Notebook: Tommy Kraemer rises to top of depth chart at right tackle

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly’s smile Wednesday when recalling a fourth-down drill in practice said more than the actual words that followed.

“It’s all about attitude,” the Notre Dame eighth-year head football coach said. “And that’s a group that can exert their will.”

That group, is Notre Dame’s offensive line — statistically average in 2016, purportedly much-improved in 2017.

At least it appears Kelly has settled on the fifth and final starter in the group, redshirt freshman Tommy Kraemer. Fellow redshirt freshman Liam Eichenberg and true freshman Robert Hainsey also had been in the mix.

Eichenberg is now focusing on backing up Mike McGlinchey at left tackle, while Hainsey could step in at right tackle or right guard if needed. All three could be starters next season.

“He’s a young player, is not a finished product at all,” Kelly said of Kraemer, a 6-foot-6, 314-pound mauler from Cincinnati Elder, the same high school that produced former Irish standout tight end Kyle Rudolph.

“But he’s explosive, a big strong player that we know we’re going to get ready.”

Numbers game at receiver

Beyond returning leading receiver, junior Equanimeous Brown, none of the other 10 wide receivers in Irish training camp have nailed down a spot in a playing rotation Kelly would like to cap at seven.

The good news is the other 10, including freshman surprises Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong, are making that a deliciously difficult proposition.

“We’re trying to mix and match,” Kelly said. "I think we've got a lot of really solid players. We’re just trying to take advantage of what they can do and their skill set and where it would best help our football team.”

Imagine if Torii Hunter Jr. had returned. ND’s second-leading receiver in 2016 traded in his fifth-year football option for an opportunity to play professional baseball.

The son of former Major League outfielder Torii Hunter Sr., started the 2017 season in extended spring training, eventually being promoted in late June to the Los Angeles Angels’ short-season advanced rookie league team, the Orem (Utah) Owlz.

There, Hunter Jr., is batting .325 in 31 games for a team that is hitting .318 collectively and in a league (Pioneer League) where half of the eight squads have team ERAs of 5.61 or worse.

Hunter, who plays primarily center field, has scored 26 runs, hit one homer with 11 RBIs and has stolen six bases in eight attempts. He’s showing outstanding plate discipline, with a .399 on-base percentage.

Meanwhile, Kelly said Wednesday he’s not tempted to try to flip some of his surplus receivers to defense, where there’s a limited quantity of cornerbacks and limited quality at safety.

“I don’t think there’s any one guy that shouts out ‘defense’ to us right now,” Kelly said. “We would be pressing a guy over there, and it’s too late in the game to start doing that.”

Sorting out safeties

While Navy transfer Alohi Gilman continues to wait for the NCAA to rule on his waiver to play in 2017, junior Nick Coleman, who spent most of spring as ND’s No. 1 option at free safety, continues to take reps after missing some time early in training camp with an ankle injury.

• Kelly acknowledged sophomore cornerback Julian Love continues to cross-train at both corner and safety and could show up as a safety in games in certain personnel packages. Love was outstanding as a safety against ND’s two triple-option opponents, Army and Navy, last season.

• Meanwhile, Kelly continues to assess whether either or both, or his two true freshman safeties — early enrollee Isaiah Robertson and June arrival Jordan Genmark Heath — are better off in the active depth chart than redshirting in 2017.

“We’re trying to get a clearer evaluation on Genmark Heath,” Kelly said. “He had a mild hamstring (pull) that has limited his work. He was cleared today. We want to see him, and it’s going to take another week for us to make that full evaluation.

“Isaiah is the swing guy right now (between free safety and strong safety). He would see some limited action. Still learning, going to be a real good player for us.”

Personnel matters

Junior tight end Alizé Mack, whose practice Saturday in Culver was curtailed by a hamstring pull, was already “moving around” during Wednesday’s practice, per Kelly, but not performing any drills or scrimmaging, yet.

“We’re going to be careful with him,” Kelly said.

One reason that it makes it easier to do so? The play of freshman tight end Cole Kmet, who continues to impress.

• Sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn missed practice Wednesday after suffering a non-contact neck injury in Tuesday’s practice.

Kelly said Vaughn sprained his neck when he went to go tackle one of the giant donut-shaped pads in a practice drill and whiffed.

“Those are the kind of injuries you get in camp,” Kelly said. “He’s fine. He’s up and moving. He was running but in a non-contact situation today.”

Tommy Kraemer (78) has played his way into being the No. 1 option for Notre Dame at right offensive tackle. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)