Reemergence and recoveryFor fans, spring football represents hope. For football coaches (and nature, I suppose) the time also allows for rebirth, refocus, and renewal.
And for junior inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese, 2011 has been a tale of two springs.
"I would say Carlo has really stepped his game, where in the beginning week of spring, we wanted him to connect the dots faster. Now he's connected the dots faster," said aforementioned defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. "He's cleaned up his run fits; he's cleaned up his pass fits; he can play harder, longer.
"We've challenged him and left him in there when he thinks he's going to come out, I've left him in there for maybe even a (extra) block of four plays. So I've been well-pleased with maybe the last two-thirds or three-fourths of Carlo's spring. I feel good about where he is."
Diaco's assessment is a far cry from early April when he noted that the returning starter, "Has to clean his game up. He has to get himself to a point where he's not a liability of one of those 11, and right now he is."
Still scuffling in the liability category, however, are the understudies inside. With Manti Te'o out of contact this spring, and senior Anthony McDonald gone for the bulk of the practices due to pectoral surgery, the unit has seen its share of new competitors emerge.
But they've yet to step to the fore.
"After (the starters) that ‘Next Man In.' I can't argue with what you're saying," said Diaco of the lack of proven, quality depth among the inside ‘backers. "I'm still concerned. It's still a liability. Those players are not able to come in and function at a level of Coach Kelly and the team and the community."
Three-for-oneOne of Notre Dame's five semester freshman mans a position in which the Irish have excelled over the past two seasons, and with both key competitors returning for 2011, to boot (no pun intended).
Nonetheless, kicker Kyle Brindza has forged his way into the mix alongside a pair of record-setting kickers.
"Strong leg; operation time down considerably," said Kelly of Brindza's spring progress. "His operation time (snap to kick) early on was not sufficient for him to be out there kicking. He's done a great job there and he has a strong leg. Now it's just development.
"Tausch, Ruffer, Brindza," Kelly continued of his kicking unit, the first a pair of program record-breakers with Ruffer performing as the nation's best last fall "You don't necessarily want three kickers on scholarship but we've got three really good ones."
Matchup nightmare(s)?Wednesday's brief media viewing period offered little for fan consumption...other than the presence of a massive new target practicing among the wide receivers during a particular drill.
"We're doing some one-on-one stuff in the red zone with him where he can get matched up," said Kelly of junior tight end Tyler Eifert and his presence among the team's depleted wide receiver unit. "Some drills where he has to go ‘high-point' to get the ball that he wouldn't do with (tight ends coach) Mike Denbrock. Just giving him the versatility of that position."
Eifert will of course remain at tight end, but Kelly did allow that there'd be positional movement this summer, though nothing newsworthy (outside these pages, of course).
"It's allowed us to continue to develop Eifert's skill set as a detached receiver and also give Ragone the work that he needs," Molnar offered of the preponderance of two-tight end sets this spring. "We have both of these guys on the field, because at the end of the day, Mike Ragone is going to play somewhere between 40 and 60 plays per game. And if you have him and Eifert splitting time in practice, they're not going to develop as much as they could, so this has allowed both guys to get more playing time and more work in practice."
That work has been instrumental for Ragone, an improved blocker but still silent partner as a pass-catcher.
"I think Mike will catch more balls this year because he's going to feel more comfortable," Molnar noted. "(Last year) he ran the plays as they were drawn up in the playbook, but as you're out there on the field, things change. Nothing is the same two times in a row. So Mike has now learned the flow of our offense, how to adapt, and read coverages, and move with the defense and find open areas so much better than he did a year ago.
"Mike has great vertical speed," Molnar continued. "He can be a real threat, but he has to know how to use that speed, get in and out of breaks and work"
Also pushing for playing time is sophomore (redshirt-freshman) tight end Alex Welch.
"He's the best of both, he's a good blend," Molnar said of the untested third tight end. Alex is going to be a good in-line blocker; maybe one day he'll be great. Maybe…if he continues to develop, but he certainly, as a detached receiver, as big as he is, gets in and out of breaks, and he's pretty nimble down the field.
"And man does he have good hands. He goes after the football. He'll have a role. Whoever has to come out of the game for whatever reason, be it Eifert or Ragone, we have another guy that we can plug and play. Alex can go to the attached tight end and Eifert stay at detached, or you can move Alex to the detached and shift Eifert to attached, and I think we'll be pretty good."
(The detached tight end is simply detached from the line of scrimmage – similar to a slot receiver and not in a three-point stance as is the attached tight end.)
Between the LinesWhile none of the tight end trio will be switching positions anytime soon, Kelly did offer that there will be mild movement over the summer.
"Yes, subtle though, within units," he said when asked about veterans switching positions following spring's conclusion. "You may see somebody move from a guard to tackle; or a receiver move inside to outside, but you won't see any changing positions. The next (full position) move you'll see is where we bring in our freshmen. You'll try to see where they can possibly help us right away."
On a related note, sophomore wide receiver T.J. Jones appeared gimpy in Wednesday's practice, but Kelly noted the 2010 spring sensation is expected to play in his second Blue Gold Game, Saturday.
"He's a little bit (slowed). He'll play; you know…its football. He has a little bit of an ankle but he'll be fine. He's a gamer, when its time to play, I don't think you'll see him limping."
Loose lips sink ships: Among the annual Blue Gold weekend festivities is the reveal of the upcoming season's version of "The Shirt."
Debuting in 1990, all proceeds from sales of The Shirt support student clubs and organizations, students who are experiencing extraordinary medical costs, and other students who cannot afford to participate in campus-life activities.
Kelly was mum on the 2011 design, one to be unveiled at 5:45 Friday afternoon at the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, with the head coach in attendance.
"I learned my lesson on the throwback stuff," Kelly joked in reference to his intentional spilling-of-the-beans regarding Michigan's uniform choice for the September 10 matchup in Ann Arbor. "I was given double-secret probation on that.
"It is a guarded secret," he continued of the 2011 shirt. "I do know what the shirt looks like and I will tell you this: You're going to like it."
To review the previous 21 editions, click here.