Cautiously optimistic is the best way to describe Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly following the team’s first spring practice Wednesday morning. He liked what he saw, but he had yet to see the film.
What was clear without having to review the tape was that the Fighting Irish were ready to work.
“What I really liked today was the enthusiasm that we had,” Kelly said. “You go into your third year and you try to balance continuity with change, because it’s important that continuity is part of what you do. Changes sometimes bring an energy and an enthusiasm. Certainly you don’t want full change, because that brings sometimes other issues that I don’t want to get into.
“The fact of the matter is, going into year three, you want to find that your guys are excited about the opportunity to go out there and compete. For me, that was very important to see today. We had a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm, we had veterans that looked like veterans and we had young guys that looked like young guys. And that’s okay. That’s good. Now it’s our job over the next 14 practices and then our preseason to let that come together. In other words, that the young guys and the old guys start to look as one and we put a team together. ... Now we’re off and running, where we can now start to build our football team and get everybody looking the same.”
It wasn’t coincidence that Kelly voluntarily touched on three of the most critical positions that need sorting out this spring.
“We saw our quarterbacks compete today,” he said. “The four of them got an opportunity. We got to see our wide receivers out there competing, corners ... So we got a chance to have a good evaluation, so when we sit down today at 11:30 and start watching film, we’ll be able to start making assessments of where we can get our players as we move closer to the next stage.”
It’s far too small a sample size to determine which players made the most significant strides in the offseason, but Kelly did point to 6-2, 195-pound sophomore receiver DaVaris Daniels as a pleasant surprise.
“I would say a guy that made some catches was Daniels today,” Kelly said. “He showed up. It’s the first day and I’m not ready to anoint him as the next Michael Floyd; he’s got a long way to go. He’s extremely athletic. ... As we get deeper into film today, he’ll have probably run the wrong route and made a great catch. He stood out to me.”
Kelly was also encouraged with a thin group of cornerbacks. That unit lost starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, who combined for 59 career starts, and it’s the first time since 1998 that Notre Dame entered a season at that position without any starting experience.
“I think in one-on-one, I thought our corners came up and were pretty aggressive in man-to-man coverage because we played all cover zero today,” Kelly said. “It was good to see; we wanted to see those guys track the ball. Those were a couple things. Again, we’ll have to watch the film this afternoon because I focus so much on the little things with our quarterbacks and we have so much work to do there.”
The spring is a time for younger players, plus those who were asked to switch positions, can soak in a lot of information to take with them into the summer months. Sophomore Troy Niklas made the switch from outside linebacker to tight end, a move Kelly explained in more detail Wednesday.
“The first thing we want him to do is be an in-line blocker for us,” Kelly said. “We want to be able to run the ball effectively. Troy has got to be able to be a very good piece of that blocking up front for us. We didn’t put him in there just because he’s 6-7 and he can get a matchup — that’s part of it, but we’ve got an athletic tight end in Tyler Eifert. What we were looking for is a bigger-body guy that can be a great in-line blocker, but also gives us that size element.”