Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore

Speed helps Corey Holmes turn into spring surprise

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Corey Holmes put himself on the radar with a 40-yard dash time that the coaching staff couldn’t ignore. Now he’s working to make sure he’s not just the latest spring sensation—a 15 practice standout who gets lost once fall comes around.

Brian Kelly put Holmes’ name on the front burner for Irish fans when he revealed that the seldom-used rising junior ran a sub-4.4 during Notre Dame’s pre-spring testing. But he also talked about the need to translate that track speed to the football field, an effort that’s a work in progress.

“There’s track speed. There’s in-line, straight-line speed, and then there’s, quite frankly, football speed,” Kelly explained. “I think that’s been the struggle with Corey in the first couple years is to get that to translate.”

He’s not alone. It look multiple seasons for Chris Brown to make that transition, helped along by the utilization of GPS monitoring during practice and a confidence growth that became apparent during a productive senior season.

After a sophomore year where Holmes took a redshirt (that flew by most who just assumed he was buried on the depth chart), returning to a competitive fight for playing time had Holmes looking at things through a different lens after the team’s top three pass catchers all departed.

The staff has certainly noticed.

“I really like Corey Holmes and what he’s done. He’s been more consistent than he’s ever been to this point,” associate head coach and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock said. “I’m a hard guy to please. He’s got more work to do but I like the direction he’s moving.”

 

 

Holmes credits the progress he’s made to a new attitude and a look inward. It also helps to have a father who has played the game—in Holmes’ case, his father played at Syracuse before being drafted and playing briefly with the Miami Dolphins.

“My dad used to tell me all the time, ‘Trust your speed. You’re fast, just trust it,'” Holmes said. “At times, I kind of get caught up in trying to make people miss and not show the speed.”

It took that trying sophomore season to figure that out. It also took watching a new generation of impressive young receivers arrive to understand that it was never about battling the roster, but more about challenging himself.

“It wasn’t about until halfway through the season that I finally just stopped worrying about other people and started to just worry about my own game,” Holmes said. “It was hard at the time, but I just looked it as a year for me to get bigger, faster, stronger and work on my game. I just took it as a blessing in disguise. It was a really humbling experience all of last year.”

 

Now the challenge isn’t getting off the bench, but finding a spot on the field. As Kelly and Denbrock mix and match their rebuilt receiving corps, Holmes is looking for a home in that rotation.

He’s lined up in Fuller’s X position, top-end speed on the wide side of the field. He’s moved inside to slot, a position that opened up with C.J. Sanders recovering from a hip injury and Torii Hunter showing flexibility.

It’s all a possibility for Holmes.

“Now that everybody else is gone, you could say it’s my time to step up,” Holmes said. “That’s what I’ve treated this spring as, an opportunity for me to really make some noise. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for to finally earn a starting spot. That’s in my grasp if I continue to do my thing.”

Nyles Morgan primed to seize his opportunity

Notre Dame v Arizona State
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One of the largest X-factors heading into 2016 is linebacker Nyles Morgan. Last spotted racking up tackles (and too often, missing assignments) as a true freshman, Morgan spent his sophomore season stuck behind Joe Schmidt, unable to carve out even the smallest niche in Brian VanGorder’s defense.

But entering 2016, Morgan stands front and center amidst the rebuilding efforts. And if you believe the Irish have the ability to once again get themselves in the middle of the College Football Playoff conversation—the only postseason goal Notre Dame will allow itself—then Morgan’s ability to step in and perform at a high level is critical to that objective.

With Brian VanGorder’s defense under the microscope, Morgan’s ability to fully digest a scheme and system many fear is too complex is one of spring’s major questions. But in his first public comments to the local media this spring, Morgan sounded every bit like the confident veteran, a reassuring development at a time when the defense needs him.

“I feel like my knowledge of the game has grown so much. There’s so much I know now that I wish I knew then,” Morgan said last Friday. “I finally got all that down, got all that together. It all just clicked…I’m telling guys where to be, things like that. I can line guys up. The offense moves, I can check it.

With just four healthy scholarship linebackers available this spring, Morgan’s game was going to get tested more in these 15 practices than it did all last season. And after two full years in the program, it’s allowed him to balance the trial by fire freshman season with the knowledge base that’s needed to succeed.

“Being the Mike linebacker, you need to be the sharpest one out there. If not, the game’s going to get ugly,” Morgan said.

The difficulties in meetings have subsided. The mental challenges no longer neutralize a natural skill-set that nobody has ever doubted. And that confidence has come through on the field this spring, apparent to any coach that watches him.

“Nyles is having a really good spring. I’m very excited about his growth from the offseason from where he was a year ago,” linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “His communication is much improved. He’s playing very physical. His leadership is much improved. It’s definitely a great improvement and I’m excited about it.”

So is his defensive coordinator. With the identity of last season’s defense essentially gone, Morgan has the chance to put his stamp on the unit.

“This is his time,” VanGorder said. “I think he’s a much different middle linebacker right now.”

Those differences are things this staff is hoping Morgan embraces—especially as the Irish try to move on from Schmidt as the nerve center of the unit.

“Joe Schmidt was a smart player, he was a heady player, but he wasn’t the most physically gifted player that we had. Nyles Morgan is a tough, physical football player,” Brian Kelly said Friday. “What we’ve asked him to do is be himself. You’re not Joe Schmidt… Be who you are. We want that personality to come out and if that does, [he’ll] bring others around and that toughness will start to show itself.”

Morgan seems to be running with that challenge, a changed linebacker reflective of his changed status on the depth chart.

“It’s different when you’re behind somebody and you’re trying to live up to that standard,” Elston said. “Now you’re out there setting the standard. He’s got confidence now because he’s the first dog running out there. He’s playing with an aggressive nature and communicating really well. What it is for him that triggered it, I’m not sure, but he’s got more confidence.”

Carrying that confidence onto the field will be critical in 2016. While Greer Martini has the ability to play on the inside and first-time participants like Josh Barajas are cross-training there as well, the job is Morgan’s to lose.

But two years after earning Freshman All-American honors while he was learning on the fly, the bar is set much higher than just winning the job. For the Irish defense to take the necessary step forward, Morgan needs to lead it.

So far, so good.

 

Watkins’ spring ends early with broken arm

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 01:  Wide receiver Michael Thomas #3 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball as Nick Watkins #21 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish attempts to make a tackle during the first quarter of the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at the University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. Buckeyes won 44-28. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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An injury opened the door for cornerback Nick Watkins to step into the starting lineup. Now the rising junior will have to overcome an injury of his own to stay there in 2016.

On Sunday, Notre Dame announced that Watkins underwent successful surgery to repair a broken humerus in his left arm, suffered during Saturday’s practice. That ended Watkins’ spring, though should have him ready to work with the Irish when summer drills begin.

Watkins is fighting to step into the starting job KeiVarae Russell left behind opposite Cole Luke. He had momentum this spring coming off an impressive first start against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, a job he got only after veteran Devin Butler suffered a foot injury during bowl practices in Scottsdale.

The secondary has been a main focal point this spring, with Todd Lyght and Brian VanGorder looking to get improved play from the back end of the defense. That’s meant an open competition at every spot, with Watkins competing with Butler and rising sophomores Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Ashton White as well.

Watkins has the physical attributes to win the job—strong cover skills, good length at 6-foot-.5, and the type of competitive drive the staff has worked to bring out in his two seasons in South Bend. Earlier this spring, Watkins talked about that motivation leading into 2016, especially with a season-opener against home-state power Texas.

“In my mind, I’m a starter,” Watkins told BlueandGold.com. “I feel like I’m my only competition. I failed myself if I’m not starting against Texas.”

He’ll pick up that competition this summer, healing after surgery performed by team doctor Brian Rattigan. Until then, the Irish secondary will compete without him, concluding the spring with the Blue-Gold game on Saturday, April 16th, televised on NBCSN at 12:30 a.m. ET.

The NFL case for Jarrett Grace just got better

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Of all the performances that drew attention at Notre Dame’s annual Pro Day, none were more eye-opening than Jarrett Grace‘s. The fifth-year senior linebacker, two-plus years removed from a leg injury that should’ve ended his football career, might have tested his way into a dream job.

Not by acing any interviews or showcasing the mental fortitude that allowed him to work his way back from the painstaking odyssey. Not by showcasing a trim and fit frame that’s 25-pounds lighter than the one that made nine tackles against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

But rather, Grace likely punched his ticket to an NFL training camp by running, jumping, lifting and moving like a legit NFL linebacker.

Grace’s Pro Day performance in front of 31 teams looked like that of a prototype inside linebacker. Standing nearly a half-inch taller than 6’3, he’s got the height team’s covet. At 240 pounds, he looked the part of an Underwear Olympics standout. And Grace’s explosiveness in short distances—shuttle and cone drill times that essentially matched guys like Amir Carlisle and Chris Brown—show a linebacker who is more than just a great story.

After the workout, Grace talked to reporters about the progress he’s made. And as you might expect, he doesn’t think this is the end of the road.

“To see where I’m at today, I’m definitely very pleased,” Grace said, according to the South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel. “I’m not done, though. I’ll tell you that. I’m not done. I think the best is in front of me.”

That Grace managed to put himself in a position to impress the NFL is a testament not just to the work he did to get back on the football field in 2015, but the time spent since the Fiesta Bowl. Taking a 17-credit load in Notre Dame’s MBA program is no joke. Doing that while training to ace performance-specific drills that most NFL prospects drop out of school to focus on? Very impressive.

In an interesting breakdown on Grace’s eventful Thursday, UND.com’s John Heisler detailed not just Grace’s job audition, but the road to get there. And this quote from Notre Dame strength coach Jake Flint crystalizes the Cincinnati native’s tenacity.

“He came to me as soon as the bowl game ended and said, ‘Can you help? I want to train and get a shot,’” Flint said. “We talked about a training program and he’s got his schedule with school and it needed to be a little flexible.

“So sometimes he came in and trained with our team and then sprinkled in some other things specifically for his Pro Day. But he’s a self-motivated kid. We built the goals and he executed it. What we did was less about football and more about some of these specific drills. He’s leaned up, and he’s done a great job.

“He was going to do whatever he needed to do. He did a lot of this by himself. We had a lot of good talks. I just tried to keep positive with him.

“He’s gonna go out there and he’s going to look good. We’ve seen what he can do and he’s going to get a shot and that’s all he wants. He’s here every day, and he’s positive and he has energy. He wants to give it one more go and see what he can do. He knows how to play and we all know that.”

Grace might not ever be the linebacker he was on track to be before that ugly injury against Arizona State. But the hard work he put in from that day forward—and the chance opportunity to play big minutes in the Fiesta Bowl after Jaylon Smith’s injury—opened the door.

Thanks to an impressive Thursday in front of 31 NFL teams, Grace’s chance of chasing his dream just got a lot better.

Pro Day brings NFL to Notre Dame

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Notre Dame hosted its annual NFL Pro Day with former Irish athletes performing in front of 31 NFL teams. With a who’s who of NFL general managers and coaches in South Bend (not to mention a flock of media), 17 former Irish players put their best foot forward in front of future employers.

Chris Brown 
Amir Carlisle
Sheldon Day 
Matthias Farley 
Will Fuller 
Everett Golson 
Jarrett Grace 
Eilar Hardy 
Matt Hegarty 
Nick Martin 
Romeo Okwara 
C.J. Prosise 
KeiVarae Russell 
Elijah Shumate 
Jaylon Smith 
Ronnie Stanley 
Ishaq Williams

With plenty of footage posted on social media under the #NDProDay hashtag, it didn’t take a press credential to get a good look at the workout in Loftus. But those on hand saw big days from a few prospects who certainly lifted their draft stock.

Scouting combine invitees Chris Brown and KeiVarae Russell worked out for the first time and didn’t disappoint. Neither did Amir Carlisle or Matthias Farley, two fringe prospects who certainly helped boosted their chances of finding a job at the next level.

Everett Golson came back to Notre Dame to throw the football—a skill that he certainly showcased. Fellow graduate transfers Matt Hegarty and Eilar Hardy were on hand as well, along with Ishaq Williams.

Jaylon Smith gave NFL teams another look at his recovery in person and also managed to hit 24 reps on the bench press. Will Fuller ran crisp routes and showed no struggle with his hands.

For the first time in recent memory, there’s an argument that every former player working out in front of scouts had a chance to make an NFL team. If that’s not a signal that the arrow is pointed up when it comes to talent evaluation and player development, I’m not sure what else is.

Here are the results of the Pro Day, along with some Tweets that’ll get you up to speed on Thursday’s event.

Pro Day

On to the Tweets: