This was always supposed to be Brian Kelly’s most talented team.
With an entire defense of starters back, a road-grading offensive line and the receiving corps in tact, the top of Notre Dame’s roster looked good from the moment Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley decided to return. The surprise is how good the back end looks after training camp’s first week.
Yes, the coaching staff used Thursday to rotate freshmen into the lineup because the workout fell between a couple two-a-days. It didn’t make sense to burn out veterans in between those days of heavy lifting.
But other than Will Fuller using a speed release to vaporize Nick Coleman, Notre Dame’s young talent didn’t get played off the field. Coleman, Shaun Crawford and Ashton White all bubbled up into the two-deep. C.J. Sanders continued to impress, getting open against the starting defense. Jerry Tillery and Tristen Hoge have made the most of early enrollment.
Alize Jones (neck) and Te’Von Coney (eye) probably would have featured too, but both sat out due to injury.
There’s a good chance when the season starts that these freshmen – short of Tillery – fade into the background. Maybe there will be reps on special teams for Sanders or Crawford, which Kelly hinted. But the advance preview of this class is a positive to be banked. When Notre Dame enters rebuilding mode next spring it will have some nice labor to do the work.
Where Does Grace Fit?
The question coming out of spring was how Notre Dame could utilize all its Mike linebacker talent. After watching a couple practices it doesn’t look much different from last year. Joe Schmidt runs the show. Nyles Morgan sticks with the second team. But that leaves out a healthy Jarrett Grace, who spent more time Thursday running the punt team than running the defense.
Based on two viewings and the assumption Schmidt stays healthy, it’s not clear where the reps for Grace will come. He did sub into the starting defense late in practice. But Schmidt has a better grasp of the defense. Morgan is the superior athlete and has three years of eligibility remaining. Where does that leave Grace? It’s not clear.
The fifth-year senior’s voice is too valuable for the coaching staff to keep on the bench, but a week into the preseason it looks like creativity will be required to get it on the field. Still, if he’s just running the special teams, there’s value there too.
Getting Jones To Keep Up
When Kelly kicked off training camp he tagged Jarron Jones as having “no restrictions.” But when pressed on the issue Notre Dame’s head coach gave himself an out, admitting the staff wouldn’t overwork the 315-pound defensive lineman this month. And so far, the Irish haven’t even come close.
Just like opening day at Culver, Jones was held out Thursday back at Notre Dame. Jones dressed for the practice and moved around, but he took no work in 11-on-11 drills, giving way to Jerry Tillery, Daniel Cage and Jay Hayes. It’s too early to sound the alarm on Jones’ health, but his workload during camp is a story to track. He underwent foot surgery late last season and sat out spring ball, although Kelly praised his summer conditioning.
Even defensive end Isaac Rochell took some reps at defensive tackle on Thursday alongside Sheldon Day, although that was probably situational. Rochell’s interior work came during a two-minute drill with Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end.
The good news for Notre Dame is Tilley has picked up where he left off during spring practice. When Brian VanGorder’s defense turns the freshman loose with spin moves, stunts and twists, he’s a tougher matchup than a healthy Jones. Still, relying on a true freshman defensive tackle to start is not how College Football Playoff contenders are built.
Brent: In-N-Out Of The Backfield
The Justin Brent experiment at running back look destined to succeed based on how the coaching staff used him Thursday. The former four-star receiver prospect hasn’t been asked to run between the tackles and won’t be told to pick up short yardage on third down. Instead, Kelly has used Brent in motion in and out of the backfield, which felt like an impending mismatch this season.
On one rep Brent lined up like a traditional running back and then motioned out wide at the quarterback’s direction, lining up like a true receiver. If Brent pounding the ball into the A-gap doesn’t make much sense, putting him on an island against a linebacker sure does.
Maybe there’s not a fulltime role for Brent on this roster. But he could still be an important extra based on how the staff deploys him.
Quinn Finds A Fit
Offensive analyst and veteran Kelly confidant Jeff Quinn didn’t say much (that was audible to the media) during Thursday’s open practice, but the former Buffalo head coach made his presence felt. There was no question about Notre Dame’s tight ends and special teams coach – Scott Booker – yet Quinn appeared to move into an alternate coach for both spots.
If Notre Dame is serious about incorporating two tight ends into the offense to aid the run game, meaning the position becomes an extension of the offensive line, Quinn’s expertise fits. While he has some experience working with tight ends, Quinn made his career coaching offensive linemen.
The real curiosity is chemistry within the staff considering it has three former/current offensive coordinators with Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock and Quinn. With Harry Hiestand left alone with the offensive linemen, that’s a lot of voices.
Lyght Always On
After practice Cole Luke got hit with plenty of questions about Todd Lyght, his coaching style and comparing him to Kerry Cooks, who left for Oklahoma last off-season. Luke wanted no part of the questions. Although all Notre Dame’s defensive backs seems to want a piece of Lyght.
It’s rare for a first-year position coach to make his voice heard like Lyght. It’s even less likely that it would carry this much weight.
"There's so much I've learned from him,” Luke said. “The NFL side of things and multiple years he's played in the NFL, more of an experience thing from him, but he's taught us a lot."
From KeiVarae Russell to Nicco Fertitta, Lyght didn’t miss an opportunity for comment on Thursday. He even praised quarterback Malik Zaire for a few bullets for touchdowns during red zone work.