CULVER, Ind. – New talent, both young and old, were foremost among Brian Kelly’s initial impressions in the wake of Friday morning’s practice, the first of five his squad will grind through at Culver Academies, their home-away-from-home to kick off training camp.
“I really liked a number of the receivers, from Miles Boykin to C.J. (Sanders) to Jalen Guyton,” said Kelly when pressed for positives on Day One. “I thought all the receivers did a very nice job today. Defensive backs, I liked all the young kids out there. They just all showed up in one-on-ones today, the way they competed. Breaking on the ball, it was fast, it was active and it was deep.”
One-on-one competition among the units was highlighted by addition of a familiar face – and his omnipresent voice – senior cornerback, KeiVarae Russell, who last competed for the Irish at practice on August 14, 2014 and last conversed with the media horde 367 days ago on Culver’s campus.
Russell’s near-calendar year suspension for academic dishonesty has not yet officially been lifted by the NCAA but there’s finally light at the end of that ever-winding tunnel.
“He’s obviously a talented player, you can see that in one-on-ones,” said Kelly. “His transition, you can see why he’s one of the better players in the country at his position.
“He just loves football. I’m sure it’s a big day for him to get out here and play. You see a big smile on his face. You feel for him and I’m happy he can get past all the things that were in front of him. It’s been long. He’s had to work hard to get back here and all the credit goes to him in the sense that he’s really had to sacrifice a lot to get back to Notre Dame. That’s why it’s great to see him get back here.”
WALK THE LINE – OR ELSE
Notre Dame’s reigning MVP Joe Schmidt was unable to take part in the first official defensive rep of his team’s 2015 season.
Fear not, Irish fans, Schmidt’s absence from that skeleton drill had nothing to do with his surgically repaired ankle, though it did have something to do with a malady that waylaid Notre Dame’s once promising 2014 season.
A lack of focus.
“We didn’t start the way I’d like to. We had to have one of our best leaders take a lap because we had a couple guys that didn’t pay attention to detail,” said Kelly of a team-wide push-up and jumping jacks drill in which one of Schmidt’s myriad troops found his cleats too far off the assigned yard line.
Similar lack of attention to detail can’t be tolerated for a team that fell behind 34-3, 17-6, and 35-0 in three of its four November losses.
“I want to start fast. We didn’t start fast,” said Kelly. “As a football team it’s important that we get off to better starts. We play Texas, Virginia – I just told our team it’s going to be 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity when we go down to Virginia and they better use this opportunity from a conditioning standpoint. We play Georgia Tech early; we play Clemson early. We have to get off to a fast start. So the way we start practice, the way we do everything, we have to get off to a fast start.”
Schmidt was held accountable for his teammate’s (or teammates’) error largely because Kelly views his group as one that can police itself. That was decidedly not the case among his youth-filled unit last fall.
“This is theirs. They have to take ownership. They have to be communicating with each other,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to be out there for them and we lived through that last year where they weren’t vocal, they weren’t communicating, and it really hurt us in a number of instances. So it’s been something we’ve been working hard with them and they have to take control of it. Tomorrow it’s going to be on the special teams, we’re going to have (those) players lead the drills. And really get (the players) taking this thing over.”
THERE’S NO “I” IN HIS TEAM
For the first time since the outset of the Kelly era in South Bend, Notre Dame has no quarterback controversy included among its camp questions.
In good health, junior Malik Zaire will lead the offense against Texas and Friday was his first session at the helm.
“He’s got real good management skills; he communicates effectively,” said Kelly of Zaire. “For a first day you didn’t see a lot of sloppiness from an offensive standpoint in terms of false starts and things of that nature. He’s got a good command, a good presence. It’s probably what I thought it would be on the first day.”
Zaire was asked post-practice what type of season “he” would have to have for the team to live up to its lofty expectations. His response never as much hinted at the singular.
“We know our own expectations heading into the season and the expectations we put upon ourselves are more important than those of outside sources. We know the areas of improvement we need to work on and through the summer we learned a lot about leadership, what it’s going to take to take our team to the next level, and to achieve the things we look forward to.”