5 items on Brian Kelly's to-do list for training camp

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – They have been largely measured to this point by a quantifying concoction of non-football tests, second-hand buzz, a handful of June drills and perhaps warped recruiting rankings.

Perhaps not.

Even with linebacker Nile Sykes’ unexpected July departure to parachute into Indiana University football’s freshman class, Notre Dame’s defensive front-seven contingent takes its first official college practice snaps Monday at Culver (in shorts and shells) 11 strong and teeming with equal parts optimism and enigma.

“You’ve got to like everything else Notre Dame has done in putting together this team through recruiting,” said analyst Steve Wiltfong, director of recruiting for 247Sports.

“They have weapons on offense. You like what they’ve done in the secondary, but this front seven, they took so many guys, they’re the ones who are going to decide if Notre Dame is a regular playoff team down the road or not.”

Injuries and attrition already have helped nudge three of them into the unofficial two-deeps – middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, the most highly touted of the defensive recruits; early enrolled defensive end Andrew Trumbetti; and nose guard Daniel Cage. Others, like ends Jhonny Williams, Grant Blankenship and Jonathan Bonner, could rise quickly if they’re as good in pads, beginning Friday, as they were in combine-style mapping.

They’ll need to make quick impressions, though, because Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly only has a limited window to provide an equitable number of reps. Some will end up as longer-term projects, and Kelly’s deciphering of who ends up being pushed in that direction and who ends up in the playing rotation tops the fifth-year coach’s top five to-do list – or rather should-do list – for fall training camp.

The first five sessions take place at the Culver Academies, roughly an hour south of the Notre Dame campus, with practice No. 5 being the first in pads. The first of four double sessions, spread over a 12-day period and intermingled with single sessions, take place Saturday, the first day back in South Bend.

“Someone in that group is going to have to emerge as a pass-rusher.” Wiltfong said. “I don’t know who that is right now.”

Notre Dame produced just 21 sacks last season, 96th among the 123 FBS teams. The scarier news is only three of those were credited to players currently on the Irish roster.

Throughout the position groups, this camp is more about position time-shares and niche roles than it is about establishing clear 1s and 2s (except at quarterback). And perhaps nowhere is that a stronger theme than in the front seven.

That the 11-man contingent comes to Notre Dame with tempered expectations doesn’t necessarily doom it to mediocrity, nor has the opposite been true in past classes.

Remember the vaunted 2011 front-seven class, led by five-star prospects Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Willliams? Notre Dame never would have made it to the national title game at the end of the 2012 season without Tuitt, now a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But there have been very few stars or starters from that touted 10-man contingent.

Take out Tuitt’s 29 career starts, and the other nine players – Williams, Lynch, Brad Carrico, Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, Chase Hounshell, Anthony Rabasa, Tony Springmann and Troy Niklas have combined to amass 11 career starts on defense – with Lynch accounting for six of those before he transferred in the spring following his freshman season to South Florida. Niklas, it should be noted, was flipped to tight end after his freshman season.

Even with Tuitt’s starts included, the 40 career starts generated are fewer than the smaller, less-celebrated front-seven classes that preceded them at ND in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

Defensive linemen, even more than linebackers, seem the trickier to project – and that doesn’t just pertain to Notre Dame. Take the 12 players that filled out the defensive line spots on the AP All-America first, second and third teams in 2013.

Only four of them were four- or five-star and/or top 250 prospects overall. Almost half of them weighed 230 pounds or less when they signed.

The two biggest eventual surprises were two first-teamers – Pitt’s Aaron Donald, whose FBS offers started and ended with Rutgers, Akron and Pitt; and SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, who was the lone two-star prospect among the 12.

“For the group at Notre Dame, there’s an opportunity for several of them to start cutting their teeth this year,” Wiltfong said. “How many difference-makers did they get in that group? We’ll start to see that unfold very soon. But if this defensive line group pans out at Notre Dame, Notre Dame as a team is going to be very good for a long time.”

Here’s the rest of Kelly’s should-do list:

2. Make the No. 2 quarterback matter.

Kelly wants separation between Nos. 1 and 2, but how he handles No. 2 after the announcement could make a world of difference on the field and in the locker room.

That’s not to say he needs to commit a package of plays or a closer’s or goal-line role for the runner-up, but it’s important to keep him engaged and growing. The 2011 season is the only one of Kelly’s four in South Bend in which his starting quarterback didn’t miss at least one start or a significant stretch in a game because of injury.

Last year, the backup QB position, barely used, produced a 47.9 pass efficiency rating – roughly 90 points lower than starter Tommy Rees – and a .143 completion rate.

Kelly’s decision to prolong the coronation too long risks a team starting to choose sides, but Kelly is confident that the first couple of weeks of fall camp will make the No. 1 QB apparent to everyone, including the No. 2.

If it’s sophomore Malik Zaire who settles in as No. 2, as expected, it’s important for Kelly to channel the disappointment into a healthy, not divisive, competitiveness. And given how often Zaire is a go-to host of Irish recruits on visits, his perception of his own future and the program’s touches much more than his playing status.

3. Settle the lingering line competition.

Because Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand believes in putting the best five linemen on the field, the depth chart for that position group needs all kinds of footnotes and contingency statements to figure out, because it’s definitely not linear.

As far as the top of it goes, three positions are settled – junior Ronnie Stanley is the left tackle, senior Nick Martin the center and recovered fifth-year senior Christian Lombard the right guard. Sophomore Steve Elmer is a lock to play at one of the two other positions.

So the final spot comes down to whether sophomore Mike McGlinchey is a more accomplished right tackle at this juncture or if seniors Matt Hegarty or Conor Hanratty – or maybe even 6-foot-5, 325-pound freshman prodigy Quenton Nelson -- make the top five as the left guard.

Elmer will slide to whichever spot comes up short in that competition.

The sooner Kelly makes that decision, the sooner the line can synch up with its timing and chemistry.

4. Make special teams special.

Kelly claims to have laid the groundwork for that in the offseason, humbly visiting pro and college teams to make over schemes that were ineffective, particularly when it comes to kickoff coverage and punt returns.

That ND’s ranking of 80th nationally in punt returns in 2013 represented a 20-spot improvement from the best the Irish produced in Kelly’s first three seasons speaks to just how much room there is for improvement.

So does this: Only three teams were worse in kickoff coverage in 2013 than the Irish – Auburn, North Carolina State and Idaho.

Fall camp will be a pivotal time to not only plug in dynamic return players, but find the right personnel to block and tackle on those teams.

5. Find a voice for the defense.

Well, that’s beyond new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s voice, whose high-volume teaching style makes it seem like he’s speaking through a megaphone.

A big part of the magic in 2012, and the historic defensive numbers that came with it, were the strong voices of Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore. Their message helped pair unselfishness and ownership with impressive front-seven talent.

Last year’s defense had the pieces to also be very good. But they remained pieces for much of the season, lacking cohesion and also hindered by a scheme that was too passive for the personnel. The biggest slide came in run defense – from 11th to a Kelly Era-worst 70th nationally.

Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell figure to be the top candidates to remedy the situation.

Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo (55) pressures Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage (7) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)