Analysis: Sizing up Brian Kelly's to-do list over the balance of Notre Dame football training camp

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly’s to-do list isn’t short.

The reason the Notre Dame ninth-year head football coach is perpetually smiling two days into training camp is that the list isn’t oppressive, either.

And the stickiest item a year ago, beyond reshaping his own image, may turn out to be the pleasant surprise of the offseason.

“I like what’s happening with our safety position,” Kelly volunteered at the end of a response to a question about the position group, cornerback, that needs the least touching up between now and the Sept. 1 opener at Notre Dame Stadium with No. 14 Michigan.

“They’re much more around the ball and closing space (is improved).”

Not that there isn’t work to do with the safeties, who a year ago had to be “protected” on game day from being continually exposed. But the progress there, and the promise of much more, is enough to nudge it down the preseason priority pecking order.

That now belongs to the rover position.

Here’s a breakdown at that and some of the other challenges Kelly and his 11th-ranked Irish face over the next few weeks:

Sorting out the rover

Senior Asmar Bilal took the No. 1 reps on Friday at Culver, just as he did last spring, on a day when not looking lost on running plays and not looking overmatched on coverage was the modest standard.

Wednesday, when the Irish return to the ND campus and put full pads on for the first time this camp, the bar goes up, and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and true freshman Shayne Simon will have an opportunity to move up with it.

The 6-2, 225-pound Bilal had all spring to make this a moot point. That’s not to say he can’t emerge as the starter or work into a time share, but his limitations, particularly in coverage, haven’t changed.

The 6-2, 215-pound Owusu-Koramoah was the first player recruited specifically to be a rover instead of converted into one. His potential rise is tied to his grasp of defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s scheme.

Simon (6-3, 222) was also recruited to specifically play rover, a cycle later, and he has an advantage in that his high school role at St. Peter’s (N.J.) Prep mimicked what he’ll be doing at ND. In ND’s summer workouts, he looked like the most college-ready of the June-arriving freshmen on multiple fronts.

What he does with the pads on will likely confirm that. At ND’s most unsettled position on either side of the ball, don’t count out the possibility of Simon starting against the Wolverines — and beyond.

Sizing up Armstrong

Even if senior Dexter Williams were in good standing for the team’s first four games — and he is not — this is a running back corps that would benefit from throwing numbers at the position.

Consider that Josh Adams was the only one of last year’s five Irish running backs who didn’t miss at least one game because of injury or not being in good standing with Kelly. And injuries did limit Adams in some games, either in the number of carries or in his effectiveness.

Jafar Armstrong was a redshirting freshman wide receiver last year. His next college carry in a real game will be his first, but the 6-1, 218-pound former Kansas high school state sprint champ looked impressive during an extended audition at the position in the spring,

Junior Tony Jones Jr., who struggled the most with injuries among ND’s backs in 2017, will open the season as de facto No. 1 option. Kelly knows what a healthy Jones can do. He has plenty of film on the two freshmen and a spring-worth of real-time looks at early enrolled Jahmir Smith.

Kelly and running backs coach Autry Denson need to get a better feel this month on what Armstrong’s ceiling looks like.

Getting the right read on Book

The absence of Kelly seriously engaging questions about a quarterback competition derby that doesn’t exist doesn’t mean there has been a regression in play of junior quarterback Ian Book.

It’s more about what clear No. 1 Brandon Wimbush is doing and has accomplished in the eight months since being benched during the Citrus Bowl, combined with the fact Kelly learned his lesson about forcing a QB tag team, when there doesn’t need to be one, from the 2016 DeShone Kizer/Malik Zaire fiasco.

That scenario, unlike 2012’s amiable time share (Everett Golson/Tommy Rees), somewhat divided the locker room, eroded Kizer’s confidence and didn’t advance Zaire as either a capable or willing backup once Kelly abandoned the tag-team approach.

“I don't want to go into the game having to play more than one quarterback,” Kelly said earlier this week. “I think clearly, Brandon comes out into preseason camp as the No. 1, Ian's No. 2, Phil's No. 3. And we hope that we have great competition, which we will.

“Brandon is going to have to compete. He can't sleepwalk through this, and he knows that.”

Nor can Book sleepwalk, with freshman Phil Jurkovec on campus.

There’s a lot to like about Book if he can reduce his high interception rate and get better in the red zone. His 5.6 yards-per-carry rushing average may be the most overlooked part of his game. That’s better than current No. 1 running back Tony Jones Jr. (5.3) put up in 2017, and Book had only two fewer carries last season (with 37) than Dexter Williams.

“We really see him as a winning quarterback,” Kelly said.

Having a strong No. 2 QB last season propelled Georgia into a playoff team and saved Ohio State in its win over Michigan, in keeping its playoff push from getting derailed. Conversely, preseason No. 3 Florida State and preseason No. 11 Michigan unraveled in large part because of injuries at that position.

Refining the safety dance

Freshman Houston Griffith, Navy transfer Alohi Gilman and returning starter Jalen Elliott shared No. 1 reps opening day of training camp. It’s hard to imagine Griffith and Gilman not starting against Michigan, though Elliott enjoyed a strong spring.

The wild cards at the safety positions involve depth at the position. Last year’s starting free safety, senior Nick Coleman, remains in the mix for backup duty in 2018 as well as seeing some action at nickel. June-arriving freshman Derrik Allen is the biggest safety on the roster (6-2, 213) and has big potential.

August will help determine how far that is away from being realized.

Also on the agenda

Widening the wide receiver rotation beyond projected starters Chase Claypool, Miles Boykin and Chris Finke … Continuing the punt return and kick return “gong show” auditions. Wide receiver Braden Lenzy, cornerback Tariq Bracy, wide receiver Lawrence Keys III, and wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. — all freshmen — and wide receiver/running back Avery Davis all got a look there Friday. … Continuing to build depth behind starting linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney. Freshman Bo Bauer is becoming a factor there. … Developing chemistry on the offensive line.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly takes notes during the first Irish football practice of training camp, Friday at Culver Academies in Culver, Ind. Finding a starting rover tops his training camp agenda.