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Notre Dame football: Five things we learned this spring

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For more on Notre Dame football, follow Justin Kenny on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/jkenny_ns

Fighting Irish enter the summer answering some questions, but not others

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 - 12:01 am

SOUTH BEND – As players and coaches headed into the tunnel of Notre Dame Stadium after last Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the attention turned to the beginning of fall camp in less than four months.

Yet Coach Brian Kelly learned plenty about his team over the course of 15 practices and the scrimmage, with position battles and areas of concern coming more into focus as the program enters the summer months.

Here are five things we learned this spring:

1. The quarterback battle is indeed a battle.

Many outside the Notre Dame program believed it was just a formality that Everett Golson would regain his starting position as the No. 1 quarterback at some point before the Aug. 30 season opener against Rice. That outcome is still likely, but the spring performance by freshman Malik Zaire has clouded the once-rosy quarterback picture for Golson.

It would be brazen to look at Zaire’s 292 yards passing and two touchdowns in the spring game and pencil him into the starting role. Some media and fans like to place too much emphasis on scrimmage statistics and crown a future star.

However, Zaire looked very solid against the majority of the No. 1 Notre Dame offense. He displayed an ability to throw across his body on the run and massive arm strength down the field, including an incomplete pass that traveled over 60 yards in the air.

At the very least, Zaire gives Notre Dame a capable backup with the same skill set as Golson. But at this point it would not be a total shock if the freshman wins the quarterback job in the fall.

2. Jaylon Smith is becoming the face of the defense

The sophomore from Fort Wayne did not see substantial playing time on Saturday as Coach Kelly decided not to give some of the players he is counting on defensively – including Smith, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive lineman Sheldon Day – significant action.

What we did see from Smith is a more mature player both body-wise and in terms of leadership. Smith said Saturday he is up to 230 pounds and displays a commanding presence no matter where he lines up.

Smith's ability to read plays in pre-snap situations and call out signals shows just how much he has grown from a rookie excelling due to his athletic ability to a sophomore who looks much more comfortable understanding the nuances of the defense.

3. The tight end position will be fine

With the departure of Troy Niklas to the NFL, Notre Dame entered the spring with plenty of question marks at tight end, a position that has long been a productive one for the Fighting Irish.

Senior Ben Koyack is the veteran with 14 career catches for 215 yards and three touchdowns, with freshmen Mike Heuerman and Durham Smythe a pair of talented but inexperienced backups filling out the depth chart.

All three showed some positives in the spring, with Koyack looking the part of a capable pass-catching tight end downfield that can also stay in and block.

Heuerman and Smythe each had catches on Saturday and, while perhaps not yet at the prototypical size for a Notre Dame tight end, surely have the soft hands to play the part.

The main issue with the tight ends this fall will be their blocking ability in run sets or downfield.

4. Offensive line starters still up in the air

If there is one thing we learned about the offensive line this spring, it is that few positions there are secure.

With Nick Martin and Christian Lombard sitting out the spring due to injury and a thin offensive line group for practices, there was plenty of movement.

One thing is for sure, Martin will be the center for the Fighting Irish when he returns. After that, it is a lot of question marks. Ronnie Stanley moved to tackle in the spring and has adapted well, but where he ultimately lands is up in the air. Steve Elmer should be in the starting lineup somewhere, and he and Mike McGlinchey are guys who could be moved around.

Matt Hegarty played center in the spring and was solid, and likely gets a look at guard in the fall.

Add a new crop of freshmen along the offensive line this summer and there are plenty of position battles to be decided.

Notre Dame has talent along the offensive line; it's just a matter of figuring out which combination works the best.

5. The defense will definitely be more aggressive

Even with the quarterbacks off limits to contact on Saturday, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder did not hesitate to bring pressure to disrupt offensive timing in the backfield. The defense could claim eight sacks on Saturday with the touch rule, but it is impossible to say how many of those “sacks” the quarterbacks could have escaped in a live game.

Expect to see a lot more blitzes and pressures from the Fighting Irish defense in the fall. There is a lot of uncertainty along the defensive front, particularly at defensive end where Ishaq Williams was underwhelming and Romeo Okwara was getting acclimated to having his hand on the ground.

Some of those issues will be worked out by the fall, while others may haunt Notre Dame all season. Regardless, expect to see a more diversified defense that will strive to put more pressure on opposing teams' quarterbacks.