Grace's progress highlights Notre Dame spring football impressions

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most amusing aspect of Saturday’s Notre Dame football spring practice at the Loftus Center was star defensive tackle Sheldon Day playing quarterback during some position drills …

That is until ND head coach Brian Kelly sort of ratted out safety John Turner late in practice for kicking the ball after it had been blown dead on a play during an 11-on-11 scrimmage period.

“Who kicked that ball?” bellowed Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, still consistently the loudest and scariest voice throughout practice.

“It was a penalty,” Kelly rationalized of turning Turner in, then chuckled. “It was actually a pretty good kick. We might have to think about using him.”

Most of practice No. 7 of 15 this spring, and the first fully revealed to the media, was all business, to the point that Kelly was even yelling at the officiating crew for an illegal-formation penalty with which he didn’t agree.

Interspersed among the serious work were periods in which ladders were used as props, specifically to narrow the window the dueling quarterbacks could throw through, and inner tubes, which held moving tackling dummies.

After practice and a quick Q-and-A with the media, Kelly grabbed a seat on a private jet to Cleveland to take in the Irish men’s hoops team’s Elite 8 matchup with No. 1 Kentucky, with plenty of football to mull along the way.

Here are the most compelling observations/trends from Saturday’s practice and spring football’s big picture:

Some of the biggest leaps forward are being made by established players.

Offensively, that includes, per Kelly, wide receivers Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and leading receiver Will Fuller, but most profoundly center Nick Martin.

The fifth-year senior-to-be played guard most of last season, but with a knee that hadn’t fully healed from surgery and an injured thumb that also limited him, after starting at center in 2013.

“He’s physically able to do things that he wasn’t able to do last year,” Kelly said. “He’s really able to move some people off the line of scrimmage.”

Making a move on the defensive side, once again, is linebacker Jarrett Grace. His remarkable 17-month comeback from four fractures in his right leg was recently interrupted by a concussion and bout with the flu, but he was back in pads doing some drill work Saturday and is going to be turned loose for full contact on Wednesday.

The expectation at this point is that the fifth-year senior-to-be not only will return to the form that made him ND’s starting middle linebacker at the time of the injury (Oct. 5, 2013), but he may even be better.

“When he opens up on that leg, he’s not firing at the same level, but it’s just a matter of time,” Kelly said. “Everything else — straight line, stops and starts — everything looks really good. When he opens up in pass coverage and crosses over, he’s not 100 percent there yet, but he’s darn close.”

If the 6-foot-3, 253-pound Grace does make it all the way back, it give the Irish tremendous depth at middle linebacker — three players with starting experience (along with Joe Schmidt and Nyles Morgan) and the option to move weakside linebacker Jaylon Smith back outside if the coaching staff so chooses.

Jonathan Bonner is the new flavor of the week.

And it’s not the first time. As a true freshman last August, the 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive lineman caught the coaching staff’s eye with breathtaking athletic skill, then got swallowed up in the details of executing his assignments in VanGorder’s scheme.

Kelly moved him from the interior of the defensive line to the edge this offseason and Bonner is thriving once again.

“His traits are really significantly different than any of the other traits that we have on the defensive line,” Kelly said. “Vertical jump is in the mid-30s. Strength is off the charts. If you look at his traits, they match up with NFL Combine numbers, elite players.

“But Jonathan was way behind in the football intelligence and understanding the position which he was playing. He’s catching up. These last few practices have been really, really good practices for him.

“He’s starting to sense the position and understand the position. He could be that guy that could turn the edge for us and give us the kind of speed that we’re looking for.”

QBs won’t pass on running fundamentals.

Noticeably more emphasized than in past seasons is drillwork regarding the quarterbacks’ handoffs, their ball fakes, doing zone reads at full speed and spending time with the running backs.

When the quarterbacks did throw the ball, fifth-year senior-to-be Everett Golson was consistently better on deep passes and had a spectacular completion of more than 50 yards to Brown during a live scrimmage period.

Zaire was sharper Saturday in the red zone.

DeShone Kizer, a distant third in the QB race and a redshirted freshman, certainly looks the part through his limited reps and working with third-string personnel against third-string personnel.

Todd Lyght looks like a guy with a longer résumé.

The first-year Irish defensive backs coach, in his first real full-time college coaching gig, has turned two of the most enigmatic players in the 2014 roster, safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield, into spring standouts.

“Now I’d like them to communicate more demonstratively, more vocally louder,” Kelly said, “but it’s night and day compared to their recognition of what’s happening out there, and how they’re seeing things.”

Lyght, a former Irish All-American and member of the 1988 national championship team, coaches both the safeties and the cornerbacks and chips in on some special teams stuff.

“Part of teaching is the ability to reach different players,” Kelly said. “Cole Luke, for example, is a smooth player. He doesn’t play with violent movements. He’s just a smooth player, and (Lyght) knows how to talk to Cole Luke differently than he does, say, Elijah Shumate.

“Now, he holds them to the same standard, but he can coach those guys in a manner that they can hear him and he can get his point across to them. That’s the hard part in coaching. Sometimes they want to use one style, and he can really work each individual and use a different style.”

Infusing offense into coverage team.

Wide receiver/running back C.J. Prosise’s success making tackles on special teams (11) last season prompted Kelly to look at some additional offensive players to add to coverage teams this year.

Among those getting auditions Saturday were tight ends Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar and Mike Heuerman; wide receiver Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter Jr., Justin Brent and Corey Holmes; and running back Tarean Folston.

“We felt like last year, when we did our offseason studies, that finding speed on that team was kind of the operative way of increasing our efficiency,” Kelly said. “So it wasn’t just about finding big bodies who can go down there and hit people. It was speed, and then tackling.

“Our skill players give us great speed, and all they have to exhibit is toughness. And we can get that out of them.”

The young and the restless.

Kelly can’t help himself from gushing about early enrolled freshman defensive lineman Jerry Tiilery, and the 6-foot-7, 300-pound Shreveport, La., product showed why on Saturday.

Working with the No. 1 defense, Tillery is a stunning blend of quickness and strength, giving the Irish pressure up the middle on passing downs, and a player that can command double-teams on running downs.

The other young players Kelly said who are in the process of gaining his trust are redshirt freshman offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, both competing for the offensive left guard spot, and weakside linebacker Te’von Coney, like Tillery an early enrollee.

“I think there are a number of guys who will help us in the fall,” Kelly said, “but Jerry Tillery is the only guy that has separated himself.”


• Former Notre Dame cornerback Cody Riggs took in Saturday’s practice and will participate in ND’s Pro Day on Tuesday.

• Future ND defensive lineman Brandon Tiassum, who arrives in June, was a part of Indianapolis Park Tudor’s Class 2-A boys basketball state championship victory on Saturday. Tiassum had two points and four rebounds in six minutes of play as Park Tudor routed Frankton, 73-46, for the school’s fourth state hoops title in the past five years.

• Wide receiver Corey Robinson (concussion) and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti (virus) were the only two Irish players out of pads Saturday, and Kelly expects both to resume drill work in the coming week.

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Notre Dame's Jarrett Grace (59) takes part in football drills last spring at the Loftus Center. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)