Irish eyes on safety for Notre Dame spring practice

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Competition is the essence of spring football at Notre Dame.

Nobody has to tell that to DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush.

But safety is an issue that won’t — and can’t — be compromised.

Nothing worse for a football coach than to lose a key player — or anyone on the roster, for that matter — to a significant injury during the 15-practice regimen that won’t amount to a hill of beans come August.

This is a time to establish a foundation. The only way that could happen is with healthy bodies.

At times last season, the Irish were overwhelmed by injuries. Some possibly could have been prevented, and some — like Drue Tranquill’s jumping celebration that ended with him landing wrong and suffering a torn ACL — were flukes.

Can’t outlaw celebrations, right? Well…

What coach Brian Kelly and his staff can have done, stopping short of legislating fun out of the game, has been to use science to their advantage.

When a quarterback (Zaire), running back (Tarean Folston), tight end (Durham Smythe), offensive lineman (Alex Bars), defensive tackle (Jarron Jones), and a couple defensive backs (Shaun Crawford and Avery Sebastian) — among others — miss large chunks of the season because of various injuries, it’s an issue worth addressing.

Gathering the strength and conditioning staff, athletic trainers, nutritionists and others, they have explored “injury prevention and durability,” Kelly said Tuesday as the Irish prepare to begin their spring workouts Wednesday.

One of the most sophisticated approaches, GPS tracking devices, has provided data that can give an idea of “functional deficiencies.” Kelly said the system follows a player through every step of practice, giving an idea of what might be over-worked or neglected.

According to Kelly, that information can determine if there are any functional weaknesses that could lead a player to be predisposed to an injury. They can be addressed before a problem arises.

Another area of focus this spring will be tackling. While the Ivy League has placed significant restrictions on full-contact work in the spring and eliminated it altogether once the season begins, the Irish will follow suit with most major programs and pick their spots.

The NCAA limits teams to eight live contact practices, three of which can include contact in greater than 50 percent of the workout. Kelly said Tuesday his spring plan, as it always has, falls well below the NCAA guidelines.

“I’ve always felt you have to do circuit tackling, where you don’t take the ball carrier down in your own defensive drills so you have the fundamentals down,” Kelly said. “We’ll continue to teach the safety of the game without the live contact.”

Kelly, who has been running football programs for more than a quarter century, said techniques have evolved from the first point of contact being the forehead years ago, to now where the head is off to the side and totally out of the equation in a properly executed tackle.

“I’ve always erred on being much more cautious relative to the tackling aspects of spring practice,” Kelly said, “and teaching much more the fundamentals.”

Come August, it will certainly pay off.

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly addresses the media on Tuesday March 15, 2016. Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES