Competition continues as camp settles in

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With the trip to Culver complete, Notre Dame enters the dog days of training camp. More than a week in, there are no restrictions on the football team, so this week featured two-a-days, full pads, and some intense competition as the depth chart begins to shake out.

Brian Kelly caught up with the media after practice on Thursday, and from his comments, it sounds like we can start to make some assumptions.

 

C.J. Prosise and Tarean Folston are legitimately battling for No. 1 reps. 

All that flowery talk about C.J. Prosise this spring? Sounds like it’s legit. Notre Dame’s converted wide receiver is giving incumbent Tarean Folston a run for his money, taking first-team reps and making it appear that there’s a legit competition for the starting job. So much so that Kelly has all but thrown out the depth chart.

“I think we’re going to keep that as a very competitive situation and keep pushing them both. There’s no depth chart there right now,” Kelly explained. “You get a good practice on you and you’ve worked hard, you’re taking first-team reps. If you have a subpar practice based on the standards we’ve set, you’re not taking first-team reps.

“It’s a very competitive situation, very fluid in that sense. It’s going to be competitive each and every week.”

For those who are skeptical that Kelly would be willing to make a move like that so quickly into Prosise’s tenure at running back, just look back to 2012. Converted wide receiver Theo Riddick usurped Cierre Wood as the team’s go-to tailback, even if statistically it didn’t make a ton of sense.

Of course, there’s a lot of time between now and Texas. And with just two legitimate options at tailback, both guys are going to play. So while I still think this is Folston’s job, it appears that Prosise is every bit as good as advertised.

 

So far, so good for Justin Yoon. 

Wondering how freshman kicker Justin Yoon is acclimating to life in college football? Perfectly. Literally, the young kicker hasn’t missed a field goal attempt yet.

“Charting right now he’s 18-for-18 on kicks. He’s 9-for-9 between the 30-and 39- (yard line). We’re going to stretch him out a little bit tomorrow. He’s 4-for-4 from  40 to 49. He hasn’t missed a kick yet. His operation is outstanding.”

Of course, none of that will matter when he jogs onto the field against Texas needing to put points on the board. But Kelly praised two very important pieces of the puzzle when talking about his young kicker. First, his operation speed. Yoon gets to the ball quickly, very important when you’re dealing with block attempts. Second, he praised his technique—Yoon’s got a relatively simple stroke that allows him to still make a kick, even if he slightly mishits it.

Both Yoon and redshirt freshman Tyler Newsome have been kicking the ball “off the charts” so far in camp. It doesn’t mean anything when it comes to success on Saturday, but you’d certainly rather have positive data points with your young specialists than balls shanking left and right.

 

Greg Bryant? Kelly has no idea what’s happening either. 

The bad news? Greg Bryant hasn’t talked with his head coach about the decision to head to junior college and play football this fall. The good news? Kelly hasn’t closed any door on Bryant returning to South Bend, even if he spends a year in Florida attending junior college.

“I want Greg back here if he wants a Notre Dame degree and if he is committed to a Notre Dame education,” Kelly said. “Obviously from what I’m hearing, that’s not what he’s interested. I think he’s interested in playing football. At Notre Dame you have to do both and you have to be committed to an education and playing football.”

That alone sounds pretty declarative, but then again—Kelly hasn’t spoken with Bryant. (Per an Irish Illustrated tweet from Pete Sampson, his father had no clue Greg was going to junior college until an ESPN reporter called him.)

But the current decision-making that Bryant is displaying doesn’t necessarily mean his former head coach has given up on him.

“I love Greg. He’s a great kid. It seems like from what I’m hearing is that he’s choosing to go,” Kelly said. “But I have not spoken to Greg. It’s purely the speculative version of it.”

 

The arrow is pointing up for Nic Weishar. 

Another day, another glowing report for rising sophomore tight end Nic Weishar. With Durham Smythe nursing a hamstring injury and Alize Jones slowed for a day or two more, Weishar was the beneficiary of extra reps, and the 6-foot-4, 241-pounder showed some of the ball skills that made him a record-setting pass catcher in high school.

Kelly talked about the improvements Weishar made over the past calendar year, and what’s changed since his redshirt season.

“We knew he was a pass catcher. He was prolific in high school. He caught everything. I think in the state championship game he had a breakout, record-setting performance. We knew his ability to catch the football was there,” Kelly explained. “It was in-line blocking that was going to be the question and whether he could put on the weight necessary to compete right away.  He had a terrific offseason and putting on weight and getting stronger in the weight room. He’s still got a ways to go, but that coupled with the toughness and resolve, he’s put himself right in the mix there to play a lot of snaps.”

Weishar looks like a viable red zone target, and that’s where he showed best, according to multiple reports from practice. Kelly even mentioned holding Weishar back on a few drills, if only to protect him from doing too much with the depth chart down to just two guys right now.

 

Jaylon Smith isn’t bad, either. 

This seems to be a good sign that Jaylon Smith is taking things to the next level during fall camp.

“Jaylon Smith is remarkable in terms of what he’s doing on the field. He is on his game,” Kelly said. “It’s just remarkable the things he’s doing right now.”

Kelly described in detail Smith’s superior athleticism, talking about Smith’s ability to play close to the line of scrimmage, then diagnose a bootleg pass. Smith went from being aggressive in run support to getting underneath a wide receiver nearly 20 yards down field, taking away a key pass route.

Those are some of the things that make NFL scouts drool. And you’ve got to think Smith is benefitting from the return of Joe Schmidt, but also the relentless competitive energy that KeiVarae Russell shows.

 

Isaac Rochell going into Beast Mode. 

We heard Brian Kelly call Isaac Rochell a beast last training camp, seemingly the only guy who wasn’t worried about the young player’s ability to step in for Ishaq Williams at defensive end. Kelly doubled down on those comments yesterday, and it’s hard not to get excited about the prospect of Rochell doing even more in 2015.

“Isaac Rochell is a beast. He is a beast. If he continues to play at this level, he’s virtually unblockable on a 1-on-1 situation,” Kelly said. “Our guys have a very difficult time blocking him. He’s faster, stronger. He’s just an outstanding player.”

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

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.