Wrapping Up

The Irish have one more practice before a three-day Christmas break.

Notre Dame will conclude its pre-Christmas bowl preparations with a full-scale, Florida State-focused practice Tuesday morning. From there, head coach Brian Kelly will dismiss the team until Saturday, December 24 when they are to report to Orlando for a light workout to begin bowl week.

Kelly noted today that the Irish enjoyed a full-scale 45-play scrimmage over the weekend (Saturday) and would partake in a red zone scrimmage today.

"We've had a productive couple practices, both in terms of our preparation for Florida State and extremely productive in the development of our football team," Kelly said.

"Getting the timing back and getting a chance to tackle – getting the guys in those positions (is) very, very important because one thing you do lose a little bit is that ‘game intensity' when you have a bowl lay-off. They don't think they lose that intensity, and you can try to (keep it) in one-on-one drills, but you really need to scrimmage to get that true intensity. We've been able to capture some of that back."

After tomorrow's practice, players will have the opportunity to return home – even those outside the Continental U.S., as juniors Robby Toma and Manti Te'o will return to Hawaii for some family time at semester's end. Also headed west following Tuesday's extended practice will be the pair's classmate, running back Cierre Wood, who didn't try to mask his feelings regarding the end of a school semester and nearly five months of continuous football.

"Oh yeah, I'm going home for a couple of days. My bags are packed. I cannot wait, I leave tomorrow."

Personnel Points

Notre Dame's Awards Banquet on December 9 offered a little of everything, from program-defining video of the senior classes parents, to Michael Floyd joining nine former Irish greats with his second straight team MVP award, to the unforeseen occurrence of previously non-descript junior linebacker Dan Fox winning the team's Defensive Newcomer of the Year award by vote of his fellow players. Fox's accomplishment is noteworthy on a team with Louis Nix, Aaron Lynch, and Stephon Tuitt earning first-ever scrimmage time.

"I think it starts with his physical and mental development," Kelly said of Fox's improvement since the formers arrival on campus. "He was a young man that was in the training room quite a bit and he's gotten past that. Then the mental toughness of understanding what we ask for from that inside ‘backer: he has to go downhill and take on guards.

"I think once he understood it mentally, how to play that position, it's been a consistent uphill improvement week-to-week," Kelly said, adding, "Just yesterday we were running out power play, (left guard) Chris Watt was pulling, (Fox) has to take Watt on in the hole. He took him on and he knocked him back. He plays physical at the point of attack. Plus he has the ability to run."

One of Fox's most heralded classmates at present is junior tight end Tyler Eifert. The Mackey Award finalist and first team Walter Camp All-America has yet to make a decision regarding his professional future. It's a question that seemed impossible at this time last season, but one that must be made shortly. Irish fans can expect it prior to the early-January deadline.

"We've had a number of conversations and we're still having them," Kelly said of him and his star tight end. "From his standpoint the most important thing is to continue to work towards his degree, regardless of what his decision is. I think (a decision) will come very quickly."

Kelly offered the following assessment of Eifert, a player who was third string when the coach took his first team into August training camp in 2010, just 16 months ago.

"As you know we never take him off the field. He's a guy that can play every snap. We use him in short yardage, he's the wing taking on linebackers as well as getting matched up in space against the nickel," Kelly marveled.

"His versatility is his strength. And his ability to use his size and go up and get the football. He has great ball skills. I didn't know we had the versatility that we have; we knew we had a great pass-catcher, I was confident in that right away. But versatility is what has evolved here."

Backfield: old and new

Senior Jonas Gray's season ended on November 19 when he tore his ACL vs. Boston College. Nonetheless, he's one of the few injured Irish who's present in both spirit – and body – during bowl preparations.

"Just part of the team; he's around his guys," Kelly said when asked of Gray's role in bowl preparations. "We haven't asked all the injured guys to stay here; we've allowed them to go home. He's stuck around. We can't get rid of him – I'm kidding obviously – the guys love him being around. But most of the guys have gone home that have that type of injury. He's around here and is a very popular guy."

Gray's replacement is his former competitor. Under former head coach Charlie Weis, the then-sophomore Gray was involved in a five-man August camp battle with running backs Armando Allen, Robert Hughes, Cierre Wood, and Theo Riddick. Riddick moved to wide receiver upon Kelly's arrival but he's back at running back 23 months later – both moves were designed for the greater good.

"It's a matter of what was the best place for him to help our football team win," Kelly said of Riddick's 2010 off-season move to the slot. "We were running the spread offense and were really short on (wide receiver) numbers and still are. He was a great teammate and did what we asked him to do. But I don't think there's any mistaking that he is a talented running back and he has the skills necessary to help us win.

"I look at it, and he does too, that we did the right thing," Kelly continued of the initial move. "Now he's been called upon because of an injury to come and play running back. If we can continue to recruit depth and recruit wide receivers, hopefully we can settle on him long term at the position."

Said Wood of Riddick's return: "They laid a lot of stuff on him and expected him to know it, and we got together (to help Riddick re-acclimate). Most of it came second-nature to him because of his previous knowledge as a running back.

"His instincts kick in," Wood continued of Riddick. "He was always the type that was so quick and so agile, right when you think he'd keep running or cut, BOOM, he'd just hit it. I can always tell when it's about happen (Riddick's burst) because I'm a running back and I think in my mind, ‘I'd hit it right now' but other people, they're like "Whoaa…" but I know when it's coming."

Irish fans hope Florida State, won't.


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