Future TenseThe 2010 season's confluence of an extremely late Bye Week, recruiting road trips for more than a few Irish assistants, and a physically and emotionally battered football team provided Notre Dame's roster with a light week of practice as the team heads into its first open Saturday of the fall semester.
Irish head coach Brian Kelly used the non-game week atmosphere to provide a respite from the norm for the regulars and thus found the opportunity to further evaluate some of the team's freshmen talent.
"Earlier in the week (Tuesday) we had the opportunity to scrimmage a lot of our young guys. You might think that's our first offense going against our first defense," Kelly joked in reference to the team's myriad injuries.
"We do have some other guys that we wanted to get some action…it's great to see some of those young players who aren't getting any time some work.
"I really liked a couple of players," Kelly continued of the freshman-focused scrimmage. "Cameron Roberson did a really nice job; Alex Welch, Christian Lombard…Kendall Moore was all over the field…Louis Nix was very difficult to block."
The graduation of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes suggests Roberson will ascend to the No. 3 running back role at season's end and entering spring practice. Welch, who Kelly lauded for his play in August, should compete as one of the team's flexed tight ends in the spring, though the tight end unit could contain as many as four or as few as two returning competitors for the soon-to-be sophomore.
Lombard, along with fellow freshman left tackle Tate Nichols, received kind words from Kelly for his pre-season progress. Both should compete at tackle in the spring with only redshirt-freshman left tackle Zack Martin certain to return at the position. A fifth year of eligibility is available to seniors Taylor Dever, Matt Romine and Andrew Nuss as well. (Dever appears a lock to be offered a 5th-year opportunity from the coaching staff).
Nix's continued improvement on the nose is key as the Irish lose senior nose guard Ian Williams to graduation, while current interior defenders Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams appear better suited to play defense end – not a likely destination for 2011 when one examines the returning depth chart.
Inside ‘backer Kendall Moore will enter a heated competition in the spring as well as only Carlo Calabrese has distinguished himself alongside the team's most talented defender, Manti Te'o.
None of the quintet Kelly mentioned will play this season. One freshman, however, is officially slated for emergency duty.
"The only (freshman) that we're activating in the terms that he'll be our third quarterback is Andrew Hendrix," Kelly offered.
When asked what he saw from Hendrix this week, Kelly joked, "The back of his head…his head is spinning."
Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar would prefer that Hendrix not see the field until 2011.
"We really tried more than anything else to slow it down. He's not involved right now in game planning, it's more about just understanding the big picture," Kelly admitted of the freshman who had spent the previous ten weeks on the scout team. "We want to make sure he can get the snap, hand it off if he needs to do that. We're really going slow with him at this point.'
Kelly noted the players will have Friday and Saturday off but would return Sunday for film study. As with yesterday's practice, Sunday's film session and next Monday's practice will be devoted to Utah preparations.
"We'll get two bonus days if you will in our preparation for Utah. Sunday we'll get back into (preparations) for our last home game for our seniors. We're excited about the opportunity to play a nationally opponent."
Utah enters the weekend as the BCS's No. 5 ranked team. The Utes face BCS No. 3 TCU in Salt Lake City Saturday night.
Miles to go for Tommy ReesKelly was effusive in his praise of quarterback Tommy Rees when asked post-game Saturday to comment on his freshman's emergency appearance.
"Awesome. Are you kidding me? I couldn't be more happy for the kid. True freshman going out there, hasn't played. He just competes. Took some big hits, got right back up. I don't know if he knew where he was a couple of times. Got right back up, said some things. I knew that he was going to compete again," Kelly offered of Rees' performance that included a freshman-program record four touchdown passes, along with 33 completions (second in program history for any quarterback) for 334 yards and three interceptions.
Kelly was asked Thursday what he has since seen from Rees that says, ‘I'm ready to be the starter…the ‘guy'"?
"None of that," Kelly stated; a telling retort to what was likely intended as a "feel-good" question pertaining to Notre Dame's newest focal point. "I would have liked to have him walk in and have him say ‘Coach, don't worry about this. It's on my back. Let's roll.'
"He's still a true freshman. He's got really good savvy. He's got a great understanding of our offense in a very short period of time, but let's make no mistake about it: he's still a true freshman that's had one game and he'll continue to get better.
"He loves the game; he's a great competitive kid but we have to take it into account that he's really a young player."
While Rees' game-package has certainly expanded since his initial set-back vs. Michigan in Week Two, Kelly and staff still must tailor the offense to fit the freshman's skill set.
"I think what we'll try to do is game plan not only for what Utah does, but what Tommy does well. So our focus and game planning will be on what we believe his strengths to be," Kelly said.
Kelly noted throughout the season the need for former starter Dayne Crist to keep defenses honest during the team's read-option running plays. In at least two instances vs. Tulsa, the lack of Rees as a running threat contributed to a hard-charging DE/OLB dropping Irish runners for a loss or no gain.
Can Rees execute the read-option, and if so, will any defense view him as a threat?
"Yeah, he's capable of doing that and having that as part of what we do but I think most of that will be based upon…he threw the ball out on the perimeter to (slot receiver) Robby Toma. Those are run plays that are called – I'm not sure if you guys know that: when the ball gets thrown out (to the slot) it gets to your pass yardage when it's really a (called running play). We'll probably stay in that same kind of location with Tommy."
Also included in the Rees' read-option are the designed half rolls the quarterback employed to open up better passing lanes and extend plays throughout Saturday's contest.
Spring snaps up for grabsWith junior quarterback Dayne Crist's spring status in doubt, a healthy Rees would likely enter next March's practice session as the team's lead quarterback. He'll receive plenty of competition from senior-to-be Nate Montana and fellow freshman Andrew Hendrix as well as the intriguing 6'5" first-year scout team member Luke Massa, another freshman who will likely entering the spring with four seasons of eligibility intact.
What can Rees do next Saturday and vs. both Army and USC to cement a lead role entering March?
"I think its still physical development," Kelly offered of the unimposing 18-year-old from Lake Forest, Illinois. "His arm strength has to (improve). His physique, he has to work harder in the weight room.
"And he works hard, don't get me wrong, but Tommy (already) has the intangibles for the position. He has a great sense of the offense and a feel for the game. He carries himself very well on the sidelines; he's easy to talk to and gain information from. He just has to get stronger and physically develop."
As for the injured Crist, Kelly has complete faith in the junior's ability to mentally overcome his second season-ending knee injury in a 365-degree span.
"There's no question in my mind he'll be back from the injury. He's just a strong kid mentally and he's done it already," Kelly said of Crist. "It's an injury that some, who are experts, and I'm not – believe that this is not as severe of an injury. He's going to have to go back out there and get comfortable again and go through that process and that's going to take some time.
"All I know for sure is that he'll be back and just like everybody else on this football team, he'll be evaluated day-to-day as to how we can put the best 22 guys on the field."