In the background, but up frontNotre Dame's offensive line has ranked among the season's most pleasant surprises, and is arguably the team's best position group. Unlike their defensive line counterparts, the OL's starting quintet has enjoyed good health and therefore cohesion from week to week.
But what about the untested backups? Six have not (and will not) play this season: freshmen Jordan Prestwood, Brad Carrico, Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty, and Conor Hanratty, as well as redshirt-freshman Tate Nichols, who suffered a camp knee injury and then had September season-ending shoulder surgery.
"We never wanted to go through a season and not know our guys in terms of their ability to come to work every day," Kelly began of his eight red shirted or little-used backups. "Because really for them, how much do they love football, how much do we have to whip them to get them going every day? I definitely want to know about those things.
"Now, as it relates to some of the intricacies of pass blocking, gap techniques all that information, we'll find that out in the spring. Every Thursday we have meetings, we'll talk about our young guys."
One of those young guys couldn't have played this season if deemed ready, as Jordan Prestwood transferred from Florida State as a January enrollee and spring participant on the Seminoles football team.
"He's had a good year. Jordan, I would say if I was to evaluate him as an offensive lineman: surprisingly athletic," Kelly said. "He has real good athletic ability … he bends very, very well. He moves his feet very well. Watching him, when he puts his gear on, he obviously doesn't strike you as (imposing) as Aaron Lynch or a (Stephon) Tuitt, but when he gets in there he's got a demeanor of an offensive lineman and he's got some real athletic ability." Prestwood has served as a scout team tackle this fall. The remainder of the freshmen front wall appears slated for center and guard duty in the spring.
"Inside guys," Kelly said specifically of Hegarty, Martin, and Hanratty (Carrico is assume inside as well, as he served there later in the spring). "I think Prestwood's got the ability to play outside but the rest of those guys are going probably to be inside guys."
Notre Dame loses only 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss (G/C) and senior Trevor Robinson (G) from its rotation this season. Injured senior Lane Clelland (T/G) also graduates in May. Seniors Braxston Cave and Mike Golic are expected to return for a fifth year.
"I think we felt comfortable if (Andrew) Nuss had to go in or Lombard had to go in or Golic," Kelly concluded of his three-man backup brigade this season. "I felt like we had eight (capable veterans), and if Tate Nichols didn't get hurt, we felt like we had nine guys that could go in and ply winning football for us. Championship football? Not sure."
That developmental step begins for the young blood in Spring Practice, 2012.
A Dog, a Cat, and a PrinceNotre Dame's starting Dog (Drop) linebacker is Prince Shembo. His backups, Danny Spond and Troy Niklas, rarely replace Shembo for meaningful action, but that's due less to the duo's skill set than the position's likelihood of defending the varied offensive sets the Irish encountered this fall.
"The game is played right now by 53-and-1/3 yards, in other words, the field is spread (horizontally)," Kelly began. "Because of that you have to make substitutions based on how offenses want to play. If they want to play three, four wide receiver you have to make some situational substitutions and play more nickel (coverages)," he said, noting the starting role of safety Jamoris Slaughter as the Dog/Drop linebacker in three games this fall. "So (Shembo's) position won't change, but maybe he can help us in other areas if we have to go into nickel and dime personnel."
Those other areas will often include a pass-rushing role.
"Oh yeah, as you know, he's already had his hand on the ground," Kelly said of Shembo's experience this season and last as a pass-rushing defensive lineman. "In our nickel he was a pass rusher for us. I think that role continues to grow in keeping him on the field even if the (opposing) personnel is four-wide and sometimes five.
Shembo played sparingly vs. Air Force and Navy and in the second half vs. Wake Forest – the opponent's base of attack the main cause.
"I think what you're seeing is we had to match up, we can't play a 245-pound guy out on skilled wide receiver every down," Kelly admitted. "We have to make those situational substitutions."
As for the possibility that Shembo could move to the Cat linebacker position – one that entails less work in space (the Cat is aligned to the near/boundary side; the Dog to the field/wide side of the defense)?
"I don't think so. We feel pretty good about where we are right now," Kelly said. That's still something that we'll evaluate in the off-season. I think in terms of Prince Shembo in particular, I think he's got a pretty good future."
Of course, Notre Dame's opponents won't suddenly stop lining up with four wide receivers next season. Does the Dog/Drop position therefore become de-emphasized as a whole?
"It's game to game. Our schedule is such a unique grouping of games," Kelly said, referencing Navy and Air Force, specifically. "(Against) Boston College, the drop is very, very important. Michigan State (too). We just have to be flexible with it and realize we're not going to have four (deep) there. We're going to have some guys that have the ability to be hybrids, if you will."