
All things considered, the secondary has become increasingly crowded for the likes of graduate student Austin Collinsworth, senior Eilar Hardy, junior Elijah Shumate and junior Nicky Baratti for reps at safety, assuming Redfield maintains his spring improvement.
The congestion at the position and Redfield’s improvement put the rest of the safeties among the spring losers.
Losers: Injured Defensive Players
The list of players who fall into this category is lengthy.
There is senior defensive lineman Tony Springmann, senior linebackers Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell and sophomore cornerback Devin Butler.
For most of these players—excluding Grace, since he seems to be the farthest away—missing the spring while rehabbing would be problematic, but maybe not crippling, in a typical year.
But with VanGorder’s new defense and the extensive learning that comes with it, the missed time puts those out with injuries at a disadvantage, according to the new defensive coordinator.
“It will be uphill. Each player’s a little bit different, but they’re definitely going to be behind,” VanGorder said March 26. “These are young players that you miss time, you miss repetitions, you miss experience, it slows the whole process down. There’s no getting around it.
“Hopefully they bring some different kinds of things to it as an individual, as a player, that help them recover quickly and put them in a position to help us.”
But for now, the lost time means these defenders will be playing catch-up.
Loser: Will Mahone
The junior wide receiver caught another tough break during the spring, fracturing his right foot. He underwent surgery March 6 and missed the remainder of the practices.
But it’s not just the injury that hurts; it’s also the opportunity that could have been there for the 5’11”, 214-pounder.
Throughout the spring, we’ve talked about the lack of proven commodities at receiver for the Irish. The position still seems fairly wide open, as Bleacher Report's Keith Arnold wrote Monday.
Mahone was slated to work in the slot, and he could have challenged the two-man race between senior Amir Carlisle and junior C.J. Prosise. They both reeled in touchdown grabs in the Blue-Gold Game.
The missed chances for Mahone position him with the spring losers.
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco on Twitter.