Personnel Notebook

Irish head coach Brian Kelly took time to evaluate a number of his players as Notre Dame heads into its final month.

Terse when pressed with off-field matters, Brian Kelly was nonetheless effusive in his praise of a host of Irish players during Tuesday's press conference. It was refreshing that both the team's No. 1 star and the player that would earn scholarship No. 86, if an NCAA exception were allowed, were included during the 30-minute discussion.

The Man and the surprising leading man

He's on pace to break the single-season mark for receptions. He's averaged nearly 100 receiving yards per game and is the team's unquestioned top blocker outside its offensive linemen, and the best down field blocker of the last 10 seasons-plus at the school. He's scored six touchdowns including his first career rushing score on Saturday.

Michael Floyd is Notre Dame's best football player, and there's probably not a close second after eight games in 2011.

"Spectacular. He's a dominating football player," Kelly said when asked to evaluate Floyd to date. "You throw a three-yard pass to him behind the line of scrimmage and he's got a burst. You guys have been following him longer than I have.

"We threw a little, and I gave Theo a hard time about this," Kelly noted of play in last week's win. "We threw a pass out I think second series to Theo and he went down the sideline. Michael was on the other side of the field, and he might have caught him. That kind of speed, that kind of flat line, run-out speed at 225 pounds (is) pretty spectacular.

"Tough, physical, catches the ball over the middle, catches the short passes. He's had an incredible year."

Floyd's incredible year included a two touchdown effort vs. Navy on Saturday, a game in which walk-on safety Chris Salvi was honored as team captain by his head coach. Salvi has been an important member of the team's kick coverage unit for two seasons and early last season, was a two-deep safety for the Irish when the already-thin position was hit hard by injuries.

"Well, he's respected by his teammates," Kelly said of Salvi. "Any time one of their teammates is recognized for their work without scholarship, it goes to morale, it goes to recognizing all those that are in the program that pull their weight.

"He certainly does that. I know our guys were excited; I know our coaches were," Kelly said of the captain designation. "It was good to see him get out there and lead our football team and be one of our game-day captains."

No switch scheduled

Senior safety Jamoris Slaughter will likely return to Notre Dame for his 5th season of eligibility next fall. A former cornerback (2009) and the team's starting safety and nickel defender this year (a position that often lines up vs. quicker slot receivers), Slaughter might be the best cover man on the 2012 roster thanks to graduation losses of Robert Blanton and Gary Gray.

Could Slaughter move back to cornerback to team with either unproven Lo Wood or untested trio of Bennett Jackson, Josh Atkinson, and Jalen Brown?

"I wouldn't say no, but it hasn't been something we've thrown around," Kelly said of a possible move from safety. "We like Lo and Bennett, their development. Right now we think of him as a safety."

Slaughter's mid-season ascent is reminiscent of his classmate Blanton last fall (Blanton began to exert himself a few games earlier in the 2010 schedule). Saturday, Blanton will return to his home state for the second time in a contest vs. Wake Forest.

"He loves to play, and it rubs off on everything," Kelly said of Blanton, Irisheyes.com's No. 3 overall Irish player through eight games. "He's extremely confident in his abilities, so as a staff, coach Martin, coach Cooks have done a great job of developing his skill level at the cornerback position.

"As you know, he played a lot of safety for us (in 2010). So he's made that transition seamlessly. He's a really good athlete and he loves to play. I think when you have that combination, those are the guys you love to coach."

Notre Dame has verbal pledges from two top-rated cornerbacks: Ronald Darby (No. 1 CB according to Scout.com) and Tee Shepard (No. 3).

Te'o, Teamwork, and T.J.

In a Game Seven loss to rival USC, otherwise top-notch linebacker Manti Te'o suffered through arguably his worst game since the season opener of 2010 (his admitted "worst game" of note).

The junior predictably bounced back with a Game MVP effort Saturday vs. Navy, and though Kelly wasn't sure injured pride was the cause, he's certain Te'o will continue to improve through season's end.

"You know, I didn't ask him if his pride was wounded so I can't answer that question," Kelly said. "But I can tell you this: He's always looking to be a better football player, a better teammate, each and every day. You know, he has that drive.

"He has an immense amount of pride. I couldn't comment on whether it was the USC game. He (was) on, as well as everybody else now; the four guys in front of him were on which allowed him to be on," Kelly reiterated of the front seven's effort vs. Navy.

"He's got a great amount of pride in the work that he does. He loves the scheme. He loves being part of our defensive structure. That was on display on Saturday."

Also on display was the team's most improved unit over the last calendar year, its offensive line. To what does Kelly attribute the unit's improvement?

"Well, they're good players first of all," Kelly said of the team's pass protection skills, specifically. "You start with five good players (and) you've got to really good offensive line coach in Ed Warinner. Then you have ‘backs that are committed to blocking, because this doesn't work without Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood. Then Tommy Rees gets the ball out of his hands really, really quick.

"So you got a number of things coming together there. You don't (fail to) give up a sack in October just because you got five guys. They are, no question, the core and the center of this, but there are some other pieces work together as well."

Rees has been sacked just four times this season (Crist was sacked as well). Rees was dropped just four times in five full games last year; Crist 16 in the eight previous.

"I think the strength in the offensive line lies in that each one of 'em works well together," Kelly continued. "Secondly, there's been a consistency in games played together. This group now has played all their games together. When you develop this consistency and are able to put starts together, you build obviously more than just five guys. There's a unit there that has strength. All those things are playing out."

Off the radar? Sophomore receiver T.J. Jones has started seven of eight games this season (the offense began in a two tight end set vs. Air Force). He earned starts in seven of the nine games during which he was in good health last fall, and in total, has compiled 49 receptions for 586 yards and six touchdown receptions over 14 starts and about 17 full games.

The six scores tie him with Theo Riddick for the second highest total among all Irish pass catchers of the 21-game Kelly era.

Yet Jones rarely highlights conversations regarding the team's skill position weapons.

"He's been a very solid player for us; probably could make the case that he's underutilized," Kelly said. "I like the way he plays; plays fast. You know, (he's) a kid who loves to play the game.

"So within our structure, if you spend too much time on one guy, he can hurt you as well. But he's a good player."

Jones had 20 receptions and three scores over the first five weeks; he has just six grabs for 74 yards in the last three contests. Consistent production from either he or Riddick is the next step for an offense that has shown flashes of brilliance this fall.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories