In Shembo's stead has stepped sophomore and former 5-star pass-rushing recruit Ishaq Williams. Williams played sparingly from scrimmage in the season's final two months, appearing in 11 contests overall but finishing with just six stops.
"He's getting there. He's getting there," Kelly said, not suppressing a smile. "The light is starting to go on. There were a couple instances today where he was matched up with (classmate and tight end) Troy Niklas – it's exciting stuff.
"He has to do it consistently but we know what he's capable of when it starts to come together."
Rounding out linebacker news was the likelihood that the Will ‘backer position will again be a hotly contested battle. At least through the spring and maybe into fall camp.
"Jarrett Grace is getting some work in there as well," Kelly said with reference to the fact that Dan Fox (2011 starter) and Carlo Calabrese (rotation regular, former starter) remain the front-runners. "He's in the rotation. (Preferred 2011 walk-on) Joe Schmidt had a good practice for us on Monday; a very smart football player.
"I'd still say it's a very competitive battle, and I'd say Carlo has an opportunity to continue to press (Fox) and play more. We're just going to let that one go. We know what we have, and let those guys continue to compete and get people reps over there with Grace and Schmidt, and Kendall (Moore) inside. It's a nice competitive spring over there; right now that we can play a lot of those guys and get good film on them."
Senior Manti Te'o has the Mike linebacker spot wrapped up. Junior Danny Spond has been running consistently with the first team at the Dog linebacker position, though the position cedes to safety Jamoris Slaughter in nickel (pass defense) situations.
Defensive Line DepthAaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Louis Nix return as starters/regulars from the 2011 defensive line. Chase Hounshell saw ample time in the season's second half and junior Kona Schwenke was referred to by position coach Mike Elston as the unit's most improved player this spring.
With January enrollee Sheldon Day showing well early, and 2011 August camp head-turner Tony Springmann expected to return from back surgery for this year's camp, Kelly was asked Friday what his ideal situation would be for a game day rotation along the defensive front.
"We'd like to be at least six: two-deep and swing player, a guy that can play inside and outside is the ideal for us. So to play seven on the defensive line is great depth and we think we can get there. We're giving guys a lot of chances to show that they can be a No. 1 (first-string). We're getting a lot of them in the action."
Elston noted Schwenke as a potential swing player. Tuitt and Lewis-Moore can play inside and out as well.
Elston mentioned that senior-to-be Tyler Stockton reported to the spring session in much better shape (down 17 pounds) than last August. Stockton missed the second half of the 2010 season due to a shoulder injury; suffered a sprained PCL before spring ball 2011, and did not see the field last season. He's eligible through 2013 but would need to make an impact in 2012 to be considered as a 5th-year option for what promises to be another deep defensive front.
Backline BattlesAsked about his quartet of neophytes on the corners, Kelly quickly offered the name of a former wide receiver and special teams standout as the most game-ready of the group.
"I can tell you Bennett Jackson is going to be a heckuva good football player for us. From what I've seen from the first six practices, I feel really good about (the boundary cornerback).
"I think the field position is still one that will be competitive," Kelly continued of a competition between Lo Wood and Jalen Brown. "Though Lo Wood has had a nice spring. I think that'll have a little more competition, but Bennett Jackson has been a really nice player for us."
Rounding out the group is Josh Atkinson. Irisheyes.com pegged him as a game-ready competitor as well, but Atkinson is currently working at the boundary position, and is thus presumed to be behind the emerging Jackson. He'll likely see plenty of time at field between now and mid-August to try to lock down a starting job.
Regardless of their status or spot on the field at present, the quartet will likely find itself paired into boundary and corner roles for game days next fall.
"If we can avoid flopping them back and forth we'd rather not," said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. "Especially with young players. But you'll see them all out there for sure."
"We're going to have to have a group of functioning corners that play in all the games," he continued. "I'm telling you right now, they're going to be rolling in and out at corner. Whether we like it or not, they all need to play."
Nickel Makes Five: Another former wide receiver has impressed the staff enough that he'll be a regular rotation member as well. Jackson's classmate Austin Collinsworth has made a push at safety, but those two starting spots appear set with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta returning.
"Oh yeah. He's going to be on the field a lot because when we go to five DBs, he's the fifth," said Kelly of Collinsworth. "He's got a great chance of being the safety (in the nickel package) because once we move Jamoris to the nickel (slot cornerback), Austin is on the field. You're going to see him on the field quite a bit."