Notre Dame begins spring practice 2017 tomorrow. It embarked on its road to program recovery more than eight weeks ago, and according to Irish head coach Brian Kelly, that’s already made a difference.
“The charge that I gave Matt Balis down there was to create an environment that we could build the traits necessary for excellence,” said Kelly of his new director of football performance.
“Our mission for excellence is to graduate our players and to play for championships. I think he's done a great job. I think his staff has done a great job collectively of building those traits within a very positive environment, one that challenges our players in a positive way and gets the performance necessary of building those traits of excellence.”
Asked for tangible evidence of individual improvements in the initial stages of the Balis regime, Kelly deferred instead to the more relevant big picture.
“I know they feel better. I know that they feel as though their confidence in their workouts, whether it be numbers that they actually see, how their body looks, I know that they feel a lot more confident in how they're moving,” said Kelly.
“We'll see how that translates on the field, certainly. We've got to be able to take it out of the weight room and put it on the football field. But I know there is a really positive feeling amongst all of the players and the way they feel right now.”
PROCESS, NOT POSITIONS
Self-improvement will remain the program’s chief focus over the allotted 15 spring practices (spread over 6.5 weeks).
Depth charts can, and will have to, wait.
“I've told them had not to worry about that as much,” said Kelly when asked about position changes, current or future. “Let's not confuse ourselves here. What I'm most interested in and what the most important thing is…to continue to develop our football team with the traits that are necessary for us to be successful and win a championship.
“Getting caught up in, ‘Who is the Rover? Who is the Buck? Who is the Drop? (linebacker positions as an example), that will sort itself out. If you get caught up in that in 15 practices you lose sight of who can pay attention to detail.
“Who has winning habits that's going to show up for you in the fourth quarter? Who's got that grit that you need to come up with to stop a drive? Those are more important to me than getting a pecking order at the Rover position.
“Let's not trip ourselves up by worrying too much about that and forgetting about the process.”
MOST HANDS ON DECK
Though key defensive cogs Nick Watkins (last spring), Shaun Crawford (Game 2), and Daniel Cage (November) were lost for the bulk or entire 2016 season, the injury bug didn’t run rampant throughout Notre Dame’s roster as it had over the previous two campaigns.
The Irish enter spring ball in similarly good health.
“I'm very optimistic,” said Kelly. “(Shaun Crawford) is jumping, he’s changing direction, I think you're going to see him extremely active in the spring. I don't see him in a contact position at this time, but he won't be cheated this spring. He's really going to use spring as an opportunity for him to continue to grow as a football player.
“Nick is fully healed. He'll be in a full (contact) situation,” Kelly continued. “I don't think he's an issue at all. Cage is good.”
Kelly added that rising sophomore safety Javon McKinley has moved well since recovering from a surgically repaired broken (lower) leg.
“A slight limp, very slight, almost not noticeable,” said Kelly. “I've got a really good feeling that he's so far along – four months, 4.5 months where he's going to be able to do a lot more than we expected. So we feel really good about where we are.”
TWEAKS NOT FREAKS
Kelly added that though position switches are inevitable, they aren’t likely to move the media or fan needles.
“Maybe a (defensive) tackle slips out to an end. Maybe a corner moves to a safety position. Maybe a ‘backer bumps over to a rover position,” Kelly offered. “But nothing that they can't be outside of their physical tools and their ability level. Right?
“So you guys are going to be out at practice. You'll see guys running around at some position. But this is not going to be a gong show. I mean, these guys are going to be in positions that can map their physical tools,. So if somebody's at a particular position, we've already done the analysis that they can match up at those particular positions.
“We may have a situation where we're trying to get guys on the field and see if they can compete at particular positions, but I don't think you're going to see anything that's like, ‘Wow, (defensive linemen) Jay Hayes is playing slot?’”