Analysis: Early standouts among newcomers highlight Notre Dame's pixelated big picture

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Up until the time Kevin Bauman showed up on the Notre Dame campus this summer, one of the most distinctive things about him was that he was an avid surfer.

And big one, at that — at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds.

And an aspiring cook. And a product of the same high school that produced recent Notre Dame mauling All-America offensive guard Quenton Nelson — Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic.

And most notably the “other” tight end in ND’s freshman class.

Until now.

After two months of impressive lifting and conditioning, eventually film study and walkthroughs, and now two days into training camp, Bauman is a surprise.

The good kind, and a big one at that.

And he’s got plenty of company in the early standout category among ND’s newcomers and relative newcomers.

Grad transfers Ben Skowronek and Isaiah Pryor, both of whom participated in the one spring practice staged on March 5 before the COVID-19 pandemic detoured college football’s normal agenda, scored the highest in their respective position groups, using a point system designed to measure offseason progress,

Skowronek is a wide receiver for Northwestern, whose role figures to expand with ascending junior Kevin Austin Jr. sidelined with a broken bone in his left foot. Pryor is a safety from Ohio State, vying to be Kyle Hamilton’s sidekick at safety.

The freshman cornerbacks, freshman running back Chris Tyree, freshman offensive tackle Michael Carmody, and the freshman tight end who was expected to flash early and often — Michael Mayer — have all caught Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s eye.

“There’s more time that’s going to go into evaluations,” Kelly said Thursday during a 30-minute Zoom call with the media. “But Mayer is a guy that has innate ability, size, quickness, escapability as he releases off the line of scrimmage.

“He’s a pretty impressive young man in everything he’s done.

“Bauman, here’s a guy that if he’s not coming in at the same time as Mayer, everybody’s talking about him. He’s a really good tight end. He’s a guy I don’t think we can hold off the field, either. Very, very impressed with him early on.”

How it all fits into the big picture of actual football and Notre Dame’s 10-game ACC schedule is a bit like watching a game from the cheap seats, but with a kaleidoscope rather than binoculars.

There are no practices open to the media on the horizon, due to ND understandably wanting to preserve as much of a bubble concept as possible. Thursday’s Zoom format was understandably disjointed.

There’s no direct questioning to Kelly; instead it’s via a third party. No follow-ups, little flow and so many agendas — including very important pandemic-related questions — that it’s difficult to extract actual information about what the team might look like when it opens Sept. 12 with Duke at Notre Dame Stadium.

The football-related queries that went unasked and/or unanswered Thursday are a lot of the ones that would have been solved or at least worked through in the 14 spring practices that were canceled.

The Irish are still looking for a starting buck linebacker, above all, as well as a pecking order for its cornerbacks and running backs, rhythm between third-year starting quarterback Ian Book and a new wave of talented-but-largely inexperienced receivers.

And depth at quarterback. In fact, depth everywhere given the Irish will have to dodge infections and quarantines in addition to injuries, and flex their roster when that isn’t possible.

Tyree’s inclusion in the running back depth seemed like a given while he was being recruited, based on his elite speed and ND’s dearth of it. But after committing to the Irish, his size and durability came into question in the recruiting analysts industry.

And suddenly the Chester, Va., product projected as more of a long-term asset than a plug-and-play prospect.

That’s not what Kelly has observed so far of the four-star prospect who is listed at 5-10 and an outdated 179 pounds but is actually 190, per Kelly.

“A lot stronger than we thought in terms of overall lower-body strength,” Kelly said. “He’s not a specialist. He’s not a guy that just plays in the slot or (on) handoff sweeps. He’s a guy that can run the football for you downhill between the tackles.

“He’s not going to get 30 carries. Don’t get me wrong, but he’s a guy who’s going to play as a freshman. He’s been impressive.”

Among ND’s veteran players, Book, for one, earned that kind of distinction from his coach.

“He’s developed a single-minded focus in terms of what he wants this team to accomplish and what he wants for him — it’s a championship or bust,” Kelly said. “I think everything he does is so intentional on a day-to-day basis. He’s not distracted by the noise of the position in which he’s a leader and a quarterback at Notre Dame.

“I just think he’s so much more comfortable being in the position that he’s in, more than anything else. He’s stronger. He’s fitter. He’s going to have a great year. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to see the best version of Ian Book this fall.”

If there is a fall with football, a conjecture that hangs over the 76 teams of the 130 in the FBS that continue to persist as if there will be one.

Even among those 76, players on Thursday from Syracuse and Florida State — two teams added to ND’s schedule when it was reworked last week — criticized their respective school’s COVID-19 protocol and testing frequency. In fact, the Syracuse players refused to practice.

Notre Dame may almost have the opposite challenge, with so much emphasis — and to this point success — on reworking everything from water bottles to locker room capacity to grab-and-go meals to wearing masks to testing that talking about and playing football is a much-needed elixir.

“It’s so nice to get back to practice, so we can get back to our normal process and our normal routine,” Kelly said. “And that’s going to take a little time. …

“I’m anxious to build on a number of practices to get to the heart of this, so we can get truly to our process, our day-to-day process. We haven’t really been in that for a very long time.”

Running backs Chris Tyree (25), Kyren Williams (23) and Jahmir Smith (34) run through drills Wednesday during the first day of Notre Dame football training camp.
Notre Dame president Rev. John I. Jenkins addresses the team during its opening football practice of training camp on Wednesday.