Saturday was Notre Dame’s third practice of this spring but the first with full pads and contact. On the plus side, the contact included numerous players coming off surgery from last season, including running back/slot Amir Carlisle and tight end Alex Welch on offense, plus cornerback Lo Wood and safety Austin Collinsworth on defense.
Notre Dame had its first day of contact and full pads this Saturday.
Graduated players such as Manti Te’o, Robby Te’o and others, even former tight end Kyle Rudolph, according to Kelly, were in attendance while preparing for Notre Dame’s Pro Day this Tuesday (March 26). The Irish head coach said that to a man, all were especially impressed with Carlisle, who sat out last season because of ankle/nerve injuries.
“He’s going to be an exciting player,” Kelly said. “Everybody noticed No. 3. He’s going to be a guy that definitely impacts the program.”
However, Kelly maintained his priority is not necessarily on individuals but crafting a new team identity while not trying to live too much off the glory — or a sense of entitlement — from last year’s appearance in the BCS Championship.
“What I like about our group is the way they compete in practice,” he said. “…When you go into that room, it’s all football. There’s no drama, there’s no guys that are half-in, half-out.
“After the third practice it’s pretty apparent that this is going to be a very locked in, focused, disciplined group of guys. They pay attention to detail, they follow up very well. We don’t have a lot of sloppy ball-on-the-ground [plays], guys falling around … “
It’s also not about throwing out or ignoring last season’s accomplishments as irrelevant.
“We’re definitely building on the habits, we’re definitely building on all the things that it takes to be successful,” Kelly said. “What we’re talking about is a different collection of players and where we are this year relative to who those playmakers are going to be, both sides of the ball. That’s the identity we’re talking about.
“We’re not losing all of the things that we built on over the last three years. That’s in place. That’s the foundation. This is more about the 2013 team, more so than it is the program.”
Will Offense Speed Up?
Because quarterback Everett Golson has 12 starts under his belt and was able to expand on the offensive menu and leadership as 2012 progressed, a popular inquiry is whether Kelly and Co. will finally be able to run more of the up-tempo offense he’s had in some of his past stops.
“That’s not in my past; that would be in my future,” Kelly stated. “We definitely would love to have the ability to dictate tempo. It takes so many things out of play. You look at the Alabama situation: If you’re playing fast there, you’re eliminating a lot of pressures because the ball is coming out quick, you’re moving quickly.
“We were deficient in areas offensively last year and one of them was our inability to play fast. So that is definitely a part of where we want to go. We will be there, without a doubt.”
What the offense made huge strides in last year was decreasing its turnovers from 29 in 2011 to 15 in 2012, including just six interceptions in 318 attempts by Golson. If the offense speeds up in 2013, Kelly does not view that as creating a higher-risk, higher-reward situation.
“The more aggressive that you are [on offense], if you’re fundamentally doing the things that we’re teaching, it doesn’t put you at a higher risk of throwing an interception,” Kelly said. “I think playing faster even decreases that because you’re going to have guys that are going to be running wide open that are not even defended. I don’t think that accelerating the offense puts us at a higher risk of interception.
“I would say that if we’re really doing it the right way, we’re going to get some easier throws along the way than slowing it down, letting the defense set, being a little bit predictable in some of the things that you’re doing — we want to be much more unpredictable offensively, and I think that’s going to help us.”
“His body is starting to take form and mature, but there’s nobody that we have defensively that gets off blocks like Sheldon Day,” Kelly said. “It’s an innate trait, and he just has that.”
• At the crucial center position, juniors Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty and sophomore Mark Harrell all partook in the contact work, 3-on-3 and otherwise. Consistency in both conventional and shotgun snaps are a work in progress. Kelly also said that Martin’s relatively light 284 pounds is not a huge concern.
“I think he’ll probably play at 290,” Kelly said. “That’s fine at the center position. If you have a 355-pound nose guard like Louis Nix on you, it doesn’t matter if you’re Braxston Cave and you’re 315-20. He’s a tough guy to defend and you have to get some help. We’re very comfortable playing him between that 285-290 range, [or] for all three of the centers.”
• Junior tight end Troy Niklas will not have the same role that All-American Tyler Eifert had last year while lining up wide, in the boundary, slot or even for in-line blocking. Kelly said in New England Patriot vernacular, Eifert was Aaron Hernandez, who shifts all over the field, whereas NIklas is Rob Gronkowski, who is strictly more of a conventional in-line blocking tight end who also has the athletic skills to get down the field for receptions.
• Speaking of tight ends, senior and former basketball player Joey Brooks has fought through his initial three practices
“He’s getting knocked around a little bit, but he’s game,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know whether he was going to be tough enough but he’s showing some good toughness and he’s a pretty athletic kid. We’re going to let him keep progressing and see what happens.”
• Junior defensive end Chase Hounshell has made notable physical strides after undergoing two shoulder surgeries. According to Kelly, Hounshell is nearing the 280-pound range and did 22 reps of a 225-pound bench press. He and sophomore Jarron Jones are both attempting to work into the defensive line rotation.
“Just a young kid,” said Kelly of Jones. “He’s big, physical-looking, he looks the part, and he’s going to be a good player for us. It’s just a matter of time.”
• The punt block and punt coverage units have received some attention from Kelly the last three practices.
“We haven’t made big plays in coverage and we haven’t made big plays in punt block. I’ve got to spend more time on that,” Kelly summarized.