BRIDGMAN, Mich. — For the first time in his nine seasons, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly doesn’t have a single player sweating out summer on academic probation.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few “ifs” on the Irish roster, as the returning players started the community service phase of summer school on Monday. and those “ifs” start with senior running back Dexter Williams.
There have been whispers for the past month, with no official confirmation, that the player expected to be ND’s starting running back this fall might miss some games at the start of the 2018 season for disciplinary reasons.
Kelly, speaking at the Kelly Cares Foundation Golf Invitational at Lost Dunes Golf Club on Monday, hedged when asked to define Williams’ status.
“We hope so,” Kelly said when pressed whether Williams will play in the Sept. 1 opener with Michigan. “There are always things behind the scenes that you’ve got to sort out, but our expectations right now are that he’ll be there for us in the opener.”
A source close to the situation said it is expected Williams would miss some games at the start of the season.
Kelly handled wide receiver Kevin Stepherson’s four-game suspension to start the season last year in shades of gray. He never actually acknowledged Stepherson’s suspension as such or the reasons behind it, but acknowledged when he was about to return to active duty for game five.
Injuries, a monster year by Josh Adams, and lapses in his game when it came to blitz pickup and other details helped limit Williams’ carries to 10 games in a reserve role and a modest 39 carries. He averaged a team-best 9.2 yards per carry (360 total rushing yards) and scored four rushing TDs.
Adams left with a year of eligibility remaining to enter the NFL Draft.
When Williams does get his opportunity to play, his durability will be tested. The 5-foot-11, 203-pound Orlando, Fla., product has never had more than eight carries in a game in his career.
Junior Tony Jones Jr., is the only other running back on the current roster who has at least one college carry on his résumé. Hybrids Jafar Armstrong and Avery Davis both redshirted last season as freshmen and at other positions.
Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister are true freshmen.
There have been rumblings that two running backs dismissed in January might find their way back to the roster, and Kelly on Monday addressed those rumors concerning sophomores-to-be Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes.
“Right now they’re not with the program, but I haven’t closed the door totally,” Kelly said. “There are so many different things that are in play here. … There are things that have to be worked out if either one of them were to come back on the team.”
A source familiar with the situation said of the two, only Holmes had a realistic conditional scenario to return. The Irish are currently one over the NCAA maximum of scholarship players, at 86, and have until he first day of classes in August to rectify that.
McIntosh played in eight games last season as a freshman, all in a reserve role, and was ND’s third-leading rusher with 368 yards on 65 carries and five TDs. Holmes also played in eight games, mostly on special teams. He rushed for 32 yards on eight carries.
Bonner of the mend
Projected starting nose guard Jonathan Bonner missed the contact part of spring practice with a wrist injury, a strategy Kelly is convinced paid off for the long run.
“Talking to Rob Hunt, he should be full go,” Kelly said. “We were very cautious with him. I thought we could have gotten more out of him. We had kind of gone into this with the idea that you’re not going to get involved much in terms of contact.
“But he’s excited. He’s worked really hard to put himself in this position to come back. So we’re excited about him.”
Bonner switched to nose guard in the spring after starting all 13 games at defensive tackle last season. He collected 3.5 tackles for loss with two sacks among his 30 tackles and had four quarterback hurries.
Notre Dame senior linebacker and leading tackler Te’von Coney’s August 2016 arrest for possession of marijuana is still rattling around the Indiana legal system, and Kelly expects a resolution soon.
On May 31, a plea agreement was submitted for Coney and agreed to by the Fulton County (Ind.) prosecutor’s office, but the plea won’t become public until a hearing on June 19, at which time a judge would either approve or deny the plea agreement.
A bench trial, which is not likely to happen, is scheduled for Aug. 1.
“He’s got to clean it up and get that taken care of,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to wait until Aug. 1 for all this stuff, so that’s on him. He’s got to take care of his business.
“If he takes care of it in the manner I expect him to, he should be full go, ready to play when we get to (August training) camp, but he’s got some things he’s got to take care of.
“I don’t think they’re insurmountable in this situation, but he’s got some things he’s got to take care of. I think if he does and pays attention to that, we should be fine moving forward.”
As of Monday morning, only junior safety Alohi Gilman hadn’t arrived back on campus and reported for summer school and summer workouts among Notre Dame’s returning players. and that was due to a late flight scheduled to arrive from his native Hawaii later in the day.
The freshman class, minus the seven who enrolled early in January, arrive in two weeks for summer school and OTAs.
“There are no holdouts,” Kelly said with a smile.
Kelly had plenty to smile about from an academic standpoint. Besides having no one on academic probation heading into summer, Kelly can boast that the players on ND’s active roster collectively fashioned a team grade-point average that exceeded 3.0.
“Ron deserves a lot of credit,” Kelly said of ND football’s director of player development, Ron Powlus. “Our assistant coaches did a good job. Our academic support staff, led by Adam Sargent, did a great job.
“A lot of things we’ve been talking about is it’s not just about football. It’s about what you do in your life all the time. and if that translates well, it’s going to mean success on the field, so I’m really proud of our players.”
Steel beams have started to go up on Notre Dame’s 111,400-square-foot Irish Indoor Athletics Center.
The facility, to be used mainly by the Irish football team, is expected to be completed in July of 2019 and will alleviate the congestion in and football workout scheduling nightmares associated with Notre Dame’s 30-year-old Loftus Center.
The expansion of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex — a project that is to include kitchen facilities and a dining area for training table; academic suites, where players can study and get tutoring; and a new football weight room — will be handled in a later phase per Kelly.
“It was important to get this building built first, because we needed to get our schedule back in order,” Kelly said. “Our guys were getting up too early (for workouts).”
Sometimes the Loftus wasn’t available for the football team’s runs, for example, so director of football performance Matt Balis worked around that by starting the football team’s lifting rotations as early as 5 a.m. A relatively new NCAA rule, barring workouts before 6 a.m., even made it more of a scheduling challenge.
“We’ve laid out some of the priorities, and one of them was to be better in November,” Kelly said. “We think that with the proper rest, the ability to do that is enhanced.”