Five WideThe position was a source of consternation for Irish head coach Brian Kelly in his first official practices with his team. From Day One through practice No. 15 known as the Blue Gold Scrimmage, Kelly wondered often and aloud if his ballyhooed wide receiver core could keep up with the pace he'd set for them as key cogs in the spread offense.
Their year end evaluation of the group forthcoming, Kelly and wide receivers coach Tony Alford have nonetheless has developed six pass targets worthy of field time this fall. Five will be available Saturday in Yankee Stadium vs. Army, though only four will be at full strength.
"T.J. practiced again today," Kelly said of freshman X-turned-Z receiver Tai-ler Jones who missed last week's game with a hamstring strain. "He's not going with the first unit (in practice). Robby's still with the first unit and my expectations are that's how it would end up on Saturday. Robby (Toma) would continue to start at the Z (slot) and T.J. would back him up."
Toma didn't officially start last week because the Irish began in a two-tight end set, but he did receive ample playing time for the second straight game and 9th consecutive quarter of football as the shifty slot target played with then backup Tommy Rees to close out a blowout loss at Navy on October 23.
As for the team's original slot receiver and his recovery from a high ankle sprain…it's as expected.
"Theo is getting closer to the point where he could get cleared for practice," Kelly said of the sophomore Riddick. "He's straight-line running; catching a lot off the (machine), trying to get that ‘cut back' if you will; to get the back-and-forth (ability).
"(Thursday) we're hoping to put him into some route-running where he has to stick his foot in the ground and really accelerate."
Kelly noted that Riddick had a chance to practice next week in preparation for the regular season-finale at USC.
With Toma and Jones occupying Riddick's slot role, senior Duval Kamara has moved to Jones' X-receiver spot. Kamara caught two touchdown pass last week in his first start of the season; it was his first two TD game in three calendar years (Navy 2007 during his freshman campaign).
"He'll play a lot of football," Kelly said of Kamara's season-end prospects. "I think (John) Goodman's going to play a lot too. I really like him over these last couple of weeks. He's got his legs back; maybe its something with where he's from now that it's gotten cooler he's gotten better. Could be that he's from Indiana…I don't know. With the crowd smiling at an apparent dig at northern Indiana weather, Kelly offered.
"I'm being serious (that Goodman has looked fresher after the leaves have littered South Bend's lawns). "He looks really good in practice, so he's going to have more of a role as well, but Duval is going to be starting at X."
Back walking, but wounded: Kelly offered both good and (expected) news regarding the possible return of two key interior defenders.
"Carlo (Calabrese) practiced all week; he and Brian (Smith) are playing a lot. Brian's played so much at the DROP (outside linebacker) so we're keeping him (their) and Carlo's getting back into the swing of things at the WILL (inside) linebacker position.
As for Smith's expected starting point Saturday after a 10-tackle performance vs. the Utes
"He's gotten a lot of work at both positions. My guess is he's going to be on the field quite a bit," Kelly offered before adding. "I don't want to commit to a particular position because he's cross-training right now."
Season end prospects are less promising for senior nose guard Ian Williams.
"Ian is moving around. I think he's still very questionable for USC."
Will the low man win, again?Speaking of option football, the talk of the town before, likely during, and certainly after the 35-17 loss vs. Navy last month was the Midshipmen's propensity for the cut block. Cut blocks are both legal and potentially dangerous (sounds like a microcosm of the sport). They're part of every football team's blocking strategy, but the time-tested maneuver is a staple of a triple-option attack, one which Army has run with great success this fall.
"Yeah, you have to be cognizant of it inside," Kelly said of the shots his defensive linemen will take near their knees while negotiating scrimmage traffic. "And then on the perimeter the rules are pretty clear: you cannot come back into the ball and block below the waist. I think that rule has to be enforced. That's the one that concerns us more than anything else."
When asked if he'd seen that gray area employed on Cadet film this season, Kelly took the high road.
"The option offense has a lot of blocking techniques that are potentially violations. If they occur, we hope that the right calls are made. I will say this in all honesty: in our game plan, we're not worrying about all that stuff. We have to play. We just hope that it's called if it's a penalty and if its not, let's go play."
For Irish fans that watched in awe as their physically superior team was shredded by the Naval Academy's option attack, then (rightly) opined that Notre Dame defenders were a bit preoccupied with the Midshipmen's blocking scheme, Kelly concluded his cut-blocking sentiments with a promising acknowledgement.
"We can't be tentative. If we're tentative, we're in trouble."
Now we just need Grantland Rice…Kelly's post-game comments last Saturday that his team was "unburdened by tradition" during its preparation and season-best performance vs. Utah elicited further questions throughout the week.
Coincidentally, the following contest will involve Notre Dame; Army; Yankee Stadium; and green jerseys (planned since the season's outset)…it doesn't get much more nostalgic than that.
"We want to know about our tradition. We want to embrace Notre Dame. We just can't carry all of the unfulfilled expectations on our shoulders," Kelly noted.
"We welcome the green (jerseys). We think that's a great part of Notre Dame. Our guys are excited because the hats that they're wearing on the road are pinstriped with an (interlocking) ND.
"They're kids. They're excited about this stuff it won't be a sense and a feel that they have too much on their shoulders."
But could they have turned a lump of coal into a diamond? One notable tell of the apparent weight lifted from his team's collective shoulders has been the liveliness of the group at practice, especially at a time when the grind of a .500 season would wear on most squads.
"I take most of my reads from how I feel at the end of practice: Was their good energy? Was their focus? Were we competing? Were we having fun?" Kelly said.
"Or was it, ‘Let's just get through this? I haven't felt that way (the latter). Now, maybe I just don't know what I'm talking about, but I've felt really good the last couple of weeks the way we've prepared in practice.
"If that always equaled wins, this would be a pretty easy business. But I like going out to practice. I enjoy coaching and our kids are doing well out there, and I believe that's going to prepare us well for Saturday."
Did Kelly have moments over the first two months in which he felt his team was going through the motions?
"No, I don't think that's been the case as much as it didn't have the energy or the enthusiasm. Hey, we're playing football. You don't have to worry about so many other things. It just seems like it was a tighter group (and now) it's a looser group in the way come to practice."