In the dog days of summer when players are running gassers or finishing their last set of power cleans, they can't wait for camp to start. After the first few days of camp, they can't wait for it to be over.
That's how it is for every football player in America. They are tired, sore, and just want to hit someone else other than their teammates.
The good news for the members of the Notre Dame football team is that camp is finally over and they can take a few days off then get back to preparing for the first game of the season in a couple of weeks versus Texas. That's great news for Notre Dame fans as well who have been anxiously waiting for the opening of this season to see if this team can live up the hype it has received during the entire off-season.
I got to watch Team 127 (as Brian Kelly has referred to them) for four practices during camp and I can say that much of the hype is justified. This is a deep and talented team that is going to have a chance to do great things. There were several players who stood out and others that were pleasant surprises during what we saw from camp. That doesn't mean there aren't any question marks that need to be figured out when they actually starting playing games on Saturdays. That could be said for every team in the nation, though.
Based on what I got to see, I'm going to break it down into the three categories I just mentioned.
- There were plenty of players who had great camps, but many were as expected. Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley, KeiVarae Russell and the like could all be considered standouts. I don't think I would be breaking any news saying that the guys who are supposed to be ballers were just that. Notre Dame fans can rest easy that the players who are supposed to be good are going to be.
I will bring up something I saw from each of those players that were "wow" moments.
Stanley had a play in a team period where where he picked up the end in pass protection and was still able to hold that block AND get a chip on the nickel that was blitzing on the play. Not many, if any, left tackles in the country would be able to do that on the same play.
Jaylon's athleticism stands out all the time, but one particular time was even more mind blowing that usual. He was lined up on the edge looking like he was going to blitz and at the snap of the ball he sprinted and covered the deep middle of the field. I mean...I just don't even know what to say about that. What a freak athlete.
In camp, every corner gets beat. With Russell, it was a big deal if it happened. When it did, he seemed to always bounce back and win the next rep. He could be the best corner Notre Dame has had in over a decade and is going to be a dynamite blitzer in the nickel as well as excel in coverage.
Those players and the other usual suspects were all very good this camp when the media was able to watch them and I'm guessing it was the same when the media wasn't around as well.
- I don't know if Torii Hunter Jr. has a nickname, but I was thinking "All Day" would be appropriate. He kept getting separation and making plays...all day. Every day. It seemed like it was every rep he took. Brian Kelly said he is going to have to get touches this season and whether that comes at the expense of someone like Amir Carlisle in the slot or taking reps away from one of the players on the outside, he looks like he will be a difference maker.
He makes a great receiver group even better.
- I expected Isaac Rochell to make a jump this year and he clearly has based on what I saw. He looks like he can be a legitimate threat as an interior pass rusher in the nickel and will be an even stronger run defender at end this season. Keith Gilmore mentioned how he thinks Rochell is going to break out this season and working with his new coach looks like it has made a pretty significant impact on Rochell.
- At times last season, James Onwualu looked lost at Sam linebacker. He was aggressive and played with great effort, but often played with poor technique and the fact that it was his third position in three years (high school running back, freshman wide receiver, then sophomore linebacker) showed on the field.
The familiarity with the position has clearly done him wonders as has his physical development in the off-season. He looks like a linebacker now and plays like one. He has so much more shock in his hands and still moves very well even with the added weight. He showed flashes last year and it looks like those flashes will continue this season with some added consistency to his game.
- Romeo Okwara was another player at a new position that had his share of ups and downs last season. He finished strong with a good Music Bowl performance and has built on that. He is so much stronger and so much more fundamentally sound versus the run. He impressed me at the point of attack and looks like he will be able to properly set the edge this season. He's still a work in progress as a pass rusher, but there is improvement there as well.
- Many talked about Brandon Wimbush pushing DeShone Kizer for the backup quarterback position and at this point, the competition for that job appears to clearly be over. Part of it is that Wimbush has some footwork issues he needs to clean up to help him get through his progressions quicker, but a large part of it is that Kizer has run with opportunity to be Malik Zaire's backup.
Before this camp, I had heard from several people that were ready to write him off as a competitor at the position because they were so high on Wimbush. I'm still high on Wimbush and think he can eventually be a fantastic player, but Kizer looks capable of running the offense and stood out when he was put in pressure situations.
- What I saw from the majority of the freshman class surprised me. This team was considered fairly deep before they got to campus and there are several players who look like they are going to be contributors this season that can not only be depth, but push for serious playing time as the season progresses.
Nick Coleman surpassed my expectations with how fast he has adapted to playing cornerback after playing primarily running back in high school. He is going to play this season and looks like he is going to develop into a high level starter at some point for the Irish. Shaun Crawford looked great in the nickel before his season ending injury. If he recovers fully, then he should step right back into the nickel in 2016.
Equanimeous St. Brown is probably the most impressive newcomer not named Jerry Tillery. Think Corey Robinson in terms of catch radius. Now think of a faster, twitchier version of Robinson. He looks too good to keep off the field this season and has number one receiver potential.
Both freshmen running backs, Josh Adams and Dexter Williams, look very good. Tristen Hoge looks further ahead than expected. I could keep going. This was the 13th ranked class in the nation according to the 247Sports composite rankings. We may end up looking at that ranking in a couple of years and thinking it was way too low.
- I don't think anyone predicted Devin Butler to be the third corner coming out of camp, but as of right now, he is just that. Him and Cole Luke would be lined up outside with Russell in the nickel if they played Texas tomorrow based on what Kelly said.
I thought Butler looked good this camp, but he must have really impressed during the sessions the media didn't get to see because I'm not sure many saw him above Coleman or Nick Watkins for that third corner spot. I'm sure it will be a competitive situation the entire season, but good on Butler for proving all the doubters wrong who were calling for him to move to safety prior to camp.
- CJ Prosise missed most of camp and should be healthy enough to practice next week according to Kelly. If for some reason his injury lingers or is re-aggravated, that is going to put quite a bit of pressure on Josh Adams to be ready to go. Adams did perform very well and seems to have an edge over Williams to be the third back behind Tarean Folston and Prosise. Let's hope that there isn't a situation where Adams isn't asked to do too much this season even if running back coach Autry Denson has pushed all of his backs to prepare like they are the starter.
- With Jarron Jones out, of course there are going to be questions about Daniel Cage and Tillery filing his shoes in the middle of the defense at one technique. It sounds like the combination of the two will be used by Keith Gilmore this season with Cage likely seeing more reps versus power teams and Tillery used more versus spread teams. A true sophomore and a true freshman at the position is going to make me uneasy most of the season. We'll see how they hold up the first few weeks in September.
- Strong safety is still an open competition with Cal transfer Avery Sebastian, returning starter Elijah Shumate, and Drue Tranquill all competing. I feel confident that Max Redfield has taken a good step forward with a strong camp at free safety. His partner in the secondary I am not as confident about.
I worry about Sebastian's ability to play man coverage even if he is a smart player and has impressed with how fast he has picked up the defense. I worry about Shumate's ability to be consistent. Physically he can do the job better than anyone else. Tranquill might have the greatest upside of them all. He is coming off a serious kneee injury, though, and he seems to be the third guy as of right now.
- I saw improvement by the pass rush during camp and there is potential to continue to get better. I would not say that any individual could be classified anywhere near elite as a pass rusher. Can the defense get pressure rushing only four? I didn't see enough of it in camp to make me confident yet. They were going against what could be one of the best offensive lines in the country, so we'll see if that daily test will help them break out when they start playing teams this fall.
- The biggest question mark has to do with Zaire. He looked very impressive at times and also threw some passes that scared the heck out of me. It's tough to get a true gauge on how good he can be early in the season because he didn't get to use his legs in camp like he will during actual games.
I do know this: if Zaire answers the questions about his ability to make throws from the pocket this season then this is going to be a great season for Notre Dame. With his ability to run to go along with that, they are too loaded at several other positions for them not to be a playoff contender.