Pitch and Catch

IrishEyes begins its break down of the season's second Media Day event with a look at the Notre Dame passing game.

The 2010 Irish haven't played a game yet, but they have had 15 spring practices, 13 sessions of fall camp in the August heat, a requisite trip to Diamond Lake, and two separate Media Days.

With the exception of the lake excursion, IrishEyes has been there for much of the above, including today's press conference with head coach Brian Kelly and the ensuing interview opportunities with the coaching staff and 14 select players.

Part I of our Media Day 2.0 review examines personnel observations – those of the "pitch and catch" variety – of Kelly, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, and wide receivers coach Tony Alford.

The Guy Behind the Guy

Dayne Crist will start (and if you're wondering, he doesn't get hit in practice: "No one gets near him"). The backup situation, while unsettled, has not been clouded by the arrival of freshmen Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa as many anticipated.

"As it stands right now, Tommy Rees and Nate Montana are in a very close, competitive situation for that backup quarterback situation," Kelly said. "I think Luke and Andrew right now – there's a separation; is the best way I can put it. Part of it is we haven't given them as many reps, either.

"Nate Montana; Tommy Rees – those two right now are very, very close and we're going to need a little bit more time to decide who that No. 2 is."

Asked specifically about Rees, Kelly elaborated on the January freshman who took part in the spring but finished a distant third behind the walk-on Montana.

"We overloaded (Rees) and we wanted to see what he could handle. I think in the spring it was pretty clear it was too much for him," Kelly observed. "I think all summer he learned our offense, being in 7-on-7s and he really benefitted from knowing the offense and seeing it through the summer. That really was probably his biggest maturation."

The head coach also cleared up the misconception that Rees' 2A QB status arrived through squatting rights.

"I'm not sure it's fair to Tommy if I say, ‘Well, he's just been here longer.'

"If ‘he was here longer' was his only trait (of distinguish) he wouldn't be where he is. He's really savvy. He's a smart kid. He has those intangibles of a quarterback relative to seeing things before they open up – he can anticipate very well. The ball comes out of his hand."

As with most true freshmen, even semester enrollees, Rees is far from ready from season competition.

"Obviously the weaknesses: We'd like him stronger; we'd like him faster. But he's got a great head for the game. He understands the offense very well. I want to be clear in saying he's not No. 2 just because he's been here longer than the other two freshmen. He showed us early on that he could run this offense. By virtue of that he got more reps than the other two guys.

"He's in a battle with Montana. Montana had a really good day yesterday but Nate's problem is he has a really good day and a really bad day. I have to get him more consistent because Tommy's been really consistent."

Unconscious Competence

After the third spring practice, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar mentioned that the goal for junior Dayne Crist was to reach "Unconscious Competence" at the position.

He was thinking rather than reacting. Way too much.

(In the words of Crash Davis of Bull Durham fame: "You just got lesson No. 1: Don't think. It can only hurt the ball club.")

Paralysis by analysis is expected from a green QB in April, especially while learning a new system. But its not acceptable in September.

After a full spring session, intensive summer of study and 12 August practices, Crist has begun to scratch the surface of his tutor's demands.

"He's not there, but Dayne is at ‘Conscious Competence' now in many areas of his game," Molnar said. "He still has to think about (things); sometimes he'll slip. But he is able to do more and more things fundamentally and mentally that he wasn't able to do in the 15 days of spring practice.

"The way I'm looking at it, even though we have 12 practices in right now which seems like a lot, we still have 17 to go before our first game, so we have time to make a great improvement. And I'm confident that when we get to our first game, he will be ‘Unconscious Competent' in a lot of areas. For some it will take awhile."

The earliest obstacle Crist encountered in his acclimation to the spread offense was a complete revamping of his footwork. The techniques he studied for two years under former coach Charlie Weis offered no favors in his adaptation to the team's new attack.

"It's night and day from where he was a year ago," Molnar said of Crist's footwork. "Night and day. Does he have ‘Unconscious Competence'? No. He'll still take a bad step.

"But he's almost – before I can even say anything now – he'll say ‘I know, I know.' To me, that's ‘Conscious competence now; where he's striving to (have) unconscious competence."

Everybody's All-American?

Brian Kelly spent the bulk of the spring lamenting the relative conditioning and production of his wide receivers. Most national media rated the group among if not the nation's best (including tight end Kyle Rudolph).

Chief among the reasons for national optimism was junior-to-be Michael Floyd – fan favorite; ESPN talking point; highlight reel receiver.

What did Kelly think of Notre Dame's 2010 magazine cover boy when he arrived in South Bend?

"(Deep sigh). Okay. Michael Floyd. I thought Michael Floyd was overhyped. I thought he was at times average." Kelly stated, his blunt, thoughtful reply causing significant pause in a roomful of media, many of whom expected a far different response.

"But in 20 years, I have not had a player that has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked. And I mean that. He has outworked everybody on the offensive side of the ball, to the point where he has single-handedly set the bar for everybody else needs to bring their play.

"When we've gone in the last couple of days, ‘Situational Live' if you will: he's been Dominant. He's been dominant. And believe me. I'm not easily impressed.

"Going back to where I thought he was and watching film last year…wasn't all that impressed with him. I've been very impressed with his work. He's been outstanding, and he's set a bar for where all of our other players need to compete on a day-to-day basis."

What weaknesses in Floyd's 2009 body of work caused Kelly to wonder about his new offensive headliner?

"He ran down the field and they threw it up. He wasn't a precision route runner. He wasn't asked to be. He was a matchup guy. Bodied people; got the ball. Sometimes he caught it, sometimes he didn't.

"When you watched him and you were evaluating you'd say: ‘Okay, he's got a big body. He runs down the field and if they throw it up there there's a good chance he's going to get it.

"You never saw him in position to run the dig or the drive; or in on-one-on, beat press coverage on a quick slant on 4th down and snap his hands. All those things that go to winning football games – I didn't see all that."

(In other words, Kelly didn't see a decided schematic advantage while pouring over 2009 Irish game film.)

"We've put him in the position that I've just out-laid to you and he's done all that. So that's why my opinion has changed based upon what I've seen with my own two eyes."

Wrong Turn for Happy Camp

In August 2009, first year Irish assistant coach Tony Alford was entrusted with tutoring a quintet of young halfbacks. Each had something to offer, no more than three were expected to play with a redshirt nearly certain.

When I asked him how he could possibly satisfy the players' hopes for repetitions…to keep everyone relatively happy, Alford had a memorable reply.

"This isn't Happy Camp."

Fast forward one year to August 2010. Alford, a running back for most of his childhood and young adult life and a running backs coach since, now oversees the Irish wide receivers.

All 12 of them.

"You don't use kid gloves and it is what it is," Alford said of the role. "When the opportunity presents itself you have to make plays on the practice field for us to trust you to get to the game field.

"It's an evolution," he continued of the competition on the perimeter. "It's a process and ever-changing. You can have one good practice and not-so-good the next day, and the next guy moves up. It's just a matter of being consistent in your play, time in and time out, and when opportunity presents itself you have to step up."

One player who stepped up in April was January enrollee Tai-ler Jones. The diminutive target appeared to win a starting job exiting the spring session. He's embroiled in a battle for that job midway through August.

"The biggest thing with TJ as a young guy is the ebb and flow; the plateaus of camp," Alford noted. "He's done a nice job. He had a really good day the other day, but the consistency level and the expectations of playing at a high level throughout each drill, throughout each play through the course of the day, and being able to put that behind you and come to work the next practice (is the key)."

Inconsistency reigns among the challengers for the final starting receiver spot, as noted by Kelly in his evaluation of redshirt-junior target John Goodman.

"He'll be on the perimeter. He'll either play the "W" receiver or the "X." He's not an inside guy," Kelly offered. "So he'll be on the edge of our offensive structure. And he's in a competitive situation."

In concluding his summation of the Fort Wayne star, Kelly offered a familiar refrain – one deemed curious by many when discussing a returning group of .500 football players.

"We can win with John Goodman," Kelly said. "We can win football games. To be a championship player, he has to be more consistent and he knows that. He has to finish off plays, but we can win with Goody and he'll stay at that outside receiver position."

Unconscious Competence; Happiness through consistent effort; championship football.

The Irish passing game has 17 more practices to prove all of the above to the team from West Lafayette that hits town on September 4.

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