Notebook: Future already coming into focus for Notre Dame's June arrivals
SOUTH BEND — On the sidelines Friday morning at Notre Dame Stadium, they watched and shivered, as the Irish football team went through a chilly dress rehearsal for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. EDT; NBCSN), to be held at the same venue and in much warmer weather.
Those five pieces of ND’s future, four of whom will be defensive players come enrollment time in June, were hardly bystanders.
Safety Jalen Elliott, outside linebacker Jamir Jones, cornerbacks Julian Love and Donte Vaughn, and quarterback Ian Book have been attending team meetings this week too, showing off how much they’ve stuck their noses in the ND playbook already and validating head coach Brian Kelly’s decision to already mentally plug them into his fall camp plans.
“I think all of those defensive players are coming in with the attitude that they’re going to compete and have a fair chance to get into the two-deep,” Kelly said Friday after practice.
“That’s what we’ve told them. That’s how we feel. And they’re here with their eyes wide open. They’re in meetings, and they’re certainly excited and anxious about coming in here and competing in their first year, so that’s our expectation.”
Elliott is already being groomed to be a factor at strong safety in 2016, just as early enrollee Devin Studstill has done this spring at free safety. ND defensive backs coach Todd Lyght said earlier this week that the Richmond, Va., product has bulked up his 6-foot frame from his 189-pound signing day weight to a chiseled 198.
Expect Elliott to get a shot at playing strong safety on those passing-down personnel packages in which starter Drue Tranquill moves up into the front seven.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Vaughn is another freshman who could immediately shake up the spring depth chart upon his arrival.
“I don’t think Ian Book is here thinking he’s going to start,” Kelly said of the lone offensive player in Friday’s group, “but I think Ian Book is here with an excitement that he can’t wait to get on the field and compete.
“But those other guys, relative to defensive players, they’re here to go play now.”
A steady slide down the depth chart by defensive end Grant Blankenship this spring was followed Friday by an announcement that the junior from The Colony, Texas, has been suspended indefinitely and will not play in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.
Kelly said the two will meet sometime after the Blue-Gold Game to determine whether Blankenship has a future at ND.
“The standards that are set within the program have not been met,” Kelly said.
The 6-5, 278-pounder had 12 tackles in 11 games as a freshman in 2014, but just one in three cameos in 2015. He was running fourth on the depth chart at rush end this spring.
“He just has to continue to develop,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said of Blankenship on Wednesday, before the suspension. “His mental focus has probably been his biggest issue. He has athletic ability, but to play the game at this level you have to be ready to go from a mental standpoint and not make errors.”
Ball’s in Robinson’s court
Kelly said Friday that senior wide receiver Corey Robinson and his family met with specialist Dr. Jeffrey Kutcher earlier this week regarding Robinson’s multiple concussions while at ND, including one that has sidelined him for virtually all of spring practice.
Kelly added that he expected Robinson, the ND student body president, to make a decision about his football future within the next couple of weeks.
“I think it was an extremely educational meeting for him,” Kelly said. “I’m very hesitant to go into the details, because I think that’s a private matter for Corey. I know this, he came back feeling really good about the meeting. It was great we were able to get him with somebody with that kind of knowledge.”
Robinson is ND’s active career leader among the ND wide receiver corps in starts (5), receptions (65) and receiving yards (896).
When Kelly was pressed Friday for pleasant spring surprises on offense, sophomore running back Dexter Williams’ name was the first one out of his mouth.
Kelly also mentioned senior offensive guard Hunter Bivin and senior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. as players who have shown significant improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Unlike Williams, both of them are projected starters.
“What we like about Dexter is his physical, inside, downhill running,” Kelly said. “We’ve had some goal-line, short-yardage runs where when he gets his pads down, he’s an explosive inside runner. That’s where right now he’s impressed us the most.”
Sophomore Josh Adams (6-2, 219) has shared first-team reps this spring with 2014 starter Tarean Folston (5-10, 214), who’s back after an ACL tear ravaged his 2015 season. But the 5-11, 210-pound Williams has pushed his way into expanding the rotation to three players.
“Look, we love Josh Adams and the way he hits the ball outside,” Kelly said. “We like Folston’s shiftiness inside. I’m not trying to make (Williams) sound like a 250-pound back, but he’s been very explosive downhill with his pads down, when he’s assertive and he knows what he’s doing.”
Former ND standouts David Bruton and Ryan Harris, both of whom played for Super Bowl champion Denver last season, will serve as honorary captains for Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.
Neither, however, will play for the Broncos next season. The 31-year-old Harris, an offensive tackle, has signed as a free agent with Pittsburgh, while Bruton, a 28-year-old safety, will play for Washington.