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Week One Practice Report: Getting Tough Up Front on Both Sides of the Ball

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From left to right: Nix, Tuitt, Rabasa, Golson.
From left to right: Nix, Tuitt, Rabasa, Golson.

A full week of fall practice is in the books and the Irish are now just three weeks away from the season opener against South Florida.

So far the team has been progressing nicely towards their goals and hasn't suffered many big injuries.

Saturday morning word came out that Tate "The Planet" Nichols did suffer a dislocated knee cap and will be out a month. Ethan Johnson was sick for morning practice as well and Zeke Motta was held out of some drills although he doesn't appear to have a serious injury of any kind.

Here is what’s been happening over the past week (all videos courtesy of Notre Dame's official site und.com):

Kelly has the Team Working on Running the Ball, Stopping the Run, and Getting Tough up Front.

This was the major storyline from Brian Kelly’s latest press conference with the media.

There might be some people out there who think Kelly is too married to his no-huddle spread attack and they’ll believe an emphasis on the run game when they see it---but I think he is serious.

That doesn’t mean he’ll be abandoning the spread, but I am convinced Kelly wants to alternate between a fast-paced offense and a slower one more reliant on pounding the football, and use both styles to suit his in-game needs.

Kelly mentioned the offense was slowing things down, working on running the ball, and focusing the quarterbacks on making smart decisions with the ball. We’re still likely to see the offense throw the ball often, but I’m betting the split will be very close to 50/50 in 2011, especially in non-blowout situations.

COMMENTARY: I'm very intrigued to see what this offense can do this year. Not necessarily from a production standpoint (although it's safe to say that area should improve), but more from a scheme, tempo, and style point of view. 

I trust Kelly won't make things too complicated, but he has a lot of options to work with. He has two proven quarterbacks who can move the ball through the air. He has an offensive line that can make holes for the running game. He can spread teams out and throw the ball, then utilize the abundance of tight ends and come out in a power formation a play later. If that's not enough, someone like Hendrix can come in and the team can add even more wrinkles both running and passing the football. 

Most of all, I just want to see Riddick and Wood in the backfield together running some of the options plays we saw during spring practice. That gets me really excited. 

Quarterbacks

There hasn’t been a whole lot of news from this quarterback battle as the media hasn’t had much of an opportunity to watch the players in practice yet.

Through one week there haven’t been any surprises and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that Crist and Rees are fighting for the starting position with Crist still leading the race.

We all wish there was more to talk about but frankly, there isn't.

Following Saturday's practice, Kelly mentioned that Crist had been receiving the bulk of the first team snaps throughout the week, but that Rees got the bulk of the 1st team reps on Saturday.


Running Backs

It is expected that Cierre Wood takes his game to the next level and becomes a very potent starter. His fall camp so far only reinforces that point.

Reports have Jonas Gray looking very quick and fleet-of-foot which is a good sign. Gray has been featured in a couple articles around the country and now that he appears 100% healthy he might be ready to contribute in a serious way.

Both freshmen running backs in McDaniel and Atkinson have been working a lot on special teams in the return game, but there’s been little insight into how they are progressing at their normal position.

Both could probably use some more size, but witnesses at practice have commented on how fast they look. They are two very important freshmen right now.

COMMENTARY: I don't think it can be overstated just how important bringing speed and quickness to the Irish backfield really is. Cierre Wood aside, when was the last time Notre Dame had someone who could be described as speedy at running back? 

McDaniel and Atkinson might take a while to get used to the college game and be able to pick up blitzes and things of that nature, but look for them to add a jolt of speed to the running game in the second half of the season or even earlier.

Offensive Line

This unit is slowly getting really tough and dominant. Last year’s late-season success on offense could largely be attributed to the offensive linemen finally getting comfortable in the spread and smacking the other team in the mouth. With so many starters returning that confidence is growing and now even backups are starting to look good.


The lineup of Martin-Watt-Cave-Robinson-Dever looks rock solid, but the coaches have been very pleased with Andrew Nuss (who is getting first team reps at left guard), Christian Lombard, Mike Golic, and even freshman Connor Hanratty.

This is called working with quality depth!

Senior Trevor Robinson has been singled out as the leader of the line, which is good news.

After the injury to Tate Nichols the second team unit was as follows from left to right across the line: Lombard, Watt, Golic, Hanratty, and Nick Martin.

Also, freshman Matt Hegarty has been lining up at guard, while Florida State transfer Jordan Prestwood has been lining up at left tackle. RKG extraordinaire Bruce Heggie has been holding down the third-string center position.

Wide Receivers

Floyd has been very sharp and in great shape, but the big news thus far has been TJ Jones who is cross-training at both the outside position and in the slot. Seeing Jones step up and have a great camp so far is good news for the team, and even better for him personally after losing his father earlier this summer.

Theo Riddick has also been cross-training at both the slot and outside positions. Don't be surprised to see Floyd and Riddick on the outside with Toma in the slot as the regular early-season starting lineup.

It’s pretty clear that Kelly really likes freshman Davaris Daniels, but he has mentioned that Daniels’ head is spinning a little bit with learning his routes and responsibilities. I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of Daniels in the first month of the season, but after that I think he makes a big impact.

COMMENTARY: Daniels has a lot of potential and I thought he was polished enough to come in and be productive as a freshman. This latest news from Kelly's mouth is concerning, but I still think Daniels is pushing Goodman very hard for backup time behind Floyd or Jones. Like I've said before, I'm banking on Kelly wanting Daniels to be very developed and full of experience by the time 2012 rolls around with Floyd no longer on the team.

Tight Ends

Not a whole lot of information from this group, other than the fact that freshman Ben Koyack is very big and quite strong for his age. That’s why Kelly said months ago he’d probably see the field in 2011.

COMMENTARY: Most of the time a player like Koyack would step right in and play as a freshman. But even if he really is a special talent and athletic freak---and all indications are that he is---doesn't it still seem just a little bit foolish to burn a year of eligibility with three very good tight ends also on the team?

I'm still having trouble understanding how Kelly thinks he'll definitely play. I wonder if Koyack is going to be used quite often split out wide as a receiver? It's pretty shocking that he's already the heaviest tight end, but apparently has outstanding speed to boot. Should we be surprised if Koyack is used mainly as a receiver, even on the outside?


Defensive Line

Here’s where a lot of the attention has been so far this camp.

Ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore are reportedly in tremendous shape and are poised for very big seasons. Kelly praised Johnson in his latest press conference and looks for him to be a leader of the team.

In somewhat of a small surprise, it appears that for now Louis Nix is the presumed starter at nose tackle, with Sean Cwynar a close backup. I know there are some high expectations for Nix, but he really does look like the type of game-changing linemen that is going to have a massive impact right away.

For the third nose tackle position, freshman Tony Springmann is fighting hard with Hafis Williams. Apparently Springmann has been playing well in the middle despite his rather un-nose guard-like height of nearly 6’6".

The coaches have been pretty mute with the praise of Lynch and Tuitt, but you can expect both to see the field often. I’m pretty sure the coaches will be hard on them in the press to make sure they keep their heads on straight.

COMMENTARY: It's really difficult not to get excited about Nix and Lynch's impact this year, to say nothing of what Tuitt could possibly bring to the table. Lynch still has work to do as far as learning the system, but many think he's only a skinny speed rusher off the edge...yet he's still dominating physically against some of the team's best linemen. Don't we realize how rare that is for a true freshman?

And Nix, well I'm not going to be surprised if he's one of the best nose tackles in the country, particularly out of those who play in a 3-4 system, and I really mean that. He's huge, has good athleticism for his size, and puts it all together with a mean streak and high motor. How will he not be dominant? How can he literally push anyone back that goes up against him and not be one of the best linemen in the country? He's going to be very special.

Linebackers

The one big question mark was the starter next to Te’o in the Will position, and it appears last years starter Carlo Calabrese has the lead. He is being pushed hard by Dan Fox however.

Kelly did mention that true sophomore Kendall Moore has been fighting with Anthony McDonald to be Manti’s backup at the Mike position.


On the outside, Prince Shembo and Danny Spond are fighting for playing time at the Dog spot, but Kelly said Shembo is starting to distance himself from Spond now.

On the other side, Darius Fleming was getting a lot of praise from Kelly who said he believes he will be a player on the national scene in 2011.

Also, Ishaq Williams is becoming more comfortable with his responsibilities and is allowing his athleticism to take over instead of thinking too much. Williams looks to be in the two-deep at Cat for now and in line for solid playing time.

Fellow freshman Troy Niklas was recently moved from the defensive line to outside linebacker. Who knows if Niklas stays there, with his size he could probably play four different positions. Following Saturday's practice, Kelly said Niklas (whose nickname is Hercules) will play both the Dog and Cat positions. He loves the way he plays in space and thinks he is a special talent.

COMMENTARY: For some reason I find the two position battles at linebacker boring. We know Shembo and Spond are going to get a lot of playing time and that Calabrese is likely to stay beside Te'o. Now my focus and attention is turning to the young guns like Councell, Rabasa, and Niklas because all three might be able to see the field at some point in 2011, so these should be the linebackers to keep an eye on right now.

Secondary

Corners Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are doing their thing as expected, and there has been mostly positive news from the two young backups.

Lo Wood is improving and you can sense that he’s gaining the trust of the staff. Converted wide receiver Bennett Jackson has the speed, toughness, and tackling ability to become a great corner, but despite pretty glowing reviews, Kelly says he is far too inconsistent.

Freshmen Josh Atkinson, and especially Jalen Brown are performing pretty well.


Obviously Harrison Smith has his spot on lock down, but Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter are fighting for the other safety position. Kelly has said whenever the team uses its nickel package they will use either Motta or Slaughter as the fifth secondary player.

COMMENTARY: Still waiting to hear something on freshman safety Eilar Hardy. I thought he would be a prime candidate to see some PT this year, but his weight was pretty alarming as it is listed in the media guide. I didn't see him being giving the old Notre Dame redshirt, but it's possible it could happen. 

Special Teams

No word yet on the field goal kickers, but it would take a miracle for anyone to overtake David Ruffer there. Ben Turk has looked a little more consistent in the punt game in comparison to freshman Kyle Brindza, but the staff would like to be happier about this unit, although Turk was singled out by Kelly after Saturday's practice.

The freshman Brindza appears likely to be the kickoff specialist.


In the return game, the coaching staff is currently auditioning many players for various roles and sorting through who they think can handle the duties.

Theo Riddick, Bennett Jackson, John Goodman, Harrison Smith, George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, and Davaris Daniels are all vying for duties in the punt and kick return game.

Special teams are a huge emphasis for the coaching staff right now.

How Many Freshmen Will Play?

Kelly stated on Saturday that between 6 and 10 freshmen will play in 2011.

The top six in my opinion are: RB George Atkinson III, DE Aaron Lynch, RB Cam McDaniel, WR Davaris Daniels, DE Stephon Tuitt, and OLB Ishaq Williams. You can also add K/P Kyle Brindza as a likely seventh.

The next most likely are: CB Jalen Brown, TE Ben Koyack, OLB Troy Niklas, and DT Tony Springmann.

If there are injuries, expect the following freshmen to push for playing time: CB Josh Atkinson, S Eilar Hardy, OLB Ben Councell, and LB Anthony Rabasa.


COMMENTARY: It was a really solid first week of practice. I know there's been a tendency to brush off Kelly's comments in regards to getting tough up front and learning how to run the ball, but I think he means business.

Kelly has always been a coach who plays to his team's strengths, and now that he has more options to work with and high quality linemen on both sides of the ball, it would reason that he's going to get more comfortable with slowing things down and running the ball more often.

Without great depth at running back and two experienced quarterbacks that aren't perfect fits within the system, we aren't about to see a huge turn away from the passing game. But you can see the wheels starting to turn inside Kelly's head with the way he's run practice this week and some of the comments he's made in the past---mainly he doesn't need a fancy offense at Notre Dame, but just has to win football games.

I'm looking for double tight end sets, a mobile change of pace quarterback, and option football with Wood and Riddick in the backfield with the quarterback as three major boosts to the running game in 2011.