Notebook: No camouflaging Torii Hunter's progress at ND

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Even a fun, little gimmick that the Notre Dame football players employed in practice on Friday couldn’t obscure one of the most dramatic surges into relevancy during Irish training camp.

Wearing convalescing running back C.J. Prosise’s No. 20 on jersey-switch day, wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., continued to impress, one year removed from a modest seven-catch, 65-yard sophomore season.

“Torii’s got to get on the field,” said the man who can make it happen, ND sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly. “We’ve got to find more touches for him. And it can’t just be at the ‘Z’ position.”

That’s ND’s terminology for its slot receiver position, where grad student Amir Carlisle has seniority — and competition.

Hunter, who normally wears jersey No. 16, and freshman C.J. Sanders have wowed during the two weeks of camp. But Kelly said some of Hunter’s touches must come from sharing time at the two outside receiver positions as well.

“Torii is a playmaker for us,” Kelly said. “He’s the guy who’s got to get more catches.”

Friday’s practice was technically the last one of camp and was held in Notre Dame Stadium. The team will get two days off before reverting to late-afternoon practices Monday for the rest of the season. Classes start Tuesday.

Playing it loose with tight ends

When Kelly was asked Friday about what the depth chart at tight end might look like in roughly two weeks, when the Irish open with Texas, the ND coach scrunched his face like he had just been posed with an algebra problem.

And, in reality, he kind of had been.

Tight end is the one position on the team that not only has no clear pecking order yet, the varied skill sets of the five players in the mix make it the one depth situation that isn’t linear.

Freshman Alizé Jones, for example, isn’t behind sophomore Tyler Luatua, because Jones can and will flex out and create passing-game mismatches, while Luatua’s strong suit is blocking.

“Right now, you could use Alizé Jones as a wide receiver,” Kelly said of another of Friday’s standouts. “He has that kind of elite speed.”

Junior Durham Smythe, the player with the lone career catch among the group, is the closest thing the Irish have to a Swiss army knife at tight end. But all five, including sophomore Nic Weishar and converted defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, have had their share of training camp highlights.

Are you confident,” Kelly was pressed, that you can use a two-tight end set?

“I think we can use three,” the coach responded.

“I think we’ve kind of established what their strengths are, and then we’ll kind of move into the game that way. … We’ve got some really good flexibility. I think at the end of the day we can do some things with those tight ends to keep teams off balance.”

Plan B at nickel

With No. 1 option at nickelback, freshman Shaun Crawford, out for the season with a torn ACL, Notre Dame’s new alignment — when it employs five defensive backs on passing downs — will have senior KeiVarae Russell sliding inside to play the nickel.

Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder opted for cornerback Russell over safety Matthias Farley, who played nickel last season for the Irish.

“We know what Matthias can do,” Kelly said. “He’s really solid there for us and he can do a lot of really good things for us, but KeiVarae gives us the ability to play man coverage. We can blitz him. We can do a lot more with him, and we feel like we’re still solid at corner (with) the kind of camp that those (other) corners have had.”

A surprise emerged as to who that corner projects to be when Russell slides inside — junior Devin Butler.

Freshman Nick Coleman and sophomore Nick Watkins have received more meaningful reps during the five practices that the media has been able to witness, and they’ve appeared to outplay him. But Butler has apparently shined on those days when practices are closed.

“If we were handicapping the corners, we would not have thought he’d be our third corner,” Kelly said. “He’s had a really, really good camp. He plays with so much more confidence, speed. He’s a different player than he was last year.”

Squibs

• With each passing day, Kelly becomes more pessimistic that junior running back Greg Bryant will eventually return to Notre Dame.

ND’s second-leading rusher in 2014 was declared academically ineligible earlier this month and initially — through his father — intimated he would take classes at ND this fall semester with the aim of regaining eligibility in 2016.

But a little over a week ago, much to his father’s apparent surprise, the former five-star prospect from Delray Beach, Fla., reportedly enrolled at ASA Miami, a fledgling junior college football program.

Bryant is listed on the roster on the school’s website, with ASA’s season opener set for Aug. 29, though there are rumblings he could land in the juco ranks elsewhere.

“The last we heard he was thinking about another school,” said Kelly, who has been unable to reach Bryant since his alleged enrollment at ASA. “We get different reports each day.”

• Co-No. 1 running back C.J. Prosise (hip flexor) didn’t take part in contact drills Friday, but per Kelly, remains on track to practice full speed on Monday.

• Freshman center Tristen Hoge, a camp surprise, didn’t participate in practice on Friday.

• Senior nose guard Jarron Jones, who underwent season-ending surgery (MCL, right knee) earlier this week, did attend practice as a spectator, albeit on crutches.

• The Irish went live — full speed and full contact — while practicing kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns on Friday. That’s something Kelly hasn’t had his teams do since his first couple of years as a head coach, more than two decades ago.

Kelly said the team worked on fake punts after the media was ushered out of practice.

• Redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer is trending toward claiming the No. 2 quarterback spot. Classmate Quenton Nelson, meanwhile, is emerging as the No. 1 left offensive guard, though challenger Alex Bars is expected to see time at the position.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHans

Torii Hunter Jr., donned C.J. Prosise's No. 20 Friday at practice during jersey-switch day at Notre Dame Stadium. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)