Analysis: Decoding the answers to Notre Dame's new and lingering questions
SOUTH BEND — Quinn Carroll’s road back from a season-ending ACL tear in his right knee, suffered earlier this week, included on Saturday being required to hit an oversized tire repeatedly with a sledge hammer.
As most of the freshman offensive tackle’s Notre Dame football teammates basked in the normalcy of position drills, scrimmaging and stretching to music, the 6-foot-7, 304-pounder was also asked to squat down to sit in each seat of the first row of bleachers at the LaBar Practice Complex, one after another, then stand back up using only his good (left) leg.
Progress looked a little more conventional elsewhere on the two practice fields as the Irish completed training camp session No. 6 of the 18 that unfold before the players add in fall-semester academic demands on Aug. 27.
Not that there was a preponderance of obvious answers on display to the chronic questions that lingered beyond spring or the new ones created by starting Cole Kmet’s broken collarbone Thursday or reserve safety Derrik Allen taking a trap door Friday toward a transfer to presumably Georgia Tech.
“We’re probably a week away from tackling some of those questions,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of potential position switches on the depth chart.
Not that they’re ignoring them either, but the first half of training camp is more for observation in order to help formulate the answers. Twenty-three days before the season opener at Cardinal Stadium against Louisville, here’s how those story lines are shaping up.
In the Wright place
Kmet’s broken collarbone ended up requiring surgery, and so a plate and six screws were part of the response. The timeline Kelly offered Saturday for Kmet’s return, though, was longer than originally thought — four to as many as 10 weeks to recover as opposed to the earlier report of three to six weeks.
“Typically we’ve had them back in six,” Kelly said. “He has shown to be a really good healer. So we’re going to take the positive end of this and think that we’re going to get him back in four or five weeks.”
Kelly brushed off the idea Saturday after practice of adding a body from another position group, but he might feel differently in a week, especially if Kmet’s recovery starts to look more protracted than the coach’s optimistic view.
The benevolent wrinkle in all this is the transformation of fellow junior Brock Wright that began last spring. The one-time 6-5, 260-pound block-first/catch-second option is now at 246 and has the look of a complete and No. 1 tight end.
“I think we felt he was maybe not as nimble, maybe not as clean in and out of breaks,” Kelly said of the old Wright. “We’ve seen now that he’s much sharper in and out. He can get separation. He can move so much better.
“He’s always had good hands. So it’s never been a concern for us. But I think the reworking, if you will, has been that ability to change direction and get some separation. That’s really where we’ve seen his needle go up.”
This too shall pass
It was hardly a surprise to see senior quarterback Ian Book named captain Saturday, along with six others — defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, wide receiver Chris Finke and offensive tackle Robert Hainsey.
The three picks he threw in practice later in the day (to TaRiq Bracy, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Jalen Elliott)? Not so expected.
For the record, sophomore backup Phil Jurkovec threw one (Kyle Hamilton). And freshman third-stringer Brendon Clark was intercepted once as well (Isaiah Rutherford), late, after most of the media had left the practice field.
Jurkovec, for the record, has shown noticeable and consistent improvement after seemingly pressing during an uneven performance in practice No. 1 of training camp last Sunday.
As far as Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long are concerned, the Book interceptions don’t represent regression, but aggression — the kind both coaches were willing to live with, for now, as the incumbent starter evolved his game.
“Ian’s personality is not one where — I don’t know that he’s going to get very many speeding tickets,” Kelly said. “I mean he doesn’t live on the edge. But I think he is a lot more confident in pushing the ball down the field. And we knew that was something we had to be better at.
“So he worked hard on that in the spring. We continue to have that as part of our offense. It’s twofold. It’s, one, having players that can aggressively push the ball down the field on the perimeter. And I think we have those guys this year.
“And secondly, him actually feeling comfortable doing it. I think we’re better there in both realms.”
More linebacker lotto
The linebacker competition has turned into a Rubik’s Cube, seemingly, with new bodies, new roles and new combinations being tried out at the two interior positions. At least the depth chart at the rover has found some stability — and prowess — with a 1-2 punch of Owusu-Koramoah and Penn High grad Paul Moala.
“We’re really trying to find the strengths of each one of those linebackers and how they fit into the scheme of things on first, second and third down,” Kelly said of the buck and middle linebacker positions.
“I think we’ve got a pretty good idea about who those guys are. Now it’s about finding what the best combinations are right now. So we’re starting to see who’s the shortstop, who’s the second baseman, who turns it best together?
“I know maybe that’s a poor analogy, but it’s really about trying to find those combinations and matching those skill sets.”
Drew White at middle linebacker at Asmar Bilal at the buck was the first interior combo rolled out on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow or on the night of Sept. 2 at Louisville.
Six days after Brian Kelly professed to have not seen even one of freshman safety Kyle Hamilton’s interceptions in practice No. 1 of camp last Sunday, the Irish head coach stuck to his story when he could have easily claimed he was joking.
“I really didn’t know he had three interceptions,” Kelly said. “I honestly did not. I was looking at other things. He’s now got my attention a little bit more, so I see him more in terms of what he’s doing. There’s no doubt.”
For good measure Hamilton added another pick Saturday, his fifth overall during the three practices to which the media has had all access.
More significantly, observers got to see the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder used in other ways besides a backup to starters Gilman and Elliott.
In Notre Dame’s formidable dime package, he was one of six defensive backs deployed along with safeties Elliott and Gilman, cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr., and Bracy, and hybrid Shaun Crawford.
“He’s a good player,” Kelly said of Hamilton. “He’s young. He’s still growing. He’s still learning. He’s going to be a good player, no doubt.”
There were no immediate personnel shifts made yet to account for safety Allen’s departure, but again the timing to address whether five scholarship safeties is enough seems to be about a week off.
Perhaps then potential safety option Houston Griffith and current safety DJ Brown will be back to full speed and participation. Nagging injuries have kept them out of much of the action in the last two full pad practices.
Means to an end
The one commodity the Irish seemed to lack for most of the Kelly Era at ND is now a glut of sorts — explosive edge defenders.
The natural deep rotation employed by D-Line coach Mike Elston makes sure it doesn’t go to waste, but Kelly’s not averse to getting more creative with the defensive end group led by Okwara and Kareem to get even more out of them.
Already non-starter Daelin Hayes routinely lines up as a defensive tackle on passing downs. One of many further down the depth chart to keep an eye on is 6-5, 250-pound freshman Isaiah Foskey.
“Love Foskey. He’s a hard worker, man,” Kareem said.
Kareem went on to relate a story about how the team was running gassers — sprints the width of the field and back — during the end of a player-run workout session this summer. Instead of lining up with the other defensive ends, Foskey ran with the linebackers.
“He finished first,” Kareem said. “Dude has a motor. He’s going to be good, real good.”