When the likes of linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive lineman Sheldon Day and left tackle Ronnie Stanley all headed to the 2016 NFL Draft, Irish coach Brian Kelly knew Notre Dame was losing valuable on-field production. He did not necessarily realize the intangible contributions they were taking with them, as well.
“[I] focused way too much on production and not the process itself and how important it is to have that attention to detail, that laser focus,” Kelly said Monday. “… I let our football team down not focusing on those very important values and that process and went right to production. I just looked to replace production.”
Now a year removed from seeing quarterback DeShone Kizer, linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell embrace the challenges of the NFL, Kelly is attempting to plant the seeds of leadership earlier among his players, and among more of them, at that. The Irish captains were in charge of cleaning the locker room this summer, which inevitably meant every player kept things a bit tidier. By not waiting for the season to embrace a wider array of captains, Kelly hopes it not only stabilizes certain dynamics this season, but also sets a precedent moving forward.
“It kept building some and drilling down deeper to get more leaders to step up outside of those [captains] because they’re going to graduate,” he said. “We needed them to be in those roles prior to being selected as captains.”
It was that void atop the roster in terms of maturity and leadership Kelly said he started to notice just before the 2016 season. Even if the year had gone 8-4, or even better, instead of 4-8, he insisted many of this offseason’s changes would still have occurred.
“Clearly we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season,” he said in a vague reference to a number of arrests last August. “We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.
“Yes, we’d be at this same place regardless of whether we would have had a monsoon or kicked a field goal or went for a first down instead of kicking a field goal.”
Among those now leading the way in Kelly’s view is junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
“The way he handles himself, the way he works, his attention to detail, the way he handles himself on campus, that’s what I want [other players] to model after,” Kelly said. “… He is doing the things necessary that we want others to do, as well.”
As had been reported earlier in July, senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage will not be a part of the team in 2017, though his future beyond that remains unclear. If both his concussion symptoms and knee recover fully, it is possible Cage plays in 2018.
Junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor remains 10-14 days away from full health after suffering a LisFranc fracture early in spring practice. Kelly said Taylor is nearly ready, but is not yet moving laterally.
“[Those] freshmen will have to be part of the evaluation process,” Kelly said. “They did some really good things in terms of developing, in terms of strength and power and quickness during the time that they were here.
“They’ll be part of the evaluation process as to whether they can assist in some fashion in the fall.”
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Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford has been given the green light following his Achilles injury last season. Kelly still spoke of caution in bringing Crawford back to a full workload, but that should not be an issue by the time the season begins.
Transfers waiting and ready
Sophomore safety and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman has not yet received a ruling from the NCAA pertaining to his request for a waiver of the usual year on the sidelines following a transfer. Kelly said Notre Dame received a briefing Friday indicating the news should come sooner than later, but there is not yet a set timeline.
If Gilman is eligible, he will immediately fit into the two-deep at safety. Thus, until a ruling is issued the Irish must balance getting him ready in case he can play against getting others repetitions in case he cannot.
“What we’ll do is probably get him some work in there to keep him part of the installation and understanding of assignments of what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “He didn’t have the luxury of going through spring ball, so he’s going to have to learn.
“But we’ll also make certain that we have contingency plans. The first three, four days you’ll see a number of guys working at those positions, so we make sure that we cover all the bases.”
Fifth-year senior and Arizona State transfer Cameron Smith and senior Michigan transfer Freddy Canteen are both eligible this season as graduate transfers. They join a receiving corps that lacked a senior before their arrival, which may have been one of the driving reasons Kelly was pleased to welcome both players to Notre Dame.
“Cam is physically fit, can do the things within the offensive structure, knows the offense very well,” Kelly said. “I think immediately he goes out there and is able to compete at a high level right away because he knows the offense.
“… Both of those guys bring a maturity and a focus and attention to detail that I was looking for. A maturity, if you will, to that group that I think we needed.”