Five things we learned: Notre Dame’s Media Day

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It was the standard Media Day dog-and-pony show in South Bend on Tuesday, with national reporters descending on Notre Dame to pay proper respects to the Irish football program, all while likely wondering if this is indeed “the year.” And perhaps it’s because Brian Kelly already delivered a lengthy state of the union address to open camp—or more likely—because he’s already sick of talking about the enhanced expectations for his sixth team, Tuesday afternoon felt like a redundancy that coaches and players alike wanted to put in the rearview mirror.

That’s not to say there was any visible frustrations as coaches and players answered a similar question asked a few dozen different ways. Rather, it’s just beyond plainly clear that this football team is starving for a game.

The win against LSU has long been forgotten. Facing off against your own guys has become stale. This team needs to see an opponent, and to a man appear to be counting the days until Texas, their first opportunity to play as well as they think they can.

To that point, it’s clear that certain messages have taken hold inside the program. You can’t spend sixty seconds talking to a player or coach without a leadership discussion, all but an acknowledging that last seasons failures may have happened because of injuries but were allowed to mount not just because of the body count, but because of a deficiency in culture.

That’s not something that Brian Kelly will allow to happen again. Nor will his assistant coaches, or the players who have emerged as potential captains. It’s a more crowded field of candidates than the Republican party is trotting out there.

With that in mind, let’s do our best to cut through the Crash Davis cliches and coachspeak we heard on Tuesday. Here are five things we learned after a two-hour open practice and interviews with assistant coaches and players.

 

Brian Kelly believes this team is more talented than the one he took to the BCS Championship game. 

Since camp opened, you need to credit Kelly for repeatedly acknowledging that talented components don’t necessarily lead to winning teams. But as we try to get a grasp on what he thinks the ceiling is for this roster, Kelly all but summed it up when Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman asked him to compare this team to the 12-1 team that played for the national title.

“It’s a faster team. It’s a more athletic team. We were deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line,” Kelly said.

That’s certainly not pulling your punches.

Kelly went on to talk about the singularity of a star like Manti Te’o and the unique traits that turned that 2012 team into a group that’s be remembered in school history. But if you’re looking for a main idea from Tuesday, it’s that Kelly is openly acknowledging this team is faster, more athletic and deeper than the one he ran the (regular season) table with, and he’s not afraid to acknowledge it.

 

The competition on this roster is fierce. 

Showtime is scheduled to air their first episode looking inside Notre Dame’s program on September 8th. And if I were a betting man, a large focus of that pilot will be the constant competition that takes place in every facet of a Notre Dame football practice.

I am not a regular on the practice scene. So it took me a while to get adjusted to the number of players running in and out, skill players and front-seven defenders that came and went at the blink of an eye, intermixing between the first and second team.

So while I was doing my best to keep up, here are a few battles worth watching as we move closer to Texas.

*  Don’t assume that Elijah Shumate has been handed the starting strong safety job opposite Max Redfield. (And according to Brian VanGorder, you can’t assume Redfield has won his job, either—even if I don’t believe him.) Cal transfer Avery Sebastian took the majority of first-team reps with the defense, and from talking to people today, this isn’t a motivational ploy. While they’re both going to play, Kelly acknowledged late last week that Sebastian has impressed him. And while it’s hard to say the strong safety play jumped out today, Sebastian is going to take a lot more snaps than many expected.

*  Freshman Josh Adams is taking No. 2 reps at running back with C.J. Prosise on the mend, and he doesn’t look like he’ll be redshirting at this point. Adams’ is a taller back, but runs with much more fluidity than Justin Brent, who looks really stiff and rigid as a runner. Dexter Williams may very well be a better long-term player, but he doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of things just yet, completely fair for a freshman.

*  The 1-on-1s between receivers and defensive backs was a joy to watch. And the best rep I saw wasn’t between KeiVarae Russell and Will Fuller (who did do battle), but between freshmen CJ Sanders and Shaun Crawford. Sanders won, pulling down a really well thrown pass in the corner of the end zone, and it put Crawford in a rotten mood. (And even if he’s only 180 pounds, you don’t want to see him play football in a rotten mood.)

There was great competition taking place around the goal line as the receivers and defensive backs went to war, and it was really fun to hear both Mike Denbrock and Todd Lyght coach up their position groups. For as talented as the receiving corps is, they didn’t dominate the secondary.

 

I don’t care what the recruiting rankings say, this freshman class is an elite group. 

It’s very clear that Notre Dame’s freshman class is a loaded group. While we’ve talked about a transcendent talent like Jerry Tillery, it’s also clear that top-to-bottom this group is going to find a way to help this football team win.

Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has opened eyes thus far in camp. Listening to Mike Sanford, you’d think he found a new sports car in his garage. He’s got straight-line, vertical speed that’ll show itself this year, especially if defenses are going to focus on some of the Irish’s other weapons. In single coverage going vertical, that’s a 50-50 ball I want my quarterback’s throwing. Fellow freshmen receivers Miles Boykin and Jalen Guyton also looked really smooth, and Sanders might play more than all of them.

Defensively, Nick Coleman was a steal. That the Irish saw a great potential cornerback in a high school running back shows some great scouting. Crawford drew a compliment from Sanford, an offensive coordinator marveling at how a freshman defensive back manages to always find his way to the football. (That’s a good sign.) Ashton White isn’t likely to play, nor is Mykelti Williams ready to fully absorb VanGorder’s defense, but both have nice skill sets. And while Josh Barajas has been limited almost from jump street, Te’von Coney is a guy that this staff thinks the world of. There isn’t a recruit in this group that looks every bit as good as advertised.

And right now, I’m buying the Justin Yoon hype. He kicked a rocket from 46-yards that would’ve been good from the mid-50s, and his accuracy was all that was advertised.

(Lastly, you want to sound smart around your die-hard friends? Get ready for the legend of Chris Finke. The freshman walk-on (and Coleman’s high school teammate) drew some praise from Kelly last week, mostly for his sure hands as a punt-safe return man. But Finke can do a heckuva lot more than that, a lightning bug receiver and a pretty dynamic return man. His high school highlight tape tells you the story, and with a 31 ACT and a 1360 SAT, Finke could be tearing up the Ivy League right now. Instead he’s opening eyes on the LaBar Practice Fields.

 

No, players and coaches weren’t interested in talking about defending the option or hurry-up offenses. But rest assured that this coaching staff has spent a lot of time working on both deficiencies. 

I spent a lot of my day on Tuesday trying to get a feel for how the Irish planned to slow down their two triple option opponents. I might as well have been asking where Jimmy Hoffa was buried. Talking triple option clearly wasn’t a part of the approved talking points on Tuesday, and while I wasn’t asking for any trade secrets, you can’t blame VanGorder or his players from wanting to get to the next question as quickly as possible.

There’s no doubt that this group understands the challenge ahead of them, especially with elite-level triggermen in Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Navy’s Keenan Reynolds. And while the details on the recon work Bob Elliott did this summer were left out, Kelly did drop an interesting nugget to Jack Nolan on the UND.com broadcast.

You won’t likely hear Rob Regan‘s name called on a broadcast or see him take the field anytime soon. But Regan will play a critical role for the Irish this season, recruited by Kelly to be the scout team quarterback who’ll pilot the option attack. Regan was a two-year starter for Hinsdale South, an All-Area performer and the quarterback who led his team to their first Illinois state quarterfinal appearance in a decade. So while that’s not necessarily an option quarterback that’s as elite as Thomas or Reynolds, he’s certainly a much better proxy than a fourth-string running back or a converted wideout for the week.

As for up-tempo solutions, there wasn’t much disclosure when asking for an explanation, either. But in one practice period, the Irish offense moved at hyper-speed, and the defense countered. It looked nothing like the fire drill that took place when North Carolina moved up and down the field, nor did it necessitate defensive linemen sprinting to the sidelines to get a subpackage in. So while we’ll need to see that practice pay off come Saturdays this fall, it looks as if this group has done its share of self-scouting.

 

This team will not be looking backwards. 

If you thought last year’s swoon served as motivational material during grueling summer workouts, I didn’t get that vibe. VanGorder essentially shook off the question, and Mike Elston was particularly interesting when asked if he thought his young linebackers—Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—were better for being thrown into the fire last season. Elston wasn’t sure.

That’s not to say that the experience won’t take away some of the growing pains when it’s time for Morgan and Martini to step onto the field. But any Freshman All-American kudos or talk of Morgan being a returning starter or potential impact player isn’t how either of the young, ascending players are viewed—either by their teammates, their coaches or by themselves.

Believe it or not, this team likely sees last season for purely what it was: a young defense forced by injuries to play guys who weren’t ready; and an offense that lost its ability to win games when its quarterback lost his self-confidence and control of the football.

In many ways, this team felt like the one Kelly was asked to compare it to—eerily similar to the 2012 team that entered that season will a large chip on its shoulder. After giving away a bowl game to Florida State and facing a schedule that most thought was unwinnable, this group rallied around stellar leadership and self-belief.

This team has done the same thing, with Kelly rebuilding the psyche of this group brick by brick, not coincidentally focusing on leadership principles derived by the military. That’s why you see a guy like Marcus Lattrell in training camp or you find out that the final two days of summer workouts were military training exercises designed to form cohesive bonds.

So while Notre Dame fans might be quick to flinch the moment things go wrong, don’t expect the team to do the same. That’s not to say a roster that’s essentially unchanged from last year forgot what happened. But they’ve long let it go.