The Usual SuspectsWho are the candidates to fill the leadership void left by locker room voices Eric Olsen and Kyle McCarthy? As many readers likely expected, the team's elder statesman, 2009 spring semester graduate, and its largest player – Chris Stewart – immediately stepped to the fore.
"Chris Stewart obviously stands out to me on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, there are probably a number of guys. Kap (Kapron Lewis-Moore), Manti Te'o…there has probably been 3-4 guys that said ‘Coach, whatever it takes, let's get it done.
"I think the rest of that leadership takes time to develop but those guys in particular were right there in the first day."
Kelly jokingly noted a certain sect of players has little choice but to buy in:
"The first group of leaders were guys that bought in right away. Those that said ‘look, this is it for me,'" Kelly began before adding as an aside, "and generally those are your seniors, those are the guys that (say) ‘Coach I'm all in. I don't have anything else going here!"
Repetition, Competition, and Non-Negotiable IntensityKelly was asked what the media and fans should expect from his spring practice format, specifically if the early emphasis will be on individual drills vs. more of a heavy scrimmage setting.
"It's a combination. There has to be individual skill development. There has to be some form of group work where your wide receivers and quarterback are working on routes and timing. And then there's team work (Note: Kelly was referring to work as an entire unit, not generic "teamwork").
"We'll always have those three components – individual, group, and team. I will set the practice based on where I think we should emphasize.
"And the body of practice is two hours; its 24 periods; its five minutes per (period) and we're clicking through."
Kelly added that "intensity through repetition" drives the practice as a whole, referring to it as "absolutely non-negotiable."
"There's not a lot of standing around; I want guys thinking on their feet," Kelly offered. "That's the theme more than anything else."
Who Fits the Profile?Kelly offered what he referred to as a general evaluation of the desired body type and profile for both his outside and inside linebackers in the team's new 3-4 base defense.
"The (opposing) guards are uncovered," Kelly offered of the key challenge inside linebackers will face in this defense. "So when Chris Stewart at 345 pounds comes at you, you better be able to go to war with him. "So if you're 215 pounds you're going to have a hard time in there.
"We've moved (former '09 FB but high school linebacker) Steve Paskorz (to ILB). (Anthony) McDonald and (Manti Te'o) are 240-250; they can handle that (role) a little better."
As for the outside ‘backers, a group that now includes senior Brian Smith along with classmate Kerry Neal and juniors Darius Fleming and Steve Filer, Kelly feels he has already developed a level of quality depth.
"On the perimeter, I need guys that can work in space. That can get out and cover a vertical receiver as well as line up on the line of scrimmage and bring pressure.
In summation, Kelly noted the need for a "fast-twitch dynamic" athlete on the edge at outside linebacker vs. a "stronger, more physical" player inside.
The notable position shift of Smith from middle linebacker to an outside role in the 3-4 was necessitated by his "ability to play in space and also provide some athleticism off the edge."
"If you have (Darius) Fleming on one side and Smith on the other, and (the offense) doesn't know who's coming, then you (the blitzer) are going to get a matchup with a (blocking) running back.
"It just worked out that the balance for those outside positions was probably our greatest depth in the program. Add (Dan) Fox to that and we have five guys that can create a great competitive situation and obviously get some skill players on the field.
"It's really up to any of them now to show who the top guy's going to be."
Kelly added that the two outside positions are "interchangeable" in the defense.
Personnel – An Early LookKelly offered a few pre-spring insights regarding the quality hand he was dealt by the former regime. A sampling:
Manti Te'o: "He's a college football player. Has that excitement; that passion. Those are the guys I want to be around. I'm passionate about what I do. He brings that energy on a day-to-day basis. He has to get much better as a football player. He wasn't very good (last year) and he understands that.
"He's been committed to learning; remember, he hasn't even been here a year. I just love the energy he brings and the passion that he wants to be a great player. If you write the prescription for a coach: who do you want to coach? Get a guy like (Manti)."
Michael Floyd: "Michael Floyd has work to do as well. The volume that we're going to throw at him is new. He's lost a lot of weight; he's down into the 216 to 217-range from 233 when we got here because he just would not have been able to stay on field with our pace of play."
The Receivers as a Unit: "If you're looking for a battle, that wide receiver battle's going to be interesting. With Riddick in slot, you have a lot of (new dynamics). A lot of players that get a chance: Shaq Evans, Deion (Walker), (John) Goodman, (Duval) Kamara, Roby (Toma). We've got (early enrollee) T.J. (Tai-ler) Jones. I could go on and on. There's a number of players that are going to get an opportunity and that's going to be one heck of a battle.
Kelly added another element of intrigue to the position battle:
"The tight end (in his offense) doesn't come off the field. So Rudolph's going to be involved, but (sophomore-to-be) Tyler Eifert (will be in the mix). I'm very impressed with the way he's come back from back surgery. (Mike) Ragone and (Bobby) Burger, we know that they're role players in certain instances, so it's going to be an interesting battle on the perimeter that should be fun to keep an eye on."
Harrison Smith: "He never would have been an outside ‘backer in our system. He never fit that prototype for us," Kelly offered bluntly.
"If he can't play safety (for Kelly) he can't play. So it was (a pretty easy decision). He's done a really good job of being engaging every day around the offices, making sure he's picking up all the little things because he wants to be a great player."
Cierre Wood: "I want to give all of our players an opportunity to see light at end of tunnel. So it's not a situation that I know Cierre is an All American (in waiting) but I know he's a very talented young man and its hard to look through five other backs," Kelly noted of Wood's status prior to his classmate, Theo Riddick's position.
"This was about getting another playmaker on the field, and we think that Theo Riddick fits that role (in the slot) and it opened up space for Cierre Wood now, too."
Because 6-6 Will Never Be Close to Good EnoughKelly was repeatedly asked what "climate" he looked to foster this spring. After pausing and admitting the realization that the ultimate answer was much more detailed, Kelly settled on the element that draws most fans, coaches, and players to the sport itself, and to the historical program located in South Bend.
"If we can get the fight back in Fighting Irish, that's what I'm looking for" he stated. "We want to compete our butts off for four quarters. I want the guys to compete in practice every day. Compete, compete, compete. And if I can build that work ethic and mentality I'll probably feel pretty good at the end of the day."
Note: IrishEyes will have a final column regarding Kelly's press conference with a look ahead to the next 28 days of spring ball on Saturday morning.