Brian Kelly likes Notre Dame's starters at cornerback. He's starting to like the depth too.
SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly needed to use hands to describe the lack of cornerback depth the Notre Dame football program has had at times during his tenure.
That’s because when the Irish needed to play someone beyond their starters in those moments, Notre Dame’s head coach joked he would cover his eyes and try to look away when a backup took the field.
That’s not the case for the 2021 Irish.
“We're establishing some pretty good depth at the cornerback position,” Kelly said Wednesday after practice.
Depth will likely be required at cornerback with new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s preference to play a lot of man coverage. Asking cornerbacks to tail wide receivers all game long can be physically taxing, and that’s something the Irish have monitored throughout preseason practice.
“We're cognizant of their recovery and nutrition, maintaining their weight,” Kelly said. “There's a lot going into the maintenance when you're running down the field and back. They're not just rerouting receivers from seven yards and playing Cover 2. So there's a lot going on there, but they've handled it really well.”
Junior Cam Hart and sophomore Clarence Lewis will be asked to do the most as Notre Dame’s starting cornerbacks. When Hart starts at Florida State on Sept. 5 (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC) as the boundary cornerback, it will be the first start of his college career.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound product of Olney (Md.) Good Counsel will finally get to show the potential the coaching staff sees in him.
“Cam is really strong physically,” Kelly said. “One of the strongest defensive backs we have. It was, for him, playing with a confidence and calmness. He was a reacher and maybe a little tugger and grabber at times, when he didn't need to be. Just being more comfortable playing the position.”
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Lewis (6-0, 193) was much more natural at cornerback, which is why he played in all 12 games last season and started six of them at cornerback. But he had plenty of room to improve to become a shutdown cornerback playing on the wide side of the field.
“Clarence has been physical,” Kelly said. “We thought he was a step behind in what he needed to do in terms of the weight room. He did that. There's still more there in terms of just the nuances of the game.”
Senior cornerback TaRiq Bracy has the most cornerback experience on the roster — 76 tackles and 10 pass breakups in 32 games — but his most prominent roles will likely be at nickelback and as the backup at field cornerback. Sophomore Ramon Henderson, who received praise from Kelly in the spring, has shown he’s capable of backing up Hart at boundary cornerback.
"I like him. He's in a really good position,” Kelly said. “He has just continued to grow and learn the position. If we had to play him, there'd be confidence in his ability to go out there and compete.”
Even players near the bottom of the depth chart when preseason practice began have made significant improvements. Kelly named freshman Ryan Barnes, who missed some practices with an injury, and sophomore Caleb Offord as the defensive backs who have improved the most since the start of the month.
“Those guys were kind of not even ready for competitive reps within our own world,” Kelly said. “Like (Wednesday), I said, 'Give me Barnes against (senior wide receiver Kevin) Austin (Jr.). I want to see him.'”
How the Irish handled the heat
Notre Dame shouldn’t be unprepared for the heat that greets them in Tallahassee, Fla., for the season opener. The temperature in South Bend hit 93 degrees on Tuesday and 91 degrees on Wednesday during practice hours.
Under the direction of the team’s training staff, Notre Dame kept its practice inside the Irish Athletics Center on Wednesday. The building was still pretty hot with its side doors to the outdoor fields remaining open, but it kept the team out of the direct sunlight a bit more.
“If we wanted to tackle and be in full gear, we were required to be inside (Wednesday),” Kelly said.
The Weather Channel forecast for Sept. 5 in Tallahassee lists a high of 89 degrees, which likely wouldn’t be the temperature by the time the game starts at 7:30 p.m. EDT.
Irish nursing injuries
• Nose guard Kurt Hinish missed Wednesday’s practice as he continued to recover from a concussion. Kelly expected him to be back in pads Thursday in non-contact situations.
• Wide receiver Braden Lenzy didn’t participate in Tuesday’s practice and was limited in Wednesday’s practice due to a shoulder strain, Kelly said. The Irish expect him to be back to 100% before the weekend.
• Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was back at practice Wednesday after needing an appendectomy Monday. Kelly said Dr. Matt Leiszler, the team physician, convinced Rees to seek immediate medical attention at from the Saint Joseph Health System.
“It wasn't your standard, ‘Hey, we have plenty of time here,’” Kelly said. “If this was left unattended a little bit longer, we could have had a much more serious situation.”
• Defensive ends Osita Ekwonu and Will Schweitzer, nose guard Aidan Keanaaina and quarterback Ron Powlus III remained sidelined at Wednesday's practice.
Room for youth at wide receiver?
Most of the action for Notre Dame’s wide receivers will come from graduate senior Avery Davis and a quartet of seniors: Austin, Lenzy, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Lawrence Keys III.
But Kelly thinks a pair of freshman wide receivers can work their way into the rotation at some point this season, too.
“Lorenzo (Styles Jr.) can. He's coming on, seeing consistency from him,” Kelly said. “And Deion Colzie. He's going to be a really good player for us. Those guys, I'm pretty sure you'll see them this year.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.