CULVER, Ind. — In the real life version of “Where You Sitting?” the last Notre Dame football player I sat with at lunch in an actual cafeteria/dining hall setting was Louis Nix III — six summers ago.
The former Irish standout nose guard was taking a break from working the Notre Dame Football Fantasy Camp, where he was coaching … running backs, of course.
“They wanted to put an athletic guy over there,” he explained straight-faced but laughing inside.
Fast forward to Irish football training camp 2019, which wrapped up its five-day Culver Academies portion — preceding a 55-minute bus ride back to campus — early Thursday afternoon.
The “Where You Sitting?” concept is now a meme on Twitter, and one that’s on a trajectory to be run into the ground by the time Notre Dame stages practice No. 6 overall and the first on campus this month, on Saturday, after a scheduled day off Friday.
If you haven’t seen any of the many versions of “Where You Sitting?”, you’re given 10 choices of tables in a made-up cafeteria to ponder where to park yourself. There’s usually a choice of at least one person, often more, with whom to share that table.
Of the five practices so far — the first in full pads Thursday — the media has been invited to soak in sessions Nos. 1 and 5. Based on those roughly combined five hours of practice time, here are the players who I’d have at my lunch table.
They’re not necessarily the most elite players. They’re the ones who intrigue me the most, who have a compelling story line that may eventually define Notre Dame’s big picture later this month.
Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton is off-limits, because he’s simply too obvious. The 6-foot-4, 210-pounder from Atlanta garnered the only interception in Thursday’s practice after recording three picks in Sunday’s camp-opening session.
He also took No. 1 reps late in practice Thursday after starter Alohi Gilman was shaken up. He does make mistakes. He rarely repeats them.
Without further blather …
• Tommy Tremble, TE, sophomore
Tremble would have been at the table anyway, but starting tight end Cole Kmet breaking his collarbone in a passing drill during practice Thursday rotates the sophomore’s seat to the one next to me.
Kmet, a source confirmed to the Tribune, is expected to miss three to six weeks, a finer point head coach Brian Kelly is expected to expand upon after Saturday’s practice. The best-case scenario in that timeline would rule out playing in the Sept. 2 opener at Louisville.
The six-week time frame likely wipes out notably the Sept. 21 showdown at Georgia for the 6-foot-6, 250-pound junior.
Tremble is among the three remaining scholarship tight ends on the roster. At 6-3, 235 and with wide receiver moves, he’s easily the most un-tight end like of the three and gives offensive coordinator Chip Long some interesting schematic flexibility.
Two early drops Thursday in drills, in which there were no defenders present, prompted a frustrated Long to shower Tremble with some of the most colorful language in his vocabulary. Tremble responded by later making the play of the day.
With Gilman blanketing him on a sideline route, Tremble wasn’t able to create separation and Gilman was first to touch the ball. But Tremble kept his concentration, grabbed the ball after the deflection, got his feet inbounds and completed the spectacular play.
• Julian Okwara, DE, senior
There is no one on the roster who looks the part of a preseason All-American more than Okwara, and he’ll be on my ballot for the AP Preseason team that I have to turn in on Monday. The preseason All-America team and the AP preseason top 25 are both set for an Aug. 19 reveal.
Okwara is garnering plenty of national attention based on who he was last year (team-leading 8 sacks and school-record 21 QB hurries). But the old script isn’t nearly as impressive as the new one.
He’s now 6-5, 248 pounds, up from the 241 he was listed at last season. The may not sound like a lot, but it certainly looks like it.
What that looked like Thursday was Okwara relentlessly bursting past Notre Dame’s best offensive lineman in 2018, right tackle Robert Hainsey, in 11-on-11 practice periods on passing downs.
“He’s way more physical,” said senior Khalid Kareem, Okwara’s book end at the other end of the Irish defensive line. “He’s using a lot more technique too this year.
“He’s always been a good technician, but he’s honing that skill so much more. Watch out for Julian Okwara.”
• Michael Young, WR, junior
With each passing day, the 5-10, 190-pounder looks less like an option at the outside field receiver and more like the answer.
On Thursday, he was the most dominant offensive player on the field who weighed less than 325 pounds, and even then he probably had a leg up on ascending left guard Aaron Banks.
Young’s combination of speed, body control and an impressive vertical leap helped him make routine plays look exceptional and exceptional plays look like highlight reels. The key for the owner of a modest 11 career catches is to have another day like that on Saturday.
• Braden Lenzy, WR, sophomore
The 5-11, 190-pound Lenzy and Young play the same position, but there’s enough room in the offense —with Lenzy’s top-end speed — to create a niche role for himself.
The big difference between the freshman version of Lenzy, who didn’t see the field at all in 2018, and the one who has shown impressive flashes in practice this training camp, is that Lenzy is strong enough to get off the line of scrimmage now and he’s a savvier route runner.
• Drew White, LB, junior
Linebacker-apolooza, a mass audition and rotation that pervaded throughout the 15 spring practice sessions, is making an encore in training camp.
White missed most of the first rendition of it, suffering a shoulder injury during ND’s spring break in early March while not playing football. But a strong summer pushed the 6-foot, 230-pounder back into the conversation at middle linebacker.
He ran with the 1s on Thursday, with Asmar Bilal — the player who was the No. 1 MLB at the end of spring — the No. 1 buck linebacker. Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the No. 1 rover, is the closest thing to a presumptive opening-night starter.
White excels in the area that most of the other inside linebacker candidates have proving to do — run fits. His test will come in coverage, in the passing game. If he can find some consistency there, his run at being a surprise starter becomes plausible.
• Harrison Leonard, K, freshman
The media got its first peek Thursday at a walk-on with a real chance to impact Notre Dame’s season.
First, he has to beat out junior Jonathan Doerer, who at least had a head start at succeeding ND’s all-time leading scorer Justin Yoon, who also happens to be the most accurate kicker in Irish history when it comes to field goals.
Leonard started last spring while still in boarding school by working on his mental toughness. That included reading a book that many football professionals have been inspired by in that area, though its title doesn’t suggest it.
It’s called: “The Inner Game of Tennis,” authored by Harvard English Lit major-turned tennis pro Tim Gallwey and originally released in 1972, roughly three decades before Leonard was born.
On Thursday, Doerer attempted seven field goals in practice in succession and made five. His longest successful attempt was from 48 yards. He missed at 43 and 50. Leonard was 5-for-5 with a long of 42. The two will also compete for kickoff duties.
• Tommy Kraemer, OG, senior
Kraemer’s inclusion in first-round NFL mock drafts for the spring of 2020 and several preseason All-America teams as a first-teamer may be as much an indictment of lack of research and the pervasiveness of copy-catting as it is a projection based on his expired recruiting hype.
The intriguing twist is that Kraemer, who struggled at times in 2018, actually does have the foundation to ascend — the pedigree, the work ethic, the resilience. And now he appears to have the fitness to go with it, along with a better understanding of what it takes to play inside (he came to ND as a tackle).
If there’s an eventual All-American on the O-Line this season, Banks might be the best bet to evolve into it. But it’s not a stretch to project significant improvement at all five positions.