Saturday marked the players' first day off since camp began on August 6. The team will reconvene for a practice tonight (Sunday) before fall semester enrollment Monday.
Head coach Brian Kelly has a specific plan for the upcoming week of practice and 13 days leading up to the season opener vs. Purdue.
"I'd say we're going to separate and go into demonstration squads by Wednesday. That's when you kind of start to really figure that out," Kelly said. "I think we'll (use) Monday and Tuesday as kind of a last shot at figuring out where that starting unit is because you do want continuity as well. I'll take half of the week to make those final decisions to build the other half for continuity going into Game One."
Dealing with DepthDepth is rarely a detriment to a football team, but resentment over starting jobs lost is an often an ancillary result of heated position battles nonetheless.
Kelly sold the roster on total "Buy-in" when he first arrived and through the spring. Can a team-first attitude remain intact as starting positions and pivotal backups are chosen, with resulting playing time decreases or redshirts balancing the back end of the roster?
"I think that's part of (being) a head coach and overseeing the day-to-day observations, you want to maintain a positive morale," Kelly said. "And that's very important, (but) having said that, I'm not going to put a senior out there who does not deserve to be in.
"What do you have to do? (Have a) one-on-one conversation. Be very straightforward, communicate where he is; where he needs to go, and in some instances, (tell him) ‘Here's your role. Do you accept your role on our football team?' If you do, great. If you don't, then maybe we have to do something else."
Five key front line positions appear in flux: center, offensive tackle, the X wide receiver role, inside (WILL) linebacker and one outside linebacker spot (the DOG). The head coach noted movement at Center, WILL and DOG during Week Two:
Center: Redshirt-junior Braxston Cave appears to have the upper hand after week two, due partly to the concussion symptoms displayed by 5th-year senior Dan Wenger after last Saturday's scrimmage (August 14). Wenger has yet to return from action and was in street clothes as late as Thursday.
"Obviously Dan's been out but that's even more motivation to come out here and work as hard as I can every day," Cave said late last week. "Obviously I'd never wish injury upon one of my teammates but when someone goes down you have to step up and make something happen."
The powerful Cave, of whom Kelly noted "When he blocks you, you're blocked," has worked diligently to learn his assignments and improve imperfections in the all-important shotgun snap – a staple of the spread offense.
"(Shotgun snapping) is something I've never really done before," Cave noted. "It's been a balance (with the quarterback generally under center and the occasional shotgun snap), but it's what we're going to be in a lot and you have to put the ball where they want it every time. It has to be something that's automatic."
That tangible skill set will be evident to most for scores of snaps each Saturday. Mental adjustments, on the other hand, remain a work and progress and are central to Cave's role.
"That's a big part of it, being the center – the guy in the middle of the line – you have to know the calls and know what's going on so thinking fast (is key)," Cave said
"The biggest thing is being able to think on the run. Coach Warinner and I have talked about it and we've been going over plays – he'd just start putting stuff up on the board and I'd answer it boom, boom, boom so I think that's really helped my progress."
WILL Linebacker: Sophomore Manti Te'o will start at the MIKE while Te'o's classmate Carlo Calabrese appears to have the upper hand over junior Anthony McDonald (hyper extended knee) heading into the final deliberations.
Kelly and defensive coordinator/inside linebackers coach Bob Diaco added another competitor for the role in Week Two, sophomore Dan Fox, who had been working at outside linebacker throughout his career. Fox earned mention after Friday's scrimmage that featured players Kelly considered key backups at this stage (see below).
Kelly expects McDonald (and the rest of the walking wounded) to be ready for Purdue on September 4, but in what appeared to be a 50/50 race with Calabrese for the starting role, logic dictates McDonald would have significant ground to make up heading into Week One.
DOG Linebacker: Senior Kerry Neal would start over classmate Brian Smith at the "drop" position if the season started tomorrow. Week One leader Steve Filer is now working at both outside linebacker spots – the Cat and the Dog – though fellow junior Darius Fleming appears to have the Cat position on lock down.
"Brian was put in position to win the job and now he's gotten competition from Neal at that position," Kelly said Friday. "They're all going to play. That's how it is. The first guy on the field doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be the last guy on the last series on the field." Asked what gave Neal the edge over Smith at this juncture, Kelly replied, "Plays more physical."
Neal, a defensive end last season in Notre Dame's 4-3, has trimmed down and lost body fat for the OLB job – a role for which he was originally recruited.
"Its a little change but I feel comfortable in it. I feel like I'm in my comfort zone; but I'm still learning, I haven't gotten it down (completely). If I have questions I'll ask Brian (Smith) ‘Hey man, what do we have on this play?'
Neal fell behind in the spring due to a minor calf injury from which he's fully recovered.
All Positions Noted in Erasable InkThe staff, from Kelly down, has emphasized that the 2010 Irish will need backups at the ready throughout the season. Several players will contribute at each position, with few starting spots constant over the next three months.
It's a system with which Kelly is familiar over 19 seasons as a college head coach.
"I think the manner in which I go about developing our football team is the same," Kelly answered when asked to compare this off-season with other first-year stops in his tenure. "We're working on all of those things that I've already talked about: attention to detail in practice, and fast-pace, and thinking on your feet and getting game ready."
The blueprint for success is consistent, but Kelly has yet to treat any two teams or two seasons the same.
"I look at each opportunity every year as a new team. I was at Cincinnati last year; it's a totally new team (this year). What you did last year with that group is behind you.
"This one is totally different. I don't know that there's any correlation there."
Aside from the bottom-line of 11 wins, Kelly (and Irish fans) hope no correlation exists between this team and his experience with the 2008 Bearcats – a year in which five quarterbacks took snaps for Kelly's offense due to myriad injuries.
"I really like the way that Rees and Montana are battling," Kelly offered. "The spread comes really natural to Tommy because that's what he's been in (high school). Nate's got a really strong arm; he's really athletic – stronger than Tommy. Tommy's still developing physically.
"And I think at the end of the day we're going to end up putting 2A/2B (backup designations) with those guys right now."
Backup BrigadeAsked to reassess the team's strengths and vulnerabilities after two weeks of camp, Kelly turned the attention to the team's top backup competitors.
"Today we scrimmaged with very few reps from the starters. We went with what we consider our key backups today.
"Guys that are going to have to fill in at some time in a starting role; that are going to be called upon at some point during the season to step up and play a very important role. That was today's scrimmage – our key backups, getting in there, so when we call on them, ‘Next Man In' they're ready to go.
"I liked Jonas Gray running the football; I thought he did a very, very nice job. We were solid – much better up front – Golic did a nice job at Center today. I think defensively, some of the guys that stood out for me: Fox – he got some WILL reps with McDonald being out.
"I'll have to watch a little bit more film but I like what I saw with some of those guys that we really tried to get at some key backup positions."
While Mike Golic received mention for his work at center, the Irish legacy is also cross-training at guard. In turn, sophomore guard Chris Watt has found extra work at center.
"He's so strong physically that we feel like if you have a really good nose – an Ian Williams on him – we feel he's a little bit stronger now than Golic," Kelly said. "Though Golic is a little bit smarter in terms of understanding what he's doing, so we're kind of cross-training both of those: Golic takes a little guard; Watt goes to center."
Camp Cross-Train? Camp Contingency? Camp Constant Evaluation? Each seems appropriate.
Brian Kelly entered Assumption College as a freshman linebacker in 1979. That year, Gillette introduced the Erasermate pen to classrooms across the country.
Some things just stick with you.