Let the Bodies Hit the Floor

For the first time in Brian Kelly's six seasons in South Bend, Notre Dame's offensive and defensive linemen have been consistently engaged in physical scrimmage situations during spring ball.

It happens every spring.

Buzz words such as toughness, focus, and the universal favorite, "physicality," permeate spring session press conference across college football.

For Irish head coach Brian Kelly, it's a welcomed relief and reality for spring ball 2015 that he can finally evaluate these elusive traits among his core of scrimmage competitors.

"The nice part about it in the spring so far, with the depth on the offensive line we can get in there and get some good live action with our big guys. That's so important in terms of controlling the line of scrimmage and developing the kind of toughness you want on both sides of the ball.

"You can talk about it all you want, but you've got to create those situations in live, padded opportunities, and we had another one of those today. We had one Monday, we had one last Saturday. So it's been really good work."

Kelly added that the bulk of work has been done by the younger scrimmage competitors, and unexpectedly leading the pack in that regard is the lone member of the collective to flip sides of scrimmage since his recruitment to the program began.

"Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery. He's just a unique player. One that I can't remember that I've coached," said Kelly of the former Scout.com four-star OT prospect-turned-Irish nose tackle. "He's running with first group and continues to impress in our three-on-three drill. They have a hard time blocking him."

Tillery is likely working with the first-string because senior Jarron Jones is sidelined this spring due to November 2014 foot surgery. Like most players at his position, Jones famously struggled to carve a niche as a freshman in 2012. That's not the case for the technically advanced Tillery.

"He has such a unique ability at such a young age to use his hands," said Kelly. "He had incredible teaching. One of the all-time great defensive line coaches, Pete Jenkins (LSU, Philadelphia Eagles, USC, and last year, Evangel Christian Academy with Tillery), revered as one of the great ones, has gotten a chance to coach him and you can see it in the ability to use his hands.

"Where we spend the first year-and-a-half trying to get these kids to not drop their heads and be overextended, he immediately can use his size to his advantage (because of his technique).

"I don't want to put him in the Hall of Fame, I'm so leery to talk about a freshman, but he's a unique talent."

Joining Tillery on the rookie rise is the left guard pair of Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars.

"Quenton Nelson is an extremely explosive. Strong, and can overwhelm a defender," said Kelly. "Alex Bars is extremely efficient and technically so far above the normal redshirt-freshman. Technically he's so good. You have two guys here, one who physically at times can be dominant, and one who you think he's a junior, that he's been in the program 3-4 years.

"To me, it's going to be hard to make a call (regarding a fall starter) because you like what they both do at that position."

Kelly added that the competition's runner-up will likewise find his way on the field.

"They'll have to both play. It might be that Bars plays some tackle, too. If he's the guard he's the guard. We don't see Q as a tackle right now, but they're just guys that are going to have to play. They're both going to see some playing time for us."

(For a review of Kelly's use of backup offensive linemen during his time in South Bend,
click here.)

Bars' name was also mentioned as a potential addition to the team's "Jumbo Package" one in which a sixth offensive linemen joins the fray in obvious running situations.

"I think we have a couple of guys we could put on the field and certainly help us in some unbalanced and some offensive sets," he said. "Certainly Bars is a guy that could do that. We think (junior guard Colin) McGovern is athletic enough that he could do that as well. Two guys in particular that fit that kind of profile."

While talk of potential rookie phenomenons dominated today's post-practice press conference, Kelly likewise noted the improvement of two certain starters up front.

"We clearly have tried to use the younger players in (three-on-three scrimmage action), but we also want to see a guy like (right guard) Steve Elmer. We've seen improvement there in his ability to sustain and block. (Center) Nick Martin is much more stronger and more effective than he was last year when he was coming back from a substantial knee injury, plus a hand injury. He's much more explosive than he was last year."

Kelly noted Elmer's improvement was likewise tied to technique.

"We thought he was sloppy at times and he's really cleaned up a lot of those, what we considered, 'unforced errors' in technique," said Kelly. "I think he's become so much more technically sound. He's a big, strong kid, and once he's eliminated a lot of those it's allowed him to work so much more efficiently with (right tackle) Mike (McGlinchey). Mike's long -- what Mike has to continue to work on is not getting his head out in front of him and being overextended. He's getting better with that."

The offensive line holds a current advantage over the Irish defensive front as the latter is without the services of Jones (for the spring), returning senior captain Sheldon Day (not heavily involved as a rehabs a knee injury), and Andrew Trumbetti, today sidelined with an undisclosed injury.

Regardless, numbers and developable talent is in place, and Kelly relishes the opportunity to put them to the test.

"I leave a spring practice feeling so much better because you can work on so much more when you can go and allow your big fellas to get after it," he said. "That's been the emphasis for us, that toughness on both sides of the ball.

"In terms of preparation it's the first time I've been able to prepare this way. I feel good about it from that perspective."

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