For the first time this spring, Notre Dame was able to practice outdoors while holding a scrimmage Saturday afternoon at the LaBar Practice Complex on an overcast day.
The session, the eighth this spring, marked the crossing of the halfway point prior to the April 20 Blue-Gold Game in Notre Dame Stadium. Head coach Brian Kelly was evaluating both the offense and defense through a different prism.
“Our offense is certainly progressing,” he noted. “We’re able to move with a better tempo. Everett [Golson] is obviously a much better leader of our offense, and when your quarterback is leading out there, that’s very positive.
“The guys that were on offense last year that played central roles, we’ve seen real growth. It starts with Golson. I think we’ve seen [left tackle] Zack Martin continue to get better at his position. [Wide receiver] TJ Jones has been outstanding, and [tight end] Troy Niklas has really picked up his play.”
With eight starters returning on a unit that finished second nationally in scoring defense (12.8 points allowed per game), the greater curiosity has been on monitoring who will be the leaders — especially vocally — to replace unanimous All-America Mike linebacker Manti Te’o, plus Zeke Motta in the secondary and Kapron Lewis-Moore along the line.
While defensive linemen Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt are both coming off All-America campaigns and rank among the elite nationally at their positions, Nix’s way of joshing with or ribbing teammates and Tuitt’s speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick approach don’t always lend themselves to vocal leadership.
“Louis is his own personality,” Kelly said. “He’s a fierce competitor, but we’re not going to ask him to give any Knute Rockne speeches either before the game or during the game. I think he knows that about himself … let Louis be Louis. His teammates know that on Saturday he’s a ferocious competitor.”
One of the players who provides both a loud, positive message and strong skill sets is senior cornerback Bennett Jackson, although he is sidelined from contact work this spring while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
“That’s evolving,” Kelly said of finding a leader. “Bennett Jackson is going to be a more vocal voice for us. He hasn’t been in a lot of action so it’s hard to be that guy, but he’s very vocal. He’s probably one of the most vocal guys we have out there.”
The fifth-year senior inside linebacker tandem of Dan Fox (also sidelined after shoulder surgery) and Carlo Calabrese will be expected to speak up more assertively, and the dark horses could be senior Cat linebacker/defensive end Prince Shembo and junior Mike linebacker Jarrett Grace, who fifth-year senior offensive guard Chris Watt refers to as “a rabid dog” that he believes will be the top surprise on the 2013 defense.
“We’ve got two guys that really have a great work ethic that lead by the way they practice,” Kelly said. “Prince Shembo is an incredibly determined practice guy every single day he’s out there, and Jarrett Grace. We’ve got a blend back there.”
Junior safety Matthias Farley also has been making his presence known.
“Matthias has been a great communicator for us on the field,” Kelly said. “He’s really a kid that acts like a junior — or a senior — so we have different pieces that are still coming together. We’re not a finished product there.”
Malik Zaire Settling In
For the first time in three springs, there isn’t any mystery surrounding the quarterback situation. Junior Everett Golson is ensconced as the starter, and seniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix provide veteran, quality insurance policies few schools can match.
Particularly gratifying to Kelly has been the progress of early enrollee Malik Zaire. Like Golson and the now transferring Gunner Kiel the previous two years, it’s a good bet that Zaire will be withheld from action as a freshman to preserve a year of eligibility, but his mental acuity and feel for the game are advanced.
“He’s in the top group of guys that I’ve coached that really understands the nuances of the position and can understand coverages, rotations and pressures and movement keys, and things like that,” Kelly said. “He’s really at a high level there.”
The Irish head coach first got that sense of Zaire when the prospect was in a quarterbacks meeting with the Notre Dame players last spring during a recruiting visit, and was comfortably engaged in the strategic conversation.
“We have to tighten him up a little bit [physically]: quicker release, got to work on his footwork — the things we had to work on with Everett — but he’s really got a good mind for the game,” Kelly summarized.
Injury Report/Personnel Updates
• Running back/slot Amir Carlisle, who broke his collarbone on the third day of practice (March 23), is already catching footballs from the Jugs machine and is well on schedule to be recovered in the four-week time slot since his injury, although he still won’t play in the Blue-Gold Game.
“He’s doing everything but contact,” Kelly said. “Other than missing contact and scrimmage, this won’t be a step back for him.”
While Carlisle has already experienced a litany of injuries in his college career, Kelly has been impressed with Carlisle’s lack of tentativeness.
“Mentally he’s strong, where he’s a guy that’s not going to be afraid to go right back in there and play,” Kelly said. “If he gets another injury … it is what it is.”
• Senior starting Dog linebacker Danny Spond has been slowed by an upper shoulder/neck injury. He practiced on Saturday, but did not participate in contact drills. The staff has taken note of junior Ben Councell’s progress in Spond’s place.
“Ben Councell has really stepped up and showed that football is really important to him,” Kelly said.
• Junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels was suited up but did not work in drills this past Wednesday while healing from a bruised knee that he jammed while coming off the line. Kelly projects that Daniels will be able to run routes again this coming Wednesday (April 10).
• Senior tight end Alex Welch, who missed the 2012 season because of an ACL tear in August, partook in the full scrimmage this weekend.
“He had a lot of rust coming back but he’s progressively beginning to feel more comfortable,” Kelly said. “Today he got a lot of work in the scrimmage. Getting through that and knowing, ‘I can go full go and have contact,’ he was pretty excited to get through today. That was a little bit of a hurdle for him mentally.”
Starting tight end Troy Niklas will be primarily an in-line player, but Kelly said personnel groupings of the tight ends could again see either Welch or junior Ben Koyack flexed wide the way graduated Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert was last season.
“I don’t think it’s far-fetched to see one of those guys split out and one of them attached,” Kelly said. “… I think we’ve got some pretty good depth and flexibility in those groupings."
• Junior defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt is back in commission this spring after undergoing a hernia operation and he is projected to play in the spring game. However, after playing at approximately 303 pounds last year, he was listed at 322 on this spring’s roster. Kelly admitted that Tuitt’s weight is even “a little north of that,” and the goal will be to get Tuitt back to maybe the 315-pound range under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo.
“With the surgery, he wasn’t working out, so he put on a little weight,” Kelly said. “Coach Longo will get him down to what we believe is a better number, and he knows that too.
“He’s practiced really well, we’re pleased with the way he’s moving. He’s been able to cut loose and really do the things that had kind of encumbered him a little bit last year with that hernia.”