Spring Surprises

Three new contributors and a senior with nearly no game day experience highlighted the spring's biggest personnel surprises.

Heroes of the annual Blue Gold Game haven't always been able to translate their spring successes to the football field in the fall.

Nonetheless, head coach Brian Kelly's first 15 practice sessions unveiled a few personnel gems to monitor entering training camp in August.

Tai-ler Jones' Ascension to the First Unit

Recruited for what many believed to be a slot role due to his ability with the ball in his hands, Jones took over as the team's leading competitor at the "X" receiver (outside) spot midway through the spring.

The presence of an early enrollee with the first group wasn't merely a motivational tool for his veteran competitors. Jones, by all accounts, is the real deal.

"Right now he's in a starting role. I mean, he can play for us right now," Kelly noted of Jones following the Blue Gold Game. "I think he showed that on the first quick hitch he took and ran over a pretty good corner. He's physical, he plays fast, he's smart, and he's a true freshman. He hasn't even graduated from high school, and in a sense his whole class doesn't graduate until May.

"He's a young man that will factor in prominently what we do on offense in the fall."

I've seen three qualities in Jones in limited viewing opportunities that suggest he can retain the starting spot through August camp:

  1. He's at full speed after the first step: Jones explodes forward after the catch. His momentum carrying through arm tackles of bigger, more experienced players. I'd be shocked if he doesn't contribute as a punt returner as a sophomore (and assume the staff is trying to limit the wear-down factor/mental drain placed upon an early enrollee.
  2. He plucks the ball rather than fights the pass: Not many college receivers properly utilize their hands on every route. Jones appears to have proper hand placement on inside routes, a key to eliminating the dreaded tipped interception that occurs from otherwise on target passes that deflect off a receiver's shoulder pads. I'm sure he had his moments, but I never witnessed Jones fight through the awkward drops suffered by his closest competitors.
  3. He knows the game: Plenty of ex-players kids are clueless about football or the craft of their given position. This isn't a random observation: I saw Jones correct a veteran teammate, pre-snap, during the team's open scrimmage at the goal line. Though we can't quote practice events, Jones basically contradicted his teammate's (erroneous advice) and offered a quick explanation…in a three-second exchange. That's the last thing I expected to see from the team's reigning rookie phenom.

It's true Jones showed poor body language (and Kelly noted this) at times, but he's obviously been able to show enough positives to outweigh the unavoidable negatives and expected freshman mistakes as well.

An 18-yard corner route in which he split Darrin Walls and Dan McCarthy for a touchdown served as spring session icing-on-the-cake for the precocious pass-catcher.

Zack Martin Ahead of Matt Romine at Left Tackle

It's a fluid situation, and Romine could win the role in August, but Martin appears to have passed a player in which the staff had praised early in the spring session. A redshirt-freshman overtaking a senior at such an early stage is a departure from the standard set by the previous coaching staff (consider Michael Floyd and Golden Tate played behind Duval Kamara and David Grimes in the 2008 season-opener. Now consider the unlikely scenario of that tandem playing at a level appreciable below the starters through an entire August camp).

Martin has taken his shaky ascension in stride.

"Going with the first unit is always exciting and playing next to Big Stew (left guard Chris Stewart) who's been there for four years…he knows what he's doing and it's not as (difficult) learning next to someone who knows what he's doing," Martin offered.

"Sometimes it kind of gets crazy because you're trying to do so much, but the older guys tell us to slow down and think about our techniques and stuff."

Martin received a blunt vote of confidence from offensive line coach Ed Warinner.

"Well it's about who we think is the best on the edge, and right now we think Zack is the best guy to protect the left side," Warinner stated when asked specifically of the Romine/Martin position battle. "He has the best feet. Of the O-Linemen he has the quickest feet and he's the guy best suited of the whole O-Line to play left tackle.

"He's coming along. He's shown us a whole lot. Romine is doing a good job too, he's been consistent, but right now we think Zack's a little bit ahead of him."

Romine was lauded for his pass protection skills (by teammates and coaches) last season and earlier this spring. With six years of eligibility remaining between the tandem (four for Martin), the battle for the starting spot at left tackle is far from decided.

Montana with the Lights On

He routinely drew his head coach's ire during the media portion of practice. He fumbled shotgun snaps. He fumbled direct snaps. He missed a wide open Riddick in the Blue Gold Game's first quarter (a certain touchdown) and he threw consecutive passes that could have been picked off on the following series.

And then he calmed down. Fittingly, Nate Montana's best moments of the spring occurred when the lights shone the brightest. Literally:

"What do I do?" Montana began when he stepped to the post-game podium Saturday with lights and microphones shoved in the face of the former third-string JC QB.

The spring (and likely the fall's) most refreshing quote was short-lived (ND Director of Football Media Relations Brian Hardin informed him that we'd ask him questions and he'd provide answers), and Montana explained he's always a little more comfortable after establishing a rhythm.

"When I first go out there I'm always a little jittery, overexcited" he admitted in what was likely his largest media interview session. "But as time went on, I got more comfortable and settled in a little bit and just took time and the game slowed down for me."

Montana's first half yielded 16 completions in 26 attempts, with 196 yards and three touchdowns vs. one (tipped) interception. (Though the official interception wasn't his fault, another near-pick balances out the effort.)

He saved his best pass for late, finding sophomore Theo Riddick coming out of his break on a post for a 14-yard touchdown into what appeared to be a small "second window" in the pattern.

"I thought he was pretty good. He did some good things," Kelly offered of Montana. "Nate does some things really well and then I'll lose him for a couple of plays. It's more about him playing.

"But he's made progress and we'll continue to work with him."

Though Dayne Crist remains far and away the leader at the position, it appears the offense could rally around Montana in an emergency relief role.

Where've we heard that before?

Emeka's Emergence

Notre Dame's newest defensive line recruit is a 6'4" 280-pound senior that's wallowed at the tail end of the depth chart over the last three seasons. He rarely played, and considering his new coach's comments less than 10 days ago, likely never deserved to:

"It's important to him now," Kelly said of untested veteran defensive end Emeka Nwankwo. "I don't know how important it was to him prior to this season," Kelly stated. "He's done a nice job."

Saturday, Nwankwo broke up a Montana pass and made multiple plays near the line of scrimmage while pacing the Blue team with five total tackles including one for lost yardage. Though unlikely to beat out Kapron Lewis-Moore for a starting role, Nwankwo gives defensive line coach Mike Elston and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco another active, big body on the edge that can take on opposing offensive tackles.

For more on Nwankwo's progress this spring, as well as that of a few other defensive notables, click here.

Wide Receivers' Progress vs. Brian Kelly's Standards

Nine candidates, one a potential All American. Another a surging freshman and yet another a former freshman record-setter. You'd think the Irish wide receivers would serve as a bright spot after the spring session. Welcome to the new era of Notre Dame football.

"I can't tell you that it's a position that I'm ever going to sleep easy right now," Kelly offered as late as April 17. "We have a lot of work to do at that wide receiver position."

Kelly continually referred to the unit as "a work in progress" adding that the summer conditioning session would serve as a make-or-break period for the group of talented but not-yet-seasoned wideouts.

"We need more time," Kelly stated three days prior to the Blue Gold Game. "We need all summer and we need pre-season camp. They're working hard (but) I can tell you this: the one thing that will be absolutely crucial is their work volume will have to go up this summer. Coach Longo (the team's strength & conditioning coach) knows that those receivers just got tired for us too quickly in our offense and we'll work hard on that."

Saturday's final session featured a mix bag for the receiving corps inside Notre Dame Stadium:

  • Drops by Shaq Evans (wide open down the seam), Duval Kamara (resulting in a pick), and Barry Gallup (4th down) as well as a short-armed "drop" by Floyd (courtesy of Manti Te'o impending haymaker). Floyd, in short, decided to live to fight another day…
  • Quick feet in space displayed by Evans (twice, including on the old standby "Rocket Screen", Deion Walker, and Tai-ler Jones
  • Reaching/lunging grabs by Evans (full-speed with the pass out in front of him), Jones (in traffic), and Floyd (downfield splitting defenders).
  • Quality routes by Jones and Riddick for touchdowns

There's no question the talent (some of it well-developed) is in place, but it's apparent the WR unit was unable to meet its coach's lofty expectations through the team's first set of practices.

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