Analysis: The 5 ways Kelly's happy campers could raise the ceiling on Notre Dame's season

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame left tackle Blake Fisher (54) remains on track to become the second Irish freshman offensive lineman in 50 years to start a season opener.

SOUTH BEND — That Brian Kelly was able to sum up the present or potential growing pains of starting freshman left tackle Blake Fisher in essentially a sentence and a half Thursday is more about a rising ceiling for his 2021 Notre Dame football team and less about the Irish head coach’s economy of words.

And it’s hardly an isolated storyline.

The prevailing theme of AP ninth-ranked ND’s 12 training camp practices — including Thursday’s at Notre Dame Stadium, completely open to the media — is the culling of surprises, surges and evolutionary steps that are starting to make 2021 feel less like a springboard for a 2022 playoff run and more like a season that could generate some magic of its own.

Not that the “ifs” of having the roster churn of 13 starters move on have totally evaporated.

But at least the uncertainties feel more manageable than they did last spring, or even at Kelly’s first August press conference. Including to Kelly himself. 

“I like the team,” the 12th-year Irish coach said Thursday before giving it three of the next four days off. “I like the way they come to work. They understand our process.

“If your process has been established and the standard of the way you do things every day has been met and exceeded, you feel really good, because you know it works.”

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With the Sunday, Sept. 5 opener at Florida State a little over two weeks away and with the academic layer starting Monday with the first day of class, here are five aspects worth watching that could help perpetuate the feel-good vibe into the actual season.

Blake Fisher

The lineage that precedes the 6-foot-6, 335-pound Avon, Ind., product is stunning. In all 11 previous seasons that Kelly has been the head coach at ND, his starting left tackle has been either a future first- or second-round NFL Draft pick.

There’s nothing that Fisher has done since enrolling early, in February, to knock him off that same career trajectory. If anything, the former five-star prospect has reinforced it.

Perceived to be a place-holder by some in the spring for senior Jarrett Patterson to migrate eventually to be the starting left tackle, Fisher instead provided one of the convincing arguments to leave Patterson at center.

And how good is Patterson at center? In ND’s context, he’s accelerated the progress and chemistry of the entire line, flush with four new starters. Individually, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay on Thursday branded the 6-5, 307-pound former three-star prospect as the nation’s No. 34 prospect overall in the 2022 NFL Draft should Patterson turn down his fifth-year option to return to ND.

As for Fisher, his challenge, per Kelly, is finishing off plays.

The good?

“From a pass rush standpoint, he’s hard to get around,” Kelly said of the player named to the 247Sports Preseason Freshman All-America team on Friday. “He’s long. He moves his feet well. He’s strong. You can’t bull-rush him. He can get his hands on you. His development is still there. It needs to continue to grow.

“It’s hard to compare him to anybody that we’ve had here. Was Ronnie Stanley a better athlete? Maybe. But he certainly didn’t have the size. His makeup is elite. When I say makeup, his ability to go out there. His body recovers.

“Most of these guys don’t recover. They don’t have the ability to bounce back the next day and recover with the workload they get. He can recover. He got a gift. He’s a gifted young man.”  

Jack Coan throws the ball during football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Jack Coan

The hardest part of Notre Dame’s recently minted No. 1 quarterback’s game to project is what he’s going to look like in ND’s late-September/October run, when the Irish face four ranked teams and two elite defenses.

Including the one from Wisconsin that the grad transfer used to face in practice every day.

What is evident in the play of the 6-3, 223-pound former Irish lacrosse recruit is a high floor and consistent improvement from practice to practice.

“The accuracy is really good,” Kelly said. “He’s smart. He knows the offense very well for just coming in during the spring, and he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. You see that.

“He’s not a guy that is throwing the ball into coverage, making poor decisions. He’s got a high football IQ. So he’s a guy who we have come to feel very confident with his ability to move the offense.”

As long as the Irish continue to win, the question will be: Is he better than Ian Book? If ND is going to truly surprise, the answer is going to have to be yes.

Oh, and if the Irish stumble, the question — fairly or not — will become: Is he better than Phil Jurkovec?  

Related:Photos: Notre Dame football practice 8-19

The Rees offense

The people still wondering why Kelly promoted his former quarterback, at age 27 and with a short résumé, to replace ousted offensive coordinator Chip Long two offseasons ago, may start to see the upside of that decision in year 2.

Or not.

The pro-Rees argument, though, can be seen in the ripples of creativity in practice and the elements of a quick-strike, deep-passing game that weren’t a part of the 2020 team’s identity.

“We really didn’t know what we had last year,” Kelly said of a summer/training camp lead-up to the 2020 season rife with interruptions, a reworked calendar and challenging pandemic-prompted practice logistics.

The need to build depth beyond the 2s, for instance, was paramount, given how easily a given position group could be diluted by COVID-19 outbreaks. Repetition trumped experimentation. Ball control made sense as a model, at least to get to the playoff. Winning there, required an evolution the Irish weren’t able to make. 

“We wanted to be very careful going into the season,” Kelly said. “So — I don’t want to say conservative — but we were playing a lot closer to the vest relative to leaning on an offensive line and knowing that that was the strength. 

“This offense has got to produce more points, and so you saw that we’re going to be more multiple in our offensive sets and we’ve got to get the ball downfield to playmakers.”

And so far it looks like Notre Dame has playmakers.

Lorenzo Styles Jr. runs drills during football practice Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Youth movement — sort of

Speaking of playmakers, Notre Dame’s senior (and grad senior) receivers dominate the top of the depth chart. Kelly called transformational the summers of Joe Wilkins Jr., Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Avery Davis.

But the Irish may get some key contributions from some of their younger receivers, at least on an intermittent basis. Freshman Deion Colzie (6-5, 207) continues to be able to create separation with his speed and length. He spent Thursday running with the 2s.

Fellow freshman Lorenzo Styles Jr., meanwhile, has moved from the slot to an outside spot and is flourishing. On Thursday he showed off his speed in torching freshman cornerback Philip Riley on a deep pass for a touchdown thrown by another freshman, Tyler Buchner.

Where the 6-1, 195-pounder consistently did damage Thursday was in the red zone, with sharp cuts and quick bursts.      

“He's probably his own worst enemy at times, that he wants to be perfect,” Kelly said. “So we try to get perfect out of the way in the first couple of periods and start working toward just being good. He's just a great kid. I think he's starting to find a comfort zone.”

Pressure points

With as much as Isaiah Foskey flashed on the edge in a part-time role last season, the expectation was that the 6-5, 260-pound junior vyper end would ascend to being a dominant player in 2021 with more snaps and responsibility.

The fact that he didn’t particularly look like that on Thursday is a testament to Fisher.

“He’s consistent,” Kelly said of Foskey. “He shows up every day. He runs to the football. He’s assignment-correct. He’s very detailed in his work.”

And that matters. The beauty of first-year Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s is that pressure comes from so many different places that it’s not incumbent on the defensive ends to put up monster sack numbers.

Another plus is how the defense can attack in waves. Freshman Kia Kahanu, for instance, is small by linebacker standards (6-1, 217) and then he got moved to the vyper end because of attrition at that position.

He didn’t look out of place Thursday when he was inserted in pass-rush situations against the backup offensive line and at times was surprisingly proficient.

The really intriguing chess piece at vyper appears to be sophomore Jordan Botelho. He can tag-team with Foskey. He can play with Foskey. He can cover. He can rush the passer. He can destroy a running play.

And the 6-3, 245-pounder moved around the defensive formation. On one play, pre-snap he was where you’d expect the middle linebacker to be. Then he blitzed. Like his hair was on fire.

“We think he’s going to be a guy that shows up for us,” Kelly said. “We like Jordan. He’s a good story. He's really done a nice job in the classroom. He's going to be really active for us and make plays for us." 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI