Irish get a surprise at practice

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Freshman tight end Tyler Luatua was building on his reputation of being the surprise of Notre Dame football training camp when he was upstaged Saturday.

Make that happily upstaged.

Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock made a surprise cameo appearance at Saturday morning’s practice, the first to be held in South Bend, the second in pads and the sixth overall since camp kicked off Monday in Culver.

Denbrock, who also coaches the wide receivers, had been absent from the first five practices after undergoing an undisclosed surgical procedure, which originally threatened to keep him completely away from the team for the first few weeks of training camp.

“He’s not going to be able to be out here for long periods of time,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said after the first of two practices Saturday. “He’s going to pick his spots. I think he’ll be able to do an hour a day probably for the next week or so — couple of weeks, and gradually increase his time with us.

“But it was great to see Mike out there. He was yelling at the officials, so I knew he was starting to feel a little bit better.”

Kelly has been handling the receivers in drills in Denbrock’s absence, and doing so with high decibels, so much so that the fifth-year head coach was starting to lose his voice during Saturday morning’s practice.

“He definitely knows what he’s talking about,” junior receiver Chris Brown offered of the Kelly experience as his position coach. “He keeps it going, he gets us up tempo. We’re never standing around. It’s been a different experience, but a good one.

“Man, I love coach Denbrock. It was good to see him back up and running. I’m looking forward to getting him back with us.”

When Denbrock does come back full-time, here’s a snap shot of what he could be walking into:

The Road Ahead: The first order of business later this weekend won’t be putting a fine point on the quarterback hierarchy but figuring out who tops the offensive line depth chart.

Three spots are set — Christian Lombard at right guard, Nick Martin at center and Ronnie Stanley at left tackle. Sophomore Steve Elmer will be either the starting right tackle or left guard. That depends upon whether the staff wants to go with high-ceiling sophomore Mike McGlinchey at right tackle or keep him as a reserve and go with experience at left guard in either senior Matt Hegarty or classmate Conor Hanratty.

Perhaps the tiebreaker will be that Elmer is playing much better at guard right now than at tackle.

“We’ve been in a lot of different lineups up there,” Kelly said. “We’re trying to find the right matches there, and we’re probably going to have to start settling in. … We’ve really got to make a lot of decisions and say, ‘These are the guys we’re going to be working with at these positions and really get them comfortable at these positions.’ ”

Kelly hopes to have that nailed down by Monday.

By the end of next week, there could be an announcement regarding the quarterbacks, with 2012 starter Everett Golson continuing to garner the first-team reps in practice.

Challenger and sophomore Malik Zaire wasn’t as sharp in Saturday morning’s session and had a rough patch where he threw interceptions on consecutive passes, both tipped by receivers. Sophomore cornerback Cole Luke grabbed the first, while senior corner and Florida transfer Cody Riggs picked the second.

The quarterback picture has been distorted, though, by the fact the coaching staff is still installing the offense, and sometimes the QBs are asked to throw the ball into coverage to run the play, when under normal circumstances they’d check out of it based on the coverage they’re seeing at the line of scrimmage.

“I think Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I then start to look at, ‘All right, we’ll chart now aggressively and look for separation at that position,” Kelly said. “But those first five or six days, you’re laying down installation. It’s hard to truly say, ‘Look, if you’re making a decision in these first five days, you already knew who you’re quarterback was, really.’ ”

The Road to Recovery: Sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. was the most serious of the injuries that kept a handful of players out of practice on Saturday.

And his third-degree groin tear will actually sideline the 6-foot, 180-pounder for the next four to six weeks, per Kelly. He suffered the injury last week at Culver, when the team was still practicing in shorts and shells.

There were hopes from the coaching staff that Hunter might make the slot receiver competition interesting after he missed all of last season with a slow-healing broken leg suffered the previous January while practicing for a high school all-star game.

• Meanwhile, outside linebacker Ben Councell and offensive guard Matt Hegarty, both potential starters, were held out of contact after suffering concussions last week

“(They’re) going through our protocol,” Kelly said of the clearance procedure to be reinstated to practice. “Both of them have moved quickly through our protocol and are on the back end of it.”

• Sophomore cornerback Devin Butler left practice less than an hour into it to receive IVs for dehydration.

• Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell tweaked a calf muscle during a drill trying to defend receiver Chris Brown. He stayed on the field, but was pulled from subsequent drills.

“We’re just a little bit cautious with him as you can imagine,” Kelly said.

Benefiting from Russell’s absence was Josh Atkinson, a seldom-used senior who was repeatedly impressive Saturday in coverage.

• Freshman offensive guard Sam Mustipher had his left foot in a protective boot, the result of a mid-foot sprain, said Kelly. The coach was optimistic the reserve lineman would rejoin practice sometimes in the coming week.

• Senior receiver DaVaris Daniels has been practicing, but hasn’t been 100 percent Kelly said. ND’s leading returning receiver missed the spring semester in the classroom and on the field as a academic casualty. He was running with the 2s on Saturday.

“He’s been limited with a groin injury,” Kelly said, “so it’s just not fair for me to put him in there. He hasn’t earned the starting position.”

• Kelly said the staff is a week to 10 days away from being able to accurately gauge how much and how soon senior middle linebacker Jarrett Grace could help the team.

The former starter, who’s last contact came Oct. 5 in a win over Arizona State, suffered four breaks in his right leg in that game and had undergone a pair of surgeries since.

“We haven’t cut him loose yet, so we’re not at that point where he is running downhill or running sideline to sideline.”

Coming of Age: Luatua continues to be the impact freshman on offense. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound tight end showed off his versatility in Saturday morning’s session, lining up at H-back and fullback at times.

“He’s going to play,” Kelly said. “We’re going to feature some backfield sets that will allow him to really use his size. He’s a load. And when he brings it, he’s a heavy load. We haven’t had that downhill physicality that changes the pace. We can still play fast and downhill and he gives us some really good flexibility.”

Kelly mentioned ends Jhonny Williams, Jonathan Bonner and Kolin Hill, along with Daniel Cage, as the freshmen in the defensive front seven he expects to make an impact.

“Those four guys have shown the ability to pass rush on third down,” Kelly said. “Now they’re probably not going to be every-down players, but they can come off the edge for us. Those four guys in the front seven will be able to help us.”

Kelly didn’t mention Andrew Trumbetti, who has been running with the 2s, but that’s an oversight. Because Trumbetti enrolled early and went through spring practice, he doesn’t think of him as a freshman.

The coach also omitted middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, the purported defensive jewel of the recruiting class, and that wasn’t a mistake.

Kelly loves Morgan’s long-term potential, but …

“It’s just that it’s a lot of work to get there,” Kelly said of the position that is responsible for defensive calls in addition to being the heart of the defense. “We had Manti Te’o … I said this when I watched him on film (that) he had a long way to go after his freshman year.

“And he was a 5-star, one of the best freshmen in the country, so it’s a lot. And he’s really extremely athletic and again, gifted player. He’s got a lot of want-to. It’s just going to take some time, and he’s working at it.”

Squibs

• Kelly enjoyed every second of riding into Friday’s practice at the Culver Academies on a horse to surprise his players, but wasn’t crazy about what he considered nerdy headgear he donned while riding.

“Oh I kicked and screamed on wearing that hat,” he insisted of the protective helmet. “They gave me some kind of medical liability and some kind of (stuff) like that and I just, ‘All right. Whatever I’ve got to do. I’ve got to wear the hat.’ ”

• The Irish will practice Monday on the new FieldTurf in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time.

• Sophomore wide receiver and mega-soccer fan Corey Robinson has dyed and shaped his hair into a blond Mohawk as a tribute to Italian soccer star Mario Balotelli.

Quarterback Everett Golson (5) listens to head coach Brian Kelly during practice at Notre Dame on Saturday, August 9, 2014, in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)