Separation Begins

Irish head coach Brian Kelly covered a variety of topics in his post practice interview session. Among the themes: the running game, resume-building experiences, position battles, and a defense to be reckoned with.

Notre Dame endured its first practice in full pads today, thus beginning the necessary process of separating hardened football players from well-conditioned athletes.

"We got a chance to put together what has been the theme of the first four practices for us," Kelly said. "Running the football and defending the run."

"I would say most of our scripting has been focused on running the football, play-action. (Today) I got a chance to evaluate a lot of the running backs and from our standpoint, the offensive line, and building that continuity," he noted. "And then defensively, defending the run."

Contact and hitting allowed the team's offensive linemen and running backs to show more than improved technique, but the session also afforded the defense, units one through three, to prove its wares in live action.

"Defensively, we have a lot of players we want to ‘build their resumes,'" Kelly offered in reference to the team's constantly evaluated depth chart. "I told them these next couple of days where we get to tackle, it's not necessarily ‘moving day' (in terms of the depth chart), but they can build their resumes relative to how they play the game: the blocking, the tackling.

"Some guys look good in conditioning when they're running around with the shorts and their helmets," Kelly continued. "Other guys have a chance to step up when contact is introduced. Today we'll get a chance with the rest of the afternoon to evaluate film and spend time meeting with our football team.

"We've (referred to it) as building a toughness with our football team. We know we can play fast. We can spread it out and do those things," Kelly concluded. "We want to really have our guys focus this week on our toughness as a football team."

As Kelly noted last August and senior safety Jamoris Slaughter echoed today, the first day of full pads shows who truly wants to hit somebody.

"We got a chance to see who's physical and not," Slaughter observed.

Kelly saw enough from his offense to consider the day a success.

"I like what we did as an offensive unit running the football. And we're going against a very stout defense," he added with a knowing grin. "When I look at our ability to run the football I'm judging it knowing we've showed we can play very good run defense."

Resumes Reviewed

The Irish have approximately 14 practices remaining before Kelly and his staff iron out the team's Week One depth chart. While most first unit roles have been established, a few remain to be decided, as do several along the all-important second groupings.

"I think we know who those front-line guys are, but it's really about building that next unit. Who's going to step in?" Kelly said. "I'll give you an example: We're better when we can count on Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood to give (Robert) Blanton or (Gary) Gray a (break at cornerback). We don't want to get to a point where we put those guys out there and there's a big drop-off."

The same holds true at inside linebacker, where one starter is set in stone (for the foreseeable future) and another has a leg up on his classmate challenger.

"It's (Carlo) Calabrese and (Dan) Fox at the Will," Kelly said of the linebacker competition next to Mike starter Manti Te'o. "Carlo has been very professional. I think he's had one day where he didn't start well but he finished well. Carlo is doing well at the Will; Fox still has to close on him further."

A heated position battle, one between a first-year competitor and snake-bitten senior, is brewing behind the talented Te'o.

"(Kendall Moore) and McDonald are fighting it out," Kelly offered when asked specifically about the former's progress. "That's been a great battle at the Mike."

Moore earned Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year honors last season for his work as a true freshman. McDonald appeared to have the lead for a starting role next to Te'o exiting Spring 2010 but fell even with Calabrese during last year's August camp. He then suffered a hyper extended knee and dropped well behind the pace, with Calabrese starring in September.

In Name Only

One position in which the team's official starter is largely irrelevant is the safety spot opposite team captain Harrison Smith. Senior Jamoris Slaughter and junior Zeke Motta continue to vie daily for the role.

"They're all going to play," Kelly said of his safety trio. "When you break down their reps (Motta and Slaughter), they're going to be very equal. They're playmakers for us, too. We made it clear: ‘Don't even worry about who the starter is, because it's immaterial. You're all going to play and you're all going to play an equal amount.'"

Smith participated in 820 snaps last season, second only to Te'o's 824 among all defenders. Motta started eight games and played in all 13 en route to 553 snaps. Slaughter won the starting spot but was injured in the opener vs. Purdue and made just five starts as a result (with 292 snaps).

The senior pronounced himself ready to roll after January surgery to repair his ankle and heel.

"I felt really good in the spring. When we started spring ball I was a little iffy but as I kept practicing it felt better and better. I feel great now," he said.

X on the Spot

Though the quarterback competition between Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees dominates each interview session, a consistent runner-up has emerged as this August's second-most discussed battle: the X receiver role.

"I think T.J. (Tai-ler Jones) has had, really, when considering the five days, as good a camp as anyone else," Kelly offered of his sophomore pass-catcher. "I really would highlight him today in terms of what he's done. John (Goodman) has had a good five days; T.J. has done it at both X and Z. He gives us versatility (to play outside at the X and in the slot/Z).

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar spoke highly of both competitors as well.

"I wouldn't say that you're going to see T.J. Jones in the first game be that college breakout player of the year, but you know what? He's got a chance, if he continues to polish his skills and work hard, and pay attention to his lessons," Molnar offered.

"(Goodman) has been in our program. He has size, speed, ball skills, but he has to put it altogether," Molnar noted of the senior receiver. "He has to have as much confidence in himself as the coaches have in him. And when he plays with that confidence he's going to be a really good football player.

You guys are going to say, ‘Man, why wasn't Goodman playing more last year?' Well you know what? Goodman wasn't playing more because he wasn't ready last year. But I think Goodman's possibly ready to take that next step."

As for the X position's newcomer, freshman DaVaris Daniels?

"DaVaris Daniels has an outstanding skill set. He's going to be a really good player," Kelly noted. "I don't know that he makes it to (the game day rotation) vs. South Florida but he's a young man I'm high. But boy there's a lot to do with him right now as far as routes."

Kelly offered an example of the steep learning curve all young receivers face.

"It's funny. He's (jersey) No. 16," Kelly said of Daniels. "And I wanted him to run the ‘bench route.' So I said, ‘Hey 16, run the bench.'

"And of course, he heard the bench was supposed to be run at 16 yards…it's run at 12. So (everything) is spinning right now for him."

Reading between the lines

One starting spot I've advertised as set-in-stone throughout the off-season is the invaluable nose guard role. I've apparently either jumped the gun, or have simply read too much into one comment pertaining to senior Sean Cwynar and his presumed backup, redshirt-freshmen and future television personality, Louis Nix.

"Here's what he does for us," Kelly said when asked about Cwynar's impact on the group. "He lightens the load at that nose guard position because he's going to give you 30 really good plays. You're not going to get 40-50 out of him," Kelly admitted before adding, "Now Louis Nix doesn't have to play the whole game."

Whether Nix or Cwynar earns the starting nod (it would appear from the final sentence above that Nix has forged an edge), Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston know a third will be necessary at some point this fall.

"You want to talk about a battle: that one is wide open," Kelly said of the No. 3 nose guard competition. "I mean, (Tony) Springmann has done great things," he said of the freshman from Bishop Dwenger, (Fort Wayne, Ind). Hafis (Williams) has got to hang on there right now. It's a battle for that third spot."

A senior this fall, Williams participated in 244 crucial snaps last season, the bulk of which occurred during Notre Dame's 4-1 finish.

Elston offered this when asked if a third nose guard could be a regular part of the game day rotation:

"It could be the case, but we don't need it to be."

(Another possible indicator that Williams needs to pick up his game over the next two weeks.)

In 2010, the team's "Next Man In" motto was far more pertinent than any perceived leader on paper in the dog days of August.

To borrow a phrase from defensive coordinator Bob Diaco: "We need them all..."


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