Physical development key to Irish offseason

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It may be the ultimate coaching rhetoric, but you can’t help but think Brian Kelly was genuine in his praise for the offseason work done by his roster. As Kelly kicked off his press conference Tuesday, he spent more time ticking off weight training work than just about anything else — the product of two good months of work by his troops after losing in the national championship game.

“Some of the things that are exciting for me would be just some of the weight gains that we’ve had, strength gains at really key positions,” Kelly said. “Just to highlight a couple of them, and this does not mean they’ll be first-team All‑Americans, this just means that we have addressed some of the areas that we think were very, very important.”

As it often happens during the spring, we tend to over-amplify the meaning of gains in the weight room. In many ways it’s college football’s “best shape of my life,” the spring training baseball meme that has that wonderful feeling of hope springing eternal.

That said, if we aren’t able to take wonderful leaps of faith now, when can we? And it’s difficult not to see some type of trend when you see the impressive gains from such a large sector of the roster, especially when you back it up with the snippets Kelly provided.

I’m certainly not the only person breaking down the weight gains/losses on the roster, but here are a few shifts that caught my eye.

Justin Utupo — 281 pounds (+23) Added bulk gives Utupo the opportunity to get in the mix as an undersized defensive lineman.
Louis Nix — 347 pounds (+21) While it looks like a big gain, I’ve got a feeling that Nix has been playing at this weight for quite some time.
Stephon Tuitt — 322 (+19) That’s a might scary man. Playing at 322 will allow Tuitt to slide inside when needed as well.
Romeo Okwara — 250 (+19) Your leading candidate for “Scariest 17-year-old linebacker on the planet.”
Chris Brown — 191 (+19) That’s quite a jump for Brown, who looked almost frail early last season. Adding some weight to his frame will help turn Brown into a more versatile weapon.
Mark Harrell — 305 (+18) Harrell’s gain showcases one of the true benefits of offensive line depth. Giving freshman the chance to redshirt allows leaps like this.
Tony Springmann — 284 (-16) It appears that Springmann has shed some baby weight. At 284, that’s still plenty big for the almost 6-foot-6 lineman.
Elijah Shumate — 213 (+15) You get the idea that Shumate has quickly become one of the physical freaks on the roster. Playing at 213 likely solidifies his position as a safety.
Ronnie Stanley — 304 (+14) A nice job in the offseason, especially considering Stanley’s elbow surgery. You’ve got to wonder if Stanley has the ability to win the right tackle job.
Christian Lombard — 322 (+13) Consider this needed weight for Lombard, who still is on the smaller side for a right tackle. (But may be a good fit for right guard.)
CJ Prosise — 220 (+12) At just over 6-foot, that’s plenty of size for a guy moonlighting at wideout.
George Atkinson — 217 (+7) With the size of a power back and the speed of a world-class sprinter, Atkinson seems to be putting the work in to be an elite running back.

It’s also worth noting the changes that the early-enrollee freshmen made. Malik Zaire gained 12 pounds, Corey Robinson is up seven to 197, James Onwualu looks to already be physically imposing at 215 pounds (up seven), and Mike Heuerman is reportedly up almost 15 pounds already (though he’s still listed at 218).

With the NFL Combine still fresh in many of our brains, it’s also worth mentioning some bench press numbers Kelly rattled off. Chase Hounshell, back from surgery, looks to be a workout warrior, with 21 reps of 225, while weighing in at 271 pounds. Ben Councell knocked out a reported 19 reps, and he now weighs 248. Jarrett Grace saw his bench press jump from nine reps to 22, a pretty staggering jump for the guy that might replace Manti Te’o in the middle. And add Atkinson to this list as well, repping 19 times during testing after only five before.

Again, gains like this aren’t necessarily worth shouting about. But when you consider last season’s success, it bears mentioning that Kelly credited much of the work done in January and February as the building blocks for the upcoming season.

As Kelly and the program move into their fourth season — something the head coach hasn’t done in almost 20 years — the maturation of the program is something that has many feeling as if the plan is moving forward according to plan.

“When you have the protocols and the process in place on a day‑to‑day basis, the expectations have already been set, it allows you to really work on the development of your football team,” Kelly explained.

“You’ve got guys that are really building themselves, developing physically.  You have your entire room knowing what it looks like, how to get there.  They’ve already done it in the regular season.  All those things are in place now as we move into spring ball.”