Notebook: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly starts new spring with old faces

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — With the early morning sun shining through the windows of the Irish Indoor Athletics Center, there was no mistaking the time and place of Notre Dame’s first spring football practice.

A year ago, the Irish were still conducting indoor practices in the dim Loftus Sports Center. The football program didn’t settle into the luminous athletics center until July.

Even head coach Brian Kelly held his post-practice press conference Thursday in a new location inside the still-shiny indoor facility. But some of the names mentioned by reporters felt pulled from time capsules throughout Kelly’s coaching career.

Kelly spoke to the media for the first time about the promotion of quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees — and former Irish quarterback — to offensive coordinator. He discussed new cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, who Kelly coached at Cincinnati. He answered questions about new roles in the program for former Irish offensive lineman Chris Watt and former Irish assistant coach Kerry Cooks.

Even Grand Valley State received a mention in his media session as one of Notre Dame’s student managers is the daughter of one of his former players at the school in Allendale, Mich. Kelly’s 23-minute press conference was part state of the program, part spring preview and first practice recap. It was his first press conference since the Camping World Bowl victory Dec. 28.

The preparation for Notre Dame’s 33-9 win over Iowa State essentially became part of Rees’ job interview as he filled in as play-caller for deposed offensive coordinator Chip Long. It became clear to Kelly that he wanted the new offensive coordinator to be the quarterbacks coach, and Rees stood out as the right fit.

“His relationships are really good,” Kelly said. “What really has been impressive is his relationships with all the players, not just the quarterbacks. Because you can’t just be the offensive coordinator and the quarterback coach. You have to have great relationships with the offensive linemen, the offensive line coach, the running backs, the running back coach, all of them.

“He commands the room. He has really good interpersonal skills. He has a good sense and awareness, and he’s going to do a great job at the position in which he’s been hired for.”

The additions of Mickens and tight ends coach John McNulty were formally announced Monday. They hit the ground running at Thursday’s practice after conversations with Kelly the past few weeks.

“The first part of that is just making sure they understand what my expectations are of our coaches, and that is demanding but not demeaning,” Kelly said. “Clearly understanding that our guys have high expectations and that you are to meet those with your preparation and your teaching and your ability to motivate our players to the levels necessary to be at championship level.

“So setting those standards, and then of course obviously teaching the fundamentals of the game. This is about technique. In spring practice we’re not out to win. We’ve already won the spring game. So this is really about building that success and building that competency in the group that you have.”

Mickens is entering his eighth year as a full-time cornerbacks coach after stops at Idaho (2013), Bowling Green (2014-17) and Cincinnati (2018-19). Kelly didn’t necessarily anticipate Mickens becoming a coach when he knew him as a player.

“Mike was very cerebral, very smart,” Kelly said. “He could always give you back what game plans were and what we wanted to do. He was really a sharp player, but I never knew that he would want to get into the business itself.”

McNulty comes to Notre Dame with no ties to Kelly, but a shared stop with the San Diego Chargers in 2016 with Rees. He brings 29 years of coaching experience in college football and the NFL, but only two dedicated strictly to tight ends with the Chargers. But McNulty sold Kelly on his knowledge of the position.

“In the interviewing process, what I really liked about his presentation to me was his focus solely on teaching the techniques and his experience working with multiple tight ends,” Kelly said. “I thought last year when your offensive coordinator was the tight end coach, the guy that gets left out sometimes is the tight end, because he has so many other responsibilities that that position in itself required much more focus and attention.

“I thought (McNulty) did a great job of showing why he should get this job. I liked his presentation, the way he handled himself. I liked his experience. I liked his recruiting experience geographically as well.”

2013 all over

The last time Chris Watt and Kerry Cooks were involved with Notre Dame’s football program was the 2013 season. Watt was a three-year starter at offensive guard in his fifth season with the Irish and Cooks was in his second-to-last season of a five-year tenure at Notre Dame.

Now both are back — or almost back — working for the Irish.

Watt, a third-round draft pick of the Chargers in 2014, played in 17 games his first two seasons in the NFL before a knee injury sidelined him for the 2016 season. He retired in July 2017. He’s taken a graduate assistant position at Notre Dame working with offensive line coach Jeff Quinn.

“Loved him as a player,” Kelly said. “His presence among our players is recognizable still. He just represents a group of — he kind of has that attachment to the McGlincheys and the Nelsons and certainly the Eiferts and the Martins. So that group has been very successful, so he carries a lot of that.

“But he was a tough, physical, hard-nosed player. Had a lot of versatility and very smart player, and brings that to coaching. He’ll be a big add for us.”

Cooks observed Thursday’s practice in nicer attire than typical coaching gear. Kelly said Cooks will fill an open analyst role, but he’s still going through Notre Dame’s human resources process.

Cooks left Notre Dame in 2015 to become the defensive backs coach at Oklahoma, where he coached through 2018. After being fired by the Sooners, Cooks coached safeties last season at Texas Tech.

Personnel updates

Junior-to-be wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. didn’t wait long to grab the spotlight at Thursday’s practice. He made a handful of impressive catches working with the starting offense.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Austin was sidelined last season with a university suspension.

The sidelines were a bit crowded Thursday — but not because of any suspensions. The Irish have several players recovering from injuries, including three starting offensive lineman: left guard Aaron Banks, right guard Tommy Kraemer and right tackle Robert Hainsey.

Banks was the only one of the trio completely sidelined. He’s still wearing a boot on his right foot from a fracture. Kelly estimated Banks will be out another 5-plus weeks, which likely means he won’t see much action this spring with the Blue-Gold Game scheduled for April 18.

Kraemer (knee) and Hainsey (ankle), who both had last their season cut short with injuries, did participate in portions of practice, but Kelly said the training staff wants to limit their workload.

Defensive end Daelin Hayes (torn labrum) was somewhat limited. Cornerback Cam Hart didn’t miss much practice Thursday following last year’s labrum surgery. Fellow cornerback Shaun Crawford was limited with a minor hamstring injury.

Linebacker Jack Lamb (hip) is three weeks out from the next step in his recovery, Kelly said. Linebacker Shayne Simon (knee) and defensive tackle Howard Cross III (undisclosed) should be cleared by preseason camp in August, Kelly added.

Guard Dillan Gibbons (foot) and early-enrolled wide receiver Jay Brunelle (shoulder) were also sidelined Thursday.

Wide receiver Isaiah Robertson wasn’t at practice. He’s still on scholarship, Kelly said, and taking care of his academics.

No starters in March

Notre Dame returns 12 players who started at least seven games last season: seven on offense and five defense.

That means there are plenty of roles up for grabs heading into the 2020 season, but Kelly’s not ready to delineate a depth chart this spring.

“Today would not be a good day to say, ‘Who is the one? Who is the two?’” Kelly said. “There is always a pecking order in a sense that guys are going to have to fit somewhere.

“But remember now, for the last two and a half months there hasn’t been ones, there’s hasn’t been twos. I don’t put up a depth chart, per se. I don’t push that with our coaches. We don’t like to talk in those terms. But somebody has to go out there.”

Notable players taking first-team reps Thursday included junior wide receivers Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Austin, senior Jordan Genmark Heath at buck linebacker, junior TaRiq Bracy at boundary cornerback, sophomore Kyle Hamilton at free safety and junior Houston Griffith at strong safety.

Offense coordinator Tommy Rees shakes hands with cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens during Notre Dame's first spring football practice at the Irish Athletics Center on Thursday March 5, 2020.