Practice Report: Defense – August 11

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Oppressive humidity and Notre Dame’s second padded practice of 2016 collided today at the LaBar Practice Complex…

My phone informed me that it “felt like” 96 degrees today at the conclusion of practice, Notre Dame’s sixth among 25-plus training camp sessions and the first of four two-a-day sessions over the next eight days.

Missing from the proceedings were nose tackle Daniel Cage (mild hamstring strain), safety Devin Studstill (ditto), defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway (fractured foot, out at least 8 weeks), and cornerback Nick Watkins (April arm surgery).

Both Watkins and Studstill practiced minimally in the media’s last viewing (Aug. 6) and as speculated throughout the summer on Irish Illustrated, Watkins’ broken humerus has not healed sufficiently to allow contact. Head coach Brian Kelly offered post-practice that Watkins would be out at least four more weeks following an “aggressive procedure” to stimulate bone growth.

DEPTH CHART…AS PRESENTED

Nary a competitive rep has gone by in which redshirt-freshman Asmar Bilal wasn’t featured as the first team Will linebacker, both in the base and Nickel packages. But when asked if Bilal has emerged as “the guy” Kelly today refuted the claim, offering that Te’von Coney was perhaps the most impressive of the Will combatants with Greer Martini (who we’ve seen most often as the backup Sam) next in line.

Bilal brings more raw speed to the equation but he’s smaller than both Coney and Martini and the latter pair is just as quick in short space – Martini’s athleticism is greatly underrated. (A little birdie told me today that the junior linebacker made THE defensive play of training camp to date, a leaping backwards interception during scrimmage at Culver not caught clearly by cameras and therefore not presented in Notre Dame’s “Reps” video package.)

The apparent “starters,” however, offered no surprises:
-- DL: Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Jerry Tillery, and Jay Hayes
-- LB: James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan, Bilal/Coney/Martini at Sam, Mike, and Will, respectively
-- Shaun Crawford (left) and Cole Luke (right) on the corners, Max Redfield and Drue Tranquill at safety.

Tillery was praised by Kelly post-practice for an increased penchant for the physical while Redfield, according to Kelly, has elevated his game to “an elite level.”(Click here for a morning story on Redfield that posited this same question).

Rochell, as expected, has stood out in camp for elevating his game.

The second unit showed Jonathan Bonner (Big End), Pete Mokwuah, Elijah Taylor, and Andrew Trumbetti (with plenty of Daelin Hayes mixed in), plus Martini (Sam), freshman Jonathan Jones (Mike) and Coney (Will).

-- Mike ‘backer Josh Barajas worked with the second unit during drills but I didn’t see him in much team action. Perhaps a minor injury occurred.

Competition remains heavy at cornerback where Nick Coleman (left) carries himself as a starter – both before and after the whistle – and Ashton White (right) have the edge over promising true freshman Donte Vaughn (today on the left side) and Troy Pride (right).

Backup safeties were a mismatch without Studstill, as Spencer Perry, Jalen Elliott, Nicco Fertitta, and D.J. Morgan divvy the snaps. Elliott was injured at the tail end of practice, coming up lame with what appeared to be a (right) hamstring injury. Elliott had previously endured a tongue-lashing at the hands of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the latter repeatedly bellowing “What the (heck) are you doing?!” during 7-on-7 Nickel reps.

SCRIMMAGE STUFF

Saw a glimpse of Daelin Hayes the pass rusher during scrimmage action as he and Jonathan Bonner met at and drilled a blue-shirted DeShone Kizer for a sack. Hayes and Trumbetti flanked Bonner and Rochell at times – an intriguing speed Nickel package likely to be employed in 3rd-and-long situations.

-- Hayes plays with physicality beyond his years. It’s not a stretch to say the health of his surgically repaired shoulder between today and mid-January 2020 ranks among the most important storylines associated with the Irish football program.

-- Nyles Morgan channeled his inner Manti Te’o in one scrimmage rep, reading a tunnel screen for slot receiver C.J. Sanders from the outset and burying the sophomore in his tracks thereafter for minimal gain. “We can do this all day!” said Morgan post play.

-- Morgan, it must be noted, was de-cleated by half-man, half-mountain Mike McGlinchey during an earlier scrimmage snap. “Launched” would be an appropriate term to describe the end result of full-speed McGlinchey colliding with an unsuspecting Morgan.

-- Freshman Julian Love receives ample reps as the backup Nickel (Crawford is the starter). Though it clearly aid the Irish if Love could be trusted in that role, the other alternative (Cole Luke is the current #2 Nickel) would open the door for playing time to Ashton White, who might deserve it by the time camp ends.

-- Morgan was juked to the floor by Tarean Folston but recovered to make an assisted tackle one yard later (Thank you, Drue Tranquil).

-- A for effort to third-string nose tackle Pete Mokwuah today. The conditions couldn’t have been worse for a big guy that more often than not watches 11-on-11 action but he was forced into it today by the absence of Cage.

That said, Cage’s presence in congress with Jarron Jones on the nose is the key to the 2016 season.

PERSONNEL OBSERVATIONS

-- Max Redfield sported a towel reading: “#1 GB” during practice. The late Greg Bryant transferred from Notre Dame one year ago today.

-- Praised by Kelly post-practice, Jerry Tillery was the only defensive lineman to be tripped up by the large exercise ball the defenders are asked to cast aside with their hands when coming out of their stance during an early practice drill. He shook it off good-naturedly as did linebackers coach Mike Elston, though the latter showed a modicum of disgust as well…

-- Justin Yoon missed four of six field goals to open practice. (I did not mistype that)

-- Defensive analyst Harland Bower could be heard coaching Andrew Trumbetti during drills: “We own it! We own that Gap! Come off the rock like you did yesterday and own that gap!” – Apparently Trumbetti pleased the staff during Wednesday’s closed in Culver.

-- Mike Elston repeated a set of drills to “make sure Asmar gets it right” early in the proceedings. (He did). James Onwualu spent time post (and during) the reps coaching Bilal on his responsibility vs. a particular combo route inside.

-- Nic Weishar planted Brandon Tiassum on an inside zone run drill. Take that as a win for 2016…

-- I felt the offense was ahead of the defense after 11-on-11 “tag-off” reps. (Full speed, but don’t tackle or drill a receiver). Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal were victimized by Nic “Training Camp Wonder” Weishar for a deep seam completion, one that brought Alizé’ Jones to the height of his cheerleading for the day. Jones continues to cajole Weishar throughout practice, telling the junior target: “One-on-one time. Kill ‘em! Easy! One-on-one!”

-- Cole Luke made a nice pass breakup on a comeback route intended for Equanimeous St. Brown and was praised for his hand placement by position coach Todd Lyght. Luke also broke up a pass intended for Kevin Stepherson that he (because of the outstanding effort) could have intercepted. When Zaire (who threw the pass) jokingly told him “you gotta catch that” Luke responded, “throw a better ball.” (The pass was on target.)

-- You don’t see Shaun Crawford outmuscled often but it happened today against Miles Boykin on a deep in-route. Crawford broke up a corner route intended for walk-on Chris Finke later in 7-on-7, notable for two reasons:

No. 1 – he was the only defender that could breathe on Finke much less make a play on the ball today. Finke is always open…
No. 2 – he interfered to make the play.

-- Finke beat Crawford on a one-on-one rep earlier in practice…

-- Critiqued earlier for playing too flat-footed, freshman strong safety Spencer Perry looked like a linebacker trying to cover Nic Weishar down the post. Goodness, Nic…

-- On a related note, D.J. Morgan looked much better in space today than he did as an overmatched first-timer in Culver. The Irish need a backup to go with Devin Studstill and it’s open auditions in August for Morgan, Elliott, Fertitta, Perry, et al…

-- Didn’t see oft-injured sixth-year safety Avery Sebastian take reps today. Which reminds me, you heard it here first: One of the team’s promising young CBs will have to move to safety this fall as the emergency will arise. Perhaps senior Devin Butler could fill the role if he returns in good health from a second foot surgery (though Butler would be better off taking a medical redshirt and moving to safety for 2017).

-- Ashton White earned plaudits for a “good rep” and “great hands!” against freshman Deon McIntosh. McIntosh again flashed late in practice after rarely winning reps throughout. In Culver he made the catch of the day, diving with one hand down the sidelines. Today McIntosh corralled another diving deep ball, this time at White’s expense.

-- Nice PD by Tony Pride on a comeback route. Pride was waylaid by heat issues in our only Culver viewing (Wait, I thought he was from the Dirty South? Come on!), but he looked the part today. Notre Dame’s future is bright on the perimeter…now go get more safeties.

-- Max Redfield was dusted by C.J. Sanders in one-on-one drills (these aren’t fair to safeties and linebackers, FYI)…That said, Drue Tranquill won a rep vs. Sanders for the first four seconds, then held, but that’s unlikely to play out during a game with a pass rush. Defensive analyst Jeff Burris instructed Tranquill to simply “Push him out of bounds next time” rather than hold when Sanders had been trapped against the sidelines…

-- Nick Coleman with a PD in one-on-one vs. Boykin – Coleman vs. a healthy Watkins for Notre Dame’s No. 2 cornerback role will be a battle in late September/early October. (If Watkins isn’t back by then, he should redshirt, as he has not yet exercised that right, playing sparingly as a freshman.)

-- The separation between Crawford and Coleman – in the two practices we’ve seen – is not as wide as I had anticipated…

-- Elston praised walk-on option quarterback-turned safety Robert Regan for perfect tackling form during drills. Donte Vaughn and walk-on Drew Recker were both critiqued immediately thereafter for the opposite…

-- Overheard during drills, “Can’t stop, Jarron!” – You’re not kidding, coach…

-- The Irish will practice again tonight, then three more times on a two-a-day schedule through next Thursday. It’s attrition time across college football, and I have to wonder: are two-a-days still worth it at the major college level?

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