Notebook: Notre Dame's early enrollees spring forward with strong impressions

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As much play, and perhaps overplay, as the newness/differentness of Notre Dame’s spring football practices has received, an unexpected and unscripted element has brought something authentically fresh and meaningful to the well-trodden story line.

Freshmen. Specifically early-enrolled freshmen.

The five of them have impressed Irish head coach Brian Kelly through the first three practices of the spring — and even before that, in winter conditioning — with their ability to compete at a high level.

“That doesn’t mean they’ll start,” Kelly said. “But they battled their butts off.”

Kelly was particularly impressed Wednesday, ND’s first day in pads this spring and first practice overall following a 12-day layoff for spring break, with offensive linemen Robert Hainsey and Aaron Banks. The other early enrollees are tight end Brock Wright, running back CJ Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson.

Both of the offensive linemen took reps with the second team on Wednesday, with Hainsey (6-5, 292) at left tackle and Banks at left guard (6-6, 310).

“I’m not sure they knew exactly what they were doing,” Kelly said, “but their compete level is so high.”

Since former ND coach Charlie Weis convinced the admissions office to allow early enrollment, beginning in 2006, 45 players have taken advantage of it.

The long-term results have been kind of a mixed bag, with 10 of those players eventually taking a transfer or a grad transfer and others never rising to the top of the depth chart. But the offensive linemen have fared especially well as a position group.

Of the four who have preceded Banks and Hainsey as early enrollees, three of them — Chris Stewart, Trevor Robinson and Steve Elmer — went on to become multi-year starters. And the fourth, junior Tristen Hoge, is on a trajectory to become an eventual starter as well.

When the winter workouts started, we threw them in in a very competitive situation,” Kelly said of the five freshmen, “and it was apparent that they were going to be able to compete.”

Taylor has surgery

A junior defensive lineman who was surging at the end of last season, Elijah Taylor, sat out Wednesday’s practice and will miss the remainder of spring after suffering a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot.

Kelly said the injury occurred during practice No. 2 of the spring, March 10, a day in which there was no media window. Taylor has since undergone surgery.

“We’ve had good success with their repairs,” said Kelly, who projects Taylor will receive full clearance for all football activities in July.

In Taylor’s absence, junior Micah Dew-Treadway — coming back from a foot injury of his own — has become a more important part of the interior defensive line rotation.

“Micah Dew-Treadway has had a really good offseason for us, has changed his body,” Kelly said. “Has been doing a really, really good job in all facets — in the classroom, in the weight room, and he’s somebody who had been ascending anyway prior to the injury.

“I think Micah has shown some real promise over the past couple of months.”

• Backup linebacker Josh Barajas missed Wednesday’s practice because of an illness, per Kelly.

Whose offense is it?

Kelly may have handed over the reins of the Notre Dame offense to new offensive coordinator Chip Long, but the 33-year-old will still be calling plays out of the Brian Kelly playbook.

Kelly said Long is free to tweak it and put some of his own fingerprints on it, but there has to be continuity in that the expectations are that Long will be successful enough that someday he’ll be offered a head coaching job.

“Then I’m not going to introduce ‘the Chip Long offense’ to the next offensive coordinator,” Kelly said. “But if (Long) wants to change ‘Ringo Lucky’ protection to ‘Ram and Lion’ protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, I’m OK with that.

“But the culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run, because I’ve got to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

The Long/Kelly collaboration has allowed for more flexibility in roles for receivers and tight ends, however. A case in point, two talented big receivers — Equanimeous St. Brown and Chase Claypool — were stuck on the same side, in the same role in 2016.

But on Wednesday, Long was lining up St. Brown and Claypool at the same time on opposite sides with the first-team offense.

Claypool was dominating during the 30-minute media window on Wednesday, particular during a tackling drill that got his would-be tacklers in hot water with new defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

Kelly reiterated Wednesday what he proclaimed before spring practice began, that Claypool is no longer being considered for a flip to the defense, even though he showed a high aptitude for it as a tackler on ND’s coverage teams last season.

“He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things,” Kelly said of the 6-4, 224-pound sophomore, “but we need his play on offense.”

Wimbush, by George

Every Notre Dame No. 1 quarterback going back to Everett Golson has spent time with private quarterback tutor George Whitfield, with Golson’s being the most extensive contact during his fall away from ND football (2013), brought on by a suspension for academic misconduct.

For Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and most recently Brandon Wimbush, during last week’s spring break, it’s been much shorter bursts.

Kelly said he didn’t see a problem with the QBs working with Whitfield, but he also said he didn’t detect any noticeable changes or improvement either when Wimbush or the others came back from those short sessions.

“I think it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “I think they’re keeping their arm loose, they’re keeping their feet lose. He’s just keeping them active, good throwing sessions.”

Kizer feedback

Wimbush’s predecessor, Kizer, will throw for NFL scouts, coaches and personnel types Thursday during Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

While they’ll certainly have a chance to form opinions of the first redshirt sophomore in school history to enter the draft with their own eyes, Kelly has been asked to add context to Kizer’s pre-draft workouts.

“I’ve had a number of conversations with GMs and coaches about DeShone,” Kelly said, “and my personal feeling is that he has the biggest upside of all the quarterbacks.

“I don’t know that he’s prepared to come in and win a Super Bowl for you. Some may feel as though one of the other quarterbacks are. I don’t know that firsthand, but I think in time he has the biggest upside of the quarterbacks.

“I get it’s the NFL, and everybody is under the same pressure of performing and needing somebody to come in right away. He’s a guy who just needs some time. So if he gets in the right situation, I think he’d be the guy to take.”

Squibs

• Two redshirt freshmen, Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg, are battling for the starting spot at right offensive tackle, a competition that’s likely to endure throughout spring and possibly beyond. Last year’s starter at right tackle, senior Alex Bars, is now the No. 1 right guard.

• The surest tacklers Wednesday among the safeties and corners in an open-field tackling drill were sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn and junior safety Nicco Fertitta.

Notre Dame freshman running back CJ Holmes runs a drill during Notre Dame's first practice in pads this spring, Wednesday at the Loftus Center. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)