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August 16, 2012

Irish survive 11-on-11 emphasis

First, Danny Spond went down, and then Alex Welch later that practice. News of hand injuries suffered by Kona Schwenke and Jake Golic, and Tate Nichols’ knee injury trickled out from behind the secured gates of the LaBar Practice Complex.

Where’s Theo Riddick? Is TJ Jones okay? What about Dan Fox’s shoulder, and why wasn’t Jamoris Slaughter practicing Thursday morning?

It was only natural to begin to wonder if Brian Kelly had created this situation by his extreme emphasis on playing live, 11-on-11 football from the start of training camp through two weeks of pre-season drills.

“There’s always a higher risk of injury when you’re in those live situations,” said Kelly after the first week of camp. “Those big guys go against each other every day and they’re very competitive. You worry sometimes about somebody getting injured.

“We can play faster. We can be competitive. We can get after each other better without risk of injury. But I think you have to be careful with how much you do.”

Indeed, Welch has been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Nichols will miss the balance of pre-season camp. But Spond’s “head injury” turned out to be a derivative of migraine headaches. Riddick, Jones and Fox all practiced Thursday morning, and Slaughter was held back as a precautionary measure.

“You get your bumps and bruises like anybody else in camp,” said Kelly, who then declared that the live, heavy 11-on-11 work is behind the Irish as of Friday, Aug. 17. “I wouldn’t characterize it as more physical or less physical than other camps as much as our guys, in three years being here now, know each other very well and we know what to expect from each other in (terms of) consistency and approach.”

If Everett Golson’s pre-season stats are any indication, the 11-on-11 work greatly benefited the Irish signalcallers. Kelly said Thursday that Golson has thrown just one interception in 126 live pass attempts.

Kelly would have been concerned about the scaled-back fundamental work for his defense had it not been for the veteran nature of the unit.

“Only because our defense has so many live snaps,” said Kelly of his confidence in putting his defense in so many 11-on-11 situations. “They’ve played a lot of football. If we had not played a lot of football on defense and had not had a lot of live snaps in terms of real game experience, I’d be a little more concerned. But we scrimmaged (Wednesday), ones-on-ones, live action, and we still know how to tackle.”

To be clear, the Irish haven’t spent all of their time in scrimmage mode. It still accounts for much less than half the practice. There’s still plenty of time for fundamental work. Kelly also made sure he mixed in scout team looks to guard against wearing the team down physically.

In retrospect, it worked as well as Kelly had hoped.

“The 11-on-11 work has really benefited us both when we go ones-versus-ones and when we do some ‘show’ work,” Kelly said. “For example, (we went) ones-versus-twos so we could get some specific looks. The combination of both of those together has served us well.

“It’s kept us sharp, it’s kept us safe, and it’s given our quarterbacks the multitude of looks I wanted them to see.”


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