SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly shuns the word “surprise” to describe the players who are unexpectedly emerging during the early stages of Notre Dame football training camp.
That doesn’t mean that surprises don’t exist.
And not all of them are freshmen.
Senior Nick Coleman, displaced in the spring as a viable option to hold onto the starting status he earned in 2017 at the free safety position, has added another layer to the collective happy surge by the safety position as a whole.
Whether they’re surprises, flashes or even revelations, not all of early August’s ascenders will be sustainable, but Coleman is among those worth keeping an eye on.
Some others? Converted freshman cornerback Joe Wilkins Jr., freshman offensive tackle Jarrett Patterson, freshman wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, and — perhaps not a surprise but a rapid riser, nonetheless — freshman rover Shayne Simon.
Even senior kicker Justin Yoon, on track to finish his career as the school’s most accurate at kicking field goals, has added another layer to his game — length.
“He’s gone from a guy where his cliff was probably 45 (yards) to now 52 to 55,” Kelly said Thursday after practice, ND’s sixth overall, second in full pads and first of training camp staged on the ND campus.
“He’s pounding the football, and that’s on him. He’s worked so hard in the weight room to get there.”
Simon, meanwhile, is pounding offensive players.
On Thursday the 6-foot-3, 222-pound St. Peter’s (N.J.) Prep product took reps with the No. 2 defense, with senior Asmar Bilal working with the 1s.
Simon was fast, physical, and disruptive in the backfield against ND’s No. 2 offense.
“He’s one of the most impressive — if not the most impressive — freshmen we have in our defensive group,” said senior defensive end Daelin Hayes. “Just the way he goes about his business, the detail in his work as a freshman, his desire to be great, his attention each and every day to come out and work.
“He’s hungry, man. A lot of respect for him and what he’s going to be for this program in future years to come.”
But what about the present?
“It’s a lot going on right now for Shayne,” Kelly said. “He, physically, can do the job. Now we’ve just got to get him, mentally, understanding where to be and all the nuances of the position.
“It’s going to take some time, but he’s a really good player. He’ll end up seeing the field for us this year.”
Wilkins, meanwhile, may end up seeing the field only for the four games that the new redshirt rule allows. Then again, maybe more.
The 6-2, 185-pound North Fort Myers, Fla., product, worked over the summer as a wide receiver, even though he was recruited as a cornerback, with the thought that he’d get a look at both positions during training camp. He’s even listed on the official roster as a wide receiver/defensive back, which is already outdated.
“His defensive days are behind him — well behind him,” Kelly proclaimed Thursday.
That’s because of how emphatically Wilkins has pushed his way into the picture at wide receiver at this juncture. On Thursday, he consistently got open and showed the ability to make contested catches while working primarily with the No. 2 offense.
An injury to sophomore Michael Young, which has limited his contact, has widened Wilkins’ opportunity.
“He’s taken advantage of it,” Kelly said. “For a freshman, he’s been noticed, and with some depth at the receiver position. He’s got a ways to go, but boy he’s got a really good skill set.”
Lawrence Keys III, another of the five freshman receivers, also was impressive Thursday with the No. 2 offense.
“He doesn’t blink. Nothing’s too big for him,” Kelly said of the 5-10, 170-pound Keys. ”The game of football comes really easy. Functional intelligence of the game. When he gets the ball in his hands, he finds a way to make something happen.
“Similar to Shayne (Simon), we think he’s got a huge upside that just needs to take time.”
Patterson, like Keys and Wilkins, rated as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com, and hasn’t played like it early. Kelly said the 6-5, 290-pound Californian is showing some of the same advanced skills sophomore Robert Hainsey displayed last season that led to him being a co-starter at right tackle as a true freshman.
Coleman actually had some flashes in training camp his freshman season, as a cornerback, but then he faded. It’s been a journey of extreme rises and falls ever since. Spring was the latest dip. The first six practices this August have been a convincing reversal.
Coleman’s highlights Thursday included an interception of Brandon Wimbush in a one-on-one passing drill on a throw intended for Chris Finke.
“Here’s a guy who was fighting for reps in the spring and has come into this camp with a better presence in everything that he does,” Kelly said. “Tackling, awareness, playing the ball in the air.
“If coach Balis (director of football performance Matt Balis) was in front of you, he’d say (Coleman) was one of the best guys in the weight room, but you’ve still got to translate that, because he was last year, too.”
Too much Love?
Preseason All-America cornerback Julian Love said Thursday that his mom was pretty happy to see her son’s name all over the award watch lists and that his dad was probably bragging about it at work.
For Love himself, he admits it got in his head and regressed his play, at first.
“I got caught in a mouse trap, and those watch lists were the cheese,” he said.
Specifically, Kelly said, Love was trying to turn too many passes thrown his direction into interceptions.
“He developed some bad habits,” Kelly said. “Be who you are, and what he was last year was a technician. He was smart, he knew time and place in the game. and (now) he got back to those fundamentals and basics, and it’s really paid off for him.”
Speaking of watch lists, junior safety Alohi Gilman was named to the latest one revealed — that being the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year.
The 50-player list was unveiled Thursday.
Gilman, a Navy transfer, is in his first season of eligibility with the Irish after sitting out the 2017 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. He was running with the first-team defense in Thursday’s practice.
It’s the fifth year for the Polynesian Player of the Year award. Former ND offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, whose mom is of Polynesian descent, won the award in 2015.