OFFENSE: MORE PIECES TO THE PUZZLE
Brian Kelly started his seventh spring in South Bend wondering where the myriad untested talents on hand might fit. Fifteen practices later but with more than three months of preparation remaining before the outset of training camp, Kelly saw his youth-filled troops fall in line.
Maybe too much.
“It’s a pretty sound group. They are not a group that gets too far outside of the blueprint, if you will,” Kelly said. “In other words, we ask them to do things and they do them. They are not wanderers…they are hunting dogs.
“We probably would like a little bit more personality in some senses,” he offered. “The only thing is, we've got to tell them where to go, every day. And so we've got to continue to work on that element with this group.
“But if you tell them what you want, and you demand it, you're going to get it from this group.”
Saturday that group included a pair of running backs unlikely to start but perhaps ready to contribute - sophomore Dexter Williams, almost certainly so. The same appears true for the offense’s youngest player, early enrollee Kevin Stepherson.
“A number of kids stand out for me. I thought Dexter ran extremely hard,” Kelly said. “I was pleased with Justin Brent,” he added of the redshirt-sophomore and erstwhile doghouse resident.
“I don't know that we have a player on our team (like) KJ Stepherson that can catch the ball at full speed as he cuts across the field; a very unique trait of his,” Kelly noted. “He still has to work on catching the ball vertically down the field. But he catches the ball out of his break at full speed, and it is a unique trait that he has that I have not seen since I've been here at Notre Dame.”
Stepherson spent the spring toiling at the X receiver position behind the group’s best weapon, senior Torii Hunter. Hunter can play anywhere along the formation, a reality that Kelly seemed ready to explore in an effort to get Stepherson into the mix next fall.
“I think we're really going to have to sort out the position for where it's easier to keep him on the field, more so than what's best for the other players. It's going to be what's best for him,” Kelly said of his rookie target.
“So we're going to take it slow with him, and find what's best for him. You know, it's harder inside (at the slot position), because there are so many more variables in terms of what he has to do and adjust his routes. He's probably better suited to be on the outside.”
“We’ve got to really figure out what we want to do with him and stick with that and say, ‘This is where you're going to play next year.’”
DEFENSE: DEPTH…NOT MUCH DEFINITIVE
Cole Luke and Shaun Crawford looked the part – senior and relative rookie alike.
Isaac Rochell will lead an evolving defensive front while certain starters James Onwualu and Nyles Morgan are now tasked with newfound leadership roles at the second level.
Thereafter? Options abound.
“I think that this defense is going to play the kind of defense necessary for us to get into that playoff hunt again, and there are good enough players out there for us to do that once again,” said Kelly.
“The other area where I'm very pleased is the progress of some of the young players in the back end of our defense. I thought our corner play was better. I thought our safety play was much improved and those are the areas, as you know, we need better play at, and I thought that those young players out there today made significant progress.
“Defensively, I thought Cole Luke played very, very well. Played well at the nickel. Forced the ball extremely well. (Freshman) Devin Studstill tackled exceedingly well. I thought Max (Redfield) played well. Great communication, organization of our fronts, with Nyles, a lot of good things.”
One position likely to receive a tweak if not an overhaul in August is the remaining linebacker spot – Jaylon Smith’s vacated weak side position.
“He had a lot of pressure on him today,” said Kelly of the spring starter at the Will, Asmar Bilal. “Played a lot of football. I thought he did a nice job as a freshman. And again, I think we continue to look for more guys to step up at that position, but it's not going to be until the fall where we bring in some linebackers and then Greer (Martini) and Te'Von (Coney) get healthy.”
Luke was singled-out by Kelly for a strong outing due in large part to his tackling acumen.
“That’s just something (defensive backs) coach (Todd) Lyght has been emphasizing a lot to me this spring, that I have to get more physical,” Luke said. “That’s something I took to heart to work on in practice. It’s good to have the opportunity to lay it on the line and prove to them that you can when you go live.”
SPECIAL TEAMS TO THE FORE?
They weren’t paramount to the proceedings Saturday afternoon, but a full spring of special teams work appears to have made an impression on Kelly’s Irish.
Cole Luke and Josh Adams ranked as two of the squad’s three best spring performers among the specialty units according to their head coach – both started the Fiesta Bowl in leading scrimmage roles.
Certain starting Sam linebacker James Onwualu promised post-game Saturday he’d be heavily involved as well – for the fourth time in as many seasons.
And Tyler Newsome? He was merely the best player on the field Saturday in South Bend, annihilating punted footballs to the tune of 52-plus yards per pop including a pair dropped inside the 8-yard line.
Welcome to Brian Kelly’s new-look special teams. A foundation lain last season that appears ready to bear fruit next fall.
“I’m an ST guy. I look forward to it,” said Onwualu, a special teams lifer under the Dome. “I want to be on ST. I think it’s important for the team and I look forward to being part of those teams again. The feeling of being able to run and hit is something you can’t get on defense all the time. There are many more components to (defense).”
Said Kelly of a day in which punts were not allowed for return, two field goals were missed (one by starter Justin Yoon) and kickoffs did not exist:
“I guess that's a good thing in the spring game; your punter won the MVP of the game,” Kelly joked of Newsome who annihilated the football on each of his seven punts – two of which were planted inside the 10-yard line.”
Newsome figures to rank among the nation’s best but it takes a village to produce championship-level special teams play.
“We know that defense is one thing, offense is another, but special teams is going to win us games,” said Luke.
Check back when the bullets go live in Austin on September 4.