Hit or be hit

Irish Eyes' first practice report focuses on Saturday's concluding 3-on-3 drill and the competition it engenders among the ranks.

The drill brings out the best in its competitors – not to mention its rapt audience.

Three offensive players, including a running back. Three defensive players, including one that will go unblocked on each snap. The team divided by offense and defense, surrounding the combatants.

It's the standard "Irish Eyes" drill you've read about in the past, though in this case, with the entire team – and today, a coaching clinic and large media contingent – craning their collective necks for a glimpse of the action.

Notre Dame's third practice was unlike either of the pair preceding: full pads, noticeable, heated competition…and with Urban Meyer in attendance.

And its notable conclusion dominated the talk of the interview session that followed.

"You're looking for that competitive spirit. I want tough guys off the field; gentleman on the field. I don't want both," offered head coach Brian Kelly. "Gentlemen on the field and off the field won't win enough football games. You guys will be talking to a new head coach.

"So we want tough guys that want to compete and we saw that today. And the other thing I was pleased with was we know where that line is. There wasn't guys taking their helmets off and throwing them at each other. The game's an emotional game, so there's going to be a little (fighting), but our guys know where that edge is. They have to carry a little bit of an edge when they play and I thought they did a great job of handling themselves when emotions started to get hot.

It appeared the defense won its share of what is essentially a short-yardage battle of wills, with former wide receiver-turned-cornerback Bennett Jackson making two big, teammate-pleasing hits, including one in which he emerged from the pile without a helmet…but with the football. That followed a huge hit by senior linebacker Steve Filer that had the entire defense, including coordinator Bob Diaco, fired up and piling on their conquering threesome.

The offense produced its share of victories as well, highlighted by Cierre Wood breaking through a would-be-tackler (and promptly planting the football on the imaginary goal line 10 yards away), as well as a vicious pancake block by junior Tyler Eifert on classmate Carlo Calabrese in which the former drove the latter 10 yards, then planted him into the turf…casually walking away upon completion (which likely infuriated Calabrese more than any form of trash talk could).

Wood ended the drill – after previously being stripped by Jackson – with a highlight reel leapfrog, landing, and sprint to the goal, spiking the ball with the entire offense piling on him in celebration.

"I'm not making excuses," Wood said (while making an excuse), "But when the ball came out, it was that my hands were slippery, because I took water before. I took my gloves off but I still wanted to get in there," he added of what became the session's best run. "I said ‘Coach, coach, give me the ball. I wanted it regardless.'"

Wood's competitive spirit makes him a natural lead dog – and target – in the intense drill.

"It's really exciting. You get to see what everybody has. Who's tough and who's not. That's where your true colors show."

While Wood and fellow running back Jonas Gray (who also burst through the pack for a "score") get the glory; and unblocked defenders such as Jackson and Filer find the big hits, it's the grunt work up front that makes it all possible – an offensive linemen's dream.

"It's good because no one really crosses the line," said junior guard Chris Watt of the heated exchanges after most snaps. "That always happens with emotion involved though, you'll obviously have some shoving."

When asked if the defense emerged as the spring's first true winner in 3-on-3 competition, Watt deferred.

"Undecided," he said.

Part of the game

In baseball, there's an adage that "staying healthy is a skill."

In football, playing through inevitable pain is the only aspect of injuries a player can control. And some ailments need time more than toughness, to heal.

"Knee injury," Kelly reported of sophomore running back Cameron Roberson who was helped off the field early in practice. "We didn't like the way it looked. They're going to have to send him for an MRI. Generally when you get a knee you know if it's a hyper extension or a bruise, so I never like hearing (MRI) news but we'll know something, probably on Monday."

Roberson's injury left the Irish backfield with just two scholarship athletes – Wood and Gray – for the remainder of the spring. Patrick Coughlin serves as the lone walk-on, a situation Kelly will remedy with try-outs in search of more bodies for his depleted backfield.

Also lame and limping during practice was junior nose guard Tyler Stockton, who moved worse without a brace than did senior position-mate Sean Cwynar with a full boot on his foot.

"Stockton has a bit of a PCL inflammation," Kelly noted. "It shouldn't be something that holds him out very much longer because he's a D-lineman, he doesn't need (a functioning) PCL, really. His shoulder's solid, he had that surgically repaired. He's good there. But he has inflammation and soreness (in the knee) so we're going to quiet him down until we get him back to 100 percent."

Joining Stockton on the sidelines was sophomore Daniel Smith. The wide receiver, however, is expected to return sooner rather than later.

"He's got a slight hamstring and he is really close to going full speed," Kelly said of the South Bend native. "We need him for a good two (plus) weeks. I do not want a lingering hamstring on him. I wouldn't even call it a Grade 1. (New football athletic trainer) Rob Hunt looked at and he feels like if he has this weekend off that we'll have him full go on Monday, so I chose to hold him back."

Legendary advice

Sophomore Tommy Rees continues to perform as what appears to be Quarterback 1B, at least during the media's two viewing sessions. Both he and senior competitor Dayne Crist operate with the first team offenses; Crist took the field first in each instance Saturday morning.

Rees wisely used the weekend's Coach's Clinic to glean sage advice from one of the game's top minds of the last decade, Urban Meyer.

"He's an unbelievable coach, an unbelievable guy," said Rees of the since-retired two-time national champion. "We just talked about what it takes to be a successful quarterback and how to lead a team.

"He really stressed the mental part of the game; also how to motivate your teammates and getting them to play. So we bounced some ideas around.

"I walked out of the meeting and thought, ‘Wow, I just talked to Urban Meyer for 15 minutes.' He's won national championships, he's a proven winner and he's a proven great coach so it was a great time."

Note: Irish Eyes will have more practice observations over the course of the weekend and Monday morning. Monday morning's practice is closed to the media.

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