FRONT LINE…AND TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE
While spring practice and August camp often include conversations about precocious freshmen, the reality is that returning upperclassmen will prove to be the most crucial cogs in a team's machinery.
Kelly noted Saturday following his team's seventh practice of spring ball 2015 that those key components have stepped to the fore.
"Some guys that are coming back into their own. (5th-year senior center) Nick Martin, we can see that strength he was lacking last year in his lower body. He's physically able to do things he wasn't able to do last year. He's able to really move people off the line of scrimmage.
"We've seen (starting wide receivers) Will Fuller and Chris Brown, and Amir Carlisle all elevate their games. So on the offensive side, the guys you expect to improve are improving."
Martin began 2014 just 10 months removed from season-ending knee surgery and tore ligaments in his thumb during the season's second contest. He's one of at least six seniors on the spring roster projected to return for a fifth season though there has yet to be an official announcement.
"Defensively, both safeties (have improved)," Kelly said. "Now I'd like them to communicate a little more demonstratively, more vocally louder, but it's night and day compared to their recognition of what's happening out there and how they're seeing things.
"I feel pretty good about the development of our football team and the veterans, how they're getting better."
Asked if any of the younger players had earned his trust, Kelly offered a familiar name, at least for those keeping tabs on the Irish over the last three weeks.
"I think there are some younger guys that are in the process of gaining that trust," he said. "There's probably only one guy right now that has separated himself from any of the younger players and that's (early enrollee) Jerry Tillery. Everyone else is in the process of doing that: (offensive linemen) Quenton Nelson, Alex Bars, they're in the process. (Middle linebacker) Te'Von Coney is in the process of doing that.
"There's a number in the process that will help us in the fall. Jerry is the only guy that has separated himself."
Tillery continues to operate with the first unit in the absence of senior nose tackle Jarron Jones (foot surgery in November). Nelson and Bars are locked in a battle for the left guard spot while Tillery's fellow early enrollee Coney ranks as Jaylon Smith's backup at the will linebacker spot. The latter hobbled through today's practice after turning his ankle Friday.
PIN YOUR EARS BACK
Early returns last fall indicated defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's unit would apply ample pressure on opposing passers. A defensive front seven led by Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day, plus edge players Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, and true freshman Kolin Hill was credited with 35 QB pressures in a five-game set (Michigan, Purdue, Syracuse, Stanford, and North Carolina), but managed just 13 combined over the final seven contests.
Kelly thinks his 2015 Irish are better equipped to bring the heat.
"A guy that has come on in the last three days is (redshirt-freshman) Jonathan Bonner. His traits are significantly different than anything else we have in the defensive line. Vertical jump is in the mid-30s (inches), strength is off the charts. If you look at his traits, they match up in NFL combine numbers, they match up with elite players."
Bonner and classmate Jhonny Williams fell behind the aforementioned HIll an an Auguste camp battle for the "rush end" role in VanGorder's third-down sub packagers. Thereafter, eligibility for the pair was preserved.
"Jonathan was way behind in the football intelligence and understanding the position," said Kelly. "He's catching up. These last three practices have been really good for us. He's starting to understand that position. He could be that guy that could turn the edge for us and give us the speed we're looking for.
"Isaac Rochell is a lot quicker, not just a hold-the-point 5-technique. We think we can get a pass rush from him. Jhonny (Williams) needs to continue to develop as well. But I don't think we're going to be in a position where we feel we can't generate some pressure off the edge as we continue to develop some of these younger players."
Though it's a statistic that is poorly tracked (from venue to venue, not team-by-team), Rochell led the Irish with 10 official QB Hurries. Day was second on the squad with nine despite missing nearly three full contests. Will linebacker Jaylon Smith finished third with seven, most often blitzing through the center/guard gaps.
A BRIGHT LYGHT
An All-Pro cornerback. A Super Bowl champion. An All-American. A national champion.
Notre Dame legend Todd Lyght's resume doubtless carries weight with his young Irish defensive backfield, but it's his communicative skills -- not program highlight reels and records -- that have impressed his new boss.
"Part of teaching is the ability to reach different players," said Kelly when asked about Lyght. "Cole Luke for example is a smooth player. He doesn't play with violent movements. He's just a smooth player. (Lyght) knows how to talk to Cole Luke differently than how he talks to say, Elijah Shumate. Now, he holds them to the same standard, but he can coach those guys in a manner that they can hear him and he can get his point across to them.
"I really like his ability to work with those guys individually as well with a group and can stand in front of them and command the respect of the entire group. He can coach each one of them individually because they have different personalities. That's the hard part of coaching, sometimes they want to use one style, but he can coach all of them and use a different style."
With suspended start KeiVarae Russell expected back for his senior year in 2015, Notre Dame's two-deep entering August camp projects as follows:
LCB: Cole Luke, Nick Watkins/Devin Butler
RCB: KeiVarae Russell, Devin Butler/Nick Watkins
SS: Elijah Shumate, Avery Sebastian (California 5th-year transfer)
FS: Max Redfield, Drue Tranquill (ACL)
Nickel: Matthias Farley, (Incoming freshman, personal projection: Shaun Crawford)
Should Russell show he's capable of shadowing the opponent's top target in the slot and elsewhere as suggested by Lyght this spring, the All-America candidate would open the door for either Butler or Watkins to augment the unit's downfield coverage in lieu of the attacking Farley, a player who starred attacking scrimmage and in short zones last season.