Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly’s primary objective during Wednesday’s first spring practice was to get a feel for where his younger players and others coming off injuries stood mentally and physically, as well as to listen for emerging voices in positions of leadership.
Notre Dame went through its first spring practice of 2013 Wednesday at the Loftus Center.
Veterans such as senior wideout TJ Jones, junior running back George Atkinson III, junior tight end Troy Niklas and fifth-year senior left tackle Zack Martin provided the vocal guidance, Kelly said, and senior cornerback Lo Wood and junior running back Amir Carlisle were the standouts among the previously injured crowd.
Wood suffered an Achilles’ rupture last August and missed all of 2012 — a year he was projected to start opposite Bennett Jackson. KeiVarae Russell stepped up and filled the void admirably as a freshman. Wood was often mentioned by offensive teammates back in 2011 in fall camp as a defender to keep an eye on. Barring another injury, it appears 2013, whether it be in a supporting role or as a starter, Notre Dame fans will finally get an opportunity to see the 5-foot-10, 194-pounder in action.
“I liked the way Lo Wood looked,” Kelly said. Obviously competition at the cornerback position is always good for your team.”
The Irish leaned primarily on Jackson and Russell throughout last year’s 12-1 campaign, but the goal is to develop a reliable rotation in order to expand the defensive playbook.
“I think you want to be able to play nickel and dime,” Kelly explained. “We couldn’t even get into dime last year. We couldn’t put four potential corners on the field. … Oklahoma would be a great example where we had to keep [linebacker] Danny Spond on the field — he did a great job — but we would have liked to play more nickel and dime. It just gives us more flexibility knowing that those guys will get a chance to play more because we have guys that we trust that can play for us on every single down.”
Carlisle (5-10, 185), who transferred to Notre Dame from Southern California last spring, redshirted last year while trying to rehabilitate a broken ankle suffered during non-contact, voluntary drills prior to spring practice. He averaged over six yards per carry on 19 rushing attempts and caught a touchdown pass as a true freshman for the Trojans.
“I think the guy of all the injured guys that stands out to me is Amir Carlisle,” Kelly said. “He’s got a gear; he’s got a high level where he’s really going to be able to help us.”
With the graduation loss of tailback Theo Riddick and counterpart Cierre Wood, who opted for a shot at the NFL instead of returning for his final year of eligibility, Carlisle is likely the best candidate to fill Riddick’s hybrid role.
“I can definitely see us playing Amir and another back at the same time,” Kelly said. “He’s got the ability to play. He’s a very good pass-catcher, he has very good ball skills and I could see us getting him the football in a number of different ways with another running back on the field.”
• Junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt is expected to miss the first couple weeks of spring practice after undergoing a procedure before spring break to correct a sports hernia that affected the 6-6, 322-pounder in the last half of 2012. Tuitt was on the exercise bike Wednesday and that’s where he’ll stay until at least the end of next week.
“He feels great,” Kelly said. “We’ll probably get him the latter end of spring ball. In the last half of the season he really struggled with it. He fought through it, but it was something that needed to be repaired. … He’s already moving really well. He feels so much better. He had some restriction in that groin-hip flexor area where he was really restricted and really running out. So we said, ‘You know what? Let’s get it done; let’s not wait on it.’ It’s something we may have managed, but we want to get him 100 percent.”
• Senior receiver Danny Smith (6-4, 213) got some work in at the slot position Wednesday, but it’s not a permanent switch. Kelly said he likes Smith’s size in blocking situations where a stouter frame is needed to take on a linebacker.
• Early enrollee Steve Elmer (OL) and senior nose guard Kona Schwenke had delayed starts to spring ball, with Elmer dealing with an intestinal bug and Schwenke arriving back in South Bend from his home state of Hawaii late. Schwenke flew standby on his way back from spring break (his mother works for an airline) and missed Monday’s classes, for which he had makeup work to wrap up. He made it to Wednesday’s practice later in the session.
• Special teams will have a different look for the Irish in 2013, Kelly proclaimed Wednesday. Depth developed over the past three years now affords Notre Dame an opportunity to send out starters to add some of the dirty, but crucial work on the punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return teams to their weekly responsibilities.
“I’m standing on the sideline for the national championship game and we’re ready to kickoff, and Alabama has 11 starters on kickoff return — kickoff return, which nobody wants to be on kickoff return,” he recalled. “They’ve got 11 starters on it. So the emphasis for us this spring is to really embrace their roles. I want starters to be part of our special teams units. The spring really is for us to integrate frontline guys into ST. That kind of decision has to come from me. I’ve made that and we’re going about it in the spring to really put our best players on ST.”
• Kelly and receivers coach Mike Denbrock got a look at C.J. Prosise, who came to Notre Dame as a safety last year and did not play as a freshman. The 6-0, 220-pounder will cross-train this spring.
“I really liked his explosiveness,” Kelly said.