The week started with questions about the eligibility of certain Notre Dame players heading into Saturday’s season opener against Temple, and it ended with the same. With or without those individuals, though, Irish coach Brian Kelly feels a comfort level with this current team he has not enjoyed in a while.
For one thing, Notre Dame seems to be healthy entering the season. If nothing else, preseason practice did not contribute any injuries beyond junior tight end Alizé Mack needing to rest his hamstring for a few days and sophomore cornerback Donte Vaughn spraining his neck during a fluke mishap in a tackling drill. (Senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage remains out for this year, and possibly for his career, due to the lingering effects of concussions and junior defensive tackle Elijah Taylor has not yet fully recovered from a Lisfranc fracture suffered in spring practice.)
“I hate to even talk about it, but the preparation has been as good as I’ve had as a head coach in all facets,” Kelly said Thursday. “That’s why I’m excited and really looking forward to watching this group play.”
Kelly then described the Irish as “the best-prepared team that I’ve had in a long time.”
Some of that preparation comes from the redesigned strength and conditioning program Notre Dame implemented this offseason. Those changes were not simply alterations to the weightlifting schedule. Rather, they included more-specific lifts, GPS tracking during practice and mental performance training.
Kelly also credited a change in practice focuses.
“Splitting the technical with the tactical. In other words, there’s a time to work on technique and there’s a time to work on game planning,” he said. “We’ve done a really good job of parceling those out so our players know when we’re working on game plan and when we’re working on technique.”
Now then, eligibility …
Notre Dame has appealed the NCAA’s denial of immediate eligibility for sophomore safety Alohi Gilman following his transfer from Navy. Kelly did not have an exact timeline for the appeal.
“They gave us a sense of how they put the committee together,” he said. “It doesn’t appear to be something that would take a long time.”
It does not appear sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson will likely see action Saturday either, though he will at least be in uniform on the sideline. When asked specifically if Stepherson is suspended, Kelly did not explicitly answer.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking about our players relative to what my expectation are,” he said. “They have to meet expectations, and everybody is under the same guidelines. He’s working at it and he’s getting better.”
Freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer will also not be in the mix this weekend, but he should be by the end of September. Previously, the Irish coaching staff had planned on Doerer handling kickoff duties, allowing junior Justin Yoon to focus on placekicks.
“[Doerer] hit the wall a little bit. He’s just tired right now,” Kelly said. “He will eventually take that duty over. He’s got a big leg, but he’s a little tired. So we’re going to hold off the grand opening of Jonathan until maybe a week or two from today.”
At some point or another, Kelly will not be surprised to see every freshman playing notable minutes grow wearier than his teammates. With seven other freshmen in the two-deep roster, they would seem the most likely candidates for that fatigue.
“We can’t rely on a freshman to have such a substantial role that we’re not prepared that there’s going to be a time when we have to help them out,” Kelly said. “It’s foolish to think their volume is going to be able to sustain a heavy workload. We’re prepared for that.”
Offensive linemen Robert Hainsey and Josh Lugg, defensive linemen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, safety Isaiah Robertson, and receivers Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong are all listed as top backups.
Kelly indicated freshman Jordan Genmark Heath will see special teams action, if not also some time at safety, while classmate Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will plan to preserve a year of eligibility while he learns the rover position.
Kelly’s advice to Wimbush
Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has not seen action in a competitive game since his high school finale. Some rust, some jitters, some poor decisions may be made, and all would be logical and expected. Kelly certainly expects them.
“You’re not going to be perfect,” he said. “You’re going to make some mistakes. But move on from them.
“He’s going to learn from them, but understand that perfection is not what we’re after. We’re out for excellence, and with that comes some mistakes.”
Shamrocks on practice helmets only
In some of the University-distributed practice highlights, certain players have been spotted sporting shamrock stickers on their helmets. Kelly made it clear those are intended only for the practice helmets.
If those decorated helmets are ever to be seen in Notre Dame Stadium, it would possibly be in another “New & Blue” Game during next year’s preseason practice. Kelly found such value in the public scrimmage in the Stadium nearly two weeks ago, he would encourage the Irish to make it a habit. If nothing else, it will always serve to acclimatize the freshmen to some of the game day experience.