Notebook: Notre Dame football isn't keeping its freshman playmakers a secret

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The Notre Dame football program could have concealed the early success of its freshmen through the first five practices of preseason camp.

With media not allowed at practice yet during the coronavirus pandemic, the athletic department’s Fighting Irish Media team had complete control of the glimpses offered to the public on social media and shared with media outlets in photo and video form.

But there’s been no shying away from including images of running back Chris Tyree, wide receiver Jordan Johnson and tight end Michael Mayer in the peaks inside of practice.

Tyree lunged for the goal line with safety Houston Griffith and linebacker Drew White trying to stop him. Johnson turned a short screen pass into a long touchdown. Mayer made a leaping catch in the corner of the end zone on a pass from quarterback Ian Book. That all happened in Sunday’s practice — the fifth of camp and first in full pads.

The public portrayal of the freshmen is quite the contrast to how head coach Brian Kelly discussed freshman safety Kyle Hamilton last year. After the former five-star recruit intercepted three passes in the first practice at Culver Academies, Kelly acted as if he didn’t even notice Hamilton’s impressive debut.

“I’d write him up as having a good first day,” Kelly said last year. “I really didn’t see him. He probably played with the younger guys when he was in there. That’s a good first day. Good for him.”

Kelly isn’t necessarily crowning the likes of Tyree, Johnson and Mayer, but he isn’t avoiding the obvious either. They’re a talented bunch.

“I don’t know that we’ve had a freshman like Tyree that can come in and carry the football — that doesn’t happen quite a bit. Jordan Johnson has made some plays for us. That doesn’t happen a lot. The tight end — obviously — Mayer and (Kevin) Bauman in particular, those two guys.

“They’re at high-profile positions and they’re extremely skilled.”

Kelly wasn’t ready to say if this ranks as his most talented group of freshman skill players in his time at Notre Dame, even if overall Rivals rankings would indicate as much.

Tyree is the highest-ranked running back (No. 78 overall) to sign with the Irish since Greg Bryant (No. 19 in the 2013 class). Mayer is Notre Dame’s highest-ranked tight end (No. 36) since Kyle Rudolph (No. 20 in 2008). Johnson is the highest-ranked wide receiver (No. 28) since Michael Floyd (No. 27 in 2008).

Since the Irish lost their leading rusher (Tony Jones Jr.) and leading pass catchers at wide receiver (Chase Claypool) and tight end (Cole Kmet) from last season, the opportunities at each position exist. The star freshmen are quickly challenging to be options.

“Comparing it and saying it’s the best, I really don’t know,” Kelly said. “I know that they’re all really good players and have a chance to compete for us as freshmen.”

Getting physical

In its first full pads practice Sunday, Notre Dame tackled for the first time since the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28, 2019.

The practice included 11-on-11 scrimmage action which tested the team’s physicality and conditioning. The Irish had their share of missed tackles, including one shared with reporters of Griffith failing to bring down running back Kyren Williams on a long run.

“There wasn’t anybody that didn’t go into that first tackling scrimmage and think that we were going to be flawless in that,” Kelly said. “You can’t duplicate tackling if you don’t have that skill down and work on it. We’re a group that is used to tackling quite a bit.”

Sunday’s practice capped a five-day stretch with daily practices. The first day without practice came Monday.

Kelly said the team stayed sharp while fighting through fatigue. There weren’t major issues with snap exchanges, penalties or lining up in the correct formations.

“We’re in good shape, but it’s still football,” Kelly said. “It’s sustaining long drives. It’s having the conditioning to stay at your best when there’s a bit of fatigue in the game of football.”

Tackling and conditioning will remain a priority in the coming weeks, Kelly said.

Pass rush depth

Ovie Oghoufo’s opportunities have been limited in his first two seasons with the Irish. The former linebacker turned defensive end was stuck behind Julian Okwara, Daelin Hayes and Jamir Jones as a sophomore last season.

With Hayes’ returning and current sophomore Isaiah Foskey surging at the end of last season, Oghoufo has a fight on his hands for playing time. But the 6-foot-3, 232-pound junior came out swinging to start preseason camp.

“He’s had a great first five days, arguably as good as anyone we’ve had out there,” Kelly said.

Oghoufo will be part of a group of defensive ends hoping to replace the production of Okwara, Jones and Khalid Kareem. The trio combined for 14 sacks last season.

Kelly said he likes the combination of Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Hayes, Oghoufo and Foskey as pass rushing defensive ends. Ogundeji lead that foursome with 4.5 sacks last season.

“There’s four guys right there that coming off the edge are going to be impactful,” Kelly said. “And not a lot of college football teams can talk about four guys that can get to the quarterback that we can feel good about.”

Austin injury timeline

The fifth metatarsal that wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. broke in his left foot is expected to keep him sidelined for 8-12 weeks, Kelly said Monday.

Austin, who missed last season with a suspension, was expected to have a breakout junior year and contend to be Notre Dame’s leading receiver this season. Austin had surgery to repair the fracture Aug. 3. The projected recovery could lead to Austin being available as soon as the Florida State game (Oct. 10) and as late as the Georgia Tech game (Oct. 31).

“Kevin’s been really good. He has a great attitude,” Kelly said. “He’s taking all the things that he needs to do at this time to heart in terms of doing the little things to get him ahead of the game — bone (stimulation), all of those things. But he has to be off his foot for the first four weeks and then we can begin some form of rehab program for him.”

Extra points

• Forget clarity in Notre Dame’s buck linebacker competition. The Irish have too many options fighting for the role to have narrowed in on a starter and backup.

Kelly mentioned five linebackers Monday when asked about the competition: senior Jordan Genmark Heath, juniors Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb and sophomores Jack Kiser and Osita Ekwonu.

“Very competitive situation, but one where we feel we’ve got some really good options and some really good depth at the position,” Kelly said. “Moving forward, it’s going to be hotly contested right up to the first game we play.”

• Notre Dame’s offense will continue to use a varying amount of two tight ends formations and three wide receiver formations in 2020. But with depth emerging at tight end with Tommy Tremble and Brock Wright at the top, a three tight end look may become a reliable option and not just on the goal line.

“You’re going to see the utilization of three tight ends as a basic package in terms of what we do, because that’s our personnel grouping,” Kelly said. “Those are the guys that can help us win.”

Sophomore tight end George Takacs is in the mix as a third tight end alongside freshmen Mayer and Bauman.

• Notre Dame hasn’t made any position changes to start camp this season, Kelly said. Not even subtle shifts like a corner to safety or offensive guard to offensive tackle.

Wide receiver Jordan Johnson, rated as a five-star recruit by Rivals, is part of a talented freshman class making plays in its first practices at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, left, plans to enter the NCAA’s transfer portal.