Camp Notebook: Week One

IrishEyes reviews the latest from head coach Brian Kelly following a three-practice, 25-hour period.

Three practices in a 25-hour period – the finale a full padded scrimmage ended Week One of August camp for the Irish Saturday afternoon.

As with his squad's assimilation in the spring, head coach Brian Kelly was able to impart the necessities over a rigorous first set of practices.

"I think more than anything else we learned how to practice in terms of fighting through some of the bumps and bruises," Kelly noted of his attempt to gauge the team's physical and mental toughness. "Understanding the difference between being hurt and being injured – when you're injured you have to be smart – but you're going to get banged up. And I think we've made progress understanding how to overcome double sessions and being tired and sore."

The Irish worked nine practices into an 8-day period beginning at camp's outset last Saturday. The next six days will bring eight more practice sessions, including six through Wednesday afternoon, with the team's first respite not until Saturday, August 21.

"But I think we're starting to focus in Week Two now on who we are," Kelly continued. "These are our perceived strengths and weaknesses; that's what you get in (the now completed) Week One. Now as we go into Week Two, we start to form who we are as a football team relative to those strengths and weaknesses."

Recent Notables

The ebb and flow of football camp brings with it a host of scrimmage standouts and fluidity throughout various position battles. In the spring, Irish fans were introduced to unheralded players such as Dan McCarthy, Anthony McDonald and freshman TJ Jones.

Months later, positioning for playing time is at a premium, and new names have emerged from the pack.

"I'd say Tyler Eifert was outstanding today," Kelly said of the redshirt-freshman's scrimmage effort. "Singularly, offensively, he came in and showed he really has the ability to be more than (in) Kyle Rudolph's shadow. He's a guy we're going to have to find a way to get on the field."

Eifert received ample Saturday snaps due to the absence of Kyle Rudolph (in pads, but nursing a hamstring injury suffered last week) and of Mike Ragone, who was present in street clothes, but not yet ready to return after a bout with heat exhaustion earlier in the week.

Kelly noted Eifert presents matchup issues, giving the Irish yet another pass catching target.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see both of those guys on the field at the same time," Kelly concluded.

Calling all Caddies: Walk-on Nate Montana appears to man the position as Dayne Crist's backup at quarterback through one week, but the junior is not without competition for the role.

"Tommy Rees has done a really nice job," Kelly said. "We'll still have to decide where he is but he's in hot competition to be the No. 2 quarterback. That's to be decided, but he did a nice job running the offense (Saturday)."

While Montana and Rees have distanced themselves for the No. 2 battle, the continuous progress of junior Dayne Crist's is paramount to the success of Kelly's offense.

"Dayne Crist has clearly gotten better every day. He's improved his footwork; his overall (ability) to run our offense," Kelly said. "At the end of the day, this whole conversation can come down to a few words: Dayne Crist is getting better every day.

"The rest of this stuff – it's good, but it's really going to focus on Dayne's ability and the upshot is he's doing a nice job."

Pecking Order: A senior; three juniors; three sophomores and the early enrollee freshmen – the Irish wide receiver corps is at least eight deep, with another freshman – South Bend's Daniel Smith – also receiving early camp praise from the head coach.

Kelly has run through 24 practices with his new squad dating back to last March and the wide receivers remain a competitive group.

"First, I think we fell really comfortable with Theo (Riddick) at the Z – the slot receiver," Kelly stated Saturday. "And Michael (Floyd) balancing off the tight end position on opposite sides of the field or together. I think, really, the X position is where the questions remain. Is it Duval (Kamara)? Is it TJ (Jones)? Is it Shaq (Evans)? Is it a combination of all three of those guys right now? I think that's where we are relative to the offense."

Jones emerged as the clear starter after 15 spring sessions, but the competitive situation for his particular spot changed thanks to a post-spring personnel shuffle.

"Its a little different now because we've moved Duval – who's got a lot of experience – and Shaq (who's) a pretty good athlete," Kelly noted of Jones' current status. "Its just more competition out there at that position than he had in the spring when we were trying to find out if Shaq was a Z (slot) and we had Duval at W (weak side) and now we have three guys (battling for the same spot).

"He (TJ) is going to play," Kelly continued. "I think all three guys are going to play, it just depends on how things shake out at the end."

Riddick's move from running back to slot receiver raised fans' eyebrows over the winter. Kelly's vision for the young athlete has apparently taken root.

"I have high, high expectations for him; he's an elite player," Kelly offered of the sophomore who's quicker than a hiccup. "He's just learning a position, but I think we'll be talking a lot about Theo Riddick as we move through the season."

Getting off the Field

Kelly's notation that "all of this is about Dayne getting better every day" only remains relevant if Crist's April and August combatants can show similar improvement.

Last seasons' defense was technically the worst (in terms of yards allowed) in program history. The 2010 unit has a new look; will employ more competitors; and also comes down to the development of its focal point.

"Defensively, it starts with Manti (Te'o) and his ability to flow to the football," Kelly said. "We're doing a pretty good job defensively of getting after the football."

While at least three offensive position battles remain (center, right tackle, a wide receiver), the defensive side of scrimmage has but two situations in need of closure – both close to the football.

"That's a position we have to get sorted out, that WILL Linebacker position," Kelly admitted. "And the DOG – the drop position is still...we're not there yet.

"We really like where we're at with the MIKE (Te'o, we like our CAT (Darius Fleming). We are who we are on the defensive line (three starters with backups discussed below). I like our back end in terms of the depth, we can play with three corners, four now with Lo (Wood) the way he's been playing and up to four safeties.

"Its really that WILL and that DROP position that we'll continue to focus."

Junior Steve Filer has apparently moved ahead of senior Brian Smith at the "Dog" (drop) linebacker spot. Redshirt-freshmen Carlo Calabrese was reportedly running with the first unit ahead of junior Anthony McDonald in Saturday's scrimmage at the "Will" linebacker spot next to Te'o inside.

Three for the Three? Classmates Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore will start for the Irish at defensive end. Senior nose guard Ian Williams has the upper hand inside (though its apparently closer than most observers originally projected). Junior nose guard Sean Cwynar – he of the reported 50/50 split of practice reps inside – has impressed Kelly as a reliable interior backup.

"Absolutely," Kelly said of Cwynar's status as the next man in on the three-player DL. "At his position (nose guard). He can't play the 4-technique (occupied by Lewis-Moore); he can't play the 5 (Johnson); he's playing inside. So if we kick the front and go even (to what is basically a 4-3 front), he can play the 1 and the 3 (gap responsibilities of 4-3 interior tackles). But he can't play outside. Or if we stay in the 30 (3-4 front), he can play the nose.

"He's been really, really good; he's a solid football player" Kelly continued. "Hafis (Williams) has done a nice job (DE) and we have to continue to develop Emeka (Nwankwo); he hasn't played a lot of football. Those are your four guys right now that we're going to have to count on them playing winning football for us."

(Note: I didn't notice Kelly said "four" instead of three until the interview's transcription. There was no follow-up on the apparent misspeak. It is possible a fourth player – Brandon Newman or Tyler Stockton – has emerged.)

Camp Fodder

Kelly noted that the scrimmage atmosphere allowed for further evaluation, and not unexpectedly, the cream rose to the top.

"Its tackling more than anything else," Kelly said of the importance of scrimmage evaluations. "It's tackling; (offensively) how you catch the ball in space: do you make people miss.?You know I haven't talked about it, but Michael Floyd probably had his best day today. Sometimes the best players get overlooked the easiest. You just expect that, but he probably had his best day today.

"So when you have Michael Floyd playing well for you as a one-on-one matchup guy; and you've got Kyle Rudolph, who wasn't in there (precautionary due to the hamstring injury), and you're running the football (well) – that's pretty good in terms of balance for the offense."

Irish fans who've paid attention over the last three seasons likely raised an eyebrow at Kelly's final sentence above. But the head coach has been consistently positive regarding his rushing attack since practices began.

"We've got really solid backs," Kelly said. "The big question mark I had with our running game – in particular with Armando (Allen) was: Could he answer the bell every snap? And he's had a great camp. He's shown toughness; he's shown work him with Cierre Wood, who's maturing, you've got a pretty good running game.

The 'backs will rely on three new starters up front – one of which appears set.

"Zack (Martin) has been our most consistent (tackle)," Kelly said of the redshirt-freshman. "Your left side right now is (Chris) Stewart and Zack – obviously they've done a great job. (Trevor) Robinson is firmly ensconced at the right guard position.

"I think we're still battling at center and (right) tackle. But again, I think those are pretty good battles," Kelly said. "(Dan) Wenger and (Braxston) Cave are pretty good; (Taylor) Dever and Andrew) Nuss are pretty good. So whoever wins it – we know we've got a pretty good starting five."

Kelly said concussed linemen Wenger and Matt Romine were not ready to return (less than 24 hours after suffering from concussion-related symptoms).

Also sidelined Saturday was senior tight end Mike Ragone. Kelly will allow Ragone to return at his own pace – one that might have been accelerated due to events of the morning scrimmage.

"We've left that up to him; he looked a lot better today (but) we're only a week in (to camp)," Kelly said. "I don't think we're going to push it. I think he'll end up pushing it on his end a little more after the way he saw Eifert play today. I don't think I'm going to have to worry about that."

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