Brian Kelly Notebook: Day 1 At Culver Academies
Every first day of practice at every Football Bowl Subdivision school in the country has rhetoric that can be cut, copied and pasted in each new year.
• The players worked hard over the summer and returned in great shape.
• Preseason camp is about setting a tone for the season and being purposeful, especially with technique and fundamentals.
• It’s all about team unity and creating a bond as brothers in arms.
• The focus is on day to day detail, not so much big picture.
Now that we have that out of the way, the top stories from the first day of camp at the Culver Academies included:
[DEFENSIVE] BACKFIELD IN MOTION
Veteran cornerbacks Donte Vaughn (shoulder surgery) and Shaun Crawford (ACL) sat out the spring while recovering from surgeries, but head coach Brian Kelly told both in the final week of drills he would be immensely disappointed if they didn’t have an impact once they returned in camp.
Indeed, Vaughn lined up with the first unit as the field corner opposite boundary man Troy Pride Jr., who was on the field side last year but replaces consensus All-American Julian Love on the shorter side of the field, where the greater amount of action usually is.
Sophomore Houston Griffith worked primarily with the first unit in the spring, but the position was hardly locked down. Vaughn’s range and size at 6-2 ¾, 212 pounds is expected to complement more press coverage the staff projects to utilize this season. Last year during a portion of fall camp, cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght was of the opinion that Vaughn was the team’s top cover man prior to getting slowed by injuries (Vaughn tied for the team high in passes broken up as a 2016 freshman with six despite limited action).
“We think his skill set really fits in terms of what we want to accomplish defensively,” said Kelly of Vaughn. “It his time. There’s an expectation that he has, as well as we do, that he can be the kind of player that’s he wanted to be and that we think he can be.
“I think he comes into camp with a lot of confidence, stronger … The things that we’re doing defensively fit his skill set. It’s going to be fun to watch him.”
As for Crawford, who has missed two full seasons (2015 and 2018) with a preseason ACL tear, and all but the first five quarters in 2016 with an Achilles tear, the former starting nickel from 2017 even saw reps at No. 2 safety the first day. He also is not being ruled out to vie for the corner spot opposite Pride, or be the top nickel again. That’s not even including some significant work volume expected on special teams.
“Shaun deserves an opportunity to earn a starting position,” Kelly said. “As much as we want him to be a jack of all trades, he deserves the opportunity to try to win a cornerback’s position as well. … He can help this team win. We want to maximize his time.”
Somewhat stealing the show in the secondary was freshman safety Kyle Hamilton, who definitely is all of 6-4, and worked with sophomore D.J. Brown with the No. 2 group. In various 1-on-1, 7-on-7 and team drills, he displayed a penchant for being at the right place at the right time while picking off three passes, two of them off tips (one by Crawford). The tip drill also benefitted senior safety Alohi Gilman, who snagged an interception off a deflection.
“Did he take any reps?” deadpanned Kelly of Hamilton after practice.
When told that Hamilton had three interceptions, Kelly played along saying, “I’d write him up as having a good first day.”
No position is likely to receive more depth chart scrutiny this month (hopefully not all season) than the inexperienced linebacker corps. Plus no one among the current rovers has taken a single snap at the position in game action.
In early team drills, the first inside tandem had fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal (Mike) and sophomore Jack Lamb (Buck), followed by sophomore Bo Bauer (Mike) and junior Jordan Genmark Heath (Buck), and then junior Drew White (Mike) and Shayne Simon (Buck), who has cross-trained.
However, in later team work, while the Bilal-Lamb tandem still was the first to come out, there was liberal rotation of about nine, 10 players to work in with the top unit.
“These first five days [at Culver from Aug. 4-8] , it is as much repetition and as many guys we can get in there and get looks,” Kelly said. “I can tell you for certain there is a plan that is there. The linebackers [are] a specific plan that we have in place.”
As for rover, junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, sidelined all of last season because of an early September foot surgery, displayed exceptional closing speed in space, highlighted by an interception of an Ian Book pass on an out route thrown to fifth-year senior Chris Finke. On the next play, Owusu-Koramoah made another quick jump to nearly make a second pick.
“He certainly looks the part,” Kelly said of the 6-1 ½, 216-pound Owusu-Koramoah. “He’s got all the physical tools necessary for us to expand on that position.He’s a guy that can play the No. 2 [receiver] and not have to come off the field in nickel situations. He’s got explosiveness where he can set an edge and you can blitz him. If you really are defining what that rover has wanted to look like — look it up and that’s what it looks like.”
Sophomore Paul Moala, a converted safety, continues his sound tackling and instincts, while freshman Jack Kiser, out this spring because of labrum surgery, have been providing quality reps as well.
“We match that position as well in this system of defense as we’ve had in a while,” said Kelly of rover.
NEWS & NOTES
• Top returning receiver and senior Chase Claypool injured his ankle early in last April’s Blue-Gold Game, which was described as similar to the one Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had repaired during last season.
Although Claypool saw his share of action in team drills, his time was more limited. Kelly was especially pleased with the maturity and teaching Claypool has displayed with the younger players. There is a trust in both Claypool and Crawford on how they prepare themselves, so prudence in not overusing them this month is monitored.
• When Kelly thought about it, he said this is the first time in his 10 seasons at training camp where there is neither a wide open battle for the starting quarterback position nor a new figure entering the top lineup. He continues to be uplifted by the way senior Ian Book is carrying himself.
“There’s a confidence with the entire unit when he’s out there,” Kelly said. "You can sense it."
• We did not see any placekicking, but there was some work with punting. Without a rush, freshman punter Jay Bramblett on most occasions had quality hang time while consistently kicking in the 38-to-45 yard range.
Finke returns as the starting return man for the fourth straight season. Also fielding punts, in order, were junior receiver Michael Young, sophomore receiver Lawrence Keys III, sophomore cornerback TaRiq Bracy, and sophomore wideouts Joe Wilkins and Braden Lenzy.