Familiar veterans such as Gary Gray and Ethan Johnson and up-and-coming but inexperienced juniors whose time has predictably come, such as Anthony McDonald and Dan McCarthy. Throw in 2009 spring sensation Hafis Williams and the 2010 Irish defense promises a collection of fresh faces intermixed with reliable veterans for your fall football Saturdays.
Another name emerged following Saturday's scrimmage – perhaps the most surprising of all to casual and ardent fans alike: Emeka Nwankwo.
"He has really improved," Kelly noted when asked specifically of the senior-to-be. "It's one of those things where I think he finally felt, ‘You know what, I have a chance here; let me get it done.'"
Nwankwo was withheld from action as a freshman in 2007 and will thus have the opportunity to apply for a 5th season in the program next spring. As a sophomore in 2008, Nwankwo earned just over 15 minutes of playing time, including six special teams appearances.
Nwankwo's career arc took a downward turn last season when the former OL/DL recruit failed to appear in a contest over the 12-game slate. Considering the struggles of the Irish defensive line last season, his complete absence of opportunity speaks volumes of his standing with the former Notre Dame defensive staff.
This spring, Nwankwo has generally lined up as Kapron Lewis-Moore's backup at RDE and Kelly has taken notice.
"I think he's one of the guys that we're most pleased with in terms of his total buy-in," Kelly continued. "It's important to him now; I don't know how important it was to him prior to this season. He's done a nice job."
Hafis Finds a HomeLast year's spring standout was a fall flop. Hafis Williams, lauded for his play vs. his teammates roughly a year ago, made nary an impact vs. a collection of Saturday opponents, earning just 9:25 of field time while appearing in six games (none in November).
Williams has again announced his off-season presence with authority, and his mixture of power and grace should earn the junior-to-be solid rotational minutes in 2010.
"He moves his feet very well; doesn't stay blocked; really plays with good pad level," Kelly offered as his spring session impressions of the 6'1" 290-pound Williams. "And at that 4-technique (DE in the 3-4 defense), the biggest question we have is, ‘Are you big and strong enough to push against those big (offensive) tackles?'
"That's why we (initially) brought Lane (Clelland) over, because we knew (the opposing OTs) weren't going to push Lane out of there. Well after watching Hafis he can add that and he moves his feet very well and gets off blocks."
(Lane Clelland has returned to his original position to compete for a backup role at offensive tackle.)
Williams was withheld from Saturday's scrimmage as a precaution.
"We just wanted to be cautious with him, he tweaked his knee," Kelly stated. "We looked at it (Friday) night and every looks good...Knowing today was going to be mostly a scrimmage situation, we just wanted to be cautious.
Backline Breakthrough?Last summer I listed the Irish defensive backfield as the team's second-best unit entering the season (whoops). The sloppy play by the group as a whole was a major surprise, but the new regime has paid little heed to the performances of the past.
"I don't remember what happened last year for our defense," Kelly stated last week. "I really try to focus on what we're expected to do, and we want to get on our kids to play fast and not have to think. And I think we're doing a pretty good job.
"We want great enthusiasm on the defensive side of the ball and I think we're getting there. If you go back to some of the old (basic) principles, that's really where we're going: run, hit, get excited.
"I think those are the three words – if we can just get our defense to run, hit, and get excited, I think we have a pretty good chance to do well."
Throughout the spring, Kelly has offered positive reports of his defensive backfield throughout the spring session. While Jamoris Slaughter and Harrison Smith are the current leaders for two starting safety positions, both sophomore Zeke Motta and the aforementioned McCarthy will continue to push for time.
"Defensively I like the consistency on the back end," Kelly specified. "We're going and getting the football. We're aggressively getting after it from that standpoint."
The cornerback competition has offered stability for the new era. A defense needs (at least) three reliable, "starting" cornerbacks in today's game and Kelly feels he has that in a trio of returning former starters.
"It's a three-man rotation out there right now," Kelly stated. "(Darrin) Walls has had a really good three days…really good. He started slow but has really picked up his play; his consistency.
"We really like Gary's tackling ability; he's a solid tackler," Kelly reiterated of Gary Gray. "So expect to see him in the short field (boundary side) because we really like to roll that corner, to fire that corner. Whereas the wide field corner, hopefully, isn't going to get as many tackle opportunities."
(Walls, the defense's fastest player in pads, is slated for field cornerback duties.)
"(Robert) Blanton can play both the wide field and to the boundary," Kelly said of the 2008 freshman sensation. "I'm really pleased. I think we have a nice three-man rotation there."
Multiple Contributors and MantiRotations will be instrumental in the defense's ultimate success, as Bob Diaco's unit is expected to feature multiple substitutions next fall.
"We're playing a lot of guys. We have different substitution patterns," Kelly offered as a result of the first 11 practice sessions. "For example, Zeke Motta comes down and players our "Buck" linebacker (in the team's nickel and dime defenses).
"I think we're more comfortable with the first unit," Kelly acknowledged, "But there are probably 15-16 guys that are actually going to be playing on first, second, and third down, so it's a larger unit than just 11 guys."
One player not likely to leave the field in the base defense is middle linebacker Manti Te'o. Te'o delivered at least three crushing blows to Irish runners in our practice viewings (last Wednesday at the goal line and on Saturday).
"I think he, in his own mind and our coach's and myself, is living up to some of the expectations as one of the premier high school defensive players in the country," Kelly said of his locked down starter inside. "He can be a great player, and he's showing some signs of that: his recognition, his leadership; it's exciting to watch him grow, he's really growing quickly in a short amount of time."
Kelly explained the entire spring session has included a heavy emphasis on personnel evaluation.
"We culminated four days this week with a lot of scrimmaging and the chance to evaluate more of our players," Kelly said. "This is still about evaluating; finding out who can compete – the guys we can count on and more than anything else."
With four practices including the Blue Gold Game next Saturday remaining, Kelly's focus can narrow a bit.
"I think you need to know what your weaknesses are. That's why we're scrimmaging (to find) the things we need to hone down going into this last week of practice."