Analysis: Five key developments evolving in Notre Dame training camp

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The latest development in Notre Dame’s protracted quarterback competition has nothing to do with prompting a conclusion to it.

And everything to do with making it more entertaining to watch.

Not that the introduction of Mobile Virtual Players — remote control practice dummies — into a Notre Dame football practice Saturday morning for the first time has entertainment as its aim. It’s just a nice byproduct.

“They’re worth their weight in gold,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly beamed.

The actual weight of the robotic padded units, that mimic player movements, are 180 pounds. Per Kelly, they can reach speeds of 18 miles per hour, and would run — or roll — a 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds.

That’s four hundredths of a second faster than former Irish and Florida State quarterback Everett Golson was clocked in during ND’s Pro Day last March.

The dummies can serve a variety of functions, but Saturday Kelly used the two he has (two more will be added to the arsenal soon) to rush starting QB wannabees DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire during drills.

As far as how those QBs handled the bots, as well as a human rush during some live scrimmage periods late in practice, both found ways to move the offense, though they did so strikingly differently.

“One guy is making great checks at the line of scrimmage, getting us in great protections, getting great one-on-one matchups,” Kelly said of Kizer. “And the other guy (Zaire) is making someone miss in the backfield and (then) throwing to a wide-open back.”

As far as separation, there’s no end in sight.

But eight days into training camp, there are some significant developments. Here’s a smattering of some subtle, but critical ones:

• Jarron Jones: Kelly’s expectations for his starting nose guard from 2014 was that the injuries that truncated Jones’ 2014 season and robbed him of almost all of 2015 had diminished him to the point where he would finish his career as a part-time player in 2016.

Jones acknowledged at the start of camp that Kelly’s assessment was correct coming out of spring, but the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder said it wasn’t the injuries but the mental hurdles that came with them that slowed his comeback. And Jones was determined to reboot Kelly’s opinion of him.

So far, he has done exactly that.

“He had a little bit of a foot sprain,” Kelly said, “which would have sidetracked him in years past to probably some low reps and some less-intensive work. (But) he’s maintained a heavy work load, even with a foot sprain.

“So I would tell Jarron right now, if he was sitting here, that he’s changed that perception because of the way he’s practiced and the way he’s handled the load.”

• Tommy Kraemer: A four-man derby for the starting right guard spot has apparently dwindled to two. For now.

Senior Colin McGovern, the steady choice, and sophomore Tristen Hoge, the more athletic but less consistent option, remain. Senior Hunter Bivin, who finished spring practice at No. 1, is now working to be a backup at both guard and tackle, per Kelly.

True freshman Kraemer no longer projects as a viable possibility to be the second Notre Dame offensive lineman since freshman ineligibility was reinstated in 1972 to start a season opener. That’s not to say he won’t be a factor somewhere on the offensive line before the year is over.

“As a true freshman he is light years ahead of any true freshman (offensive lineman) that we’ve had — by far,” Kelly said. “He’s the only true freshman I’ve had here at Notre Dame that we would even consider keeping with us (and off scout team), and that includes all these guys (linemen) that are starting for us right now.”

“So here’s a guy that is still going to be with us and still going to maintain the opportunity to maybe someday this year be on the field playing for us. … He’s making progress, and we can see him coming along each and every day.”

• Nick Coleman: With as much nickel coverage Notre Dame is likely to play this season, the third cornerback on the team is actually a quasi-starter.

And sophomore Nick Coleman has emerged as the top option there.

“We tried to fast-track him last year,” Kelly said of the former high school teammate of Zaire at Kettering (Ohio) Archbishop Alter High. “At Alter, really he was an offensive player, playing defense. He was really a running back. But we loved his skills and his traits, and it was a lot of learning for him (in 2015).

“At times, it was an up-and-down struggle for him with confidence, but he’s a lot more confident (now) as a player. Nick’s done a really good job.”

Freshmen Donte Vaughn and Julian Love have also worked their way up the depth chart, helping to ease the pain of losing experienced corners Devin Butler and Nick Watkins to injury.

• Tony Jones Jr.: With Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams all sitting out the scrimmage periods Saturday more or less for precautionary reasons, freshman Jones became the workhorse at running back and didn’t look out of place.

“He can handle the intensity, the workload,” Kelly said of the 6-foot, 215-pounder from St. Petersburg, Fla. “Not afraid to stick his nose in there in protection, had a couple of really good pickups. Very coachable. He’s done really, really well for a freshman back stepping in there.

“Today was pretty evident that he’s a kid that’s reliable and can run physical when he’s asked to. I thought he had a nice day today.”

Ideally, though, Jones will redshirt. Kelly feels a rotation of Adams-Folston-Williams is deep and dynamic enough for 2016. But in case of the unexpected?

“(With) days like today, you know you’re in pretty good hands if you do sustain an injury,” Kelly said.

• Daelin Hayes: The freshman defensive end continues to be impressive in pass rush situations, but Saturday, the 6-4, 250-pounder and five-star prospect also made some nice plays in the run game, including a tackle for loss during the scrimmage periods.

He has gone against mostly the second-team offensive line during the media viewing opportunities in practice, but Kelly assured he’s been tested against the vaunted left side of the starting line, tackle Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson.

“He’s getting that every day in terms of pass rush when we get into our speed package,” Kelly said, “and faring quite well.”

If Hayes can stay healthy — and that was an issue during his high school career — he might just be the spark the Irish need to upgrade their pass rush.


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Tony Jones Jr. (34) during Notre Dame football practice on Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, at LaBar Practice Field at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN