Practice Impressions: Depth = physical camp

Despite the veteran nature of the 2015 Notre Dame team, there’s room for freshmen to emerge in the Irish secondary and at the receiver positions.

“We need more depth!”

It’s every football coach’s lament, but not one that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is or has a right to be singing the blues about this pre-season camp.

It is not hyperbole to say that the 2015 Irish squad has the most depth of the six-year Kelly era, and it’s probably not even close.

And while Notre Dame incurred a significant blow Friday when incumbent nose tackle Jarron Jones went down with a third-degree left MCL injury that will sideline him for the entire campaign, that unprecedented depth has and will continue to allow the Irish, Kelly and his staff to physically test this crew.

There is a tendency when zeroing in on one team and the minutia of its inner-workings to be myopic. Every negative is a big deal when it’s your team.

Within the last three days, however, let it not be forgotten that Clemson lost projected starting cornerback Korrin Wiggins with a torn ACL while Virginia wide receiver T.J. Thorpe is out 10 weeks and will miss the Notre Dame game in week two with a broken clavicle.

Everybody loses somebody (or some bodies) in pre-season camp, and when you have the depth the Irish have in ’15, you can put your team through six practices in a 75-hour span and 11 practices in nine days before giving them a day off, as the players are no doubt enjoying today, Sunday, Aug. 16.

Every team faces what Notre Dame is facing during the three weeks of camp prior to season-opener week. You keep your fingers crossed and guard against setbacks as best as you can. But you can’t just hope to be physically prepared for the season; you have to put your players at a physical risk in practice in order to properly prepare them for success.

Notre Dame paid the price for that with Jarron Jones, although it should be noted that sources have told Irish Illustrated that Jones was not all the way back from his left lisfranc (mid-foot) injury suffered last November in terms of physical conditioning and preparedness for the start of the season.

Even without Jones’ right knee injury, Notre Dame would have had to have called upon Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage, just not as much as they will now without any snaps from Jones.

IT’S NO ACT
Former child actor C.J. Sanders has been passing audition after audition with flying colors.

The freshman slot receiver from Granada Hills, Calif., gave another winning performance on the LaBar Practice Complex fields Saturday when he zig-zagged his way through the defense on a 25-yard jet sweep and three-quarters of the field on a punt return for a score.
 
“Elusiveness,” summarized Brian Kelly. “He can cut at full speed. Some of our guys have straight-line speed, but they don’t have the ability to cut with speed. He’s got the ability to cut at full speed, which we haven’t had in my time here. It’s something that’s been lacking.”

There was hope coming into camp that Sanders would be able to help compensate at Z receiver for the move of C.J. Prosise to running back. Could he join Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter, Jr. at that position to form a three-headed attack?

It appears that he can, which also allows Kelly and his offensive staff to use the versatile Hunter at the X receiver, where he played last year and where Will Fuller has no clear-cut backup that isn’t an underclassman.

Plus, the element surprise of the jet sweep remains in play despite the move of Prosise to running back. Yes, Prosise can still align in the slot and run the jet sweep, or he can be in a running back position with Sanders quite capable of doing damage as a runner from the slot.

SECONDARY CONSIDERATIONS
During film evaluation in February, Irish Illustrated projected incoming freshman cornerback Nick Coleman as the most underrated three-star prospect of the signing class and the one with the greatest upside.

He’s been making us look good one week into camp, even ahead of our projected schedule as he -- along with four-star cornerback classmate Shaun Crawford – has put himself in a position to make an early contribution in 2015.

Crawford appears to have at least pulled even and probably ahead of Matthias Farley as the leading candidate to play the nickel spot, which is noteworthy since Farley played the position with some distinction last year.

But Farley has been toasted on inside moves at least half-a-dozen times in the three (of 11) practices the media has witnessed, and what Crawford lacks in size, he compensates with speed and knowledge of the system, which includes the ability to communicate pertinent information to the back end of the defense (the safeties).

Meanwhile, Coleman gives the secondary the flexibility to play cornerback with his length, which would allow lockdown KeiVarae Russell to play some nickel.

“Coleman is long, athletic and he has make-up speed at the cornerback position, which is a great quality to have because usually corners are making up,” Kelly said. “He has the ability to adjust when the ball is in the air.”

Notre Dame came into pre-season camp with one of the best starting cornerback tandems in the country in Russell-Cole Luke. The unit has gotten better in a week with the arrival of a couple of freshmen – one highly touted and another thought to be a down-the-road prospect.

This may give Notre Dame the added benefit of moving junior Devin Butler to safety, which would seem to fit his skillset better than cornerback.

MAKING A NAME
When it comes to “big-league names,” they don’t get much better than freshman receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound freshman receiver out of Anaheim, Calif.

It looks and sounds like the big-league status is carrying over to the college gridiron.

Although he looks much slighter than his 205-pound listing, he – as has fellow freshman Jalen Guyton – has caught everything in sight through the first week-plus of camp. He’s strongly challenging sophomore Corey Holmes for the No. 2 spot on the X receiver depth chart behind Will Fuller.

“We thought that Equanimeous was going to be a good receiver for us down the road, but he’s ready,” Kelly said. “That kid runs like a deer. We’ve put him up against everybody and he can run past you and can go up and get the football.”

St. Brown is providing bonus ability.

“What I like about him the most is that twice now, he’s sprained his ankle, and he’s been back in 24 hours,” Kelly said. “He’s got toughness, too. When you get a freshman like that that has that type of toughness, too, you know you’ve got something special there.”

AROUND THE GRIDIRON
With C.J. Prosise sidelined with a hip flexor, newly-crowned scholarship running back Josh Anderson took meaningful reps in a) the early tempo drill and b) on the goal line.

Could a player 99 percent of Notre Dame fans had never heard of before Kelly awarded him a scholarship the other day play an integral role at running back if Prosise and/or Tarean Folston are banged up and if neither of the two frosh running backs (Dexter Williams and Josh Adams) are ready for the nuances of the college game?

Williams and Adams both were impressive Saturday, but Anderson has been in the program four years now, and at a bullish 5-foot-9, 205 pounds…stranger things have happened…

It’s interesting to watch KeiVarae Russell in action at cornerback. The game truly has slowed down to a snail’s pace for him in terms of how measured and in-tune he is to his movement on the football field.

With Russell, you think of his athleticism and fast reactions. But watch him defend in one-on-one situations and there is a calmness/patience to his footwork. He doesn’t waste footwork. He moves his feet when it’s necessary to move them and in response to the opponent’s movement. He doesn’t overreact…

Justin Yoon is the real deal, freshman or no freshman, experienced or otherwise. There also seems to be a calmness to the way holder DeShone Kizer receives the snaps. Soft hands, no panic. That would be a change from ‘14…It appears that the frontrunners to be the three personal protectors for punter Tyler Newsome are Sam Mustipher and Tyler Luatua flanking Andrew Trumbetti…To add a bit of skepticism/cynicism to the high praise for Newsome – and this isn’t personal, just an observation – will believe it when seen in game competition. We’ve seen too many of his punts since the spring miss the sweet spot to be completely confident in what his 51-yard average, 4.0-second plus hang time indicate on the practice field…

Spent a few moments chatting with Sheldon Day’s mom, Carol Boyd, during Saturday’s practice session. “Mama Carol,” as she referred to herself, puts the joy in parenting. What a delight…More than a week into camp and no one on the Irish defense has been able to stop sophomore TE Nic Weishar from rooting out the space he wants at the goal line…Football is a game of loud voices on the practice field, although some see themselves and understand their roles differently. The most booming voices on the Irish coaching staff – in addition to Brian Kelly – are Brian VanGorder and all the defensive coaches (especially Todd Lyght), and Mike Denbrock on the offensive side. Heard Autry Denson’s voice for the first time Saturday. Don’t see that as a negative. His approach is more that of teacher than taskmaster, which fits his Christian-based personality…A couple of drops for Will Fuller Saturday…Corey Robinson must have been poked quite hard underneath his eye Saturday. He was wobbly and taking baby steps off the field…

Would be remiss if we didn’t mention that special assistant Jeff Quinn is working with Scott Booker and the tight ends. Quinn was Kelly’s long-time offensive coordinator/line coach before taking the head-coaching job at Buffalo as Kelly was transitioning from Cincinnati to Notre Dame. At this stage, as long as Kelly is at Notre Dame, Quinn likely will be, too. A full-time spot on the staff as one of the top assistants seems likely if not inevitable.


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