Spring Notebook: Developmental Stages

Various levels of an individual's college football career were clearly defined over the first two days of spring football 2014 in South Bend.

A pair of conversations with Irish head coach Brian Kelly and the handful of players made available to the media Wednesday morning illustrate well an often overlooked reality of the college game.

With 68 scholarship athletes and another 21-23 pending arrival this summer, Kelly and his staff are in the personal management business as much as they are knee-deep in personnel evaluations.

For example:

Preternaturally talented linebacker Jaylon Smith enters the upperclassman phase of his Irish career. Named second-team A.P. All-America last fall, Smith also emerged in the pre-season as a rare sophomore leader. Kelly believes Smith is able to absorb more entering his junior campaign.

"He's really trying to break out from just worrying about his own position and taking care of that, to bringing other guys around," said Kelly. "He's been a great mentor for (early enrollee) Te'von Coney, for example. He worked out with him all off-season, the seven-week program. He's really been outstanding in terms of reaching out and worrying more than about himself. He's thinking about others now.

"That's one of the real great signs of being a leader. I think he's much more comfortable with his own position where he can start to now influence others."

One of those in need of influence is 2014 early enrollee Justin Brent -- the lone wide receiver to line up with the third unit walk-ons in today's practice. The slotting was doubtless more a message than a status update.

"Justin Brent is in his second spring. He's got a lot of physical tools. He's got the athletic ability to compete at a high level," said Kelly. "What I see from him is inconsistency with somebody with the kind of tools that he has. We're demanding more from him. He's got to bring it. This is his second spring and I'm not going to wait around for him for the light to go on. There's too many good players. I really like him as a football player in terms of his skill set, but he's got to practice better and be more consistent."

Cross-reference that status update with one of Brent offered three months ago as the Irish were in the midst of bowl preparations:

"Brent’s an interesting kid," said Kelly. "Obviously he’s in my dog house, obviously. (Feel free to Google). So he’s gotta get out of that first. He’s an interesting player because he’s improved. He plays physical, he’s a big kid, he’s an extremely talented player. I think what’s holding him back is he’s a guy that’s got a lot of competition in front of him, No. 1.

"And No. 2, he gets distracted easily."

With six returning to the position that forged roles as playmakers and his classmate Holmes on the rise, spring 2015 offers Brent a second chance to make a lasting impression.

Perhaps 18 months removed from a similar status to that of Brent is junior running back Greg Bryant.

One of the team's five, perhaps six best playmakers entering 2015, Bryant has yet to carve a niche close to that earned by classmate Tarean Folston.

"I think Greg it's trust; (finding) a comfort level of seeing it, doing it," said Kelly of what he hopes to see from his No. 2 running back. "I think Autry (Denson) is excited about working with him and building that relationship with him, where (it's) 'trust what you see.'  That's always been the thing with Greg, is that sometimes he just wants to do a little bit too much.  I think that's the next step for him, in just trusting it and going with it.

"I think Autry feels like this is going to be a big spring for him."

In 2011, he was Chase Hounshell: true freshman, rotation member along the defensive line.

In 2012 and 2013, he was, Chase Hounshell: oft-injured prospect.

By 2014 it was clear Chase Hounshell was snakebitten, three too many shoulder surgeries made it implausible that Hounshell could fulfill the promise he showed as a defensive lineman entering the program prior to Kelly's second season at the helm.

Now as Kelly begins his sixth year, the only word to define Chase Hounshell is, "teammate."

"Chase said, 'Coach, I'll do anything, I'll play any position you want me to play, I just want to be part of this football team,'" said Kelly of the senior's unexpected inclusion on the team's spring roster.

"We said, 'We don't really have a role for you on the defensive line, but we could use a big, physical, blocking tight end.  Would you be interested in that role? '

"He said, 'Coach, I'll do whatever you ask me to do.'

"We're going to give him a shot at the tight end position. Nothing has been decided. He's willing to go through spring and give it a shot and we'll see where it goes from there. He's been a great teammate, great in the locker room. The guys really enjoy having him. We like his team-first mentality, so we're going to give him a chance to earn a roster spot playing tight end."

Though Hounshell would not likely be part of the passing game should he earn a role as an in-line blocking tight end, it's notable nonetheless to point out the combined career receptions total of the four players that join him among the tight ends depth chart…


Tight End U begins its initial steps toward realizing that annual reality as well.

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