Crist vs. Rees: Breaking down Tommy’s throws

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Brian Kelly named Tommy Rees the starting quarterback for Saturday against Michigan. It was a decision that made plenty of sense from a production point of view — Rees went 24 of 34 for 296 yards in the second half, when everyone in the stadium knew Rees would be passing to catch up, in conditions hardly optimal.

After looking at every throw a few dozen times, not every decision Rees made was the right one, but the sophomore was able to turn the Irish offense into a high octane attack against a good defense, something the Irish haven’t seen in the Brian Kelly era.

“Our hopes are Tommy is productive and can play at a high level week in and week out,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s got a pretty good resume, 4-0 as a starter, and he’s come off the bench twice and has played well under those circumstance.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the throws Rees made to impress the coaching staff — all 34 of them:

TOMMY REES’ PASSING PLAYS

Throw 1: 1st and 10 at USF 49

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 7 yards.

A high percentage play. With the corners off and Floyd by himself on the short-side of the field, Rees throws a quick hitch for a nice gain. Nice play call to get Rees warmed up and an easy completion.

Throw 2: 1st and 10 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 4 yards.

Another high percentage throw, but potentially a missed opportunity for Rees, who had Theo Riddick flashing open from the slot on the field side. With five wide, the Irish might have caught USF in a missed coverage and Rees didn’t see Riddick. Again, a nice throw and modest completion to Floyd, but I’m sure in the film room the coaching staff will let Tommy know he missed an open read.

Throw 3: 2nd and 6 at USF 30

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 5 yards.

All three receivers on the field side ran slants, and Rees chose TJ Jones on the outside to go to. The ball sailed high on him a bit, but Jones went up and made a very nice catch. Nothing wrong with the read, but Rees’ accuracy wasn’t all that great. Still, three throws and three completions, all done at a pace faster than the Irish moved with Crist in the first half.

Throw 4: 1st and 10 at USF 20

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

With trips to Rees right, he hits Floyd, the inside receiver with a quick bubble screen. Sprung by a nice block by Theo Riddick, Floyd accelerates around the corner for a big gainer, taking the Irish to the USF five yard line.

Throw 5: 1st and Goal at USF 5

Rees pass intended for TJ Jones intercepted by Michael Lanaris, returned for no gain.

A tough play for a number of reasons. Obviously, Jones never gets his head around to look for the ball, a huge no-no. (As Brian Kelly’s reaction made evident.) With Floyd and Eifert split tight to the right and Riddick and Jones split tight to the left, Riddick pulled the defensive backs on the far side of the field to the corner of the end zone, while Eifert occupied the end zone on the right side.

In what was essentially a two man route, Rees jumped his first option, Jones, throwing to him on the crossing route before he was able to get his head around to the ball. Jones had a step on his defender, but was never looking for the ball, which caromed from Jones’ helmet into the arms of Lanaris, keeping the Irish out of the end zone.

If you watch the replay enough times, you’ll certainly see how well constructed the play is, with Floyd clearing behind Jones and breaking wide open just after the ball is out of Rees’ hands. Just a horrible outcome that probably won’t ever happen again, but did so at the absolute worst time for the Irish.

Throw 6: 1st and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A well-designed screen set up for Riddick, but Taylor Dever struggles to keep his man out of Rees’ face, and the defensive end knocks the pass down. Looked like there was some room to operate if the pass were completed.

Throw 7: 2nd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd

Another throw where Rees might have locked on Floyd too early. He sailed the throw out of bounds, a miscommunication with Floyd, who pulled up with the defensive back in man coverage. Again, it’s hard to say without knowing the play call, but Riddick seemed to be open on a skinny post from the opposite slot.

Throw 8: 3rd and 10 at ND 34

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 37 yards

A really impressive throw into a tight window. With Eifert detached on the right side of the line, Rees has a narrow window to fit the throw in, and he does it. Eifert splits two linebackers and breaks into the secondary for a really big gain. If you’re looking for a throw that Brian Kelly would term “decisive,” this is one of them.

Throw 9: 1st and 10 at USF 29

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 5 yards.

Tommy does a good job buying time in the pocket, and with nobody open downfield, Rees dumps the ball off to a crossing Cierre Wood, who needs to break just one tackle before he’s into the secondary for a potentially big play. A good example of Rees’ subtle mobility, and nice work to make something out of nothing, putting the Irish in a second and short instead of a 2nd and long.

Throw 10: 2nd and 5 at USF 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 24 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

Perfect throw. With Rees seeing Floyd in one-on-one coverage, he hits No. 3 in stride with a perfect strike and let’s Floyd do the rest. Presnap, USF made the decision easy for Rees, with the corner up in man coverage on Floyd and the safety creeping up before the play. NBC announcer Mike Mayock makes a nice observation about Floyd’s spot on the field, staying on the short side and forcing USF to decide whether they want to play him one-on-one or roll a safety to the shorter side of the field, leaving the rest of the field unprotected.

The Bulls coaching staff left Floyd alone, and Notre Dame made them pay.

Throw 11: 1st and 10 at ND 33

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 27 yards.

Another perfect throw. Great route by Riddick, who puts a stutter move on the linebacker before getting over the top of him vertically, and Rees puts the ball in the hole before the safeties converge. This throw was open multiple times for Riddick, and he had a few big drops on it. Don’t be surprised if the Irish continue to try and take advantage of this pattern against the Wolverines. Again, another decisive decision and a big league throw by Rees.

Throw 12: 2nd and 4 at USF 34

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 15 yards.

The same play that went for five yards to Jones early goes to Floyd, who makes a defender miss and turns it into a big gainer. As the outside receiver in the three wide to the left formation, Floyd makes a good play on a ball delivered accurately by Rees, another difference between the shorter completion to Jones.

Throw 13: 2nd and 5 at USF 14

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

A slip screen that didn’t quite work, Rees gets the ball quickly to Jones, but both Chris Watt and Braxston Cave miss their blocks on the screen pass. Jones is tackled for a short gain instead of breaking free for a potentially big gainer.

Throw 14: 3rd and 4 at USF 13

Rees pass incomplete to Cierre Wood.

Well defended by the Bulls. Neither Floyd nor Eifert came open after their shallow crossing routes and Theo Riddick was well covered on the deep cross. Rees essentially throws the ball away over Cierre Wood’s head, settling for what looked like an automatic chip shot for kicked David Ruffer.

Getting nothing out of this drive was a huge blow for the Irish.

Throw 15: 1st and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick

A critical drop by Riddick, who could’ve easily had a 20 yard gain if he’d have held on to the perfectly thrown ball by Rees on the deep crossing pattern. It was a tough evening for Riddick, who came up looking for someone to blame, but ultimately knew that drop was on him.

Throw 16: 2nd and 10 at ND 24

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 6 yards.

A quick hitch to Floyd that Rees hit on time. An important throw to get out of 3rd and long. The cornerback started off, then crept up on Floyd only to push back off presnap. An easy completion against a defensive back that’s protecting against the deep ball as well.

Throw 17: 3rd and 4 at ND 30

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 5 yards.

With Robby Toma in the slot for Riddick, TJ Jones runs a slant on the top side of the field that was open, but Rees takes Floyd on the short hitch, who spins for the first down. A five yard play when you need four. Can’t fault him for that decision, to a receiver who was probably his primary option.

Throw 18: 1st and 10 at ND 35

Rees pass incomplete to TJ Jones

If you’re looking for the difference between Rees and Dayne Crist, you might have your answer here. On a designed roll out, Rees doesn’t get enough on the deep smash route to Jones and the ball skips short. A long throw, but one Rees should have hit. Also — the same throw that Crist waited on and then went to Eifert on the square out, who was covered by then.

Almost a perfect example of the two quarterbacks on Saturday. With Rees, if he misses it’s because of a physical problem. With Crist, it was because he took too long to identify the read, and the defense had time to get back into position.

Throw 19: 1st and 10 at ND 39

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 22 yards.

A nice throw over the corner and in front of the safety and an even better catch by Floyd. A big-league deep ball by Rees, who sees Floyd beat the corner and then get wide enough to find a hole in the two-deep zone. Another throw that if not made early is a really dangerous decision.

Throw 20: 1st and 10 at USF 39

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 7 yards.

With Riddick running off the safety, TJ Jones wide running a curl, Eifert is open at seven yards, and Rees delivers the ball for an easy completion.

Throw 21: 2nd and 3 at USF 32

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 11 yards.

On the wide side of the field, Floyd’s got a linebacker trying to bump him. He gets inside of him anyway, and runs a slant into the middle of the field for 11 more yards.

Throw 22: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

Looked like a max protect route, with the tight end staying in. Rees was going to take his shot to Floyd and when it looked like he was covered, he may or may not have thrown that ball semi-away. A play that felt a lot like a Jimmy Clausen-Charlie Weis play call, a “go out and get it” throw to Floyd.

Throw 23: 1st and 10 at USF 21

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 15 yards.

A similar route combination to some others we’ve seen, only this time Rees wasn’t on the roll out. Jones was open early and open late, and Rees worked his way to Jones, who turned a small gain into a nice one.

Throw 24: 1st and Goal at USF 6.

Rees pass complete to Theo Riddick for 5 yards.

A nice route, a nice throw and a really nice tackle by the USF safety, with LeJiste really laying the wood. Sets up second and goal from inside the one yard line, where Cierre Wood eventually jams it home.

Throw 24a: Two-point conversion attempt

Rees pass incomplete to Michael Floyd.

With Floyd matched up one-on-one on the short side of the field, Rees went to Floyd on the jump ball – fade route, but threw the ball too wide, forcing Floyd out of bounds on a throw he couldn’t hold onto either. It’s a zero-margin for error route, and probably a play-call that’s a little risky after they had moved the ball half the distance to the goal line. Any chance of the Irish winning was cut in half with Notre Dame not converting there, and I’m sure Kelly would want that play call over again, especially after he had to burn a timeout when Rees didn’t get the play off in time before the penalty.

Throw 25: 2nd and 6 at ND 13

Rees pass intercepted by Jerrell Young at ND 30. (Intended for Michael Floyd)

A bad decision by Rees, who might have had a tough throw available with Tyler Eifert on the wheel route on the outside. With Rees flushed from the pocket, that probably eliminated that option, but Tommy would’ve been wise to take the check down to Cierre Wood, but instead tried to fit a ball into double coverage while on the run.

The decision reminds me of one of Charlie Weis’ old rules: never throw the ball on the run across your body. You can’t call this throw the nail in the coffin, but it was another one of those plays that made the comeback even harder to pull off, especially deflating that it came right after a long rain delay.

Throw 26: 2nd and 13 at ND 2

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 23 yards.

With Floyd bracketed on the top side of the field, Rees fits another ball in-between the corner and the safety, with TJ Jones holding on with an amazing catch and taking another big hit. At this point, Rees needed to take any shot he could, and credit Jones for making a really nice catch and taking a big-time hit.

Throw 27: 1st and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass incomplete to Tyler Eifert

With not much there on any of his options, Rees tries to squeeze a throw in short to Eifert, but the ball is knocked away. A good incompletion, with the clock stopping instead of continuing to run on a five yard gain.

Throw 28: 2nd and 10 at ND 25

Rees pass complete to TJ Jones for 1 yard.

Jones was again slow to get his head around on this crossing route, but to Rees’ credit, he waits until Jones makes eye contact and dumps the ball off to him. From there, Jones was good to get out of bounds.

Throw 29: 3rd and 9 at ND 26

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 12 yards.

Great job by Rees buying time in the pocket, and nice job by Eifert, sinking into a hole in the zone defense. He’s able to make his way across the first down marker and pick up a first down likely conceded by the Bulls soft cover defense.

Throw 30: 1st and 10 at ND 38

Rees pass complete to Cierre Wood for 8 yards.

With coverage solid down the seams, Rees waits for Wood to come open from the backfield and hits him underneath for another small gain that stops the clock.

Throw 31: 2nd and 2 at USF 36

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 18 yards.

Another rifle shot by Rees, putting this ball in a perfect place — just about the linebacker and just beneath the over-the-top safety. With the Bulls in a deep zone, this is a tough throw, but Rees takes the chance and puts the ball on the mark.

Throw 32: 1st and 10 at USF 36

Rees pass incomplete to Theo Riddick.

A ball that Riddick absolutely needs to catch. Theo was bursting up the seam and Tommy puts it on him perfectly. The Irish hope they get those kind of shots this Saturday, as they’re confident that Riddick will make more of those plays than he misses.

Throw 33: 2nd and 5 at USF 31

Rees pass complete to Tyler Eifert for 15 yards. (Roughing the passer accepted.)

With the Bulls in deep cover, Rees takes advantage of the match-up Eifert has on the linebacker and waits for the deep in route to develop. Tommy takes a big hit late, adding another 15 yards to the gain. An impressive throw staying in the pocket showing patience as the linebacker vacates the middle of the field.

Throw 34: 1st and Goal at USF 8

Rees pass complete to Michael Floyd for 8 yards for a TOUCHDOWN.

We’ve seen this play before. Three wide, two inside guys run slants clearing the middle and Rees puts a perfect throw on Floyd. A tough play to defend when you’ve got a 6-3, 225-pound All-American like Floyd on the edge.

ADDITIONAL ANALYSIS

Here’s Rees’ receiver by receiver numbers:

Michael Floyd: 10 of 13 for 117 yards 2 TDs, 1 INT
TJ Jones: 5 of 7 for 45 yards, 1 INT
Theo Riddick: 2 of 5 for 32 yards
Tyler Eifert: 5 of 6 for 89 yards
Cierre Wood: 2 of 3 for 13 yards

Here’s a breakdown of where Rees went with the ball, a distribution chart that I don’t think many Irish fans will have a problem with.

Floyd targets: 38%
Jones targets: 20%
Riddick targets: 15%
Eifert targets: 18%
Wood targets: 9%

Even if Rees forced the ball to Floyd, as you can tell by the numbers, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. With a guy like Floyd, even against a secondary that has good talent and depth, he made them pay in a variety of ways, part of what makes No. 3 such a diverse weapon.

Rees also averaged 8.7 yards a throw, 2.5 yards per throw better than Crist. Rees’ half of football has him 30th in yards-per-throw, while Crist’s half has him at 65th. Even more telling, Rees’ numbers, even including the two interceptions, has him 37th in the country in QB rating. Crist’s first half numbers have him ranked 100th.

With the Irish offense having to work almost exclusively through the air as they played catch-up, the Irish have a chance to use their robust rushing attack — Cierre Wood went for over 100 yards on five yards a carry — against a Michigan defense that was the fifth worst team against the run in the country, giving up a gaudy 7.3 yards a carry to Western Michigan.

Again, you can argue that Brian Kelly gave Crist the hook too early. But after seeing the way the Irish responded to the change at quarterback, Kelly knew he needed to get the offense playing at a level that’d help support a defense ready to face a stiffer challenge with Denard Robinson ready for Saturday.

With a season on the brink and no margin for error, Kelly had the confidence to make a bold change. We’ll see if that switch was a mistake this weekend. If you look at the tape and the numbers, it sure doesn’t look like one.

 

 

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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