Notre Dame adding speed to special teams


Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — At first glance, Notre Dame’s kickoff coverage drill looked like a mistake.

Not in execution, mind you, as it often did on game days last season, when the Irish ranked fourth from the bottom nationally (120th) in kickoff coverage. But in the personnel lined up to go smother the opposition’s kick returner.

Among the players charged with improving ND’s woes in defending the return, at least in Tuesday’s practice open to the media, were three offensive players, including running back Greg Bryant and slot receiver Amir Carlisle.

The 5-foot-10, 205-pound Bryant also happens to be a returner, battling newcomer Cody Riggs for the top job on punt returns. The 5-10, 190-pound Carlisle was named ND’s primary kickoff returner on Tuesday.

Together they have eight fewer career tackles than does kicker Kyle Brindza, who has exactly eight.

“Some of the research that we did was we wanted speed to the 30-yard line,” Kelly said of the staff’s offseason research to upgrade all special teams that included meetings with several pro and college teams.

“A lot of the people that we brought in and talked to (noted) we had big thumpers on that crew, that search and destroy crew, that cover team — but we didn't have enough speed. So we've added speed on that group.”

The Irish play the top two teams in kickoff returns from 2013 — No. 1 Florida State on Oct. 18 and No. 2 Stanford on Oct. 4. The Irish open the season with Rice, the nation’s 97th-best kickoff return team last season, on Aug. 30 in Notre Dame Stadium.

Depth-chart risers

The last couple of position battles appear to have been settled, with the two players claiming starting spots following unlikely ascents to the top of the depth chart —senior Matt Hegarty on offense and sophomore James Onwualu on defense.

Hegarty, the newly anointed starting left guard, came to ND in 2011 as a highly touted tackle prospect (No. 56 nationally regardless by position by recruiting analyst Tom Lemming), but late in his sophomore season, Hegarty suffered a stroke.

“All I knew was that this was bigger than football,” Hegarty would later say. "And later I wondered if football might be over."

The hidden blessing was that doctors discovered Hegarty was born with two holes in his heart, and that having discovered that at age 20 rather than later in life theoretically prevented some irreversible damage. Doctors said the holes were the impetus for the stroke.

He underwent a non-invasive surgical procedure on Dec. 14 that was to have repaired the problem for good. But in the weeks that followed, many in the program wondered whether Hegarty would be able to return to the level he played at pre-surgery.

And Hegarty decidedly has not. He’s exceeded it, and settles in with left tackle Ronnie Stanley, center Nick Martin, right guard Christian Lombard and right tackle Steve Elmer to form one of the team’s strongest position groups.

Onwualu, meanwhile, was recruited to play wide receiver and managed two catches for 34 yards in 2013 as more of a blocker than a catcher. Last spring, the 6-1, 220-pounder was moved to safety, then before spring was up, to outside linebacker.

He’ll be ND’s top option at strongside linebacker against most teams, yielding to 6-5, 254-pound senior Ben Councell when the Irish match up against power teams.

First-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder cautioned Onwualu when he switched him to linebacker that it would probably be a year before he could digest all the concepts of the position well enough to compete for playing time.

He shattered the timetable.

“He cares so much,” Kelly said. “I mean, he's got so much pride that he spends hours just mastering his craft. He will not take a minute off if he doesn't know what to do. So that's what makes that kid a special player. He just wants to master what he does.”

Personnel matters

Finally it appears linebacker Jarrett Grace’s recovery from four fractures sustained in his right leg 10½ months ago is more a matter of when than if.

Grace was ND’s starting middle linebacker when he suffered the injury in a 37-34 win over Arizona State on Oct. 5. He has undergone two surgeries since, the most recent of which was in late March, when a rod was inserted for stability.

“I think Jarrett probably crossed a big threshold within the last 48 hours where he's finally now being able to strike his foot,” Kelly said of the 6-3, 253-pound senior. "Now he's actually getting that sensation of the foot striking, and he's getting into a more natural gait, which I'm told that is a huge crossroads for him.

“Now it's just a matter of time for him, so we're still holding true that he's probably a couple of weeks into the season before he's probably ready to go. But just a huge hurdle for him mentally that now he has that sensation of his foot hitting the ground.

• Sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., will likely return by Michigan (Sept. 6) or Purdue (Sept. 13) from a groin tear, Kelly said while Monday is the likely return date for backup linebacker Doug Randolph (bone bruise) and No. 2 tight end Durham Smythe (hamstring).

• Sophomore Will Fuller, competing for a starting spot at wide receiver with senior DaVaris Daniels sidelined during ND’s internal academic fraud investigation, was held out of contact in Tuesday’s practice with a leg injury.

“Nothing cartilage, no ligament damage, just some soreness there,” Kelly said. “We worked him out pretty hard today. If we had to play on the weekend, he'd play.”

• Kelly expects to determine the team’s captains for the season on Monday. | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Sophomore linebacker James Onwualu, a wide receiver last season, has earned a starting spot on defense. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)