FOOTBALL

Notre Dame football: Who will stir Irish chemistry?

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The images coming from Camp No Distractions in Marion, Ind., this past week were so Disney-esque, so wholesome, you almost got the feeling Florence Henderson was going to pop onto the camp facility’s zip line, belting out a verse from the Brady Bunch theme.

It was surreality at its choreographed best.

Not that there wasn’t a lot to like about Notre Dame fourth-year head football coach Brian Kelly’s decision to take the first four practices of training camp on the road to secluded, TV-less, Wi-Fi challenged Shiloh Park Retreat and Recreation Center.

“It was a great jump-start on 2013,” Kelly reflected. “And not talking about Manti Te’o and the Alabama game and what happened last year and all that other s***, we were able to focus on this year and ourselves, and that’s a good thing.”

The intensity — Kelly’s verbiage included — and proficiency, boosted by at least a symbolic clean slate, carried over to the practice No. 5 Friday. It was the first to be held on the ND campus this month and the first in full pads.

The Irish then conducted their first of four two-a-days of training camp on Saturday with the first of a higher-than-usual five days off scheduled for Sunday.

If Notre Dame does go out and play above its No. 11 preseason ranking in the coaches poll this season, look for a flood of Shiloh Park stories in December, and maybe even some souvenir potholders. But Kelly is smart enough to know team chemistry can’t be forced, nor can it be incubated in a four-day period.

The seeds sown in Marion are going to have to evolve in South Bend over the next few weeks. And that starts with finding the dominant voices on what could be another dominating defensive unit.

The pieces are certainly there to improve upon last year’s stellar national rankings — 11th in rush defense, 16th in pass-efficiency defense, seventh in total defense and second in scoring defense. But is there the glue?

Te’o, now a rookie linebacker with the San Diego Chargers, wasn’t just the statistical star of the 2012 defense, he was a galvanizer. He wasn’t just the transcendent voice in the defensive huddle during the goal-line stands, he was the guy who would stay after practice to work with running backs who wanted to work on their blitz pickup.

Te’o was also the voice quarterback Everett Golson credited with giving him the confidence to amp up his game for the seismic road win in Oklahoma last October. He was the cohesion that brought the parts of the defense together.

It’s going to be intriguing to see who tries to become that in the coming days.

The Irish have more lead-by-example types than those who stir emotions with words among their more-experienced players — nose guard Louis Nix, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, outside linebackers Prince Shembo and Danny Spond, inside ’backers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, to name a bunch.

Two of the more vocal starters are younger players — sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day and redshirt sophomore safety Matthias Farley. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out, because of how much respect they already carry and how they potentially can influence team chemistry with their words and their deep knowledge base of ND’s defensive scheme.

Perhaps the best blend of experience, attitude, verboseness and earned respect is senior cornerback Bennett Jackson. You could certainly hear him belting out instructions to his teammates Friday during practice when he was limited by injury and stuck on the sidelines for most of the session.

Of course, the truest test of team chemistry is revealed typically during the team’s first puff of adversity. And yes, if it’s like any other Notre Dame season, there will be some of that — Shiloh Park or no Shiloh Park.

And when it does happen, keep your eye on Jackson.

A class act

Former Notre Dame men’s basketball player Joey Brooks, who recently added the distinction of becoming a former Irish football player, can laugh now at his welcome-to-football moments.

And yes, there were more than one.

In one of the first practices in pads last spring, Irish linebacker Carlo Calabrese rocked the aspiring tight end when he caught a pass over the middle of the field.

“Carlo’s one of my boys,” Brooks said via cell phone Friday. “He came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Normally I wouldn’t do that, but I had to kind of give you a little reminder of where you are now.’ It was all within the rules and all in good fun.”

It became less fun when linebacker Prince Shembo, purportedly the hardest hitter on the team, decided to issue his own personal welcome hit.

“That’s one thing that I gained out of my time with them — I garnered a great respect for the preparation that goes into what they do on a day-in and day-out basis,” said the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Brooks.

“These guys devote so much time, not only on the field, but in film study. It was a fantastic experience.”

But one Brooks felt he had to truncate this summer when he began work on his master’s degree in business administration, which he is on target to complete next spring.

Brooks will spend the next two semesters being just a normal Notre Dame grad student and a passionate Irish football and basketball fan. His hope is that the move will ease his way into a job with an NBA front office eight or nine months from now.

Because Brooks redshirted in basketball last season, he could have used his fourth season of hoops eligibility somewhere else in 2013-14 through the NCAA graduate school loophole. And there were attractive options there, he said.

“I still think I can play basketball at a high level,” said Brooks, who averaged 2.3 points and 1.2 rebounds in 80 games, including eight starts, in his career for coach Mike Brey’s Irish. “Football would have been a fun opportunity, too. I’m not sure how much I would have actually gotten to touch the field. But the challenges of the MBA program kind of woke me up to the fact that I probably wasn’t going to be able to fully devote myself to both.”

For Brooks, last spring was the first time he had put on football pads since his sophomore year at Strake Jesuit School in Houston. He played defensive end and tight end that season after breaking in as a wide receiver as a high school freshman.

“One of the things I’ve learned is you’ve got to make a decision not just for tomorrow or the next year, but try to make the best decision for 10-20-30 years down the road,” Brooks said.

“And the nature of the business I’m trying to get into, I felt like bettering myself as far as my education and really getting into developing connections within the Notre Dame network is something ultimately that is really important to me.”

Lou’s Lads event

The details have yet to be firmed up, but Lou’s Lads president Dr. Mark Monahan confirmed Irish football coaching icon and current ESPN analyst Lou Holtz will be back on campus Sept. 20, the eve of Notre Dame’s home football game with Michigan State, for a club event.

A limited number of tickets will be available to the public for the Friday night dinner/fund-raiser to be held on the ND campus.

“It’s why we formed Lou’s Lads,” Monahan said, “to be able to give back in the spirit and of the name of Lou Holtz.”

Lou’s Lads, inspired by Leahy’s Lads, comprises former ND football players who played during the Holtz Era (1986-96). Among the group’s most visible functions is raising money for scholarships for underprivileged students and legacies. Among their other charges are providing funds for the surviving families of passing members. That includes recently the family of the late Mirko Jurkovic.

Look for details to fill in on the Holtz event on the club’s website, louslads.com.

No Te’o in Chicago

Former Notre Dame consensus All-America linebacker Manti Te’o, a rookie with the San Diego Chargers, will miss his team’s NFL exhibition game Thursday night in Chicago with the host Bears.

Te’o suffered a sprained foot in San Diego’s 31-10 exhibition loss Thursday to Seattle. Chargers coach Mike McCoy revealed Te’o’s injury in a Saturday press conference and deemed him “out for the week.”

It is not known if the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up will make the trip to Chicago with the team to be a spectator. He watched Saturday’s practice in a protective boot and will next meet with the media on Monday.

San Diego’s next exhibition game after the Bears matchup is Aug. 24 against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz. Te’o would potentially face childhood friend, and high school and college teammate wide receiver Robby Toma in that game.

Toma had one reception for 28 yards Friday night in his pro debut, a 17-0 Cards victory over Green Bay. Another former Irish teammate, wide receiver Michael Floyd, also plays for Arizona.

Squibs

• Early pro scouting reports tend to have some almost comical distortion.

Last year’s eventual No. 5 pick, BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, for example, wasn’t among the top 1,500 prospects listed last preseason. And four of a prominent scouting service’s top eight overall preseason prospects didn’t get drafted before the third round.

With that caveat, cornerback Bennett Jackson’s early grade as a projected undrafted free agent is still surprising. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr., is among those who projects the Irish senior among the top 10 cornerbacks available.

Only seniors with no fifth-year option were graded in this report — thus no Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt were included.

Offensive tackle Zack Martin was deemed the top Irish senior prospect, with a second-round grade, followed by offensive guard Chris Watt (third), wide receiver T.J. Jones (fifth), outside linebacker Prince Shembo (fifth), inside linebacker Dan Fox (sixth), inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese (preferred free agent) and outside linebacker Danny Spond (free agent).

Nose guard Tyler Stockton, quarterback Tommy Rees, wide receiver Daniel Smith, nose guard Kona Schwenke and kicker Nick Tausch received grades below free-agent level.

• For those who like to look ahead, Notre Dame’s 2014 Blue-Gold Game, the wrap-up to spring practice, has an uber-early date of April 12.

•  While Notre Dame freshman wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., was busy rehabbing from a broken leg this summer, he was also apparently busy in the classroom.

Hunter tweeted out Saturday on Twitter that he received a 4.0 grade-point average during his first term at ND, a figure that was officially confirmed by the school.

Cornerback Bennett Jackson is set to become a leader on the Irish defense for 2013. South Bend Tribune/ROBERT FRANKLIN