Notebook: Notre Dame freshmen making loud impression
SOUTH BEND — On a day when the grand reveal of the “Green Monster” Shamrock Series uniforms trampled timelines on social media and linebacker Jaylon Smith’s evolution hit a freakish new high in practice, the boldest thunder in the Notre Dame football world Thursday came from an unlikely source.
The 23 first-year players, on campus since at least June and some since January, not only haven’t hit the proverbial freshman wall, they’re tearing down walls and pushing up the depth chart on a team that returns 18 starters from 2014 and two others from 2013.
Twelve or more could see the field this season instead of redshirting.
“They have really upped the competition in a number of different areas,” Irish sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly gushed after practice No. 8 of training camp.
Receivers C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin along with cornerbacks Shaun Crawford and Nick Coleman were among the standouts in pads Thursday who also earlier impressed in helmets and shorts, but the burgeoning prodigies were all over the field, including on the offensive line.
“The guy who’s been a bit of a surprise is Tristen Hoge,” Kelly said of the 6-foot-4, 300-pound center from Pocatello, Idaho, who was an early enrollee. “Physically we didn’t think he was going to be ready to compete this year, but physically he’s changed his body in a very short period of time.
“He’s gotten quality reps at the No. 2 and has done a nice job for us.”
Notre Dame’s commitment to an upcoming documentary series about its football team with Showtime — “A Season With Notre Dame Football” — was not without potential cons as Kelly mulled the merits of the project.
“The cons are the distraction, right, that you’ve got cameras around,” he said. “Most of these guys at Showtime don’t shower. … I’m kidding. ‘How are you?’ They’re right there.”
And there they were — boom mikes, cameras and production staff and all, taking in everything Thursday in all-access fashion. Which doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that the 12 30-minute episodes Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. (ET) starting Sept. 8 will be an all-access finished product.
“I think we’re going to have great collaboration,” Kelly said. “So I think anytime you’re putting together a weekly show, you want to make sure you’re real and it’s not a public service announcement each week, and we get that.
“And Showtime and their production people want something that is certainly indicative of what goes on here on a day-to-day basis. Having said that, we never want to embarrass any players, coaches or the university. I think we’re pretty clear on how we’ll collaborate in getting that to that end.”
The Irish players and coaches are used to chronic eavesdroppers, both with the school’s Fighting Irish Digital Media productions as well as NBC Sports Network’s “Strong and True” documentary specials.
And in the end, the potential pros were just too much to pass up, in Kelly’s mind.
“We definitely are going to be able to tell our story each week during the year,” Kelly responded when asked if he felt the series would turn into a recruiting advantage. “And we’re going to talk a lot about why we think 17-year-olds should come to Notre Dame.”
Easily the coolest part of the Shamrock Series uniform mass unveiling Thursday was what happened when walk-on running back Josh Anderson modeled for his teammates the special jerseys and helmets the Irish will wear against Boston College, Nov. 21 in Boston’s Fenway Park.
It was Kelly’s idea to use Anderson, rather than the mannequin that Under Armour provided, and he had an ulterior motive for doing so.
“I said, ‘This is a great model,’ ” Kelly related. “I said, ‘Josh, take your helmet off. He models everything I think is right about a Notre Dame football player.’ And at that time, I announced he was going to get a scholarship.”
The senior from Chatsworth, Calif., who has yet to play a down in his career at ND, was mobbed by his teammates after the announcement. The scholarship came open when sophomore defensive end Kolin Hill announced his decision to transfer last week.
“Josh Anderson has done everything we’ve asked over the last (four) years, has taken more hits than any one of our backs,’ Kelly said, “is a scout-team player and is a good student, well-respected by all of his teammates. … It was a good moment.”
• One of the many ascending freshmen, kicker Justin Yoon, hasn’t faced a true live rush yet, but what he’s done in prepping for his college debut Sept. 5 against Texas has been, well, perfect.
Kelly revealed Yoon has been 18-of-18 on field goals in practice, including 4-of-4 from 40-49 yards.
“The operation (snap, hold, kick) is outstanding — 1.21 (seconds), which is as quick as we’ve ever had,” Kelly said. “Really solid, really consistent, doesn’t have any mechanical flaws.”
And new punter Tyler Newsome, a redshirt freshman, may have been even more impressive, with a 51-yard average so far and 4.06 to 4.13 seconds of hang time.
“Which is ridiculous,” Kelly said. “If we can get anything like that in a game, we’ll flip field position.”
• Junior wide receiver Will Fuller is trending to be the team’s top punt returner, with freshman Sanders also in the picture and freshman walk-on Chris Finke — from quarterback Malik Zaire’s high school (Kettering, Ohio, Archbishop Alter) — an impressive option.
“If we ever got into a pinch, we’re that deep where we’ve got a kid who can go out there and catch everything,” Kelly said.
Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise, Sanders, Crawford and Josh Adams — the latter three all freshmen — are the options Kelly is sifting through on kickoff returns.
• With junior Durham Smythe and freshman Alizé Jones out of the tight end rotation Thursday with what Kelly termed as minor injuries, sophomore Nic Weishar took advantage and was one of the overall bright spots on offense in practice.
“He’s going to offer some more depth at the position that we didn’t think we’d have,” said Kelly, who also is prepping Weishar as a long snapper.
Grad student tight end Chase Hounshell, a converted defensive lineman, has impressed with his blocking at a position where all five tight ends could have at least niche roles.
• While converted wide receiver Justin Brent, a sophomore, and freshmen Dexter Williams and Adams battle to get into the running back rotation, junior Tarean Folston and senior Prosise — another converted wide receiver — are in a dead heat as the top options in the running back corps.
“There’s not a depth chart (between those two) right now,” Kelly said. “You get a good practice on you, and you’ve worked hard, you’re going to get first-team reps. It’s a very competitive situation and very fluid.”
Kelly said most of the carries in the Irish running game will come from those two as well as QB Zaire, with some occasional involvement from slot receivers Carlisle, Torii Hunter Jr., and Sanders.
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