Notebook: Jerry Tillery, Te'von Coney stir interest for Notre Dame's spring
SOUTH BEND — Amid a gaggle of position switches, confirmed roster deletions and stirring comeback stories on Tuesday, the ascent of freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tillery continues to surge into significance in Notre Dame football’s big picture.
Namely that the thread could have shelf life long after spring practice concludes on April 18.
As spring drills open Wednesday morning, in projected 26-degree temperatures, the early enrollee from Shreveport, La., has transformed his experiment as a defensive lineman into a legitimate push for playing time through impressive winter workouts.
“He’s an incredibly gifted physical young man,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-7, 300-pounder who was originally recruited as an offensive tackle but successfully campaigned for an audition on defense.
“Sometimes when you get a guy that's that big, has that kind of movement, you worry about his toughness at times. But when we put him in competitive drills — tire war, things of that nature, sumo — he shows up big there, too.
“He shows a toughness to him. I would say that Jerry has shown himself to be someone we're excited about.”
Fellow early enrollee Te’von Coney, who enters spring No. 2 on the depth chart at weakside linebacker behind All-American Jaylon Smith, has also created a pre-spring stir.
“These are guys that haven't strapped on a helmet or pads yet, but Te'von Coney, real excited about seeing what he can bring, as well,” Kelly said. “Those guys in particular are going to be fun to watch.”
Old faces, new places
Chase Hounshell’s last meaningful snap of football came during his freshman season, in 2011. Multiple shoulder surgeries robbed him of his 2012 and 2013 seasons, and his comeback in 2014 as a defensive end consisted of three short cameos and two total tackles.
A fifth-year option seemed beyond a stretch, from the outside looking in. Turns out it was from Kelly’s point of view too.
That Hounshell finds himself on the spring roster as a tight end, wearing Ben Koyack’s old No. 18 jersey number, is a testament to how much football still means to the 6-foot-5, 255-pound fifth-year candidate.
“Chase knocked down my door, wouldn't leave me alone,’ Kelly said, “just kept coming back and saying, ‘Coach, I want to be part of this team. I have something to offer.’
“That hasn't been the case over the past couple years. I've had fifth-year seniors that didn't want to be part of the team. When we had guys that had opportunities to compete and be part of our football team, they chose to want to be one-year starters somewhere else.
“We said, ‘We don't really have a role for you on the defensive line, but we could use a big, physical, blocking tight end. Would you be interested in that role?’
“He said, ‘Coach, I'll do whatever you ask me to do.’ ”
ND’s four returning tight ends and newcomer Alizé Jones have a combined one career catch for seven yards.
• Sophomore-to-be Greer Martini, who backed up at weakside and middle linebacker last season, moves to ND’s outside (strongside) linebacker spot and will share the role with junior-to-be James Onwualu.
Onwualu will get the snaps against teams with more speed and with spread offenses. Martini’s role is to play against power teams.
• As expected, 2013 starting center Nick Martin is moving back to his old spot, vacated in September last season when torn ligaments in his right (snapping) thumb helped coax a move to offensive guard.
“We think that’s a great, natural fit for him,” Kelly said.
Sophomore-to-be Sam Mustipher will be Martin’s backup, with early enrolled freshman Tristen Hoge No. 3.
Former backup center Mark Harrell moves out to tackle to provide depth at that position.
• Sophomore-to-be Jonathan Bonner, a redshirt in 2014, has moved from defensive tackle to end and will be in the mix to back up Isaac Rochell.
“He's put on a lot of weight. He's up to 272, 273,” Kelly said of the 6-3 Bonner. “He's in a very important position for us. We really like what we see from him right now. So a lot of eyes on him.”
• Senior-to-be John Turner is back at safety after backing up Onwualu last season at outside linebacker.
• Inside linebacker Doug Randolph, a 6-2, 240-pound junior-to-be, will get an audition as a rush end this spring.
• Slot receiver C.J. Prosise, ND’s second-leading rusher in the 31-28 Music City Bowl upset of LSU (3 carries, 75 yards, 1 TD), will cross train at wide receiver and running back this spring.
The Irish have just two returning running backs on the roster — juniors-to-be Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant — and add two freshmen, Dexter Williams and Josh Adams, in June.
Prosise was ND’s fifth-leading receiver in 2014 (29 receptions, 516 yards, 2 TDs).
Not taking the fifth
Cornerback Jalen Brown, defensive end Anthony Rabasa and linebacker Ben Councell joined former starting center Matt Hegarty as players with a fifth year of eligibility who have exited the Irish roster.
Among them, Councell won’t be looking to find a grad-school transfer situation at another school. Instead, Kelly said, the former top-tier prospect will graduate from Notre Dame in the spring and move on with the next chapter of his life.
“He was offered an opportunity to play,” Kelly said. “We respect his decision.”
Perhaps the most intriguing and real position battles beyond quarterback this spring involve left offensive guard and middle linebacker.
At guard, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand have opted to pit two of their elite, young tackle prospects —and perhaps the two linemen with the highest ceiling — at the open left guard spot.
Sophomores Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, each of whom redshirted last season, will duel for that spot. The eventual No. 2 at that position will very likely return to tackle in 2016, when starting left tackle Ronnie Stanley moves on to the NFL.
At middle linebacker, Joe Schmidt is still recovering from a leg injury, opening the door for expanded reps from 2013 starter Jarrett Grace. Both players are moving into their fifth year at ND.
In the next week Grace will see his first significant contact in more than 17 months, since he fractured his right leg in a win over Arizona State in Arlington, Texas.
When 2014 team MVP Schmidt is 100 percent, that will give the Irish three middle linebackers with starting experience, with sophomore-to-be Nyles Morgan as another option.
Kelly suggested it could evolve into a time share of some sort.
“We think it's a good problem to have,” he said. “We'll take those kind of problems. Last year during the season we didn't have that kind of luxury. I think it's all going to work itself out.”
Weis (Jr.) to Alabama
A month after his father announced he had likely coached his last game, former South Bend St. Joseph High School student Charlie Weis Jr., has landed his first post-college coaching position.
The son of former Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis (2005-09) will be a graduate assistant/offensive analyst on Nick Saban’s coaching staff at Alabama.
The younger Weis recently completed his degree work at the University of Kansas. The elder Weis was fired at Kansas in October and has moved into full-time fund-raising to help people with special needs.
• Leading receiver, junior-to-be Will Fuller, will go through spring with a cast on his hand as a result of a hairline fracture of his third metacarpal.
“It's not really going to affect him,” Kelly deadpanned. “He's not going to be able to block effectively, but he's not a great blocker anyways. He's kind of happy about that.”
• Four months removed from an ACL tear in his left knee suffered in a loss to Louisville, sophomore-to-be safety Drue Tranquill is so far ahead of schedule, he could play in a game this month if pressed to do so.
Since he isn’t, Kelly will go conservative with the part-time freshman starter this spring.
“If we didn't have a training staff, he'd be full go tackle,” Kelly said. “He's a nut. He's just been incredible.”
• Kelly tipped his cap Tuesday to Mike Brey’s Irish men’s basketball squad when talking about team chemistry on the football team. Brey’s Irish, the ACC Tourney champs, tip off NCAA Tournament play Thursday against Northeastern in Pittsburgh.
“It's really part of their DNA, sharing the basketball, playing great basketball where nobody cares who gets the credit,” Kelly said. “I know that's easy to say when you're winning, but that's what we've got to get to with our football team.”