NOTRE DAME, Ind - Quarterbacks, cornerbacks, FieldTurf, and more…they were all topics of conversation Friday afternoon as Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly addressed the media prior to Saturday’s start of fall camp. Kelly stood at a new podium as he answered questions about the 2012 Fighting Irish Football squad.
“There’s a new dynamic on our football team,” Kelly said in his opening remarks. “There are new players that have emerged as leaders, so certainly from a coaching standpoint we’re really excited about our players.”
With back-to-back 8-5 campaigns in his rearview mirror, Kelly is entering his third season at the helm under the golden dome. He was asked early what would constitute success from the 2012 Irish.
“Success for us is winning,” Kelly replied flatly. “In everything we do…on the field (and) off the field. Successful businesses and organizations have their own internal goals and we’ve got some internal goals but, I know we’ll be judged by wins and losses.”
How successful the Irish are as they navigate their 12-game regular season this fall will depend on who stands behind center on Saturdays. Incumbent starting quarterback Tommy Rees will be suspended from the Sept. 1 season-opener against Navy in Dublin, meaning the job will likely go to either Andrew Hendrix or Everett Golson.
Hendrix has the most experience of the two, but Kelly says the junior still has room to continue to improve.
“He needs to keep playing,” Kelly said of the only QB on the roster besides Rees who has any game day experience. “Keep getting reps, keep learning the game. He’s got tools to play the position at the highest level. I think it’s just a matter of him maturing and playing the game and getting as many reps as possible.”
Kelly said at the end of spring practice that the summer would go a long way toward creating some separation between the four quarterbacks as they vied for the starting job this fall.
“We feel going into practice tomorrow that all of those guys have put in the necessary time to be the quarterback here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said of their off-season work.
“I was around here a lot and saw a focused group of players at that position. A group that was doing a lot of film study on their own. (It’s) just a group of guys that know that’s a position that requires a great deal of attention to detail.”
It’s no secret that Kelly has very little patience for mistakes (see sideline TV clips), especially at the quarterback position. He reiterated that limiting mistakes will be the major factor in who emerges as the starter this fall.
“We have to have a quarterback that we can trust,” Kelly said. “That’s gonna take great care of the football, that’s gonna get us in the right plays. As we move forward here it’s developing that trust with our quarterbacks and not accepting anything less than that level of trust taking care of the football.”
“You hope you build the habits of doing it the right way throughout practice. I’ve very rarely seen a quarterback have sloppy practices and then just all of the sudden turn in on in the game.”
Kelly’s plan to start fall camp is to see Hendrix, Golson and freshman phenom Gunner Kiel as much as possible to decide who the Navy starter will be, but he says there is not a set number of snaps that each will get. That will change as the opener gets closer though.
“Ultimately we want to be able to give the quarterback for Navy a lot of reps leading into the game,” Kelly said. “Where we start is-we’ve gotta be able to evaluate them based upon what they did this summer, then start to close-in on what that pecking order is.”
Kelly said in a local radio interview on Thursday that “FieldTurf is coming” to Notre Dame Stadium, possibly as soon as next season. He backed-off those comments though on Friday.
“I wanna go back on that one a little bit and add one word,” Kelly corrected himself. “I said FieldTurf is coming. I wanna say I hope FieldTurf is coming. I’ve said this a million times…that’s above my pay grade. I’m not the one who’s rolling out the turf. Certainly, Jack Swarbrick, that’s his domain. I do not wanna do Jack’s job.”
Kelly added in Thursday’s interview that Notre Dame Stadiums is “almost like the Basilica to the players”, thus taking away a home field advantage. He said if the turf is installed it would allow the Irish to practice in the stadium from time to time, thus removing some of that mystique.
While FieldTurf may or may not be in the future, turf has been installed on the sidelines and in the corners behind the end zones where concrete caused problems with players slipping.
Who mans the cornerback positions this fall will also go a long way toward the success the Irish have. Bennett Jackson is expected to be ND’s boundary corner, while Lo Wood should line-up opposite at field cornerback. Josh Atkinson and converted running back Cam McDaniel saw extensive action there in the spring as well.
“You’ve got four corners that have a lot of experience in our defense,” Kelly said of the position. “Now, they haven’t played a ton, but that’s what college football is about. People graduate and it’s the next guy’s chance, and we feel really comfortable with those four.”
Kelly added that Jalen Brown must continue to improve and emerge and that freshman KeiVarae Russell, who was recruited as a running back, has been moved to defense to give Kelly six scholarship players at the position.
With two new cornerbacks on the defensive side of the ball this year, Kelly says that building unit cohesion is the top priority on that side of the ball.
“I think everything you’ll see out of our defense is how we get 11 guys,” Kelly said. “Not hey we just gotta spend time on the cornerback position.”
Starting year three
The third season of a coach’s tenure tends to be the most telling, and that’s where Kelly is. He says the dynamic he has on his team is better than ever.
“There’s so much more of a comfort level that I have with the players and they have with me after three years,” Kelly assessed. “They know me a lot better (and) I know them so much better, so there’s just that sense and feeling within the room that we’re all on the same page.”
Kelly singled out All-American tight end Tyler Eifert for the way he has grown since Kelly has been on campus.
“You know your program is moving along when your best players are your best workers,” Kelly proclaimed. “To see his development and his maturity…he’s a leader on our football team. When I first got here he was in the back row, now he’s up front.”
Kelly said fellow senior Manti Te’o is another player who has grown along the same leadership lines as Eifert over the last two-plus years.
Jonas Gray is gone after a career year that saw him rush for more than 800 yards before a season-ending knee surgery cut his season short. Cierre Wood returns though after eclipsing 1,100 yards in 2011 and Theo Riddick is back at running back too after spending a couple years as a receiver.
“We feel very good about the depth at that position,” Kelly said of a group that also includes George Atkinson. “All of them have unique qualities at the position. As coaches we have to find ways to get them on the field and get them involved in the offense.”
Atkinson shined as a kick returner with a pair of touchdowns as a freshman in 2011.
ND also added USC transfer Amir Carlisle to the roster over the summer. He ran for 118 yards on 19 total carries as a freshman for the Trojans last year, but he was hindered by both knee and ankle injuries and only played in eight games.
“(He’s) an explosive player,” Kelly said of the sophomore who the NCAA has ruled can play immediately. “Somebody that can get big chunk plays (and) a kid that wants to be the best. He’s just got great make-up and a desire to want to be THE guy.”
Next man in at linebacker
Like Rees, Carlo Calabrese is suspended for the season-opener. The senior was the likely back-up to Dan Fox at Will linebacker. Kelly says Kendall Moore, Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace are likely to rotate in that position.
The right side of the offensive line
Right guard and right tackle saw a mix of players move in and out of those positions during spring camp and Kelly expects that to continue this fall.
“We’ll keep moving people around,” Kelly said of who might end up in those two spots on the line. “That next player in is going to have to have the ability to play more than one spot.”
Kelly says the competition at the guard position is mostly between Mike Golic, Jr. and Nick Martin. Junior Christian Lombard is the likely starter at right tackle, but Martin and Tate Nichols are likely to take reps there as well.
“I think there’s three or four players on that side of the line that have to be interchangeable,” Kelly concluded.
Injuries & Safety
Junior safety Austin Collinsworth had successful surgery on his shoulder in June, and Kelly says he is the only player who will not be able to “answer the bell” at Saturday morning’s first practice. Collinsworth is expected to miss the entire season. Kelly says the earliest he would be close to being recovered is late October or early November.
Collinsworth was beginning to make a name for himself during the spring, but there is a slew of players at the position to give the Irish plenty of depth behind seniors Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter.
Junior receiver Luke Massa is “limited”, but “cleared to do a lot of work” according to Kelly. Massa suffered an injury a slight ACL injury in the spring.
There had been some speculation that Troy Niklas might not be fully healthy due to a possible head injury, but Kelly says the linebacker is “100%” and will practice Saturday.
Notre Dame plays Navy every year, but this season marks the rare occasion the two teams collide in a season-opener. Kelly says that is at least a slight advantage for the Irish.
“We’d rather have it this way than have them in the middle of the season,” Kelly said of the scheduling arrangement. “It still doesn’t make the task any easier in the sense of how you have to execute on game day. You could have three weeks…five weeks. If you don’t play assignment football, if you’re not disciplined Navy will beat you.”
The current set-up gives the defense nearly 30 to prepare for the option as opposed to the typical three to four in between games in the middle of the season.