Notebook: Brian Kelly makes reps for Notre Dame's early enrolled freshmen a priority

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly doesn’t want the first semester for Notre Dame’s 14 early enrolled freshmen to simply be an opportunity to adjust to the demands of being a college student and a football player.

The Irish head coach wants them to be fully immersed in the 15 spring practices, too.

“I'm not interested in bringing in midyears to see them on the sidelines, or let's not bring them in,” Kelly said Saturday following the seventh practice of the spring “We're going to sacrifice even reps for veteran players to make sure that we give these kids even more reps than they've earned.”

The 14 early enrollees set a new program high for midyear freshman additions, which could make it more difficult to find practice reps for all of them. But several of them have shown up repeatedly in the three-minute collections of practice clips the program has shared after each practice this spring.

The first clip from Saturday’s practice inside Notre Dame Stadium, a touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Coan to wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr., included Blake Fisher at left tackle and Rocco Spindler at left guard, both freshmen, playing alongside other projected starters.

Kelly was asked following practice specifically about the early enrolled defensive backs getting a lot of work.

“I know you're seeing a lot of them. I don't want to mislead anybody by watching the film saying, 'Boy, they must be ready to start for Notre Dame,’” Kelly said. “We're just trying to give them as much work as possible.

“They're all making progress, but I wouldn't read too much into it and saying, 'Well, this guy's ready to start, or this guy's ready to do this or that.' We just really want to make sure they get a ton of work, so we can put them in a good position."

This year’s crop of early enrollees consists of quarterbacks Tyler Buchner and Ron Powlus III, wide receiver Lorenzo Styles Jr., tight ends Cane Berrong and Mitchell Evans, offensive linemen Caleb Johnson, Fisher and Spindler, defensive tackle Gabe Rubio, defensive ends Devin Aupiu and Will Schweitzer, cornerbacks Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes, and safety Justin Walters.

When asked to assess the play of his quarterbacks, Kelly mentioned Buchner, who didn’t get to play a high school senior season because California canceled its fall football season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as making the most progress.

“His motion is really fluid,” Kelly said. “He's throwing the ball very well. But he's learning a lot, right? He has a lot to learn about our offensive structure and just the nuances.

“He knows football. He's very smart — tremendously smart, by the way. You tell him something in a meeting and his recall is quite amazing.

“Just because you know it, it just doesn't happen naturally. He needs reps. But he's made a lot of progress.”

The opportunities for progress should be there for all of the freshmen. Kelly said he wants each of them to leave the spring with an understanding of what it takes to be a part of a championship football program.

“This is what they love to do,” Kelly said. “If they can’t enjoy playing football, why bring them in at midyear? We're just piling on reps and they're loving playing football. They haven't earned all the reps, but that doesn't really matter.”

Recruiting reinforcements

Chad Bowden’s official title is listed on Notre Dame’s athletics website as senior football analyst, but his role has much more to do with the Irish recruiting efforts. Kelly described Bowden’s role as a defensive coordinator in recruiting, tasked with making sure the Irish are keeping in touch with their defensive recruiting targets.

“That's not a 9-to-5 job,” Kelly said. “That's late at night. That's being on (recruits') schedules. So he's in touch with all of those defensive recruits in their time zone, if you will. So you're probably hearing a lot of him, because he's built strong relationships with all those defensive players and done a very, very good job.”

Three-star defensive end Darren Agu, who announced Friday his verbal commitment to Notre Dame, indicated that Bowden was the first Irish staff member to communicate with him. Bowden’s name has been mentioned by multiple defensive recruits in recent weeks.

The 27-year-old Bowden followed defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman from Cincinnati, where Bowden worked as director of recruiting for the Bearcats. Bowden is the son of former Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden.

Kelly indicated the Irish will also hire an analyst with similar responsibilities as Bowden for the offensive coaching staff. A Notre Dame spokesperson said that the hiring process had not yet been finalized for that position. Director of recruiting Aaryn Kearney has assumed those responsibilities in the meantime.

Defensive line details

“Multiple” has been one of the buzzwords of the spring when describing new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s plans for the defensive line.

Early reviews indicate the Irish will be utilizing a mix of three- and four-man looks on the defensive line. But regardless of the front, Kelly said the linebackers shouldn’t be asked to do more than usual.

“If you didn't move the front in three-down (linemen), those inside 'backers have to take the guards on straight on,” Kelly said. “It's bully ball. It's big-boy ball inside. But we’re moving the front so aggressively, those 'backers then become single-gap players again, much like out of a four-down front.”

Kelly spoke highly of the work shown this spring by the defensive line and specifically highlighted junior defensive tackle Howard Cross III, graduate senior nose guard Kurt Hinish, senior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, senior defensive end Justin Ademilola and sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho.

“I don't think there's a guy on the defensive line,” Kelly said, “that we would say, 'Man, we're disappointed in them. They're not ascending. They're not getting stronger. They're not putting in the time.’”

The defensive line also seems to have added former linebacker Osita Ekwonu to its ranks. Junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey indicated as much during his Zoom press conference Saturday, which backs up some clips shared this spring of Ekwonu rushing the passer.

The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Ekwonu was mostly limited to special teams play in his first two seasons with the Irish since joining the program as a four-star linebacker recruit out of Charlotte (N.C.) Providence Day.

Notre Dame freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) throws a pass Saturday during a spring practice session staged at Notre Dame Stadium.