Practice Impressions: Rookie Round-up

We turn our eye to two handfuls of Notre Dame newcomers for their first practice of 2015.

Focusing on freshmen at a college football practice can be an exercise in futility, but that wasn’t the case Friday, at least not regarding the back seven and perimeter players (CB, S, WR, RB, TE, QB, LB) among the 23-player lot.

As mandated by NCAA rules, Friday’s practice was sans pads, which means the next sentence should be taken with a grain of salt: C.J. Sanders will contribute this season, because he has the quickest feet on the team. Why pump the breaks?

Because when a defensive back can’t drill the guy with the quickest feet, such players tend to look good.

But with Greg Bryant out of the mix and only Will Fuller and walk-on Chris Finke fielding punts yesterday, it’s clear there’s a job for the taking for Sanders, a natural return man and potential terror after making the first man miss (assuming a few blocks materialize thereafter).

-- Sanders made a leaping grab of a DeShone Kizer throw early in 7-on-7 drills after dusting his defender with a stutter-step five yards into the route.

SHAUN CRAWFORD
Speaking of small guys: backup Nickel candidate Shaun Crawford is a solidly built 5’8” 180 if there is such a thing. He can survive as a rookie at that size because he’d be in a position to augment starter Matthias Farley, who it appears will also receive aid from KeiVarae Russell in the role should Russell’s corner compatriots prove they can hold their own on the outside.

Farley could be seen tutoring Russell pre-snap on a particular read at the Nickel position. It’s worth noting Russell is 12 months removed from live work in what was then a new defense to him after two years under a different system.

-- Crawford and Sanders locked up on one rep with Sanders wrestling the ball away from the physical Crawford. It was no small task as the defensive backs were allowed to manhandle and interfere (but not hold) the receivers during the drill.

-- Crawford stuck with Sanders on an out-route later in practice largely because Sanders didn’t break off at the correct depth per assistant head coach Mike Denbrock.

-- Shaun Crawford is shorter and weighs less than kicker Justin Yoon. Just an FYI…

GUYTON, COLEMAN, WHITE, BOYKIN
Jalen Guyton showed consistent hands throughout the drill periods though I’m not sure about his ability to track the deep ball. He looked a touch stiff after running by fellow freshman Ashton White who was caught peeking at the quarterback for the second time in as many reps. “We’re in man-to-man,” noted defensive backs coach Todd Lyght. “You’re (should be) looking at the receiver, not the QB!”

Guyton previously caught a pass despite physical coverage from Nick Coleman, a player who could likewise get a look as a return man (he’s quick in every movement he makes on the field) but is a year away in the weight room from tackling college football players.

-- As Tim Prister noted in our Instant Analysis, Ashton White is the only one of the three that looks like he’s filled out a bit, though I’ll add both Crawford and Coleman looked more athletic.

-- I though Boykin looked a touch stiff running routes but I only saw three of his reps. Brian Kelly spoke highly of him post-practice though we don’t know regarding which skill set (Boykin is massive and is my No. 2 choice as the team’s goal line blocking WR behind linebacker James Onwualu).

Boykin failed to catch (not really dropped) two terrible throws and proceeded to rip off push-ups on the spot thereafter. I felt Boykin labored coming out of his breaks, but as I said, I watched very little of him, so not a fair assessment.

COREY HOLMES
The most impressive young player to me was sophomore Corey Holmes. Four-for-four in his 1-on-1 reps during drill work including a circus catch for a go-route touchdown despite wearing Nick Watkins like a cheap suit as he crashed to the ground. Holmes ruined his outstanding start by failing to run through a post-route broken up by Avery Sebastian (Holmes had beaten his initial defender).

Said Denbrock to Holmes as he returned to the line, “It’s okay, I don’t need to run my route? GO GET IT!!”

As I offered of Holmes during his strong start: “The best looking young guy out there today is Holmes. Too bad he backs up the best wide receiver in college football.”

THE 5-STAR AND THE NEW RUNNERS
How to best describe Aliz’e Jones? Well he looks the part, every bit of his listed six-foot-four, 240. But as Pete Sampson noted in his practice report, Jones is not as imposing or immediately impressive as was Kyle Rudolph, the gold standard among Notre Dame freshmen tight ends.

And he’s not as fluid in space as was Tyler Eifert the 2010 redshirt-freshmen. Then again, Eifert is among the Holy Trinity at Tight End U (Casper and MacAfee), so maybe we should take it easy on young Aliz’e with our comparisons.

It’s best to view Jones for what he is, today: a freshman that can help the offense and continue to develop into a standout down the line.

-- Dexter Williams is quick to the hole and to the sidelines as a swing pass receiver. Of course, Joe Schmidt wasn’t allowed to hit him in said hole, so we’ll report back on his progress next Thursday when they knock heads in pads. He looked especially quick on a toss pitch from Zaire, beating Trumbetti to the edge despite the latter’s angle (and Trumbetti can run).

-- Didn’t focus much on Josh Adams or Equanimeous St. Brown, something for one of the three of us to do at the August 13 practice next week. It’s worth noting that the aforementioned Guyton must have shown better than did ESB in their first collegiate practice because I have five separate notes on Guyton and none on ESB.

QB2 and QB3
The best passer Friday morning was DeShone Kizer. There, I said it.

Then again, the best passer on the field in 10 of 12 games last season – and by a wide margin – was Everett Golson and Notre Dame still lost three of said 10 contests. Quarterback is much more than throwing to open receivers while you’re wearing a red shirt signaling no contact allowed, but I thought Kizer did well in that regard. Quick arm, live arm, big in stature, and he can move.

Kizer had the best throw of the off-season (I’m including spring) to date, one not caught by a diving Amir Carlisle, in which the redshirt-freshman quarterback plopped a 25+ yard corner route over two defenders to Carlisle as he attempted to toe-tap the sidelines. It was a nearly impossible throw that Kizer dropped into the bucket.

He looked comfortable delivering strikes in the 10-yard range as well.

-- Brandon Wimbush gets the ball from release to target faster than either Kizer or Malik Zaire. He also takes the longest to deliver it from initial motion to release – a whip-like, elongated motion that will doubtless be tweaked over the next 12 months.

Man Wimbush’s ball travels fast…

LINEBACKER TRIO
The future triumvirate of Asmar Bilal, Te’Von Coney, and Josh Barajas had its moments Friday. Bilal looks comfortable in his pass drops, receiving both encouragement and advice from Jaylon Smith during the session.

One word to describe Bilal: trim.

-- Coney (who as you recall enrolled in January) offers a physical presence even without pads. He also seems to have taken to his veteran teammates’ penchant for post-snap conversation as well.

Coney was chided by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder when he didn’t appear to know what his responsibility was on a particular pass drop in 7-on-7 action.

-- Barajas was corrected twice by linebackers coach Mike Elston for “decelerating” upon contact with a blocking sled. The word harkens back to the first post-practice interview of the Bob Diaco era when he noted of Harrison Smith, “Well, he’s an accelerator, not a decelerator, that’s for sure.” Diaco was right…

WE INTERRUPT THIS FRESHMEN-FEST…
To bring you an update on the team’s best and most important position group: the offensive line.

Without pads, battles between offensive and defensive linemen generally provide less-than-entertaining practice tidbits. Which is why a post-practice drill with the entire offensive front was so telling.

After nearly 150 minutes of work between the lines, offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s crew stayed put to work a little more, engaging as a group, then in small parts (Steve Elmer, Tristen Hoge, Sam Mustipher, to name a few) on second-level blocking drills in which they engaged their initial defender and after pushing him from scrimmage, disengaged to seal the linebacker.

Overtime on Day One – it bodes well for the squad’s heart and soul when the bullets go live.

QUICK TAKES
-- I agree with Pete Sampson that Torii Hunter, Jr., was the most noticeable pass-catcher, and thus the biggest surprise of Day One.

-- Nyles Morgan broke up two passes in 11-on-11 action Friday, both the result of well-timed hits from behind. He’s on my short list to watch when the Irish don pads.

-- Notre Dame’s defenders pounced on and returned every ball that hit the ground Friday, even bounced passes. Never too late to make up for the Steel City Mistake, I suppose.

-- The move of C.J. Prosise to the backfield strengthened two positions, RB and Slot, because Hunter and C.J. Sanders will complement Carlisle well over a 13-game slate.

-- I felt Zaire short-armed/pushed a few throws across his body (for example, out routes to the right side of the formation). There are worse crimes on the football field (such as fumbling and/or throwing a red zone interception every game for nine straight games, but I digress.)

-- If Joe Schmidt isn’t named one of the team’s four (I assume there’ll be four) captains, there’s no reason to have captains on a football team.


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