SOUTH BEND — The two knee surgeries that interrupted Drue Tranquill’s climb into relevance each of the past two seasons apparently haven’t diminished his promise or performance as the Notre Dame safety’s junior season unfolds.
According to head coach Brian Kelly, Tranquill’s benching midway through the 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas on Sunday night was all about a mental backslide in the evolution of his role from the last time he took the field in a game, last Sept 19.
“I don’t think there are any physical limitations,” Kelly said Thursday evening after his 18th-ranked Irish (0-1) wrapped practice in Notre Dame Stadium in preparation for their home opener Saturday against four-touchdown underdog Nevada (1-0).
“It’s the game and learning the game,” Kelly said. “He’s not just a downhill, box safety. He’s got to play on the hash. He’s got to play in man-to-man coverage. He’s got to do more than just roll down and be a flat-foot safety making tackles as the extra hat. There’s a little more to it.”
The Texas game was Tranquill’s 15th in an ND uniform and his fifth career start. Two of those starts ended with season-ending ACL tears. This most recent of the five concluded with a demotion after Tranquill amassed five tackles but was often caught out of position or misaligned.
His previous game, a 30-22 subduing of triple-option-oriented Georgia Tech almost 12 months ago, was perhaps his best. He had four tackles, including two for loss, and a pass breakup by late in the second quarter when he jumped to celebrate with a teammate the incompletion he had just caused in the end zone.
The ACL in his right knee gave out and his 2015 season was over.
The Yellow Jacket offense played right into 6-foot-2, 225-pound Tranquill’s wheelhouse, but the Irish coaches wanted to stretch that skill set as the Fort Wayne, Ind., product transitioned from niche standout to full-time starter this offseason.
Kelly said Thursday that Tranquill will be back in the starting lineup at strong safety Saturday, with freshman Devin Studstill garnering his first career start next to him at free safety.
“Good week,” Kelly said of what he saw from Tranquill in practice. “He was put in a situation where he fully understands what’s expected of him, the things that he has to work on. He’s a guy that is very conscientious and is working very hard at his craft.”
Notre Dame senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., the team’s most experienced and accomplished player in that position group, hasn’t yet been cleared to play Saturday after suffering a concussion against Texas.
And Kelly was emphatic that when Hunter is cleared to play, it will be the player who has the final word whether and when he’ll rejoin the lineup.
Kelly expects Hunter to practice Friday, a light day in terms of physical demands. Junior Corey Holmes and freshman Kevin Stepherson have been sharing practice reps at Hunter’s position in his absence. They have zero career catches between them.
“I think in all situations, we want to do what’s right for them,” Kelly said of Hunter’s situation. “We want to always give our players the opportunities to go through the fundamentals and the (concussion) protocol, if you will.
“He wants to go through it. This is still about, even if you’re cleared, do you feel ready to play? That’s a decision that’s yet to be made.”
• Safety Avery Sebastian also suffered a concussion against Texas in his first-ever start for the Irish. The Cal transfer practiced Thursday and has been cleared to play Saturday. Kelly expects the sixth-year grad senior to see action against Nevada in a reserve role.
Like Tranquill, sophomore Nick Coleman’s choppy first half also landed him a spot on the bench. In the most high-leverage snaps of the 6-foot, 195-pounder’s college career, Coleman was repeatedly burned by the Longhorns on deep routes.
Coleman was the third cornerback in ND’s nickel package, which the Irish played the majority of the game against Texas. True freshman Julian Love replaced Coleman, with sophomore Shaun Crawford sliding outside to play Coleman’s role and Love playing Crawford’s inside spot.
“Nick really was a young man that got caught in poor techniques,” Kelly said. “We asked him to play a technique, and he didn’t trust his own techniques. And so clearly on Tuesday he was not in a good frame of mind. And I spent some time with him.”
The Irish figure to play more base defense on Saturday, which would mean less of a demand for a third cornerback to be on the field.
Coleman did, however, catch Kelly’s eye this week in a good way.
“Look, here’s the great thing about Nick Coleman,” the coach said. “He’s won a state championship. He’s a winner. He’s got a lot of pride. His state (of mind) was not great on Tuesday. He was feeling a little bit sorry for himself.
“And I said, ‘Nick this is where you turn it on and compete.’ I thought he made a big statement this week in the way he competed and practiced. We’ve elevated his role on special teams. You can’t give up on a guy like Nick Coleman. He’s too talented and he’s got too much pride.
“It’s the guys who lack personal pride, the guys that are easy to give in —those are the guys that we should give up on, if they’re going to give up on themselves. And those are the guys I try like heck not to recruit.”
• A greater commitment to base defense, Kelly said, will bring defensive ends Jay Hayes and Daelin Hayes, linebacker Asmar Bilal and linebacker Te’von Coney more into play this week after playing little or not at all against Texas.
• Although Jarron Jones did block an extra point Sunday that Crawford returned for a defensive two-point conversion, Kelly wanted to see more production out of his grad senior nose guard. He recorded zero tackles against the Longhorns in tag-team duty with Daniel Cage.
• Kelly shared his first public comments Thursday on elevating DeShone Kizer over Malik Zaire to the top spot on the quarterback depth chart a day earlier.
“Based upon what he’s done in the past, he’s been very effective as a starting quarterback,” Kelly said of the junior. “And I expect him to continue in that role. If he’s not effective, if he’s not what we have known him to be, we have one heck of a good quarterback ready to play.”