Analysis: Storylines to watch in Notre Dame's fall camp

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Kent Smith isn’t just a member of the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office in Toledo, Ohio, long removed from his own football career.

He’s the answer to a trivia question, and a pertinent one at that.

In 2005, Smith attempted 420 of the 426 passes thrown by the Central Michigan University football team, making it through the season without being demoted or missing a critical stretch in a game — or the season — because of injury.

His head coach at the time was Brian Kelly, now in his seventh year at Notre Dame and a man Friday emphasizing to the media how important it was for the eventual runner-up in the currently percolating Irish QB competition to be engaged mentally and physically ready to play.

History shows he’ll need to be. Kelly’s history.

Smith is the last Kelly-coached quarterback whose backup never saw a meaningful snap in a season.

The only No. 1 QB in the 10-season stretch to come close to doing the same since was Tommy Rees, in 2013 at ND. And even then, Rees entered that season as somewhat of a default choice No. 1.

Incumbent starter Everett Golson fell through an academic trap door in May of 2013 and was exiled for the season. Two months earlier, redshirt freshman Gunner Kiel marched into Kelly’s office requesting a release to transfer shortly after Kelly committed to sacrificing some of Rees’ spring snaps to get a closer look at the former five-star prospect.

Once Rees was anointed at the top spot, he almost was able to go wire to wire. But he was knocked out of a 14-10 game with USC in October with an injury early in the second half. And Andrew Hendrix had to finish in what turned out to be a scoreless second half for both teams in the narrow Irish victory.

Both contenders in this year’s contest to start the season No. 1 have been replacement parts themselves — senior Malik Zaire for a slumping Golson at the end of the 2014 season, junior DeShone Kizer for an injured Zaire for most of last season.

Whomever emerges has — on paper, at least — theoretically a less formidable lineup of defenses to face than what was thrown at Kizer last season. The first-year starter ended up taking on nine of the nation’s top 43 defenses in his 11 starts, including four of the top 20.

This season, Notre Dame faces four teams that finished in the top 43 in total defense in 2015, only two that finished in top 50 in pass-efficiency defense and one that ended up as a top 25 run defense.

On the eve of the start of Notre Dame’s fall training camp, with the first five sessions unfolding off campus at Culver (Ind.) Military Academy, Kelly muddied the waters instead of clarifying them when it came to his quarterbacks.

By design.

“I have not taken anything off the table,” he said.

And there’s some sincerity in that statement as well as an ulterior purpose.

Kelly is not going to paint himself into a corner with his words. So there will be no announced timetable for a conclusion to the competition, no commitment that the winner will start every game, no allegiance to some of his pointed comments last spring, and no revealing specifics as to what eventually will tip the scales.

The more immediate, and in some ways more delectable, intrigue in training camp will be provided by the players around the quarterbacks. Here’s a sampling of the meaningful story lines as camp kicks off Saturday.

Position battles: All-American Jaylon Smith’s old spot at weakside linebacker is up for grabs, with sophomores Asmar Bilal and Te’von Coney, and junior Greer Martini all in the picture.

Right guard on offense is shaping up as a three-man battle as well, among senior Hunter Bivin, sophomore Tristen Hoge and true freshman Tommy Kraemer. Hoge is in the mix to be the starting center as well, battling junior Sam Mustipher.

Some position battles could end in a time share — likely at rush end (Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Daelin Hayes), perhaps at free safety (Max Redfield, Devin Studstill), and definitely at running back (Josh Adams, Tarean Folston, Dexter Williams).

The most unsettled position group is the entire wide receiver corps, where there’s both talent and inexperience in abundance. Senior Torii Hunter Jr., is the only given.

Kelly said Friday he is counting on sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders, and junior Corey Holmes to step into the larger roles, with more intermittent contributions from the freshmen, true and redshirt, including spring sensation Kevin Stepherson.

Senior linebacker James Onwualu, once a freshman contributor as a wide receiver himself before making the flip to defense, thinks walk-on Chris Finke could push his way into the mix as well, based on summer workouts.

As for his advice for the young wideouts, whom Onwualu faced throughout the summer?

“I think a lot of the receivers — they wouldn’t like me to say this — but sometimes they’re a little bit more pretty boys than some of the (defensive players)," Onwualu said.

“They need to go out there and be willing to play special teams, be willing to block a linebacker, do some of the gritty stuff in order to help the team. Not everybody’s going to be catching touchdowns their first year. So we’re going to need some of those guys to step up and compete through camp, and we’ll see who that is.”

Freshmen to watch: Talent alone isn’t enough to push most freshmen into contention on the two-deeps. It must be met with opportunity. And Kelly said his freshman safeties and cornerbacks have the best chance en masse of getting early playing time.

That includes Studstill and Jalen Elliott at safety, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. at cornerback.

“There’s not a cornerback on our roster that we don’t like,” Kelly said.

Who’s missing?: The only permanent deletion from the roster is junior defensive end Grant Blankenship, who Kelly said Friday is no longer on the team and will seek a transfer.

The lightly used backup was suspended in the spring “for a violation of team rules.” Kelly left the door open, though, and said in June that Blankenship could be reinstated if he met certain criteria over the summer.

That door is now closed.

Junior running back Justin Brent and Devin Butler will be held out of action while recovering from foot injuries.

Speaking of injuries, Kelly and Notre Dame did not strike up last year’s unusually extensive run of injuries to bad luck. In fact, they’re throwing science at the problem.

“I think there’s no way to have an injury prevention, not in this game of football.,” Kelly said “But I think being clearly invested in finding ways to keep your players on the field, other than hoping and praying, is where you have to be.

“We’ve made a huge investment into sports science. There are ways to cut back and to continue to develop your players, to keep them away from those potential injuries.

“That has been a big focus on mine, whether it be through functional movement screening, whether it be through GPS, whether it be through scan testing the retinas for concussion testing. There are a number of different protocols that we’ve entered into this year that I think are going to help us keep our players on the field.”

About Alizé Jones: The sophomore tight end will be practicing, but won’t play in games this season because of academic shortcomings.

That development, revealed Thursday, caused some “the sky is falling” type reaction from fans who are worried about how it might play both on the field and recruiting.

As far as the connecting Jones’ situation to the bigger picture, Kelly framed it this way on Friday:

“I’m proud of Alizé and him taking full accountability,” he said. “That’s what we ask our players to do. They’re accountable in the classroom, on the football field and in the community. And we would want all of our players to be accountable in everything we do.

“So I’m pleased with him in the sense, he understands what he needs to do, that he understands his shortcomings and what he’s got to work on.

“Look, Notre Dame is and will always be a high academic environment, and you’ve got to come to play every day. And if you don’t you’re going to find yourself on the sidelines. It’s a reminder to all of our players that that classroom is filled with academic All-Americans, and you better meet that level when you go in that classroom, or you’re going to get left behind.”

Kelly’s message on the recruiting trail, he said, will be consistent with those thoughts.

“Are you telling me, among our peers, nobody loses anybody to academics across the board? Nobody?” he said. “That would be my argument, that ‘Look, Notre Dame’s hard, and if you’re not prepared and you’re not going to come here with the focus and attention to work in a classroom, you could get dinged.’

“And I’m not afraid to say that to anybody and to any mom or any dad when I go in a home. You better be prepared to work hard in the classroom, but I also know that you can overcome it, and we’ll stick with you and support you and we’ll be there for you.

“We’re not going to throw you aside. We’re going to back you up and make sure you grow and develop as a man, and that you take accountability for your actions, and that you’re better for it.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly speaks to media at his season-opening press conference Friday, August 5, 2016 in South Bend. Tribune photo/BECKY MALEWITZ