It took five-plus years, but Brian Kelly believes Notre Dame can have a different kind of spring practice.
When the Irish open Wednesday morning they’ll do it with a roster as deep as Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.
Yes, there’s another quarterback competition. But there’s not much fighting for first-team work beyond left guard, middle linebacker and tight end. It’s as settled as Notre Dame has been in March under the current management.
Now Notre Dame’s head coach wants to turn that loose in the coming four weeks. It’s a compliment to the program that there’s more uncertainty about how Notre Dame will put on the Blue-Gold Game than with the players who’ll actually play in that off-season exhibition.
“This is the first time since I've been here where I feel like I can go into practice and I can bang around,” Kelly said. “I can have an Oklahoma drill. I can have tackling drills. It feels like for me that we've got the depth necessary to go and play football. I always felt like I'm tiptoeing around this roster in the spring because we're afraid over here or afraid over here.”
That starts on both lines, where the Irish are loaded with raw materials.
Despite unexpected departure of Matt Hegarty the Irish return three full-fledged starters on the offensive line plus Mike McGlinchey, who made his first career start in the Music City Bowl. Captain Nick Martin shifts back to his natural center spot. Red-shirt freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson will compete at left guard, leaving rising juniors Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus fighting for work.
Even without Jarron Jones on the defensive line (foot surgery), the Irish bring back much muscle on that front too. Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell will anchor a group that returns an abundance of unproven talent in Jay Hayes, Kolin Hill, Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Andrew Trumbetti, Jhonny Williams and Grant Blankenship. Doug Randolph will also get a look, moving from linebacker. On top of that, early enrollee Jerry Tillery has impressed Kelly off first impressions.
“He's an incredibly gifted physical young man,” Kelly said. “Sometimes when you get a guy that's that big, has that kind of movement, you worry about his toughness at times. But when we put him in competitive drills, tire war, things of that nature, sumo, he shows up big there, too. He shows a toughness to him.”
That depth could be critical considering the uncertain status of Ishaq Williams, who Kelly said would not be guaranteed a spot on the roster come fall. However, Kelly said KeiVarae Russell remains on track to return this summer following his season-long suspension.
Regardless of who comes back when or how Notre Dame gets under the 85 scholarship limit next season – the program is over the projected limit for now – the Irish have a unique spring roster for Kelly.
“We can go play, really target some of the younger players in certain areas, let them get in there and get after it,” Kelly said. “We have so many young defensive linemen, we need to see contact. When I'm scripting our practice, I'm able to put 9-on-7, rodeo drills, things like that, 3-on-3’s. That's pretty exciting. I haven't been able to do that.
“That makes for an exciting observation relative to the development of the depth of your football team.”