CULVER, Ind. — Still holding out hope for one more trip to the lake, maybe try and squeeze in a final week of vacation?
Better hurry. A sure sign summer’s slipping away surfaced on a sleepy Sunday along a county road in Marshall County. A pair of bikers out for their morning ride noticed something different off to their left when they rolled past Oliver Field on the campus of the Culver Academies.
Instead of an empty football field, they spotted dozens of gold helmets. Big guys. Fast guys. Football guys.
A little past 10 a.m., Notre Dame commenced with practice No. 1 of 2019 in its preseason home away from home. The Irish first made the trek an hour south of campus to start since the coaching days of that skinny guy with the lisp and a pipe tooled around the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee in his golf cart.
For the next few days, they’ll sleep at Culver; they’ll meet at Culver; they’ll work at Culver. This week’s a chance to strengthen team bonds, maybe forge a few new relationships and make sure everyone’s on the same football page.
Summer, for the Irish, is over. Time to get back to work and really rev it up for the first time since spring, when it was cold and snowy and dreary.
Can the Irish again chase a College Football Playoff spot? Nobody saw such a run coming this time last year down here, and nothing shown by the Irish on Sunday screams a certain repeat.
Yet there were signs. Like quarterback Ian Book (good) who carries himself more like a leader, like he belongs, like this is his team. Like tight end Cole Kmet (really good). Like the tag-team starting safety combination of Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman (really, really good). Like the overall feel of the workout. It was crisp. It was (somewhat) concise. Players moved with purpose. The offense operated with poise; the defense with passion.
It all looked and felt different than spring, as it should. It felt for real. No more drifting through the practice periods at half speed. Several backs and receivers found that out when they made catches and subsequently stopped their routes. An assistant coach or two or three reminded them to finish the play, which meant turning up the field and sprinting another 20 yards.
Sunday was about resetting the standard. Even exceeding it.
There also were some surprises. Like Tony Jones Jr. sharing first team reps with Jafar Armstrong, someone many have ticketed on a Dexter Williams-like track in terms of volume and production. Like wide receiver Branden Lenzy, who looks to have the speed and the swagger to break through a logjam of potential pass-catchers. Like cornerback Donte Vaughn, last seen chasing Justyn Ross, Clemson’s rocket of a wide receiver, into the end zone last December but now lining up at starting field corner opposite veteran Troy Pride Jr.
Like sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec, still unable to string together more than a few good throws in a row. And then, there was everybody’s All-American, at least for one day in Kyle Hamilton. The former five-star safety recruit, per 247Sports, arrived on campus as seemingly the next can’t-miss kid and did not to temper those expectations.
Hamilton intercepted three passes on his first day. One of them, he closed hard near the far sideline to step in front of receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. and snatch the ball before falling out of bounds. That sequence drew a round of “oooos” from the media.
“I see you 14!” Elliott yelled to Hamilton after one pretty pick.
Everyone else also saw him. Well, not everyone.
Afterward, coach Brian Kelly insisted he’d not heard the news of or seen Hamilton’s opening practice efforts. He’d likely love what he saw later in the day when he watched film. He’d ask to have that sequence rolled back. It was worth multiple looks. Not many freshmen make those plays. Many not any.
As for specifics, Kelly wasn’t about to dive into those Sunday. How did Jurkovec look? How about that debut from Hamilton? How about this guy or that guy or those guys? Maybe after he’d had lunch, maybe after he’d watched film of the workout that ran roughly two hours, Kelly might have more than an opaque opinion.
Sunday for the Irish was about volume. Get a lot of work for a lot of guys. Some old; some young. Some ready; some not. It was revolving door at linebacker — and likely will remain one the next few days. Maybe weeks. Look for a lot of looks for the three starting spots. Switching up combinations. Put about 11 guys in situations to go make plays. Hopefully, defensive coordinator Clark Lea and Kelly can find three that can make them.
Really, though, it might be a sprint for one spot. Asmar Bilal, a holdover who started 10 games last season, will be a main guy. It looks like he’ll be joined by junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah, who sports a new number (6) and a new look. As in, he looks the part of a player.
Still, the linebacker question won’t have an answer anytime soon. Certainly not after the first 25 practice periods of the season.
“I don’t see the big picture as much as you guys see it,” Kelly said in his post-practice meeting with the media. “That’s why I bring you out here; I’ve got to look at other things.”
The big practice picture, though, often tends to fade in and out of focus. Some of the stuff — the one-on-one battles, seven-on-seven, ones versus ones — is worth the trip down U.S. 31. On some of the other drills, it was time to pull out the cell phones and check emails or twitter, maybe send a text or two. And hydrate.
That’s life at preseason practice. Some good stuff, some OK stuff, some stuff you really can do without.
Practice at Culver runs through Thursday before the Irish move their operation back to campus. The first day in pads is coming soon Thursday. The season opener arrives four weeks from Monday.
It’s all coming. The games. The practices. The season. The scrutiny. By the sights and sounds Sunday, it’s already here.
So long, summer.