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The Journal Gazette

Friday, April 21, 2017 11:40 pm

Notre Dame spring game: 5 things to watch

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Like a lot of teams, Notre Dame turns the spring game into a very vanilla affair. Brian Kelly knows it's a glorified scrimmage, and, like nearly every other FBS coach, Kelly approaches his spring game with two goals. Avoid injuries and don't reveal too much to future opponents.

"We're not playing Temple this weekend," Kelly said, "so this is really about what's most important right now: continuing to stick to the process with our players, just making sure we finish strong, and when I say finish strong, it's not about production in the game."

Still, there are more than a few things to watch when the Irish take the field Saturday:

1. A new and improved Kelly: Kelly's speciality is offense, but the coach has been spending a little extra time in defensive meetings this spring. He's operating more with the whole roster in mind, and it will be interesting to see how that manifests itself in the spring game.

"Coach Kelly hasn't changed who he is," left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "He's a straight shooter with us. I don't think a 4-8 season warrants somebody to change who they are as a person. His role is a little more universal now on our team."

2. Speed and athleticism at safety: We know about Notre Dame's wealth of talent at cornerback, but keep an eye on young safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott. Both have proven to be very gifted players, but there's not enough trust in them. Both guys played in all 12 games last season, but while Studstill started nine games and finished the season with 38 tackles, one interception and one forced fumble, Elliott played primarily on special teams. This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. This spring, coaches moved Nick Coleman from corner to safety to help with depth. Also, between free safety and strong safety, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

"It's a process," defensive coordinator Mike Elko said, "trying to figure out what they do well. I think we've started to evolve the package to fit who we're going to be playing back there predominantly."

3. Play at defensive tackle: Notre Dame has to find someone to take over for Jarron Jones. This position, which was impacted by injuries and didn't exactly have great showings from anyone this spring, is a bit of a mystery and concern for Notre Dame's coaches. The position will get better once Elijah Taylor and Daniel Cage are healthy, but as far as Saturday is concerned, things won't exactly look very polished. The best of the bunch in the middle has probably been Jerry Tillery, but Micah Dew-Treadway and Jonathan Bonner, who is a converted end, will get reps inside.

"There was a lot written about that group," Elko said. "(Defensive line coach) Mike (Elston) has done a good job developing them. There are probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us."

4. Brandon Wimbush's poise in the pocket: After sitting behind DeShone Kizer for two years, this is now Wimbush's team. No pressure, kid. Oh, and Wimbush has to get comfortable in new offensive coordinator Chip Long's offense. So far, it sounds like Wimbush really likes Long's scheme and is starting to come around a lot more with his technique. Now let's see how technically sound he can be in a game-like situation. This year finally brings Wimbush's chance to be the guy at quarterback, so all eyes are on him.

"Brandon can make all the throws," Long said. "The biggest thing is his footwork, getting that corrected, getting him more confident with that, but there is not a throw he can't make. He's doing a lot better job just his presence in the pocket."

5. Tony Jones Jr. rising to the fore: OK, so we know that rising junior Josh Adams is the No. 1 running back for the Irish, but word is that Jones has been an absolute stud in practice this spring. Plus, Dexter Williams has been limited this spring, so this is a perfect opportunity for Jones to show out. The back who redshirted in 2016 after arriving from IMG Academy in Florida has shown off some killer athleticism, speed, vision and elusiveness this spring. He could be a really special player, even if he is sharing carries with Adams and Williams. Irish fans should get to see a good chunk of Jones on Saturday, which should allow him to show why he was invited to the 2015 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

"Tony did a really good job for us last year," Irish running backs coach Autry Denson said. "Obviousy we had some depth, so we had the luxury of not playing him, but Tony came in ready to play and has just continued that progression, picking up the system mentally and contributing in all facets of the game."