Notre Dame football: Irish make first impressions back on campus

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- There was no deeply symbolic reason for the change, no nod to a Notre Dame defensive unit ready to take on life after Manti Te’o.

Irish fifth-year senior linebacker Dan Fox got a haircut this summer for the first time in four years, simply because, well, the pressure he was getting from his parents finally sank in.

“It’s not coming back, either,” he said.

Fox donated his shoulder-length mane to Locks of Love, an organization that provides hairpieces to disadvantaged children suffering from long-term hair loss.

The new look for No, 48 was more of a culture shock Friday than not seeing No. 5 running around on defense. Perhaps it’s because the players who surrounded middle linebacker Te’o — the nation’s consensus top defensive player last year — have grown up and evolved so convincingly.

At least at first glance.

Friday was ND’s actual fifth practice of August training camp, but its first in pads and the first to be open to the media.

Fox, fellow fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese and ascending junior Jarrett Grace rotated at the two inside linebacker spots. Grace acknowledged having two preseason All-Americans and a rising star in Sheldon Day on the defensive line makes all of the linebackers’ jobs easier.

“You love seeing those big butts in front of you,” he offered.

The month’s biggest story line isn’t how Notre Dame is coping without No. 5 on defense, but how it’s moved on without the other No. 5 — Everett Golson — on offense. Last year’s starting QB is spending the season in academic exile but hopeful and determined to rejoin the team in mid-January.

What life after Golson looks like actually tops the list of the 10 most significant things we learned Friday from a two-hour window looking at a picture that admittedly was skewed by some injuries and is hardly static anyway.

1. A new and improved Tommy Rees?

Granted, the only pass the No. 1 option at QB threw deep in scrimmage situations Friday was underthrown (to DaVaris Daniels) and was picked off by Lo Wood. Beyond that, though, there was very little deja vu of the uncomfortable kind.

The senior threw on the run well, took care of the football and looked much more fluid in the pocket (and when he scrambled out of it) than he did as a starter in 2011.

“He’s been able to keep some plays alive that he has not been able to do in the past,” Irish fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s turned some negative plays he’s had in the past to zero (yards) or plus-5 or plus-7.

“That might not sound like much to you, but if it can keep you out of third and long — some tougher situations — that’s huge for us in terms of managing games. He’s thrown the fade in the short field much better. That was a bit of a weakness for him. ...

“He still has a lot of things he wants to improve on and we want him to improve on, but he’s definitely made improvements.”

2. Hendrix is Plan B at QB.

If freshman Malik Zaire is making a push to be the No. 2 quarterback, it wasn’t apparent Friday. The left-hander got some work in individual drills, but senior Andrew Hendrix took every snap Rees didn’t take during the scrimmage periods.

The gap between the command of the offense Rees has and to that of Hendrix was palpable.

3. Will Mahone is the flavor of the week.

The 5-11, 214-pound sophomore may still end up as ND’s sixth option in a deep running back rotation, but he’s grabbed Kelly’s attention early and often in training camp.

“He’s playing a little more in the slot,” Kelly said. “We’re getting the ball to him. He’s got very good ball skills. We didn’t even know how good his ball skills were until we started to put him in the slot a little bit more.

“He’s come on. He’s probably been one of those guys in the first few days that has caught our attention. We’ve got a lot of depth there and guys who can help us win.”

Freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, USC transfer Amir Carlisle and holdover George Atkinson III were all impressive and will likely stretch the running back rotation to four deep.

4. No serious injuries so far.

Four players expected to be in the two-deeps, if not starters, missed or were limited in Friday’s session, but Kelly said none of them are on a trajectory that would affect their availability for the season opener with Temple on Aug. 31.

The four are offensive guard Conor Hanratty, cornerback Bennett Jackson, wide receiver Daniel Smith and out-side linebacker Danny Spond.

Hanratty’s absence gave Kelly a chance to slide right tackle Christian Lombard inside and play sophomore right tackle Ronnie Stanley with the starters. It’s a configuration that’s not necessarily a temporary one.

With Spond out, freshman Jaylon Smith’s reps went up with the second-teamers, and he was a fast, physical presence who teammates say learns very quickly. And freshman Cole Luke, perhaps ND’s fourth option at cornerback, got some added exposure with Jackson out.

5. Robinson is measuring up.

Don’t expect freshman Corey Robinson to become a fixture in the Irish wide receiver rotation, but don’t be surprised if the 6-4, 205-pounder from San Antonio, Texas, carves a niche as a red-zone receiver.

Robinson made several impressive catches Friday, enough to be Corey Robinson for a day (or more) and not former NBA star David Robinson’s son.

“Physically he’s still growing,” Kelly said, “but I don’t think it takes anybody too long to figure out he’s got a great catching radius. And if you put the ball in the right position, he can go up and get it.”

6. Some new options in the return game.

Freshmen Folston and Bryant are getting auditions at both punt returns and kickoff returns. Carlisle and wide receiver TJ Jones joined the pair in the punt return drills. Atkinson, Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and KeiVarae Russell worked out with Bryant and Folston on kickoff returns.

Friday’s drills consisted little more than tracking and catching the ball. There was no coverage team to elude.

7. Shumate running with the 1s.

Perhaps the most competitive starting battle continues to be the safety position next to Matthias Farley’s. Sophomore Elijah Shumate continued to top that depth chart, but Kelly said he’ll be challenged by sophomore Nicky Baratti, senior Austin Collinsworth, junior Eilar Hardy and freshman Max Redfield.

“He’s still learning, but he’s getting better every day,” Kelly said of Shumate. “There’s a lot of tweaking and moving around, but he’s a gifted player, but he’s got some competition.”

8. Rochell continues his ascent.

The 6-4, 280-pound freshman from McDonough, Ga., is solidly in the mix to be the first defensive end to rotate in off the bench this season, continuing an impressive summer. Junior Tony Springmann and sophomore Jarron Jones are the others competing for that spot.

“It’s very, very competitive, and I would not give an edge to any of them right now,” Kelly said.

9. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wore sweats.

OK, so maybe this isn’t a significant observation from practice, but it’s just weird enough to have to work in somewhere.

10. Brian Kelly is smiling.

Kelly’s mood in August isn’t always a great indicator of what will unfold on the field later in the season, but the first five days of camp definitely have his decibels down and his expectations soaring.

“Some of the best competitive practices I’ve coached in a long time,” Kelly observed. “Now, we haven’t played a game, and I’m not saying that equals 13 wins, but I’ve coached a lot of football, and it’s been very competitive.

“It’s fast football. It’s as fast as I’ve seen here at Notre Dame. I hope that translates into winning football. We’ve still got to put points on the board and stop people. There’s depth. There are young players that are going to play for us. There are veterans that are going to play for us that have seen a lot of football. It’s a good mix.”

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees showed his offseason improvements in Friday's first practice open to media. Santiago Flores/South Bend Tribune