Analysis: Five storylines that hint at Notre Dame living up to its preseason hype

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Irish cornerbacks Cam Hart (5) and Clarence Lewis (6) run a drill during Notre Dame football practice Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 at ND.

SOUTH BEND — If accurately delineating when a team’s captains would be revealed and a starting quarterback confirmed were part of the process of determining a team’s preseason ranking, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and his Irish would be projected for a rebuild in 2021.

Actually voting in a preseason poll isn’t terribly more scientific than that.

I had seen barely more than a single session of stretching and skipping from the team I cover, ND, before I had to turn in my ballot earlier this week for the AP preseason rankings. Which is infinitely more than I’ve observed in person in 2021 from the other 129 FBS teams.

Nevertheless, my voting philosophy is to try and order the top 25 teams based on what they’ll turn into and how they’ll finish the season rather than a snapshot of where they are in early August.

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So when Notre Dame completely opened up Thursday’s practice to the media — the sixth of training camp — I didn’t expect to see the No. 8 team in the country, as I had voted the Irish. But I saw enough signs through a 20-minute scrimmage, some telling seven-on-seven periods, drills and, yes, more stretching to believe that could be an evolving reality.

Kelly was revealing too after practice with the media, even if he postponed publicly naming captains for the second time in a week (deferring this time to Friday afternoon) and keeping the Jack Coan/Drew Pyne depth chart guessing game going (presumably until early next week, per Kelly).

“We’re really, really close,” Kelly said of his No. 1 QB decision becoming public record, which was originally set for today. “Really, really, really close.”

QB ambiguity aside, here are five early training camp storylines that for now confirm to me plopping the Irish between No. 7 Texas A&M and No. 9 North Carolina on my ballot wasn’t the dumbest thing I could have done. Incidentally, the AP poll drops Monday at noon EDT.

Turning the corner on defense

Kelly on Saturday called the summer progress his senior wide receiver group forged as “transformational.”

Not surprising given their pedigree. Unexpected, though, because of their track record with injuries and inconsistencies. Welcome, because that was the position group furthest removed from what the other three College Football Playoff teams flashed during the postseason.

When pressed Thursday about whether there were defensive counterparts in the transformational realm this summer, Kelly said he could easily name 10 who at least met that bar from a physical makeover standpoint.

He ended up identifying five. Three of them were cornerbacks, the position group that least looked like a top 10 team this past spring.

Sophomore Clarence Lewis. Bounceback senior TaRiq Bracy. And a converted wide receiver stepping into the starting position vacated by former grad transfer Nick McCloud.

“Cam Hart was unbelievable this summer,” Kelly said of the 6-3, 205-pound junior, on track to be a starter for the first time in his career. “We’re pretty excited about this group and the way they trained. Now we’ve got to get that on the field. 

“That’s football, right? You’ve got to transfer that from the weight room to the football field.”

QB Jack Coan throws the ball during Notre Dame football practice Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 at ND.

Rolling in the deep in the QB room

The one positive in Kelly’s depth chart procrastination at quarterback was his answer Thursday about what matters most in the decision.

Sure there were the standard elements: Throwing accuracy, ability to play the chess game at the line of scrimmage, leadership.

But getting the ball deep downfield was the first criterion out of his mouth.

“I think everybody in this room who sent me the email about throwing the ball down the field — I’ve heard you,” Kelly said. 

Based on what happened in practice Thursday, it wasn’t just lip service. The Irish QBs pushed the vertical passing game early and often. Two of the “transformational” senior receivers — Lawrence Keys III and Braden Lenzy — were consistent threats deep throughout.

Most impressive, though, was Kevin Austin Jr. Immature as a freshman, suspended as a sophomore, sidelined by a twice-broken foot as a junior for most of 2020, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior was the most impressive offensive player on the field Thursday.

“We’re going to feature him,” Kelly said. “He’s not just going to be a guy that runs down the field. You’re going to see him cutting across the field and opening up the opportunity for him to run and catch.” 

Hamilton 'is an eraser' 

What happens when your best returning player is also one of your most improved from 2020?

The Irish offense in practice struggles to get the ball to sophomore Michael Mayer, ND’s leading returning receiver (42 catches for 450 yards and 2 TDs) and the most prolific freshman tight end in school history at Tight End U. 

“Kyle Hamilton is an eraser,” Kelly said. “So when you have that kind of player that can take a player like Mike Mayer away, imagine what he can do with others. 

“He's long. He’s rangy. He’s athletic. Can fit the run. I mean, you don’t get many players of that caliber. And here’s the good part about it: He is so much more aware of where he is in the big picture now than he was last year. 

“And what I mean by that specifically is that this is a big year for him, and he knows that. So his focus, his attention to detail — and he wants to be a leader on this football team. He is now locked into those things this year. And we are the beneficiaries, Notre Dame football.”

Emerging surprises

The small sample size makes it sort of irresponsible to draw conclusions, but freshman running backs Audric Estime and Logan Diggs, wide receiver Deion Colzie and offensive tackle Joe Alt certainly made strong impressions on Thursday.

And judging from Kelly’s comments on them, it didn’t sound like it was the first time in six training camp practices that was the case.

The 6-8, 305-pound Alt — 246 pounds, per Kelly, when they started recruiting him — got some reps with the 2s at right tackle on Thursday. The 6-5, 207-pound Colzie, meanwhile, showed speed and physicality in drills and during the scrimmage on his routes, while Diggs (6-0, 206) and Estime (6-0, 228) pounded the No. 2 defense.

“They both have soft hands,” Kelly said of his fourth and fifth backs. “Their instincts are outstanding and they’re great kids. Really, pleased with both of them.”

On the other end of the spectrum is right offensive guard Cain Madden, who will celebrate his 25th birthday in a little over four months.

More a mystery than a surprise, the curiosity in camp was to see if the 6-3, 310-pound grad transfer from Marshall looked on the field like an All-American he was portrayed to be by so many of the preseason college football magazines and websites.

“He’s tough. He’s physical,” Kelly said with a smile. “When you evaluate a guard, you’re not evaluating strictly based upon what he does, but what he does within the combination. He makes our combinations better, whether they’re combinations with the tackles or combinations with the center.”

QB Drew Pyne hands off to freshman Audric Estime during Notre Dame football practice Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 at ND.

Passing team chemistry so far

The team’s 95 percent vaccination rate for COVID-19 has allowed the Irish players to do so much off the field in team building that they were unable to last season because of strict protocols in 2020 and last spring.

“It’s exciting, because at Notre Dame it’s a true brotherhood here,” senior safety Houston Griffith said of the shift. “We always are together. We depend on each other for a lot of things, and just being able to eat together again is something we enjoy.

“Being able to watch film together. All those things are going to help us into the season and just building that community and just building that brotherhood that we need when we go out and play some of these teams that are coming.”

Despite having only nine returning starters, Kelly said it’s a team that’s growing up fast.

“Their demeanor has been outstanding in the way they handled themselves," Kelly said. "You never really know until you get out on the field how your football team is going to react. Now we haven’t had adversity at any level, other than it’s been hot. We had a little lightning. I mean, c’mon. 

“But early signs show this team has handled itself through the summer and through the first six days. And we’re having fun coaching them.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI