In only 23 minutes, Irish coach Brian Kelly used the f-word 17 times Friday. No, no, no, not that f-word. This is a G-rated space.
When discussing Notre Dame’s defense, Kelly said fundamentals or fundamentally over and over again. It has been a theme throughout the first half of spring practices, and Kelly emphasized it more than ever following the seventh of 15 sessions. Considering the Irish will not see an opponent for another five months, it makes sense to focus on the building blocks of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.
“If you were to watch us practice, you would not walk away with anything else but, ‘Man, [Elko] just teaches the fundamentals,’ and then when we come together 11-on-11 [or] 7-on-7, you want to see those fundamentals come to fruition,” Kelly said. “It’s been about teaching the fundamentals. It’s been about learning. We’re not going to play a game on Saturday, so a lot of teaching.”
When it comes to the offense, Kelly stressed consistency from both the players and the coaches.
“I would like to underline on the offensive side of the ball, it’s really more about consistency in performance,” Kelly said. “We were up-and-down. You could see that by the way we’d put up a bunch of points one week and then we struggled to put up points the next week.
“This is really about a consistency in performance from individuals across the board to collectively offensive structure, playcalling, all of those things. Everybody’s involved in it.”
The scoring rollercoaster Kelly referred to may be best-exemplified by Notre Dame’s October. The Irish opened the month by hanging 50 points on Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., before managing only three points at North Carolina State and 10 versus Stanford. Kelly’s offense closed the month with a 30-27 victory over Miami. Even if discounting the anemic performance against the Wolfpack—it was played in a literal hurricane, after all—the month was anything but consistent.
“Offensively, looking for consistency in performance,” Kelly said in summary. “Then defensively, the fundamentals.”
Aside from fundamentals and consistency, spring practice is about establishing a rough depth chart for the fall. In that vein, Kelly pointed out a number of particularly close position competitions. In a few of these—most notably right tackle, defensive tackle and safety—the Irish coaches are giving such equal opportunity as to alternate first-team reps among the participants by each practice. Senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner on Wednesday and junior Micah Dew-Treadway on Friday, for example.
“Inside, the defensive tackle position is a very fluid position right now, especially at the three-technique,” Kelly said. “That’s very competitive. We’re seeing a lot of in-and-out with Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway.
“You’re seeing at the defensive position, [senior end] Jay Hayes, [sophomore Julian] Okwara. I’ve seen a lot of competition between [junior linebacker Te’von] Coney and [senior Greer] Martini.”
Presumably, Kelly meant to also include senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti in the mix with Hayes and Okwara. It seems sophomore Daelin Hayes has a firm grip on the spot on the other end of the line.
Kelly also mentioned sophomores Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott working to earn a starting safety spot.
“That’s a few positions right there, very competitive, a lot of guys in-and-out of the rotation.”
MORE DEFENSIVE LINE YOUTH
In addition to Dew-Treadway, Okwara and Hayes, Elko has been working [sophomore end] Khalid Kareem and [sophomore linebacker/end] Jamir Jones into the rotation, per Kelly.
“What we’re getting right now is the younger players starting to show themselves…” Kelly said. “We’re cross-training Jamir Jones inside and on the edge of third down. We’re seeing some young, athletic players that are adding to our defense.”
Though they may be young and certainly inexperienced, Kelly said Elko is putting those players in positions to succeed.
“What I like about Mike is he’s putting guys in a position where they’re needed,” Kelly said. “It might be specific to a particular down-and-distance and front and not having to train them in everything you do.”
RECOVERING FROM INJURIES
Kelly said senior cornerback Nick Watkins is largely an afterthought by now when discussing injury rehabilitations. Comparatively, junior cornerback Shaun Crawford is still tracked rather closely.
“We don’t wait until they’re 100 percent before they can take every rep and bring them back in,” Kelly said. “We use a little bit of science.
“Nick Watkins, for example, we don’t even think about his injury now. He’s going to go. With Shaun, as we’re moving through the process, he’s on a GPS and he has a target number … I’ll monitor it during practice. I’ll let Mike Elko or [defensive backs coach] Todd Lyght (know) and will say, ‘His number today is 375 and right now he’s at 200, so if you want him to get more reps, you’ve got to monitor him. If you want him to get reps during team time, you’ve got to be careful with him to get to 375.’”
In a way, Crawford’s repeated injury past—he tore his ACL in 2015 and his Achilles in 2016—aids his recovery schedule.
“Shaun obviously has been through it and he’s going to know his body,” Kelly said. “We’re going to listen to him a lot more, and when he feels really good and he feels he can drive, we’re going to let him go.”