Analysis: Sifting through Brian Kelly's little-picture issues at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —There was more rehash than revelations when it came to the big-picture stuff Monday at Brian Kelly’s first press conference of the Notre Dame football preseason.

The stray zinger was Kelly’s response to a question about whether an 8-4/9-3 season in 2016 would have engendered the sweeping changes the eighth-year Irish head coach went about making this offseason following just the fourth season of eight losses or more in Notre Dame history (4-8).

“I realized that we had some issues going into the (2016) season,” said Kelly, whose Irish kick off training camp Tuesday, with the first seven practices held off campus in Culver, Ind.

“Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership. And the message was not clear within the program. So, yeah, we would have been in the same place.”

The difference is that with an 8-4/9-3 mark last season Kelly could have largely avoided the national gape-fest that will follow ND into its Sept. 2 season opener with Temple — and beyond.

So now the Irish not only have to win games on the field in 2017, they have to win the battle over the program’s perception. In the Twitter Age.

Kelly has carried the ball in the latter regard for the past nine months, as well he should have. But with practice starting Tuesday, there needs to be a shift to those around Kelly picking up more of that responsibility.

And there’s no more important voice in that equation than athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

That’s not to say Swarbrick needs to give his hot take on every rumor, every final score, every time he sees an algorithm concocted to measure Kelly’s job security that he thinks is a farce. There’s a tight balance between accessibility/candor and productive silence.

But he didn’t find that balance consistently in 2016, particularly on the day the news about NCAA vacating Irish victories landed in Kelly’s lap alone in late November. Prepared statements are an unfitting alternative when tough questions must be answered.

As for Kelly, there needs to be a heavy dose of normalcy over the next few weeks, where he gets his hands dirty dealing with the little pictures.

As camp opens, here are the most intriguing of those:

D-Line drama

Kelly confirmed Monday the news that had been percolating the past couple of weeks, that senior nose guard Daniel Cage, a part-time starter over much of his career, will miss the 2017 season to deal with lingering concussion and knee issues.

What will be evaluated in the coming months is whether Cage will take a medical redshirt year and try to return in 2018, or simply retire from football.

From the team’s perspective, it takes a position group teeming with uncertainty and heaps more on top of that.

The 6-foot-1, 329-pounder from Cincinnati has played in 30 games over three seasons, amassing a modest 32 tackles, with five tackles for loss. But given his experience and the lack thereof among potential replacements, it amplifies the loss of a player expected to be a regular in the rotation.

And first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko is determined to give significant reps to backups in games in order to keep the defense fresh.

Three freshmen — Kurt Hinish (6-2, 298), Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (6-3, 293) and Darnell Ewell (6-3, 321) — will get long looks in training camp to work their way into the mix.

D-Line drama, part II

Junior Jerry Tillery was ND’s No. 1 nose guard throughout training camp, back at the position he played as a freshman after starting at defensive tackle in 2016 and being consistently inconsistent.

Given ND’s failure to rise above a No. 70 national ranking in rush defense since its 2012 national title game run and No. 117 standing (out of 128) in sacks, Tillery’s evolution figures to be one of the season’s top story lines for the Irish, because he’s one of a handful of players whose production (or lack of it) will be disproportionally tied to ND’s won-loss bottom line.

Kelly gave the 6-foot-7, 306-pound Shreveport, La., product high marks Monday for his progress off the field and in the weight room this offseason. That’s a good sign, given the way Tillery’s 2016 season ended.

In ND’s season-ending 45-27 loss at USC, Tillery, in two separate instances, made contact with Trojan players lying on the ground after the play. He later apologized for his actions.

The first came when Tillery appeared to nudge the head of USC running back Aca'Cedric Ware, who momentarily lay motionless after being hit hard by safety Nicco Fertitta. The second came when Tillery appeared to stomp on the ankle of offensive tackle Zach Banner following USC's final touchdown of the game.

“We took that situation extremely serious and took the steps to make sure that he was held accountable for what we felt was behavior unacceptable,” Kelly said. “He was asked to fulfill counseling and community service, and he did that.

“And because of that, he has covered himself relative to the sanctions we've put forth. So there won't be a suspension of any kind relative to playing time.”

At Tillery’s old defensive tackle position, senior Jonathon Bonner tops an even less-proven depth chart. The good news there is that junior Elijah Taylor, who came on strong late last season in a reserve role, is expected to be back to 100 percent around mid-August.

Taylor underwent surgery on his left foot in mid-March for a Lisfranc (arch) fracture and missed all but a couple of spring practices. He’ll have some catching up to do, but could re-emerge as a factor during the season.

Safety net?

It’s not out of the question that Navy transfer Alohi Gilman could earn a starting job at free safety by the time the Irish open the season with Temple.

But the 5-11, 199-pounder from Laie, Hawaii, needs a little help from the NCAA.

ND in mid-July petitioned the NCAA to waive the traditional one-year sitting-out period imposed on transfers, and Kelly said the Irish coaching staff was briefed last Friday that a decision should be coming soon.

In the meantime, it poses a bit of a dilemma for Kelly. Does he go ahead and plop Gilman into the depth chart and give him meaningful practice reps, or does he give those to the players who will have to play if Gilman has to defer his second college season until 2018?

“What we'll do is probably get him some work in there to keep him part of the installation and understanding of assignments and what we're doing,” Kelly said. “Because, again, he didn't have the luxury of going through spring ball, so he's going to have to learn. But we'll also make certain that we have contingency plans.

“So the first three, four days, you'll see a number of guys working at those positions, so we make sure that we cover all the bases.”

Going green

Kelly in the coming days will get a feel for just how much No. 1 quarterback Brandon Wimbush progressed with his X’s and O’s during the summer with no coaches to guide him, grade him or push him.

But as far as clearing a high bar in terms of leadership and work ethic in the weight room, Wimbush passed with flying colors — literally.

The select few players who reach elite status in the summer workouts get to trade in their blue workout shirts for green ones. And Wimbush, who makes his first start Sept. 2, finds himself in that select company.

“He has lived in that trait of excellence,” Kelly said. “So we wanted other players to see Brandon Wimbush in a green shirt and say, ‘That's what it looks like. The way he handles himself, the way he works, his attention to detail, the way he handles himself on campus, that's what I want to model myself after.’ ”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery avoided a suspension, but he must also stay clear of inconsistency in 2017. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)