Notebook: Notre Dame's Brian Kelly encounters happy dilemma at LB

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly has a linebacker dilemma.

Again.

This time, it’s the happy kind.

Forced by freakish attrition last season to play unincubated freshmen in the middle of his defense, the Notre Dame sixth-year head coach has a talent/experience glut at linebacker as the Irish kick off training camp Friday morning at Culver, Ind.

“Jarrett Grace just continues to regain all of the power,” Kelly beamed Thursday of his 2013 starting middle linebacker, whose comeback from four leg fractures continues to amaze his own doctors. “And he's going to be a guy that makes an impact for us right away against Texas.”

Team MVP Joe Schmidt, last year’s starting middle linebacker in Grace’s absence, is back from his own surgically repaired leg injury — suffered last Nov. 1.

“He's had an excellent summer,” Kelly said. “He's plus-400 on the bench, so physically, physically very strong.”

And sophomore Nyles Morgan, who oscillated between bewildered and dynamic while filling in for the two, brings a third strong option in the middle.

“If you just look at it from one perspective and say, ‘Well, how are you going to get all those Mike linebackers out there?’ That's a valid point.

“But the reality of it is that with the different offenses that we see each and every week, there is enough reps for all those guys to play meaningful minutes and really impact every game we play.”

The most surprising clean bill of health belongs to senior safety Nicky Baratti, who’s missed all but two games the past two seasons with shoulder injuries, and there were some who didn’t think he’d ever be back.

“He's come back nicely,” Kelly said. “No instability since his surgery. No restrictions.”

Same goes for incumbent starting nose guard Jarron Jones (foot), safety Drue Tranquill (knee) and defensive end Jonathan Bonner (toe).

Kelly said outside linebacker James Onwualu has fully recovered from January wrist surgery, but will wear a splint in practice for now.

Who’s No. 2?

It doesn’t have quite the panache of this year’s concocted “Culture Beats Scheme” Notre Dame locker room battle cry, but determining who’s going to be Plan B at quarterback behind starter Malik Zaire may eventually have a bigger impact on ND’s actual bottom line.

Redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer and true freshman Brandon Wimbush accelerate into that competition, beginning Friday after some preliminary summer work, most of which the coaching staff wasn’t permitted to watch.

“The No. 2 has to get a lot of work, so that is very important to us as we script, as we look at the reps,” Kelly said. “So I can tell you that that's a conversation that's at the forefront of most of the scripting that goes on in the staff offensive meeting room.

“So when do we want (separation) to occur? When it naturally occurs through volume of repetition. Now what have I heard, what have I seen? Over the last couple of days I've seen a very mature individual in DeShone Kizer as well as in Brandon Wimbush beyond his years.

“So I think it will come down to the fact that both of them are capable. We're going to have to find out who can go out there and be a field general and manage our offense, and that's really what we're at next starting today.”

Bryant aftermath

Kelly said Thursday that the recent revelation that junior Greg Bryant won’t play this season (due to academic shortcomings) means C.J. Prosise will no longer teeter between slot receiver and running back, but will be a full-time running back for the Irish this fall.

That’s not to say that the 6-foot-1, 220-pound senior, ND’s leader in yards per catch in 2014 at 17.8, won’t bring some of those receiver qualities to his new position.

Also joining the position group that includes Prosise, junior Tarean Folston and freshmen Dexter Williams and Josh Adams, is 6-2,220-pound sophomore wide receiver Justin Brent.

Brent rushed for 1,315 yards and 18 touchdowns on 157 carries as a senior at Speedway High near Indianapolis while splitting time between the backfield and wide receiver on offense.

“There is a deep pool of talent at the wide receiver position right now,” Kelly said. “It's going to be hard to get him a lot of reps at wide receiver. But we're going to take a look at him at running back, see if he can give us something there.

“If he takes it and he goes downhill and he plays physical, I'll find some carries for him and I'll get him on every special team. If he wants to do that, then I think I can get him some playing time. If not, I think it's going to be hard for him to get on the field.”

As for Bryant himself, there reportedly are no intentions to transfer.

Greg Bryant, Sr., the father of ND’s third-leading rusher in 2014, told Irish Illustrated Thursday afternoon his son will return to ND this fall as a regular student and work to get himself eligible to play for the Irish in 2016.

Bryant Sr. told II multiple junior colleges have reached out to the former five-star prospect from Delray Beach, Fla.

"When you have the opportunity to come back to Notre Dame, you don’t walk away from that,” Bryant Sr. said.

Squibs

• Kelly said Thursday he’ll do a lot more live special teams work than usual in practice to get new specialists, freshman kicker Justin Yoon and redshirt freshman punter Tyler Newsome accustomed to game-simulated conditions.

“I don't want to use Texas (the Sept. 5 season opener) as the first time that we do some things live,” Kelly said.

• Among the June-arriving freshmen who made strong impressions over the summer and could work their way into early playing time are cornerbacks Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman.

“There is probably a better chance on defense, because we're pretty deep on the offensive side of the ball,” Kelly said, “except I think the one guy that's really impressed everybody unanimously in terms of being ready to play is (tight end) Alizé Jones. Physically he's capable of playing — size, skill set, he has all those tools.

“If you just look at numbers that jump off the chart, you'd have to say (wide receiver Miles Boykin). I don't know if I've seen the kind of numbers that he's put up — close to a 38.5 inch vertical jump, physically strong, 15 times 225 (pounds in the bench press), just really impressive, impressive numbers. And I would say that that goes for, as a freshman class, across the board all of them are physically very, very talented.”

• Kelly said that while senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell has been reinstated by Notre Dame and that he complied with NCAA requirements where his academic-related suspension is concerned, the NCAA has not yet rubber-stamped his eligibility.

Unlike defensive end Ishaq Williams, who is awaiting his NCAA fate, Russell will not be held out of practices.

“The information that I've gotten back from (athletic director) Jack Swarbrick and our athletic administration is that we've submitted everything,” Kelly said of Russell’s situation. “We feel confident in the information that we have submitted to the NCAA, and we feel very strong about his eligibility.

“We certainly were guided through this process in terms of what he needed to do.”

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

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