Keep ‘em interested, improvingThree years ago, when current Irish receivers coach Tony Alford held the same position with the team's running backs, I asked the Notre Dame first-year coach how he could keep five running backs focused, ready, and in short – happy.
"This isn't happy camp," Alford immediately noted.
A similar situation exists at present among Notre Dame's quartet of quarterbacks. None of the foursome is out of eligibility next fall, though senior Dayne Crist will graduate. Two of the four have never played a college down: freshman Everett Golson and redshirt-freshman Andrew Hendrix.
How has head coach Brian Kelly kept each member invested in the 2011 season?
"First of all the quarterback situation is such that the No. 2 knows he has to be ready. So he's doing his work because he knows he's one snap away from being in there," Kelly began. "I try to spend more attention and time with three and four. That's why we've had them both (Hendrix and Golson) stay with (the varsity) and be part of meetings and game planning, as well as go over (to the Scout team) and get some work.
"I've tried to spend a lot of time with the threes and fours in keeping them engaged and learning our offense. I meet with them individually as well to just make sure that they've got a good base," he added.
Kelly has coached Hendrix for parts of 14 months; Golson for parts of 9. Does separation yet exist between the untested prospects?
"To be quite honest with you, we'd have to say, ‘You're three, you're four. Or you're No. 1, you're No. 2,' because they're that close," he noted, referring to a day when a decision must be made. "We'd almost have to say, ‘All right it's yours, go run with it.'
"We're obviously not in that situation, but there may be a time where we say it's yours, let's go see what you can do."
The pair possesses enviable athleticism and arm strength, but neither, it appears, is able to take the reigns of a football team with goals of an extended winning streak.
"For Everett, it's been everything, it's been going to class, it's been acclimating to Notre Dame academically; the rigors of being a quarterback here at Notre Dame," Kelly said of Golson's chief task as a true frosh.
"Andrew's in pre-med, he's doing great from that standpoint, but his learning curve has been the football end of things relative to our system and our offense. So each one of them has had different things that they've had to work on, and it will be one of those things where in the spring, it will have to be one of them really just getting in there and impressing."
No Rest for the WearyKelly's roster and staff will receive a welcomed respite in 10 days – a bye week, and 13 days to rest and then prepare for incoming rival USC on October 22.
Though on second thought, that rest might only be granted to the guys between the lines.
"We've got three coaches on the road; we're on the West Coast," Kelly said of the Thursday/Friday plan in preparation for Purdue. "We're being very aggressive (recruiting). Coach (Mike) Denbrock is already out on a flight and we'll have coach (Tony) Alford and coach (Chuck) Martin on a flight at 10:30 this evening," Kelly noted Thursday after practice. "We'll be on the West Coast all day tomorrow."
As for the difficult schedule his staff faces between now and, well, National Signing Day in February, Kelly half-jokingly offered, "They can sleep on the plane. There's plenty of time to sleep in March."
The injured: both today and too oftenCompared to this point last season, the 2011 Irish are a picture of health. Entering Week Five last fall, the team's starting tight end was operating at quarter-speed (Kyle Rudolph was later shelved for the season); its starting running back was fighting through hip and hand injuries (Armando Allen, ditto); and the backup runner was out with a hamstring strain (Jonas Gray). Thereafter, the Irish lost myriad starters to various ailments, the majority season-ending.
Entering October 2011, only one front line player – No. 2 tight end Mike Ragone – has lost his season to injury. It's the second occurrence for Ragone and third ACL injury in six seasons of football dating back to high school.
The 5th-year senior, however, has remained in the mix, traveling with the team to Pittsburgh, an event he's likely to repeat tomorrow vs. the Boilers.
"Mike has really been a great mentor to those young tight ends," Kelly offered. "Really, you've got three inexperienced tight ends and he's been great. He rooms with them. He spends a lot of extra time with those guys. He's been a coach for us. He's at every single practice.
"He's put off surgery just to be with the guys. Now, he's going to get it done, but he's put it off because he (very much wants) to be part of what we're doing. He's just committed to helping these guys and helping our team."
Though Ragone's career at the school is likely over, he is eligible to apply for the difficult-to-attain sixth season of eligibility, as he'll have missed a full season plus 10 games in another due to knee surgeries.
"It's something that we're talking about," Kelly admitted.
Former No. 3 tight end Alex Welch returned at the game's conclusion last week from a two-game absence (foot surgery). Welch and freshman Ben Koyack will likely jockey for the No. 2 role behind Tyler Eifert for the remainder of the season. Behind them, junior Jake Golic, who appears recovered from a broken arm suffered in August.
Special Teams help on the horizon? Backup drop linebacker Danny Spond's hamstring injury has impact at least three positions for Kelly's Irish. Spond is the best among three drop linebackers in coverage (Prince Shembo and Troy Niklas remain more powerful at the point of attack), and the former safety ranks among the team's best players on both kick and punt coverage.
Prior to suffering the injury in pursuit of Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson in Ann Arbor, Spond was also in the mix as a blocker on the punt and kick return teams.
"He's moving around well. He's in a backup role right now. I think if he was in a situation where we needed him, we'd probably go with him," Kelly said of his sophomore. "But we like his progress, he's running around. He looks good."
One reason there's been no rush for Spond to return is the emergence of the freshman Niklas as a backup option the staff trusts.
"Obviously (Niklas) being out there and having some game time experience, we're going to make sure we have (Spond) at 100 percent before he goes back in," Kelly said.
Kelly added that South Bend native and 2010 special teams starter and potential wide receiver competitor Daniel Smith is not yet ready to compete, though he's made progress in conditioning/treadmill work. Smith has an undisclosed leg injury. A hamstring issue kept him from participating in the spring.