Spring Notebook: final week

A look at Brian Kelly's Irish heading into the spring session's final three practices and Saturday's 83rd annual Blue Gold Game.

Red (2), White (1), and Blue (1)

The squad's (relative) veteran quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees (13 combined starts) will wear the former while untested triggermen Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will don either a white or blue jersey, signifying they're fair game to the defense for the upcoming April 16 tackle football game.

As they have been for the bulk of the spring, Crist and Rees will be off limits from serious contact during the first live broadcast of the annual Blue Gold Game, to be shown on the Versus Network at 2 p.m.

"Versus is a partner now with NBC and Comcast and we're excited," Kelly said. "The NBC talent will be there, I hope we can live up to those expectations of being on TV, but right now we're a little thin in certain areas, but we'll make it exciting. I think it'll be a good opportunity for us to showcase our football team.

"We're going to try to get as many game scenarios involved. Obviously two quarterbacks will not be in a live situation, but two will. So I think we'll get some excitement, more so than the typical spring game."

The team's thinning position ranks could be evident at the annual game's showcase position of running back, where senior backup Jonas Gray serves as the latest casualty.

"Jonas has a gastroc strain," Kelly said Saturday. "We thought he had a knee strain but it's more of a high-calf…he was moving around today. We'll probably have him back on Monday. He did not practice today but put in some light jogging."

If Gray returns Monday there's a good chance he'll suit up for the Blue or the Gold Saturday. But if his timetable mirrors that of other spring casualties, starting running back Cierre Wood will likely be teamed with, and opposed by, a trio of walk-ons for the glorified scrimmage.

Wood scored two touchdowns in last year's contest including a 44-yard burst through the defense. Gray added a 38-yard highlight run late.

One player whose recovery has lagged far behind Kelly's original prognosis is sophomore wide receiver, Daniel Smith.

"It's a slow process; as we've gone back to look at this, we probably had a deficiency in that leg when he came on campus," Kelly said of Smith's balky hamstring. "This is probably about strengthening more than it is a typical hamstring. We're grading it about 30 percent deficiency in that hamstring. There were some things going on and now we're making up for lost time. We'll get him back, but unlikely for the spring game."

Kelly noted the injury was not to the same leg on which Smith had surgery in high school.

Also down and likely out for next Saturday is junior guard Chris Watt. Watt had been competing with 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss for the starting left guard spot through most of spring, though he had appeared to cede first unit reps to his elder, at least during the brief media viewing periods of practice.

"Chris Watt has a high ankle sprain; he's in a cast," Kelly offered. "Rob Hunt, our athletic trainer likes to put those in a cast and immobilize them right away. He'll be in it for five total days. We'll take the cast off Wednesday. And we'll see where we are. I would say he's questionable for the spring game."

Out for the spring but expected back for August camp is senior inside linebacker Anthony McDonald, whose surgery for a torn pectoral muscle suffered in camp's first week was deemed a success by his head coach.

"Obviously it's disappointing for Anthony because he's missing some crucial time and (sophomore) Kendall Moore has been the beneficiary of that work. He's getting a lot of tutelage."

The return date for Moore's classmate, Cameron Roberson, is less certain, though Kelly was optimistic that the sophomore runner could contribute in the fall following surgery to repair torn knee ligaments suffered in spring's third practice.

"Cam is a long process. He's in good spirits, he's started his rehab already, and I wouldn't count him out," Kelly said before citing a similar example: "He's shown early – I'll give you an example: Dayne Crist is an absolute warrior, hopefully he never has to do it again – but (Roberson) exhibits some of those characteristics in the training room. He wants to get it done. It's just going to take time."

Kelly noted earlier in the week that Manti Te'o could be available, but remains unlikely to play in the 82nd annual Blue Gold game, though the junior linebacker is close to game condition after taking part in a controlled practice setting for the bulk of the spring.

Discretion is sure to prevail in the case of the team's potential All-America middle ‘backer as he continues to rehab a Sun Bowl knee injury and minor off-season surgery.

Full-speed...but with a finishing "touch"

Fewer than 60 healthy scholarship bodies and a renewed element of trust in his competitors during their second year under his tutelage has afforded Kelly a luxury this spring:

The Irish didn't have to punish each other for 15 practices.

Still, Kelly would have preferred a more physical atmosphere had he his druthers these past two weeks. And he's not the only one.

"Coach lets us have a couple periods of tackle each week," said junior inside 'backer Carlo Calabrese. "You get to take it all out on that. It's still speed tag-off (the rest of practice): you're 100 percent to the ball, tag them and try to rip the ball out. The only difference is the (lack of) tackling, of course."

Kelly explained why fewer bodies hit the floor this spring.

"I would have liked to hit a little more, but it's not going to be something that takes away from winning, because we can do so many things," Kelly noted. "I think if it was my first year I'd be a little bit more nervous, but, well, I'll say this: if it was my first year, we probably would have fewer bodies because I would have hit anyway.

"You'd probably like to hit a little more," he admitted. "We've probably had 50 live reps the entire spring where we'd have had 50 in a normal Saturday. So we're well behind that, but it's not going to hold us back because we have so many guys that understand what we're doing and how we're doing it."

Kelly reiterated throughout the spring that the practices were more about developing depth through the ranks than determining starting spots. Of course, that doesn't stop fans and media from wondering if there were any unexpected standouts ready to take the reigns from an assumed returning starter.

"I don't know that there's anyone that has shown ready to take over a starting position," Kelly offered. "But I know that we're building confidence that if they get called as the 'Next Man in' they'll be confident. Similar to Tommy Rees (last spring): I don't think we talked about Tommy at this time, but we were building confidence in him.

"I don't see a guy particularly saying: ‘I'm going to take that job.'"

One starting spot under heavy competition during the last two weeks was nose guard, due to both the graduation of four-year contributor Ian Williams and a spring spent on the sidelines by November hero Sean Cwynar.

Kelly was pleased with what became a two-man race between senior Hafis Williams and sophomore Louis Nix.

"I think what you're seeing is a young player in Louis Nix getting more and more reps. His issue is going to be work volume. How many top end plays can we get from him? Can we get 20? Can we get 25?

"And let's not forget, Sean Cwynar was a battler for us last year. He ate up a lot of innings, if I could use that analogy. He came in and did a really solid job – unspectacular, but he did his job and helped us win football games.

"With Sean and Hafis and Louis, we think we have three guys that can get the job done for us."

Notre Dame allowed two offensive touchdowns over Cwynar's four 2010 starts (Tulsa, Utah, Army, USC).

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