The wait is over. Brian Kelly kicked off the 2014 season with an hour-long press conference, putting an end to the offseason abyss as Notre Dame begins training camp on Monday. Coming off a 9-4 season and welcoming back quarterback Everett Golson, expectations are once again sky-high under the dome, where the Irish welcome back a young but talented football team.
But the road to the first College Football Playoff won’t be easy. With a daunting schedule and some question marks on both sides of the ball, Kelly spent Friday getting us up to speed on the state of his football program.
Let’s take a look at the five things we learned:
Tony Springmann’s career-ending injury puts even more focus on the defensive line.
Kelly dropped some big news when he announced that senior Tony Springmann was retiring from football, forced to take a medical hardship after a back injury ended his career this summer. The Fort Wayne native looked like a promising piece of the Irish defense when he contributed in a supporting role in 2012, but had last season erased by a knee injury and then missed spring football after an infection slowed down his recovery.
Springmann’s knee finally healed, but an undisclosed back injury will force his football career to end prematurely, a tough blow not just to Springmann, but to the depth of the defensive front. Just like Danny Spond, Springmann will continue to have a role with the team.
“Tony will no longer be playing football. He’ll still stay involved in the program,” Kelly announced. “Tony has done a great job of mentoring a lot of our younger players in the program. He’s shown great leadership, great resolve in coming back from his knee injury, and he’ll stay connected with our program and still be part of our season as we go down to the Culver Academies.”
The loss of Springmann puts more on the shoulders of veteran Chase Hounshell, who has yet to stay healthy through a season in South Bend. But Kelly expects the youth on the roster to fill the gap, with redshirt freshman Jacob Matuska listed at 289 pounds on the fall roster and freshmen Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah both over 300 pounds.
All three first-year participants should be able to support Jarron Jones at nose guard, with Cage and Mokwuah’s physical abilities better than expected.
“With Cage and Mokwuah, their volume is ahead of any of the freshmen that we’ve had at that position since we’ve come here,” Kelly said. “Their ability to come in and immediately take reps, both of them are immediately able to compete right away.”
Brian Kelly wants to see more from Everett Golson (and Malik Zaire) before naming a starting quarterback.
The surprise competition at quarterback will continue into fall camp. Kelly wants to see more from both senior Everett Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire before naming a starter. He also outlined where he expects to see improvement from both quarterbacks, who have continued to push each other from spring, through summer workouts and right into fall camp.
“I think in an ideal world, every coach wants one quarterback who has clearly demonstrated consistency, great leadership and the ability to take you to a championship,” Kelly said. “If that guy shows himself, i’m ready to name him the quarterback that day. I’m not playing a game where we’re trying to create artificial competition.”
For Golson, that means continuing to hone the craft of the position.
“”I think it’s an ongoing process of really not knowing the playbook, but understanding the move before the move is made,” Kelly said of Golson’s knowledge base. “Understanding me and what I’m thinking, before that play or call is made. That’s what we’re trying to really get to. He knows everything in the playbook… Now why are we running it? It’s the why of the playbook? Why are we doing it?”
After a redshirt season, Kelly feels confident that Zaire can come in and help the Irish win as well.
“I think Malik has the ability to play winning football for us,” Kelly said. “I want him to play championship football for us. There’s a level he has to get to.”
While the distinction between “winning” and “championship” may not sound like a big one, it’s a huge one inside Kelly’s program, part of the overall metric the staff uses to evaluate players. And while Golson did literally quarterback the Irish into the BCS title game, Kelly jokingly quipped that it wasn’t exactly his redshirt freshman quarterback carrying the load or establishing himself as a championship player.
“I’d argue that Everett rode the bus to the championship,” Kelly said.
Heading into the season, four offensive line jobs sound locked in with only one up for grabs.
Kelly applauded senior Nick Martin’s recovery from knee surgery, with the veteran taking a leadership role both on and off the field. And with fifth-year senior Christian Lombard healthy after recovering from back and wrist surgeries, the state of the offensive line is beginning to take shape.
“With Lombard being healthy, a starter returns,” Kelly said. “Nick Martin, a starter returns. Elmer, a starter returns. Stanley, a starter returns. We’re really talking about four starters. Now we’ve got to figure out who that fifth player is.”
In the spring, it was Mike McGlinchey, who manned the right tackle position. From Kelly’s comments, it certainly didn’t sound like McGlinchey did anything to hurt his cause, with the Irish head coach calling McGlinchey, “physically as gifted as any player that we have.”
But Kelly also went out of his way to compliment the work done by Matt Hegarty and Conor Hanratty. Both seniors give Harry Hiestand options on the interior of the offensive line, allowing Steve Elmer the ability to flex outside to right tackle and put Hegarty or Hanratty at the other open guard spot.
Of course, Quenton Nelson came in this summer physically ready to contribute. At 6-foot-4.5 and 325 pounds, he’s no ordinary freshman. So while saying goodbye to Zack Martin and Chris Watt won’t be easy, once again the offensive line is expected to be the team’s strongest unit.
“We really think that group as a whole sets the standard in our program,” Kelly said.
After serious injuries, both Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell are expected to play big roles in the Irish defense.
If you’re looking for good news, Kelly gave a very optimistic update on the status of senior linebacker Jarrett Grace. After a career-threatening fibula injury suffered last Halloween against Arizona State, Grace should be ready to practice when the Irish open camp on Monday.
“We think that he’s in a great position now where he’s going to be close now to being ready when the season starts,” Kelly said. “We think he’s in a position now where he’s running and it’s going to be for us a wait‑and‑see process, but he is so much closer than we are thought he could be as we go into the month of August.”
While not quite as serious, Ben Councell is only nine months removed from suffering a serious knee injury. And while some wondered where Councell would fit in Brian VanGorder’s new defensive system, Councell will be a featured piece of the defense at the Sam linebacker position.
“Ben has a unique quality in that he played in space,” Kelly explained. “He can play outside, and he’s 250 pounds, and he’s strong and he’s got very violent hands. When he gets his hands on you, he can really control the line of scrimmage.
“He can play over a tight end, he can play in some space. Him and getting Jarrett Grace healthy, those are two really big pieces for us, because we can get really big and get really physical at the linebacker position with those guys on the field. And then we can match up with some smaller guys, as well, that are more safety types that can play down.
“Ben Councell, we can’t underestimate how important he is to the overall picture of our defense.”
For the Irish to win big this season, freshmen will play a significant role.
After listening to Kelly on Friday, it’s pretty clear that freshmen will play a significant role on the field this season. Defensively, a highly-touted recruiting class will have the chance to become key role players.
Kelly said good things about freshman cornerback Nick Watkins, and he expects the long and smooth freshman coverman to supply some more depth at a position that’s a strength already. The emergence of Cage and Mokwuah should help up front. And if there’s an under-the-radar freshman that could do big things its Jonathan Bonner.
Kelly raved about the unique athlete — who checked in on the fall roster at an eyebrow-raising 6-foot-3, 269 pounds… as a linebacker.
“It’s going to be fun to watch him, because his numbers, his physical prowess really stood out in our testing and he’s had a really good summer,” Kelly said. “Big kid, athletic, strong. We are going to find out in the first week where that kind of shakes out.”
On the offensive side of the ball, hernia surgery to tight end Mike Heuerman has allowed freshman Tyler Luatua to stand out. On Signing Day, Luatua was listed at 241 pounds. He’s 6-foot-2.5 and 260 pounds on the fall roster (Kelly said he’s up to 268 pounds), making him an ideal candidate to play as an attached tight end.
“Tyler Luatua had a great summer for us,” Kelly said. “Really excited about how he’s settled in here. Again, coming from the West Coast, you’re always worried about that transition and we really feel good about what he’s been able to do in a very short time.”
With NCAA rule changes allowing the Irish staff to stage “OTAs” during June, Kelly and his coaches had a chance to work with their freshmen for the first time, getting a jumpstart on fall training camp. Combine that with some very impressive work done in Paul Longo’s strength program, and it’s allowed high-profile recruits like Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson a chance to walk in and compete for a job that in the past might not have been possible.
Needing all the help they can get with a daunting schedule ahead, expect Kelly to challenge a large group of freshmen in camp to see if they’re ready to contribute.