SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame special teams coordinator Brian Polian joked that “We’re on to Cincinnati.”
Polian used the infamous line from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to avoid a direct answer to a question asking him to identify Notre Dame’s starting kickoff specialist and kick returner.
In reality, Notre Dame’s football program was already on to Louisville. While Wednesday was marked as Media Day for the football program — which included a press conference for head coach Brian Kelly, roughly 10-minute sessions with each Irish assistant coach and no player interviews — the practice beforehand shifted the focus to Notre Dame’s season opener at Louisville on Sept. 2.
The practice lasted roughly 30 minutes shorter than a typical preseason practice, but it included multiple segments with scout teams giving Notre Dame’s offense and defense some preparation for what they’ll see against the Cardinals.
The practice also offered another glimpse of how the Irish offense will adapt to the injuries of tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Michael Young.
Kelly confirmed Wednesday that Young’s broken collarbone from Saturday’s practice required surgery like Kmet’s broken collarbone did. The timeframe for Young’s return could be as early as four weeks depending on how his collarbone heals.
“The doctors say at four weeks you can take a CAT scan to see what it looks like inside-out,” Kelly said. “If it heals inside-out, then you’re cleared to play, and we go from there.”
The answers to replacing Young will be plural. To start practice Wednesday, the Irish utilized an offensive formation that included wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, running backs Jafar Armstrong and Kyren Williams working as slot receivers and running back Jahmir Smith in the backfield alongside Ian Book.
Notre Dame has also used Finke in Young’s position and put sophomore Lawrence Keys III in at slot receiver. Fellow sophomores Joe Wilkins Jr. and Braden Lenzy and senior Javon McKinley were also mentioned as options by Kelly.
“We have plenty of guys,” Kelly said. “We’re going to miss Mike. He had a great camp going, too. But we have a lot of really good players that will step up in that situation.”
For all the attention that’s been given to Notre Dame’s passing game, Kelly made a point to stress that other areas of the team will play an important role this season. He wants the Irish to show their physicality in game one against Louisville.
“For the success of this football team, it’s going to be up front, it’s going to be our offensive line, our defensive line, our ability to run the football and stop the run,” Kelly said. “If we do that, this is going to be a pretty good football team.”
Kelly’s confidence in Notre Dame’s ability to run the football starts with the offensive line, which includes four returning starters from the end of last season. The continuity and experience there should be valuable.
Behind the line, the Irish have five running backs who could see playing time. The trio of Jafar Armstrong, Tony Jones Jr., and Jahmir Smith can pack a punch.
“The three big backs, they’re punishing backs,” Kelly said. “We think we can be a physical presence because of four returning offensive linemen and three punishing backs.”
Sophomore C’Bo Flemister and freshman Kyren Williams aren’t as bruising as the other running backs, but they can find roles. Flemister may be one of Notre Dame’s options as a kick returner.
Williams, a 5-foot-9, 205-pound product of St. John Vianney in St. Louis, has taken advantage of enrolling early in January. Kelly said Williams didn’t hit the wall that most freshmen hit when trying to handle everything asked of them in college.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Kelly said. “He’s picked up our offense. The versatility that we’re asking of him as a running back and receiver — unique young man in that he’s been able to handle all this, handle it in a manner that we’re going to lean on him to help us.
“Not a lot of guys that I’ve been around in my time that we could throw so much at, and he has the makeup to be able to handle it.”
Notre Dame won’t be afraid to use both Williams and Armstrong as receivers. Both joined the Irish with experience as a receiver in high school.
“You could literally line up those two guys as receivers and change their number and you wouldn’t know,” Kelly said.
For the first time this preseason, freshman safety Kyle Hamilton didn’t intercept a pass during a full practice viewed by the media.
But Hamilton still managed to force a fumble following a catch made by Finke. The five-star recruit from Atlanta Marist has shown a knack for making plays. He’s intercepted seven passes and forced two fumbles in five full practices in front of reporters.
Even Kelly has started to be more open with his praise for Hamilton. The 6-4, 210-pounder won’t have to wait long for playing time despite Notre Dame returning both of its starters — Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman — at safety.
“Can’t tell you that I’ve seen a player that can change direction and carry himself with that kind of range on the back end,” Kelly said. “That’s unusual.
“Then instincts. He hasn’t even watched film yet. When he sees a play, he’s able to diagnose it. I was telling (defensive pass game coordinator) Terry Joseph, you know, that’s great coaching. But it’s clearly the young man has great instincts and he’s gifted.”
“As much as I’ve been trying to tamp down Kyle Hamilton for Heisman, he’s a really good player.”
The comeback story for graduate student Shaun Crawford is off to a good start. The 5-9, 180-pound defensive back has been very active in preseason practice.
On Wednesday, Crawford worked as a starting cornerback to the field side. He’s also an option for the Irish at nickelback and a backup safety.
The smaller Crawford, who has dealt with season-ending injuries in three of his four seasons at Notre Dame, hasn’t been hard to find on the field.
“His confidence is back. His swagger is back,” Kelly said. “He’s back talking, which is really a good thing for Shaun. He’s really going to help us in a lot of different roles, including special teams.”