Notre Dame Football Notebook: Media Day
Game preparation for the Sept. 2 opener at Louisville began Wednesday (Aug. 21), with Media Day held afterwards at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Head coach Brian Kelly spoke for a half hour, and each of the 10 assistants was available individually for 10 minutes.
The open practice was shortened to 18 five-minute periods instead of the standard 24, and the padding featured only the helmet and shoulder protection.
The scout team was also assembled in preparation for Louisville. For example, freshman quarterback Brendon Clark’s jersey number is 7, but he is wearing 4 the couple of weeks while taking on the role of Cardinals starting quarterback Juwon Pass. Likewise, sophomore wideout Kevin Austin is No. 4 for the Fighting Irish, but he was donning No. 7 to simulate Louisville’s Dez Fitzpatrick, a top target with 76 catches (12 touchdowns) his first two seasons.
Overall, the two-deep is pretty much set from the past two weeks of practice, and this Friday’s scrimmage will be more about the No. 3 units going against each other. It will in great part, per Kelly, determine, who will be on the traveling team in the opener.
From an injury standpoint, the pass-catching corps has been hit the hardest this month with junior starters Cole Kmet at tight end and Michael Young at receiver both undergoing surgery to repair collarbone breaks.
Two weeks after his surgery, Kmet actually is starting to catch passes, though not in practice situations. Young had a sling over his left shoulder in practice that he took off at one point in order to stretch his arm. Kelly said pin-pointing a target date on when each will be back is an exercise in futility.
“Everybody is different,” Kelly said. “We've had guys back in four [weeks, from collarbone surgery]. DaVaris Daniels [in 2012] … I think he was closer to eight weeks. The doctors say at four weeks you can take a CAT scan to see what it looks like inside-out. If it heals inside-out, then you're cleared to play, and we go from there.”
Freshman wideout Kendall Abdur-Rahman has dressed for practice but has been sidelined with an injury.
As Basic As It Gets
Throughout Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, he’s enjoyed his greatest success when his quarterback was a first-year starter, be it Ian Book last year, Brandon Wimbush in 2017, DeShone Kizer in 2015, Everett Golson in 2012, or even current quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees as a 2010 freshman taking over and finishing 4-0.
When we asked the Irish head coach about that topic a couple of years ago, he responded that with a young quarterback it’s about going back to “the basic tenets of football” and not getting too exotic. Despite Book now being in his second season as the starter, Kelly said success in 2019 still will be based on the most fundamental aspects of the game.
“It's going to be about the basic tenets of football,” Kelly said. “We're going to have to run the ball well and stop the run. We're going to have to play with a physicality. You really can't see that right now. We're going to have to play that way against Louisville.
“…For the success of this football team, it's going to be up front, it's going to be our offensive line, our defensive line, our ability to run the football and stop the run. If we do that, this is going to be a pretty good football team.”
Hardly a news flash, but still a message that bears repeating.
There is confidence the running game can excel because of a veteran line that returns four starters and three “punishing” backs in junior Jafar Armstrong, senior Tony Jones Jr. and sophomore Jahmir Smith.
“Any time you're returning four out of five starters on the offensive line, your first sense is there's got to be some continuity that is going to give you some effectiveness in the run game,” Kelly said. “You're returning a similar offensive scheme, so everybody is familiar with what we're doing.
"Everybody talks about the loss of Dexter Williams. Yeah, maybe we lose a little bit of that big-play ability, but we think the three backs — obviously Kyren [Williams] and C'Bo [Flemister] bring something a little bit different.”
As for stopping the run, Kelly emphasizes that the pass-rush ability of ends such as Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem (Pro Football Focus graded out Notre Dame’s pass pressure the fourth best in the country last year) overshadows how well they can handle the ground attack as well.
“We're going to put our guys in a position where we're going to stop the run first,” Kelly said. “…[The ends] are being talked about as pass-rushers, but they're really elite defenders. Yes, we have linebackers that don't have a lot of snaps, but they are going to fit in with what we're doing. We haven't talked a whole lot about Myron [Tagovailoa-Amosa] and Kurt Hinish. They've got a lot of snaps underneath them.
“Why am I confident? I’ve got a great defensive line coach, got a great defensive coordinator, they understand the importance of how that front works together. We've always understood the key elements of successful defense is about stopping the run.”
It’s been fairly clear throughout this month that the front-runners to start at the two inside linebacker positions are junior Drew White (Mike) and fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal (Buck), while junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been a stellar figure at rover.
However, expect much more of a liberal rotation this year inside among sophomores Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb, in addition to Jordan Genmark Heath, than there was last season when graduated standouts Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney monopolized about 95 percent of the snaps.
“Different packages, down and distance, you'll see different faces,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a better feel on who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are. It's not just like, ‘Let's pick a guy.’”
Special Teams Report
Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer appeared to cement his starting role while converting all four of his field goal attempts between 30 to 37 yards, plus an extra point at the outset of practice.
Freshman Harrison Leonard converted his PAT but missed wide left on his field-goal attempt from 41 yards. Leonard also was used during the punting session, utilizing the rugby punt for 30 yards on his first attempt but hitting a strong 44-yarder with good hang time on the next one.
Freshman Jay Bramblett continued to show exceptional hang time on his four attempts, and two of them traveled 48 yards, while the other two were 40 and 37.
Earlier this week, Doerer was put into more pressure-packed situations in practice and responded with a 46-yard field goal in the “fourth overtime” of a game.
On-side kick defense was worked on today. The “Hands Team” was comprised of receivers Chase Claypooland Chris Finke, safeties Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott, Shaun Crawford and D.J. Brown, running backs Tony Jones Jr. and Kyren Williams, tight end Brock Wright and defensive end Julian Okwara. The deep man in the alignment to receive the kick was running back Jafar Armstrong.
A quality backup long-snapper also has been developed in sophomore Michael Vinson behind third-year starter John Shannon.
"We've been really pleased with the work of our specialists,” Kelly said. “Coach [Brian] Polian has done a remarkable job with a young group. They are not acting like a young group. It's been fun to watch.”
It is still unclear who will be the top kickoff return man with Young sidelined. Armstrong is a top candidate because of his ability to break arm tackles, but smaller players such as Lawrence Keys III and Flemister could be candidates as well. Kickoff rules from last year have somewhat diminished that phase of the game. The Irish actually had only 13 returns in 2018.
“We're still in that kind of philosophical discussion as to who is that guy,” Kelly said.
Bramblett, Williams, safety Kyle Hamilton and defensive tackle Jacob Lacey all received praise from the Irish head coach as first-year players mature well beyond their years, mentally and physically.
All but Hamilton enrolled early in January, making the safety’s ascent even more impressive. Especially notable about Hamilton is the way he’s fought through the inevitable “freshman wall” most hit about two weeks into training camp.
“Didn't miss a practice … He's in a contact position, and he fought through it,” Kelly said. “That's unusual. He's got some toughness that you don't teach at that young of an age.”
Hamilton’s ability to change direction with such ease at 6-4 also has been eye-catching.
“Can't tell that I've seen a player that can change direction and carry himself with that kind of range on the back end,” Kelly said. "That's unusual. Then instincts. He hasn't even watched film yet. When he sees a play, he's able to diagnose it (snapping fingers). The young man has great instincts and he's gifted.
“As much as I've been trying to tamp down Kyle Hamilton for Heisman, he’s a really a good player that has showed up every day in some fashion. He has a unique skill set.”
Williams had a business-like approach at running back throughout the spring which has benefitted him this fall, where he might even have a niche in a receiving capacity
.“He's picked up our offense,” Kelly said. “The versatility that we're asking him as a running back and receiver, he's a unique young man in that he's been able to handle all this — handle it in a manner that we're going to lean on him to help us.
“Not a lot of guys that I've been around in my time that we could throw so much at, and he's got the makeup to be able to handle it."
• In the absence of Young at X receiver, Finke has taken that role while Keys has aligned at Finke’s slot position. However, Finke is far from the lone option on the wide side of the field.
Running backs Armstrong and Williams both could line up there, as well as sophomores Joe Wilkins and Braden Lenzy, or even senior Javon McKinley. In the early tempo drill, the Irish came out with a three-back set, with two split out.
• Fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford will help at nickel and safety when needed, but today he saw more action at cornerback. A couple of solo tackles earlier this week on Armstrong convinced the staff that the rust if off for Crawford, who missed three of the last four seasons with injuries.
"His confidence is back. His swagger is back. He's back talking, which is really a good thing for Shaun,” Kelly said. “He's really going to help us in a lot of different roles, including special teams.
• With Kmet out, Wright and sophomore Tommy Tremble have received the bulk of snaps at tight end.
“You're just playing to a different strength,” Kelly said of the tight end position minus Kmet.