Matt Cashore /

Culver Practice Observations

Notre Dame’s W position is loaded with young, inexperienced talent. The accuracy of the quarterbacks will be tested as they seek the chemistry necessary for success.

-- Freshman running back Tony Jones Jr. turned in an impressive debut on the Irish practice field at the Culver Academies Saturday.

Jones Jr., logging reps in the absence of an ailing Dexter Williams, showed a real proclivity for catching the football out of the backfield, which doesn’t always come naturally for a running back because it requires specific, precise, and somewhat tricky footwork.

It’s not like a receiver running a route upfield where he can sprint, turn and find the football. A running back is running across his body to a large degree as he tries to gain lateral depth away from the quarterback. Jones Jr. made it look like a very easy, natural trait as he repeatedly snatched throws from quarterbacks DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush.

In addition, although Notre Dame was not in full pads, Jones Jr. showed the vision and ability to weave through traffic that we saw on his high school film. He displayed a nimbleness and a good feel for where contact would have been coming from had it been live.

It was nothing short of a very impressive debut for Jones Jr.

(Note: Better keep your Joneses straight. There are five of them on the Irish roster – Alizé, Jamir, Jarron, Jonathan and Tony.)

-- I was wrong as to where sophomore Asmar Bilal would be on the depth chart when pre-season camp opened. With Greer Martini backing up James Onwualu at Sam linebacker and Te’von Coney running at No. 2 Will linebacker, Bilal took all the reps as the No. 1 Will on Day One.

Certainly this can change, but Coney has no real playing experience advantage despite using a year of eligibility while Bilal preserved his first year in 2015. Martini may be destined for a situational/first-man-off-the-bench role under Brian VanGorder because, well, that’s what he’s been since VanGorder’s arrival in 2014.

Bilal looks as if he’s going to be a good football player. He’s long, agile and he continues to grow into his body and add strength. But linebackers coach Mike Elston certainly painted a picture in the spring of a player who had a long, long way to go in terms of understanding the big picture of the defense.

Perhaps Bilal made strides over the summer, but that’s difficult to do as it relates to scheme without actual live practice time. Bilal needs to continue developing because lined up next to him is a player who is ready to and needs to be on the field – Nyles Morgan – but is himself a mostly inexperienced player.

-- Although you wouldn’t necessarily call it a great day for sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford, who is now sporting the No. 20 after wearing the No. 14 last August and again during spring drills, there is a smoothness to his game, mixed with tremendous athleticism, which prompts the feeling that he has all the necessary tools to take on any receiver.

When Crawford is in his backpedal, rolling laterally or bursting forward, it’s as if he’s on greased rails. He glides from spot to spot with the quick-twitch athleticism to react to any move of a receiver. He was beaten a couple times Saturday, including a deep ball. But Irish fans are going to like this kid’s lockdown ability. If he can stay healthy at 5-foot-9½, 185 pounds he will be a true difference-maker in the passing game.

-- Was the media deked into thinking that Devin Studstill (now wearing No. 14, not No. 13) was beating out Max Redfield in the spring?

Studstill ran with the first unit throughout most of the spring while Redfield often stood on the sideline observing. In the wake of Redfield’s disciplinary issues during Fiesta Bowl week, apparently one plus one did not necessarily equal two.

Most of us figured that Redfield would “win the job back” in the fall, but perhaps winning it back was never the issue. Word of a foot injury in the spring was hinted at but never really expressed by Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder or secondary coach Todd Lyght.

Saturday, Redfield was a no-doubt-about-it No. 1 at free safety. He still has to prove that he can be a playmaker and show consistent ball skills, even if he has a full understanding of the defense now. And yet there is comfort to be derived from the fact that the Irish have a senior with 36 games and 23 starts under his belt as opposed to an untested freshman on the back end of the defense.

-- The evolution of the W receiver position should be a pretty fascinating study this August/fall. Without a clear-cut winner at the position, although sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown certainly is in a “it’s his position to lose” situation, it makes sense to throw as many talented athletes over there and see who comes out on top amongst the youngsters.

After St. Brown, there’s sophomore Miles Boykin, who preserved a year of eligibility in ’15, and freshmen Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool. That is a ton of young talent with a clear frontrunner. But St. Brown is the only one that’s caught a pass and that was a mere one for eight yards in a blowout victory over UMass.

The first order of business for St. Brown will be to stay healthy. He’s been dealing with shoulder issues at least since the seventh game of the ’15 season, and again this spring. One would expect Boykin to emerge next because of his time in the program, but Claypool is a long, graceful athlete and McKinley certainly looked and carried himself like he belonged on a major college field Saturday.

Now it’s a matter of continuing to rep the heck out of that position and those young players, and finding productivity at the position, perhaps in numbers if not a clear-cut one-man show at the position.

-- Keep something in mind when we comment on the inaccuracy of the quarterbacks. They’re working with a ton of young receivers. So an errant pass may not be the fault of the quarterback. The pass-catch combination is a very nuanced process. The slightest lack of chemistry results in an incomplete pass…or worse.

-- Loved Nick Coleman’s game coming out of high school, but he never quite seemed to reach the level I was expecting, either in the fall or the spring. What impressed me from his high school days was his explosiveness out of a backpedal, which I can’t say I saw from him during the fall of ’15 or the spring of ’16.

Granted, we only get to see snippets. But even when KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler both were down with injuries for the Fiesta Bowl, Coleman couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity and lost the starting nod to Nick Watkins (which is precisely what a more experienced player should have done and did).  

Saturday, there was burst in Coleman’s game, which likely comes with an increased level of confidence. He ran with the second unit in base defense behind Shaun Crawford. In nickel, Crawford made the shift with Coleman taking the left cornerback spot opposite veteran Cole Luke,

We knew there was a player in there. It really started to show in the first practice of ‘16.

-- Corey Holmes’ ascension may prove to be short-lived. He emerged as the No. 1 slot (Z) receiver in the spring following the departure of Amir Carlisle and the injury suffered by C.J. Sanders. Physically, Sanders looked fully recovered Saturday while Holmes was shifted to the X receiver – behind Torii Hunter, Jr.

Since it looks like Hunter will never drop a pass and clearly is the go-to guy of the offense, Holmes better show something and show it quickly or it’s going to be another long season for him. Even if he can’t win the X position – which he can’t – playing with a sense of urgency and productivity might would give him a shot at some playing time at the W or perhaps back at Z.

And yet Brian Kelly said in the spring that one of Holmes’ issues was not being able to translate his great speed to great football speed, which is an absolute necessity at the W.

Every rep matters for Holmes.

-- Tremendous spirit and energy put on display by sidelined tight end Alizé Jones. He’ll probably want to pace himself. It’s going to be a long season for the gifted pass-catcher.

-- Jay Hayes is going to win the starting right end position. He’s not going to provide a bunch of pass rush per se, which means you’ll see Andrew Trumbetti and Daelin Hayes in pass rush situations (perhaps both at the same time in nickel with Isaac Rochell bumping inside). Hayes brings a spirit of hustle, hard work and optimism to the field. Let’s see what level of productivity he can achieve.

-- Let the Tyler Luatua situation serve as the model for how not to deal with football players on the edge of putting on too many pounds. He weighed 270 as a freshman, and he was encouraged to be large because he showed a knack for blocking. He worked his way down to 255 last fall, but still never looked agile.

He’s listed at 250 now, which is just a five-pound difference from last year. (Who really knows about the accuracy of the weights listed.) But it doesn’t even look like the same athlete. He actually was targeted and caught a couple passes Saturday. He remains a less attractive target than Durham Smythe or Nic Weishar (who impressed again Saturday, as he did during ’15 camp). But at least he’s now legitimately in the mix to run some routes and make some grabs as a more svelte, effective athlete on the field.

-- “Body language, Jerry! Body language, Jerry!” Not the words you want to hear from Brian VanGorder to defensive lineman Jerry Tillery.

There was one route that freshman Deon McIntosh ran that looked like he had never played wideout before, which basically is true. But McIntosh also made the catch of the day, and in addition to that, it’s a smart move to give him a look at receiver. There aren’t enough footballs to go around at running back right now.

-- Donte Vaughn…long, athletic, competitive…a very rare defensive back talent.

-- Kevin Stepherson does not carry himself like a freshman receiver.

-- Julian Love impressed in his first practice at cornerback.

-- Freshman defensive end Julian Okwara does indeed have cut-the-corner pass rush skills. Now let’s see if he has the strength to make an early contribution. Top Stories