Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s preseason and its pool of possible captains

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If the hamsters running the internet do their jobs as expected, this will publish six hours before Brian Kelly kicks off Notre Dame’s preseason. While every weight change, nomenclature shift and piece of summer praise will be thoroughly dissected, it is key to remember it is just a press conference.

Even Sunday’s first practice is just that, one practice after nearly four months away.

The preseason’s lessons will not reveal themselves today or Sunday, though Kelly’s words and Sunday’s actions can start to shed a light on some questions. For example, might Kelly name Irish captains today?

In debating whom, a broader theme jumps out. Both senior safeties, Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, are obvious candidates, but the list of other strong possibilities is at least seven-deep, and arguably up to 11 players have established themselves as worthy leaders. Senior defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem both worked their way from deep reserves to standout stars; senior cornerback Troy Pride will be a three-year starter; senior quarterback Ian Book is, well, Notre Dame’s starting quarterback; and fifth-year receiver Chris Finke (pictured at top) began as a walk-on and is now a two-year starter.

That does not even get to senior receiver Chase Claypool shining as an example of a headache-turned-reliable starter or three offensive linemen in junior right tackle Robert Hainsey, senior right guard Tommy Kraemer and senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg. As certain as death and taxes, Notre Dame will have a captain along its offensive line.

When the Irish stumbled to 4-8 in 2016, Kelly pointed to the lack of leadership as a primary reason why, a vacuum for which he took ownership.

“We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing, our leadership and the message was not clear within the program,” Kelly said at the beginning of 2017’s preseason. “… Much more intentional in terms of focusing on that in particular with our group of senior leaders and underclassmen. We put them in roles to lead.”

At that point, Kelly knew he had the likes of Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to lead by both word and deed, a mantle Drue Tranquill shared and then carried forward with, again two offensive linemen, Sam Mustipher and Alex Bars. Those were the natural leaders found in a room of 85 players.

The deep bench of leaders now on hand shows just how permeating Kelly’s change in this dynamic was, and it makes guessing the 2019 captains a difficult task.

On the other end of the spectrum, what is sophomore receiver Kevin Austin’s status?

Kelly and Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long were both vague in the spring whenever discussing Austin’s progress. Some version of a suspension seems to be on the horizon, the length of which may be best gleaned by what unit Austin works with in Sunday’s practice. If he was set to play on Labor Day, Austin would primarily work with the second group and probably get a few snaps with the starters in place of Claypool.

If those first-team reps do not occur, a one- or two-game suspension may be in the offing. If Austin is running with the third-stringers, that could be signal enough of a September-long absence.

Those are all admittedly tea leaves, but they will likely be all that is proffered regarding the sophomore receiver, one of five competing for chances.

Does Braden Lenzy have enough added heft to work through press coverage, perhaps thus utilizing his strength to take a few snaps off the legs of junior receiver Michael Young?

Does Lawrence Keys have any specific skill so finely-tuned that it moves him ahead of Finke in the slot in particular packages?

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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 25 Braden Lenzy
Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 13 Lawrence Keys

And then, of course, there are the injury updates and concerns, one more than any others.

If both healthy and conditioned, junior Aaron Banks will be penciled in as Notre Dame’s starting left guard, but offseason foot surgery could throw that into question. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Is junior left guard Aaron Banks cleared for practice after offseason foot surgery? If Banks is given the green light, he missed most of the summer’s conditioning work. That alone could limit him for not only the next month, but also September. Only so much should be asked of a 325-pounder working his way back from foot surgery lest the foot take too much of a beating too soon. Notre Dame has a viable backup in junior Josh Lugg, should Banks need to ease back into the rotation.

That is all before getting to the preseason position competitions, otherwise known as all the Irish linebackers and most of the cornerbacks. Those may be categorized as ongoing all the way until Labor Day. Finding those answers is what the preseason is for.