BK talks: QB Derby, Theo, Te’o, Hercules and more

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After a Saturday morning practice, the Irish boarded buses and headed to the lake, the second year Brian Kelly and his staff have taken the team for a little R&R and water activities.

But before he did, Kelly spoke with the assembled media, with the biggest news being that second-string tackle Tate Nichols was doubtful for the opener after dislocating his knee cap.With Nichols down, freshman Nick Martin moved up to the second-team offensive line, playing right tackle with Christian Lombard lining up on the left side.

Here’s more from BK:

On the quarterback derby:

“Too close to call at this point, which is kind of what we thought, we’d need that second week. They both have done very good things. Right now I’d say they’re neck and neck. Today, Tommy got a lot of the first team reps. Dayne’s been getting most of the first team reps. We wanted to be able to give a balanced evaluation. Where your second unit is around Tommy more than Dayne, it could obviously impact your decision. So, Tommy got a lot of those today. it’s still a battle between those two, not that Everett and Andrew haven’t made progress, they just haven’t got as much work.”

You’ve got to start getting the feeling that this quarterback competition is going exactly how Kelly wants it to go, and I’d be very surprised if anybody but Dayne Crist is under center when the Irish take the field against South Florida. Still, it’s a credit to Kelly that he understands that the process needs to be fair, and giving Rees the lion’s share of first-team reps when Crist has been getting more in the first week is only smart.

On the many hats of Theo Riddick:

“He’s an extraordinary athlete. I think we know what he can do. He was feeling his way through it last year, he was learning a totally new position. You just see his comfort level. It’s confidence for Theo Riddick. We’ll have the ability within our system to put him in the backfield if we see that as a need. We’ve worked on it. It’s available to us. Whether we need to do it or whether we feel it has to happen is another thing. But we’ll always be prepared if we ever get short handed that Theo can line up at the running back position and get reps for us.”

While he might not be quite as dynamic, Theo Riddick could be the Percy Harvin of the Irish offense this season, with Urban Meyer’s visit to Notre Dame this spring giving Kelly the chance to pick the brain of Harvin’s college coach for tips on how to use him.

It’s tough to really know how high Riddick’s ceiling is because his best work came in a down stretch for the Irish, and he injured his ankle just as his season was about to take off. From Kelly’s first comments at Notre Dame, he’s thought of Riddick as a dynamic player. If he can be that this season, the Irish offense could take a quantum leap.

On handling Manti Te’o as he enters his third season:

“I think we handle Manti a little bit different as a coaching staff. I think we know what he’s capable of doing. I think we’ve spent more time with him fundamentally more than, ‘Hey, get in there, show us what you can do.’ so I think his role is a little bit different. He still has the same leadership qualities that he brings to the table. I think we focus more on we want to see what he does in individual work and fundamental work than what he really needs to do in team time.”

While Te’o was likely 100 percent healed from a minor knee injury he suffered during the bowl victory against Miami, Kelly and the defensive coaching staff  knew there was no reason to temp fate with their star linebacker during spring drills, and will continue to keep him out of the physical fray during preseason camp. Te’o is as physically gifted of a linebacker as there is in the country, now it’ll be up to him to cut down on mistakes and missed tackles during his third year as a starter.

Freshman Troy Niklas is one to watch:

“He’s a guy that can play both the “cat” and the “dog.” His ability to play in space is extraordinary. Whatever adjective that you would use, you would throw one on that kid. His nickname is Hercules. He’s a pretty special kid.”

If there was one guy in the recruiting class that I thought was a sleeper, it was Niklas, the Los Angeles Times’ lineman of the year. It’s clear that the athleticism that had Cal, Stanford, USC and Florida interested in the freakishly sized athlete is something that could get Niklas on the field immediately. After a year or two in Paul Longo’s strength and conditioning program, Niklas could be doing some scary things on the football field.

A few quick bullet points:

* Good for Ben Turk, who Kelly credited as the specialist making the most progress.

“I would say of all the kickers, probably the guy that stands out is Ben Turk. He has been of all the specialists, the guy that has made the most progress and we needed him to. We needed to be more versatile. We weren’t able to rugby him at all last year and move him last year. It was not something we could do. Now we can do that. His camp has probably been of all the kickers, the one that I’d underline.”

I’ve been pretty tough on Turk, who has been a pretty mediocre punter in his two seasons as the Irish punter.

* Kelly detailed former wide receiver David Grimes‘ return to Notre Dame, giving us some information on what Grimes’ job in the program will entail.

“We wanted somebody that could really identify with what Notre Dame is about. David as a football player here, as a student, he can compare a lot of his experiences here with our players. In the role that he has, which is really student welfare, he can identify with a lot of the problems, transition and other wise, of a Notre Dame student athlete. He’s the perfect fit for that.”

 

 

 

 

 

Browns pick former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer 20th in second round

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After months of pointless chatter and a night spent waiting, DeShone Kizer’s NFL Draft experience ended Friday night when the Cleveland Browns drafted the former Notre Dame quarterback with the 20th pick in the second round, the No. 52 overall selection.

Originally from Toledo, Ohio, Kizer will have the opportunity to earn the starting job for the franchise less than two hours from his hometown. The Browns trotted out five different quarterbacks in 2016, only two of which remain with the team. Rookie Cody Kessler played in nine games, throwing for 1,380 yards and six touchdowns with only one interception while fellow rookie Kevin Hogan threw for 104 yards and two interceptions in four games.

The Browns have since added Brock Osweiler in a trade with the Houston Texans, though that trade was largely-viewed as a cash-for-picks swap, with the Browns “paying” for picks by taking on Osweiler’s contract in which he is owed $47 million over the next three seasons, including $16 million this season.

A year ago, the No. 52 pick (linebacker Deion Jones to the Atlanta Falcons) received a four-year, $4.546 million contract with a $1.506 million signing bonus.

Hall of fame running back and Browns legend Jim Brown announced the selection of Kizer at the draft festivities.

Speculation a year ago pegged Kizer as an early first-round pick. As the draft approached, projections of his slot varied widely, many including a second-round status. Despite first-round theatrics leading to three quarterbacks going in the first 12 picks Thursday night, Kizer had to wait another day before learning where he will start his NFL career. (more…)

Friday at 4: ‘Attention to detail’ includes Notre Dame Stadium

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Brian Kelly proselytized multiple abstract concepts this spring. By the end of the 15 practices and subsequent media sessions, even the Irish coach knew some of his references to “grit” would be met by muted eye rolls from the press. If a questioner included the word in their query, Kelly reacted with tongue-in-cheek approval, “You’ve been listening.”

In his press conference the day before spring practices commenced, Kelly used the phrase “attention to detail” six separate times. While he was referring to his players on the football field, Kelly could have also been discussing the ongoing—but supposedly close to finished—construction at Notre Dame Stadium known as Campus Crossroads.

The three buildings around the exterior of the Stadium, the added suites and the video board above the south end zone have garnered the headlines. On a macro level, those are the changes of note. On a micro level, however, other details have trickled into the public stream of knowledge as the work nears its conclusion.

Over the weekend—and now reignited by a column from the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel—the image of the newly-added visitors’ tunnel delighted Irish fans. Vorel likens the narrow entry to “the spot they’d stash the gladiators before feeding them to starving tigers in The Coliseum.” Assuredly, Vorel is going for dramatic effect, and it must work considering its citation here, but even a realistic view of the tunnel’s effects bodes well.

If nothing else, Notre Dame players should enjoy something of a psychological boost when racing out of their adult-sized tunnel and seeing their opponent trickle out of a tunnel seemingly-sized for ants. (Yes, the north end zone tunnel is at least three times bigger than the visitors’ tunnel.)

That pale, slanted staircase holds none of the luxuries of the home team’s entrance, something Kelly went out of his way to praise after using it in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. (more…)

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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You want complete honesty? The linebacker version of this series includes no revelations, no unexpected developments, no surprising spring performances. There is an allusion to a position switch, sure, but this piece became much simpler with the rover being discussed separately Thursday.

The idea was to capitalize on the NFL Draft for the morning and let the linebackers slip by in the afternoon, noticed only by those twiddling their thumbs through the last hours of the work week. Alas, former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was not drafted in the first round and a brief recap of his draft destination will need to await at least another day. Programming note: The NFL Draft reconvenes tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. ET. The Green Bay Packers are on the clock. They will not draft a quarterback.

But back to the linebackers. This piece may have been intended to slip by with little fanfare, but that is not indicative of the Irish linebackers. Where Notre Dame was is so similar to where Notre Dame is simply because two experienced senior captains lead the way at linebacker.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
Aside from questions about defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s rover position, only one question stood out about this linebacker group: Who would start alongside senior Nyles Morgan: senior Greer Martini or junior Te’von Coney?

A year ago Coney recorded the fourth-most tackles on the team with 62. Martini finished fifth with 55, and his seven tackles for loss, including three sacks, dwarfed Coney’s 1.5. Yet Coney technically started nine games compared to Martini’s four.

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

With the rover often lining up essentially as a linebacker, there would only be space for one of Martini or Coney in most formations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
In his first season with the Irish, Elko will have quite a luxury in referring to Coney as a backup linebacker. In some respects, that designation was inevitable as soon as Martini was named a captain. Nonetheless, Coney will see plenty of playing time.

The two captains—along with fellow captain, senior Drue Tranquill at rover—will be counted on throughout the summer and fall camp to continue the defense’s growth in Elko’s system. Elko said he installed “close to 50 percent” of his entire defense throughout spring practice. The linebackers must deal with the most difficult aspects of that learning.

“There’s been a noticeable improvement in terms of this starting to look like the defense we want this to look like as spring has gone on,” Elko said a week ago. “… Linebacker probably more than any other position, linebacker and safety, where the scheme takes some time to get used to, how you see it, how you fit it, how you feel it. Those guys have gotten better with that which has then allowed them to play faster as the spring has moved on.”

Sophomore Jonathan Jones will likely provide any further depth that may be needed in 2017, unless either of the incoming freshmen, David Adams and Drew White, excel from the outset. Irish coach Brian Kelly indicated sophomore Jamir Jones (no relation to Jonathan, but is former Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones’ brother) may be destined for time on the defensive line, in large part to Jones’s continued growth. Junior Josh Barajas let the spring come and go without mandating he be involved in these conversations, which may as well count as removing himself from the conversation in most regards.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame Was, Is & Could Be: Rover

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Rover

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Before spring practice, the rover position was lumped in with the linebackers in positional previews. Nearly two months later, that seems to have been the right placement—the rover will likely spend most of its time at the defense’s second level.

But since curiosity about the rover and its unknown place in Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme ran rampant—especially when compared to the rather solid understanding of the 2017 Irish linebackers—let’s take a look specifically at the rover.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:

“Who will start at [Elko’s] rover position,” this space asked. “What will his role entail?”

RELATED READING: Two days until spring practice: A look at the linebackers

Senior safety Drue Tranquill was expected to see the most time at rover, perhaps with cameos from junior linebacker Asmar Bilal and sophomore safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry (since transferred).

More than anything, though, learning how Elko intended to deploy his defensive utility knife would answer the most questions about his defense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:

Tranquill will indeed lead the position, but not without much effort from Bilal.

“We’ve tried quite a few bodies out there,” Elko said Friday. “I think as spring has gone on, we’ve gotten a feel of what each of them can do, what parts of the package we can run with each of them. I think we’ve got a pretty good pulse now on how we want that thing to play out, who will be there doing what.”

Elko is excessively reluctant to discuss individual players, so asking him to expound on who will be at rover in particular situations was largely a fruitless exercise. Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly indicated Bilal would be featured against run-heavy offenses. That may well prove to be the case, but it is far more likely Tranquill sees the majority of the repetitions at the position.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover positon, others likely to follow

“It’s been a good fit all spring [for Tranquill],” Kelly said following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game. “He’s a plus player there for us. He really can impact what’s happening from snap to snap. He’s a physical player and playing low to the ball is really where he can do a lot of really good things for us.”

For his part, Tranquill enjoys the position and the unique number of duties innate to it. In theory, the rover aligns mostly with the linebackers but can be relied on to provide coverage when necessary. At other times, the rover will be asked to rush the passer. That flexibility allows Elko to keep the offense guessing.

“I love the rover position,” Tranquill said. “It’s a versatile position that allows you to come off the edge, allows you to play the run, play the pass, and do a lot of different things.”

Sometimes it allows you to pretend like you’re coming off the edge and then actually embarrass a potential first-round draft pick.

In senior left guard Quenton Nelson’s defense, Tranquill did add Nelson probably won more of their battles in spring practices than the defender did.

WHERE NOTRE DAME COULD BE:

Elko indicated there could be a third primary option in his tool kit. Notre Dame has a plethora of talented cornerbacks. Last week, Kelly indicated he might ask one of them to chip in at safety in obvious passing situations. Similarly, Elko predicted junior Shaun Crawford could play at rover against particular passing attacks, a la Bilal against certain rushing offenses.

“A lot of this is dictated by who that guy is lined up and what we’re trying to do,” Elko said. “We’re going to see a lot of really talented slot receivers. We’re going to have to match up and cover them well. There’s other names other than the big linebacker/safety bodies to put at that position. [Junior safety] Nick Coleman has done that some this spring. [Junior safety] Ashton White has done that some this spring. When Shaun gets healthy, I think he’ll do that some. That is all encompassing in that position.”

The 5-foot-9, 175-pound Crawford has since announced his return to full health, which should allow him plenty of time to readjust to contact before the start of fall practice.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive Line