The new offensive and defensive coordinators received more of this winter’s headlines than Notre Dame’s new director of strength and conditioning, but Matt Balis received the brunt of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s praise Tuesday.
“Anytime that you go into the offseason and you make a number of changes, what influences your team the most is your strength and conditioning,” Kelly said in his spring practice preview press conference. “We have a whole new staff of five in there that are influencing our guys over the last eight weeks. I think they’ve done a great job.”
In years past, Kelly may have issued similar compliments regarding Balis’s predecessor, Paul Longo, but Kelly would have been basing the sentiments off Longo’s past and second-hand reports. This year, Kelly began attending the early a.m. workouts in person after exit interviews with individual players after last season indicated his presence would be preferred.
“It allows me to clearly spend and develop a deeper relationship with all of the players, not just offensive players, but all players,” Kelly said. “Secondly, a better understanding of who needs certain time with me at certain times of the day. I’m able to touch so many more players in the program by being accessible to them in that fashion.
Kelly intends to employ similar tactics in this spring’s 15 practices. New offensive coordinator Chip Long will have control of the offense, while Kelly instead works with each and every position group. Rather than become consumed by the intricacies of the offensive game-planning or the fundraising for the Campus Crossroads project, Kelly will focus on the intangible aspects needed for a successful 2017 rebound.
“I was not focused on the traits that I needed to build in this football team,” he said. “I’m not worried about that anymore. I’m going to let other people take care of that.”
The spring practices will focus on those traits, such as attention to detail, laser focus and grit, per Kelly.
“To answer a million questions about depth chart, competition is very important,” he said, preempting about half a dozen primed questions. “There is a winner and there is a loser in everything that we do. We clearly understand that, but I’m less interested in those things and more interested in continuing the process and developing those traits within our football team.”
Junior Brandon Wimbush will get the majority of practice reps, and Kelly expects those will help grow Wimbush’s confidence.
“If he goes out and throws an interception, he doesn’t have to hang his head,” Kelly said. “He does so many good things that he can have confidence that he’s going to be successful, because what we’re looking for is not perfection from these guys. It’s excellence.”
Sophomore Ian Book will receive about 40 percent of the spring practice reps, Kelly said.
Offensive Line Candidates
Though Kelly stuck true to his opening comments and did not delve into any position’s depth chart, he did acknowledge the uncertainty on the right side of the offensive line, a “competitive situation.” Specifically, Kelly cast a wide net by mentioning five names in the mix for those starting positions: graduate student Hunter Bivin, senior Jimmy Byrne, junior Tristen Hoge and sophomores Liam Eichenberg and Tommy Kraemer.
“I think it will kind of take care of itself,” Kelly said. “We know who the guys are on the left side, and I think [senior center] Sam [Mustipher] has had a really good eight weeks, as well. There are four or five guys that get an opportunity now to get in there and compete right away.”
The known “guys on the left side” would be graduate student tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior guard Quenton Nelson.
Kelly addressed three injuries lingering from last season, all with much optimism. Junior Shaun Crawford’s recovery from a September Achilles tear has gone much quicker than would have been expected.
“He’s jumping, has change of direction. You’re going to see him extremely active in the spring,” Kelly said. “I don’t see him in a contact position at this time, but he won’t be cheated this spring. He’s really going to use spring as an opportunity for him to continue to grow as a football player.”
Notre Dame has depth, though unproven, at cornerback, and it will be only bolstered by Crawford’s progress. Senior Nick Watkins and sophomores Julian Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn all will compete for playing time on the edge. The spring roster released Tuesday indicates juniors Ashton White and Nick Coleman have indeed both moved to safety.
Sophomore receiver Javon McKinley is also ahead of the expected rehab schedule after breaking his leg in a late-October practice. Kelly indicated he would also partake in a limited capacity during spring practice.
Senior defensive lineman Daniel Cage has been cleared to practice following concussion issues hampered him in 2016.