Notre Dame football stressing physicality in spring practice

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Autry Denson had a question, and a gift.

“Which one of you had a bad week and needs to blow off some steam?”

The student manager that volunteered wielded a crudely designed invention, the handle of a plastic baseball bat attached to the end of a blue pool noodle. Across from her, Notre Dame’s third-year running backs coach held a dark blue pad in front of his chest like a shield.

Sandwiched between them crouched Josh Adams — pads on his body, a helmet on his head and a football in his hand.

This was a one-sided fight.

With one hand balancing on the turf, Adams spun like a top, the running back’s legs churning over four pads spread out on the field below. As he swiveled, the manager jabbed her noodle-bat into his arms and torso, wearing a guilty grin, and Denson extended the shield pad and whacked Adams’ arms and legs with vigor.

“Stay up, Josh!” Denson bellowed. “Stay up! Stay up!”

“Let’s go, old man!” junior Dexter Williams yelled, chiding his coach from the back of the line.

Adams did as instructed, completing a full revolution before sprinting out of the gauntlet with the football tucked to his chest. Next came Deon McIntosh. Then Tony Jones Jr. Then the aforementioned Williams, caught squarely in the “old man’s” sights.

They crouched. They swiveled. Mercifully, they escaped.

The drill, performed in the opening minutes of Notre Dame’s afternoon practice on Saturday, is designed to emphasize ball security and reward a willingness to run through contact.

It’s also an excuse for Denson to whack his running backs — better now than in September.

“We could never be hit enough,” said Denson, Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher. “You want to be tugged. You want to be pushed. You want to be punched. I hate when we don’t hit. I hate when we don’t thud, because my guys need it. They need to know what it’s like to squeeze the ball.”

They also need to know what it feels like to be tackled. And while the 40-year-old Denson can’t do that, the shield pad and its noodle bat buddy do the trick.

“I beat ‘em up in individual (drills),” Denson confirmed. “I want to make sure they are hit. What happens over the course of the season or camp is that you become calloused at some point. It’s just the numbing factor of football, so I want to get them to that as soon as possible.

“That’s the only way you can do it, by having them hit and thudded and pulled and tugged. You don’t want it to happen when you line up against Temple.”

But won’t a surplus of contact, you might ask, wear on a player’s body? Won’t a rolling snowball of hits — whether a tackle, a bump, or a bat noodle to the abdomen — inevitably take their toll?

An assimilation to physicality will make his running backs stronger, Denson argued, not the other way around.

“I understand safety and all of those things, but football is a physical game,” he said. “When I say it’s a numbing factor, my body adjusts to what it feels like to carry weight, to get hit every different way. You need that. That’s a part of your preparation for the season.”

If that’s truly the case, Notre Dame has been doing plenty of — to use Denson’s words — “preparing” this spring. Irish practices have been more physical than in recent years, and not just for the running backs.

“We needed to tackle a little bit more,” head coach Brian Kelly said last week, when asked how his practice routine has changed. “I thought we were a little soft in our practices (in the past).”

More specifically: “I thought we needed to thud the (running) back more instead of tagging off. I think that built a lot of bad habits. Our backs need to get hit a little bit, so I made sure that was a part of our practice routine. That had been missing.”

It’s not missing anymore. Plus, logically, an increase in physicality shouldn’t solely benefit the running back (or wide receiver, or tight end) absorbing the blow. For a defensive player, the best way to practice tackling … is to tackle. It’s one thing to wrap up a rolling donut-shaped pad or life-sized dummy.

The rolling donut pads, for all their value, can’t simulate Adams’ shiftiness in the open field.

“We’ve got to learn how to move our body in space, and I think that’s something you train,” said first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko. “I don’t think that’s something you talk about. There’s this concept of trained muscle memory — that the more you do it, the better you are at it. If you don’t do it, you’re not going to be any good at it. So the more we can do things like that, the better.”

Denson, for one, agrees. Before he returned to South Bend in 2015, the Irish player-turned-coach set the Notre Dame record for career rushing yards (4,318), amassing 854 carries in his four-year Irish career. He was durable, but he wasn’t coddled.

“We got hit every day, all the time,” he said with a laugh.

Nearly two decades later, “every day, all the time” isn’t the ideal contact regimen for Notre Dame’s running backs: Adams (1,768 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in two seasons), Williams (200 rushing yards and three TD last season), sophomore Jones Jr. and early enrollee freshman C.J. Holmes (who will likely miss the remainder of spring practice with a separated shoulder).

The goal is to develop an immunity to physicality, without an influx of injuries. And what’s the best way to do that?

1. Bat noodles.

2. Shield pads.

How’s that for blowing off steam?


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame running back Tony Jones Jr. rolls off the pads while running drills during practice, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)