Notebook: Brian Kelly narrows focus on Notre Dame's spring to-do list

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly doesn’t expect to have a clear picture of what Notre Dame will look like for its Sept. 5 season opener against Florida State by the end of spring football practice.

But the Irish head coach does have a clear agenda he wants to address in the next two weeks that will culminate in the Blue-Gold Game on May 1.

Notre Dame’s secondary requires development at cornerback and depth at safety. The offensive line auditions can start narrowing to specific positions. Veteran receivers need to raise their games.

There’s plenty of work to be done, but those items are near the top of the list.

“We know that there are dynamics that have to be worked on that will require this summer and some development internally,” Kelly said Saturday following spring practice No. 10. “On the field in these next five practices, we have to address some technical issues and guys being in the right position."

The known of Kyle Hamilton at safety has been absent this spring while recovering from ankle surgery, but that’s allowed seniors Houston Griffith and DJ Brown plenty of opportunities to compete to play alongside him and younger players to jockey to be the next option.

The absence of offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson, who’s recovering from a left foot injury, cleared the way for sophomore Tosh Baker and freshman Blake Fisher to challenge for the left tackle position. The early returns from that duo, Josh Lugg at right tackle and junior Zeke Correll at center have Kelly considering Patterson as a potential guard upon return.

“What we're doing is we're saying, ‘All right, Jarrett’s the guard right now. What's our best five? Jarrett’s the tackle, who's the best five?'” Kelly said. “This is kind of like a game that we're playing right now in spring to see what's the best five when Patterson comes back. Is it guard or is it tackle?

“He can play anywhere right now, because he is not playing, but the fact of the matter is once he gets back, then we'll start to figure out where his comfort level is and where he makes us the best five.”

The wide receiver picture remains a kaleidoscope of sorts, with the senior trio of Joe Wilkins Jr., Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III being asked establish themselves as clear difference-makers.

“They've been good,” Kelly said. “I need them to move to that great level, and they're capable of it, and we're seeing some signs. But this is all wrapped up in those three guys really taking that next step.”

The focus on that trio comes with the assumption of fellow senior Kevin Austin Jr. staying healthy when he returns from his left foot injury and graduate senior Avery Davis continuing to be steady in the slot.

Though his Saturday résumé is light (six catches for 108 yards) due to a sophomore suspension and a junior injury battle, Austin’s future remains bright to those who’ve seen him.

“Kevin is another level when he’s healthy,” former Irish wide receiver Miles Boykin said Friday on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast. “Man, he can really play.”

Boykin knows a bit about a breakout senior season. He caught 59 passes for 872 yards and eight touchdowns in 2018 after dealing with a broken finger as a sophomore and receiving limited action as a junior.

Boykin remembers being really impressed with the four-man class of Austin, Wilkins, Lenzy and Keys when they arrived on campus that same year.

“They’re legit,” Boykin said. “If they can just stay healthy, then I have all the confidence in the world. Because when they came in as freshmen, we were like, ‘Man, they’re going to be something.’”

White out

Senior linebacker Drew White has missed multiple practices with high ankle sprain of his right foot, Kelly confirmed Saturday.

“Whether we put him back out there or not is questionable,” Kelly said of White’s pending return to practice. “His presence is there. He's with the young guys.

“He's making sure that they're picking up the things that they need to, and he's learning too, because there's some nuances within the defense that he wants to be aware of as well.”

White, a captain candidate and projected starting middle linebacker, recorded 57 tackles, nine tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks for the Irish last season.

Nickel options

Notre Dame’s nickel defense under defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman could use an extra cornerback or extra safety depending on what opposing offenses present in their own personnel.

When the Irish offense uses two tight ends in practice, it limits natural nickelback opportunities for Notre Dame’s defense. But the Irish defense has to be prepared for more spread looks throughout the season.

Kelly said senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy and junior safety KJ Wallace have split work at the nickelback spot.

“We're going to continue to find what the best rotation is for us at that position,” Kelly said, “and it will be contingent upon personnel groupings.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly wants wide receivers Lawrence Keys III (pictured), Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins Jr. to take their spring performances from good to great.