Whether you found it intriguing, alarming, or a little of both, the presence of junior slot receiver Torii Hunter, Jr. in Notre Dame’s nickel package Saturday afternoon in Heinz Field begged the following question:
“What’s wrong with the team’s actual cornerbacks?”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly addressed that question multiple times Tuesday, prior to which he offered one said candidate, freshman Nick Coleman, had turned heads at the position but his lot in life – behind starter Cole Luke – precluded likely playing time.
“He’d be the back-up right now, you know?’ said Kelly of Coleman behind Hunter. “It's a position that for us we certainly can put him in there. We think it's a lot for him, quite frankly. We'd rather have him focus on his technique and development outside at the cornerback position in case he needs to go in the game, and we don't want to put too much on his plate.”
Coleman backs Luke at right cornerback while junior Devin Butler is listed as KeiVarae Russell’s backup on the left side. Butler, Coleman, and sophomore Nick Watkins are each starters on various specialty units with Butler distinguishing himself through nine contests.
“We think that there's an ongoing process of development with those guys,” said Kelly of the corners. “We just didn't want to cross-train them at a position that takes reps away from them in the second team or it takes them away from where we really may need them at corner. So as Brian (VanGorder) and I were talking about it, our options were limited because we didn't want to continue to pull Matthias (Farley) away from his job at safety to stay at the nickel position. We wanted somebody that could play more man coverage.
“He can play a little bit of man there,” Kelly continued of Farley, “but we wanted somebody that could play a little bit more man, and so consequently it was (between) moving one of your other corners in there or is there somebody else on your roster that could do it? And I felt like Torii could do it because he was doing a great job as a jammer for us on our punt (return) team.
“He didn't miss much offense at all, and felt like this was easy. We backed off some of his ST reps and just took those ST reps and added them to defense.”
READY NOW, LATER…AND MUCH LATER
Though August and September proved to be the cruelest months for Kelly’s crew on the 2015 injury front, it would appear good fortune might be coming Notre Dame’s way in November.
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey was expected to practice today and play Saturday despite spending Sunday and Monday in a walking boot to aid his sprained ankle. And senior C.J. Prosise passed his first round of concussion testing. Two more remain.
“We’ll see where he is after practice today,” said Kelly, noting the next stage is activity (but not contact). “Each day there is a different stage and step that he has to go through, so I don't know where he'll be after today. There’s a test that he has to get through by Wednesday. So Wednesday would be probably the deadline (to make a decision on his availability for Wake Forest).”
Also progressing is junior quarterback Malik Zaire, though he’s not a candidate to play this season.
“He’s active to the point where he's out there already moving around, throwing the football, getting his arm in shape,” said Kelly. “But in no shape or fashion is he going to be able to compete.”
Big Boost? The same is not necessarily true for senior nose tackle Jarron Jones, believed out for the season following a sprained MCL in August camp.
“Jarron is now at that stage where it's building quad and hamstring strength,” said Kelly. “We think that's going to take about anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks with him.”
Both the best- and worst-case scenarios for Jones’ recovery make possible that the senior would participate in Notre Dame’s bowl game or the college football playoffs should they qualify, a reality Kelly confirmed.
Also back in the fold is safety Avery Sebastian, though with a redshirt season at stake, and the end of his career imminent should he return, Kelly is hesitant to play the fifth-year transfer from California.
“We’re going to get him going. If we need to play him, because we need to win games, we're going to play him,” said Kelly. “But I'm not going to (merely) run him down on the kickoff team, you know? We would preserve his year unless he needs to go in there and start for us and help us win these last three games.”
JANUARY IS RECRUITING SEASON
At least two Notre Dame underclassmen face difficult decisions regarding their NFL futures following the 2015 season. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is expected to turn pro (though he has not spoken on the topic) and wide receiver Will Fuller is another able candidate.
The topic was broached today because two of Notre Dame’s best players, defensive tackle Sheldon Day and offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley chose to return to the University after a major recruiting pitch led by their head coach last January.
“I don't know that I could put a quantitative number on it, but they're responsible for so much of our success in that they are arguably our best players and our best leaders,” said Kelly of the value of the pair’s return. “So when your best players are your best leaders, it changes the dynamics of everything that you do because they're out there in practice, setting a standard. They're in the locker room setting a standard, and then they're on the field in the way they compete setting a standard.
“I don't want to attribute all of it to them, but we wouldn't be here where we are right now without those two guys back in 2015.”
Kelly added that Day and Stanley are ideal examples for the likes of Smith, Fuller, and other NFL hopefuls among those with remaining eligibility.
“Oh, no question. Those are stories that are real to the guys that are sitting next to them in these seats. They see that. Then they talk to them about why they actually came back and how they've enjoyed their final season here,” said Kelly.
“Then we've got guys that are in the NFL that are helpful talking to them about what it's like. Tyler Eifert was at the (Pittsburgh) game. Stephon (Tuitt) was at the game. So they can share all of that information so it doesn't become just one voice talking to them about, ‘Hey, go make some money.’ They have people that they trust and know and that can really help them make the best decision, and it starts with the players in the locker room with them.”