Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly enters a pivotal third season without having publicly named his starting quarterback and with a number of other questions surrounding his squad. But he’s happy with how the program has responded to “an aggressive schedule,” which has included three days of double practices and a dramatic increase in time dedicated to 11-on-11 scrimmaging.
The Fighting Irish will begin preparing Monday for a trip across the Atlantic Ocean for the Sept. 1 season opener against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. A number of questions, Kelly said, should be answered by then (if they haven’t been already behind closed doors).
Of course, which quarterback — sophomore Everett Golson or junior Andrew Hendirx — will be named the starter is at the top of the list.
“Yeah, I think we're getting closer to that,” Kelly said Thursday during Media Day. “Certainly as we start to prepare, it's not going to be a 50/50 proposition. We're moving closer towards that as we move into actually working against Navy.
“I think probably Monday we sit down and talk about how the reps are going to be distributed. But there's still so much learning, so it wouldn't be as cut and dry as say, here's my No. 1. The door will still be open for growth during that week, but we'll start to separate the reps a little bit.”
Kelly added he plans to stay away from a two-quarterback approach in 2012.
“You know, I've played two quarterbacks only because I've had to play two quarterbacks,” he said. “I don't think I want to play two quarterbacks. I'd rather have one guy make himself known to everybody that he's the starter. Always love to have a No. 2 that can go and win for you. I wouldn't subscribe to the fact that two is really where I want to be. We still want to be with a singular quarterback.”
The process of reaching a decision, so it seems, has been enjoyable for Kelly, who said the situation is unusual compared to his previous 22 seasons as a head coach primarily because the quarterback with the most experience, Tommy Rees (16 career starts) is not even an option for the first game because of a suspension.
“But it's been great, it's been fun to work with young quarterbacks that are learning every day,” Kelly said. “As a teacher, that's —and it's a captive audience — these guys want to get better. They want to be the starter. Probably in my career, it's probably been the most energized for me to get out there and teach and coach guys that want to learn, and that's been fun for me. Hope it's fun against Navy.”
In terms of a team identity thus far, Kelly pointed to both the offensive and defensive lines.
“I think we're really good up the middle, to use a baseball term, and I mean on both sides of the line,” he said. “We're going to be able to physically handle ourselves in the trenches against anybody in the country. That's a good feeling right away that you know you're going to go out there and be able to handle yourselves physically.
“We need to continue to develop on the perimeter, both on offense and defense. I think that development will go a long way in deciding how successful we are. And then certainly the quarterback position.”
No more cardiac kids
Following the spring game, Kelly said Golson and Atkinson III were the most likely to give him a heart attack. His opinion has drastically changed in the four months since.
“A lot more trust in both of them, and they've exhibited it,” Kelly said. “I'll give you just an insight: We've had 126 throwing opportunities for Everett. He's had one interception. You build trust. You don't just give it; you build trust.
“So going from that phrase that I used in the spring to where we are today, I had to be able to move from where I was to where we want to be, and so we had to really load a lot of work on his plate. And he's exhibited that trust in the way he's handled himself in camp.
“And the same for George. We've put the ball in his hands and have thrown it to him and had him run with it and essentially said, listen, George, the only guy that decides playing time is you, because if you take care of the football, you're going to play, and he's done a great job. He has not put the ball on the ground."
Managing a full stable
If there’s one position that is fairly loaded with capable bodies it is running back. Senior Cierre Wood returns after rushing for 1,102 yards and nine touchdowns last fall. Senior Theo Riddick was switched to a RB/slot receiver role, sophomore Cam McDaniel, who is cross training on defense as well, is getting reps at tailback and sophomore George Atkinson III showed very well in the Blue-Gold game in April.
“Well, I think we're going to play all of our backs,” Kelly said. “When we talk about all of our backs, they're playing both wide receiver, slot position, we can move them anywhere on the field as well as play the running back position. And I've seen great growth in George Atkinson. We always look to George as somebody that boy, maybe he's just a running back. Well, he's really evolved into somebody that can catch the football for us.
“We know about Theo, obviously with his stint at the wide receiver position, and Cierre has really made great strides over the past 10 days or so. They're all going to play, and it would not be a surprise if a couple of them are on the field at the same time.”
Kelly said he’s 50 percent of the way there when it comes to determining which players will return kickoffs and punts this season.
“Well, in terms of kickoff return, George Atkinson would be featured as the kickoff return specialist if we get a chance to return any,” Kelly said. As it relates to punt, we're still a work in progress there. We've got three guys that we really like back there that are still developing. I'd say that's probably something that we'll focus a little bit more on next week. But we haven't made a decision on punt return, but kick return, it'll be George.”
Calling all freshmen
There’s room for rookies, Kelly said. Everywhere. It all depends on whether or not a number of freshmen take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.
“I think any guy that can help us relative to special teams or playing a role, we're going to play him,” he said. “And I think that opens up room for a lot of our players. On the back end of our defense, I think we've talked about KeiVarae Russell possibly getting an opportunity to get on the bus or get in the two deep or at least get in the rotation of a two deep. At safety somebody is going to have to emerge there, whether it's we talked about Farley is stepping up. He's a freshman in a sense, the first season of competition.
“Offensively we need some of those receivers to give us some time, no question about that. And then Ronnie Stanley who's an offensive lineman that right now that's where we're a little short. So those were probably be where your eyes would kind of wander toward in terms of guys that might provide us some depth this year. There's not a freshman that's going to be an All American this year. I think he's going to be a role player and help us win. I hope he is.”
“You know, you get your bumps and bruises like anybody else during camp,” Kelly said. “I wouldn't characterize it as more physical or less physical than other camps as much as our guys now in three years being here now really we know each other very well, we know what to expect from each other. There's a consistency in the approach. And like I said at the outset, really excited about the work that our football team has done.”
“He's had a knee, a patella subluxation, and he's had it before,” Kelly said. “He hasn't had it, and here he had one, and we lost his services for about two or three weeks. So you know, we expect him back in a couple of weeks. Whether we get him ready for the Navy game is unclear right now.”
Junior outside linebacker Danny Spond has been sidelined for over a week with a migraine issue.
“Well, from what we've gotten, he had a migraine that was so severe that it required hospitalization,” Kelly said. “He's seen specialists, the best in the country. He's been through a battery of tests. Now it's just a matter of getting him reacclimated in terms of because he's been cleared, now it's just a matter of when can he get back out there and start contact and those things. We really don't have a timetable for that.”
The cast on junior nose guard Kona Schwenke’s right arm looks worse than it is, Kelly explained. The Hawaiian has a broken knuckle and “he's got a big lollipop cast on it just to protect it.”
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