Brian Kelly’s Irish took to Oliver Field at Culver Academies today for the team’s first practice of 2016. As will be the case tomorrow, Saturday’s session did not include pads and was thus weighted heavily to work on the perimeter, offering the youth-filled wide receiving corps and a much deeper defensive backfield a chance to show their wares.
INITIAL DEPTH CHART
It’s a near certainty Notre Dame will alternate its No. 1 quarterback over the next two to three weeks and taking the reins first was incumbent DeShone Kizer. Kizer was joined by wide receivers Torii Hunter, Jr. (X), Equanimeous St. Brown (W), and C.J. Sanders (Z) with Josh Adams as his No. 1 runner and Durham Smythe at tight end.
Senior Tarean Folston rotated with Adams midway through the drill and, it should be noted, took as many first team reps as Adams over the course of the practice. The first unit offensive line was identical to the end of spring ball, with Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin and Alex Bars.
Bivin finished practice on a cart, likely the result of heat/cramping issues.
-- The second unit offense was led by senior Malik Zaire behind center with Corey Holmes (X), Miles Boykin (W), and Kevin Stepherson (Z) as the receivers. Nic Weishar – who had a notable day – was the second unit tight end and Dexter Williams worked at running back. Williams missed most of practice thereafter with a stomach issue.
The offensive front included two freshmen, Liam Eichenberg (LT) and Tommy Kraemer (RG) plus two redshirt-freshmen, Trevor Ruhland (LG) and Tristen Hoge (C), along with senior Colin McGovern at right tackle.
-- No longer a skeleton crew as in the spring, the third string was comprised of quarterback Brandon Wimbush and freshman running back Tony Jones, Jr., tight end Tyler Luatua, and wide receivers Deon McIntosh (X), Chris Finke (Z), and the alternating freshmen duo of Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool at the boundary (W).
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s backup front included walk-on Sam Bush (LT), freshman Parker Boudreaux (LG), 5th-year senior Mark Harrell (C), junior Jimmy Byrne (RG) and senior John Montelus (RT). Montelus worked as a guard last season and moved to the defensive line in the spring but was back working with the offense Saturday.
With linemen unable to fully unleash and both running backs (and linebackers) reticent to unload sans pads, opening camp practice observations tend to be perimeter-heavy. Today’s is no exception:
-- Freshman Deon McIntosh made the day’s best catch, a diving one-hander down the right sideline. He struggled otherwise, once being completely eaten up on a short route vs. classmate Donte Vaughn, and often struggling with his footwork and special recognition – including in skeleton drills.
-- Tony Jones Jr. can catch. Period. His ball skills were on display throughout the contest, routinely making full speed or slight adjustment catches, something not often seen on film for the purported power back. The Irish are a solid four-deep at running back with Williams and Jones behind the Folston/Adams tandem.
-- With the exception of working from the slot rather than at the X, early enrollee Kevin Stepherson picked up where he left off, catching most of what was thrown his way including a traffic back-shoulder snare (unintentionally thrown to his back shoulder) after which he used his body to shield the oncoming cornerback. But at first blush, Stepherson seems best utilized as a backup or in a 1-2 punch as a rookie – his slight frame would unlikely last the full slate of games as a starter.
Current X, W, Z Breakdown:
-- X: Hunter, Holmes, McIntosh
-- W: St. Brown, Boykin, Claypool/McKinley
-- Z: Sanders, Stepherson, Finke
Malik Zaire had a noticeable hole in his Day One passing arsenal – he struggled with field side out routes to both sides (especially left, at least today), consistently inaccurate on the offering.
-- Zaire hit five of 12 throws in 7-on-7 action (vs. the Irish Nickel package) highlighted by a dart in a tight window on a scramble throw to Nic Weishar, covered closely by Max Redfield. Zaire started 4-for-8 in the segment, then missed three of his final four including an underthrown post and a deep in-route that sailed five yards over everyone.
-- Zaire was better than DeShone Kizer in the unit’s initial passing drills (Kizer was inaccurate throughout that segment) but the best of the trio in what has to be a vexing early-practice drill (the reps are 1-1-1, so no quarterback gets a rhythm whereas in 7-on-7, QBs are allowed four consecutive throws) was sophomore Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush hit 7-of-10 in the 1-on-1 drills with one drop – a perfectly placed post route that Deon McIntosh attempted to secure with one-hand against tight coverage.
Zaire was also 7-for-10 in the drill while Kizer came in at 3-for-10.
-- Kizer though settled in during the aforementioned 7-for-7 Nickel drills, hitting 9 of 13 including three deep offerings with two long touchdowns, one to Weishar and another to Chase Claypool (both of which beat linebacker Josh Barajas).
-- Each of the quarterbacks flashed a moment of brilliance during 11-on-11 (contact, but no pads). Kizer hit Hunter for a post route in front of Shaun Crawford who contested the ball but could not keep it from the senior’s grasp. Kizer would have hit St. Brown for a deep sideline route but Nick Coleman held St. Brown with the ball in the air (Coleman had a very good day, otherwise).
Zaire’s best 11-on-11 moment came on a corer route to Stepherson in front of strong safety Spencer Perry. Zaire also came close on a go route to Javon McKinley but the freshman receiver was beaten for the 50/50 ball by redshirt freshman Ashton White, who, I might add, is quite chatty.
Wimbush completed a laser to Tyler Luatua on a seam route though had the tight end been wearing pads, he’d have been separated from them by the defense that instead had to hold up rather than going for the jarring hit.
Torii Hunter Jr. catches everything…Corey Holmes has to become more aggressive and consistent when battling for the 60/40 ball. Heck, maybe even the 75/25 ball. Whenever he and a defensive back both went after a throw, it inevitably ended up on the ground rather than in Holmes’ hands… Boykin can make a rookie-year living running dig routes, slants against 1-on-1 coverage – something to consider on third down…C.J. Sanders showed no ill-effects from spring hip surgery…
Backfield in Motion: Josh Adams ran by freshman safety D.J. Morgan on a wheel route but had major trouble tracking the accurate deep throw and heard about it from position coach Autry Denson…Adams has developed a bit of a dead-leg fake in space. It can be quite effective at three-quarters speed… Dexter Williams fumbled in the non-contact, practice opening, no defense Tempo drill. When you hear the phrase attention to detail, that might apply…More important, he jumped to catch balls that were thrown accurately, and Denson let him know about it…
-- I misevaluated the athleticism of Tony Jones, Jr. in his high school film. The best way to put it after one practice: he’s “ultra-coordinated” for a runner of his size and squat frame. Catching the ball is natural for him out of the backfield…It’s not natural for Deon McIntosh downfield, but the move to WR/RB (his official listing) makes sense at the outset of his first camp and considering the crowded house backfield he’s joining.
Cheer, Cheer: No ineligible player in the history of ineligibility has been involved in a singular practice as was tight end Alizé’ Jones Saturday (more on that in the Monday Musings). He worked as a rush end (vs. Nic Weishar in 1-on-1, and complimented Weishar after every rep), caught hundreds of balls off the JUGS Machine, including many from less than eight yards away, could be heard shouting “TIGHT END UUUUUUUUU!” after every Weishar/Smythe/Luatua grab, and was regularly employing the Michael Irvin “First Down” signal after tight end receptions…Jones joined Kizer and Weishar for a sprinting post touchdown celebration (65 yards downfield) during 7-on-7 drills…
It should be noted; Justin Brent was present and heavily involved with the running backs as well. Brent is out 4-6 more weeks following LisFranc surgery…
Odds and Ends: No knee braces for Tarean Folston or Drue Tranquill, though Josh Adams sports one on his right leg…Of no surprise, Sanders and Finke appear to be the early choices for the punt returner role…
Harry Hiestand was in mid-season form in his early-practice critique of Alex Bars, only he didn’t say ‘fudge’…