Notre Dame completes its seventh spring under Brian Kelly this Saturday when the Irish take the field for their annual Blue-Gold spring game. Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Irish look to build off last year’s 10-win season:
1. Quarterbacks. What, you thought something else would lead off here? DeShone Kizer has the unmatched advantage of possessing 11 college starts to his name, while the man who beat him out last offseason, Malik Zaire, is back from a broken ankle and looking to reclaim his old job back. Both will be live in the spring game, but don’t overlook the third guy in the mix, Brandon Wimbush, who remains a bit of a long shot as it pertains to this season but possesses enough strength and speed to get Irish fans excited about the future.
“Very impressive,” quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said of Wimbush. “His physical tools — he really has the full package. That’s the thing that’s really exciting about the group of quarterbacks is we have guys that can do what we want them to do and what coach (Mike) Denbrock, coach Kelly and myself deem to be important out of that position.”
2. Familiar faces back in place. Notre Dame’s 2015 season was marred by injury after injury, but several familiar faces are back, looking to regain their previous form. Along with the aforementioned Zaire, running back Tarean Folston, receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and safety Drue Tranquill will all get the chance to play in Notre Dame Stadium after their seasons ended prematurely last fall. Ditto for defensive back Shaun Crawford, whose freshman season ended before it began because of an ACL tear last August. He has earned a considerable amount of praise from the coaching staff during the fall (2015) and spring (2016) camps.
“He changes everything at that nickel position,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said of Crawford. “Last year it was just such a battle for us. He changes that whole position for us. And that’s a big position and it’s not easy to find those in and out corners like he is.”
3. Offensive line. Perhaps this unit deserves to be placed higher here, given its (overlooked) importance. Harry Hiestand’s unit has to replace a pair of future NFL draft picks in left tackle Ronnie Stanley and center Nick Martin, along with right guard Steve Elmer, who is graduating early and taking a job in Washington. The left side seems settled, with Mike McGlinchey moving to left tackle from right tackle after last season, Quenton Nelson back at left guard and Sam Mustipher at center. The right side seems less so, although the staff has experimented with flipping Hunter Bivin to right guard and moving Alex Bars to right tackle. That alignment that figures to be the most likely to trot out for the 2016 opener in September. Bars is back from a broken ankle suffered last season.