The Truth about the Cat and the DogWhile first-time starters will likely populate half of Kelly's starting offensive personnel for Week One (QB, Slot Receiver, LT, C, RT and possibly LG and the X wide receiver), seniority reigns among the front seven of the Irish defense, where six upperclassmen are sure to start.
Juniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore are sure starters as defensive ends as is senior Ian Williams at nose guard (their three main backups are juniors Hafis Williams and Sean Cwynar along with senior Emeka Nwankwo). Junior outside linebacker Darius Fleming maintains a stronghold on the CAT position, one that appears both physically daunting and mentally challenging in a game where split-second reaction determines a play's winner and loser.
Even Kelly's off-the-cuff observation of the role was challenging upon first listen.
"The ability to kick the front over and put his hand down on the ground and play a 5-technique against a 290 to 320 pound tackle, and then on the next snap of the ball, re-route a Z or split end receiver to the boundary and get underneath the curl...
"I think just by describing what that person has to do tells you he has to be a unique athlete. And Darius has that athletic ability to do those two things; there's not a lot of those guys out there.
"It's easy for us to always point to the guy not doing the job," Kelly said of the notion that Smith lost the job to Neal. "Brian's game has elevated the last 2-3 days…but Kerry Neal is a pretty good football player, too. He plays physical; he's a very smart football player. He understands both the Drop (Dog) and the Cat position, and I think it's a very competitive situation.
"Kerry's ahead of him right now but Brian has shown a fight in him that being second is not where he wants to be, and that's obviously a positive thing for our football team."
Kelly noted that, unlike the previous two seasons, Smith will not move inside to lend a hand. Sophomore Dan Fox, who redshirted as an outside linebacker last fall, has moved to the WILL spot to compete for a role.
Neal's ascension was the topic of the past week on Irish websites and his name continued to pop up in Kelly's Tuesday address.
"When you have a guy (Neal) playing with confidence and he has the athletic ability, and he's a mature kid…he's been around here awhile; so I think all those things contribute to the way he's practicing at that position.
"Again, we feel like we're in a pretty good position with him and Brian out there but that's probably what's stood out for Kerry – the confidence level and maturity."
Diaco's Take: Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has been consistent in his media reports regarding the outside linebackers and every other spot on his defense. Everyone will be needed.
"They're all doing a nice job and they're all going to play," Diaco said of Neal, Smith and fellow competitor Steve Filer. "As we set rotations through the course of the game, some will go in before others; there'll be a rotation there that move and navigate among the outside positions. So we have guys that are double learning spots.
"In terms of who's in now? Who's in there? It's public consumption; it's the story of the day I guess," Diaco conceded. "But for us, they're just rolling through there. We're just trying to get them already to play because they're all going to play."
After listening to Diaco's job description of his scheme's outside linebackers, it's apparent the position must attract the most well-rounded athletes in the sport.
"The position requires some range and some length; it requires some explosion. The players needs to be able to cover space and defend and be attacking and working with and moving with wide receivers but they also need to be talented enough, explosive enough and big enough to push on (offensive) tackles," he noted.
"So it's an interesting blend when you look at that player. It's a real gem to find a player that has all those tangible traits: to be able to run with a slot receiver but also push on a tackle and set the edge on the tight end."
Camp FodderJunior Michael Floyd has settled into the W wide receiver role while former running back Theo Riddick has marked his territory in the slot (Z). That leaves the X; Kelly offered Tuesday that senior Duval Kamara and true freshman (enrolled last January) TJ Jones continue to put their best foot forward for the starting spot heading into Game Week.
"Duval and TJ have been getting the bulk of the work. They bring different strengths to the table," Kelly observed. "Obviously TJ, with quickness, and his ability to punch a hole in the top of the coverage; Duval with his size and his experience. (Kamara) has been on the road; he knows what its like to be playing in a BCS football game. TJ just knows high school right now.
"So it's a combination of those two players at the X."
Another first-year/senior position battle continues to unfold at running back. Two-time team leading rusher Armando Allen will likely debut, but a redshirt-freshman has the inside track to a No. 2 spot that will receive ample playing time.
"He's our #2 back right now," Kelly said of Cierre Wood. "Armando and (Wood) are running 1-2; Jonas (Gray) and (Robert) Hughes are getting the rest of the reps. But right now Armando and Cierre have shown that they're running 1-2 right now."
Fearsome Foursome? At safety, 1 and 2 are less relevant than 1-2-3-and 4. The quartet of Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta and Dan McCarthy will be called upon for 12 weeks at a position that saw its share of struggle last season.
"I think we have four guys back there: Slaughter; and Harrison Smith has probably been our most consistent. I think Zeke has really put himself in position to get on the field a lot more, not only at the safety position but maybe in some other packages that we have. He's really done a nice job for us; he'll play considerable time and obviously McCarthy.
"I really like the four-man rotation back there with Harrison Smith kind of leading the way in terms of a guy being on the field more than anybody else."
Kelly later added that Motta, a player he identified in April and this month as the team's starting "BUCK" linebacker in nickel packages, can transition easily to the spot from the base defense as well.
"We can play our Nickel with him if he was at the safety position, so that whole package can be the same sub grouping with the same players," Kelly said of the nickel package. "There are times where we will sub out, but we can play it with the 11 that are on the field as well."
Freshmen Fodder: Last week, Kelly identified nine freshmen (QB Tommy Rees, WR TJ Jones, OTs Christian Lombard and Tate Nichols, CB Lo Wood, LB Prince Shembo, special teams contributors Danny Spond and Austin Collinsworth and TE Alex Welch.) as players that are in serious competition for the team's Two-Deep depth chart and the proverbial "Spot on the Bus."
That number hasn't changed for the season's opening weeks, but one more player could find a seat at the pre-game team meal as well.
"I guess Kona Schwenke is probably the only (freshman) with an outside chance of breaking through. That's a young man that will probably going down to Demo (Scout Team) but will have a great chance of breaking through as he gets stronger and learns the game."
Kelly added nose guard Louis Nix as a freshman that has improved his play of late, but was unlikely to hit the Two-Deep chart anytime soon.