NOTRE DAME, Ind. - The sounds of a college campus filled the air on Thursday as the Fighting Irish practiced inside Notre Dame Stadium. The tunes of the Notre Dame marching band echoed as head coach Brian Kelly made his way from the stadium to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex for his final media address prior to Saturday's start to the season.
"(We) got a feel for some game situations," Kelly began. "(We worked on) a lot of ST (special teams) - a lot of situational work - really the finishing touches on preparing for Temple. I know our guys are anxious to play."
One guy that will not be able to play this Saturday is third-string quarterback Malik Zaire. Kelly says a blood test this morning shows he is still battling a bout with mono.
"We were really hopeful that we thought we were going to get him cleared today," Kelly said of Zaire. "But he's just not - he didn't get cleared, so we're going to be hopeful for Monday."
There was a very low probability that Zaire would have played this Saturday anyway. Tommy Rees will start and Andrew Hendrix is No. 2 on the depth chart. Zaire likely would have only played in an emergency situation, and with that in mind walk-on wide receiver Luke Massa took "a lot" of third-team quarterback reps this week.
"We could put him in the game on Saturday (and) he could get us out of the game," Kelly said of Massa. "I don't want to play him if I don't have to. It would have to be an emergency situation, but he can get us out of the game on Saturday. He's a great teammate and he's a kid that does whatever we ask him to do."
Massa will be the holder for extra points on Saturday.
Who's Calling The Shots?
Not only do the Irish have a new quarterback this season, but they also have a new center. Nick Martin replaces three-year starter Braxton Cave, but Kelly does not play to put too much on his plate too soon. The center usually makes line and protection calls at the line of scrimmage, but quarterback Tommy Rees will do most of that instead this Saturday.
"Nick's going to make some of the calls," said Kelly. "But we've made some adjustments with a younger center. Tommy will do a lot of that work himself."
To Kick or To Receive?
Kelly has had a penchant for deferring to the second half when he has won the coin toss to start a game. He has said this fall that he thinks the Irish will be a much better offensive team this season. With that in mind, would he take the ball to start the game if the Irish win the toss?
"I feel a whole lot better about doing it now than I did the first couple of years, that's for sure," he said.
Of Josh and C.J.
Two names that have come up seldom, if at all, so far this fall are that of Josh Atkinson and C.J. Prosise. Atkinson entered training camp buried deep on the depth chart at cornerback and he only got deeper when freshman Cole Luke emerged as a serious contender for playing time this year.
"The guy can fly," Kelly proclaimed of Atkinson. "He's fast as heck. I mean he can run. It's going to take us a little time."
"I want to try to find a place to get him on the field and I think we can find some roles for the kid," Kelly continued, but it's going to take us some time to get him on the field offensively."
Kelly added that Atkinson needs to catch the ball more consistently to have a chance to see time at receiver.
Prosise was a safety as a freshman who never played last season. His skills became much more valuable on the offensive side of the ball due to lack of depth at slot receiver. Kelly cautions not to expect Prosise to be anywhere near the same kind of slot receiver that Robby Toma was.
"He's not going to fit in like Robby did," said Kelly. "He's going to do different jobs and he's going to do them well for us, but he's not going to be as - an 'A' to 'Z' slot receiver like Robby was."
Most Improved Freshmen
Kelly says wide receiver James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke are the most improved freshmen he has seen on each side of the ball this fall.
"(Onwualu) went from a guy that was a try-hard guy, you know, whatever we asked him to do to catching the ball much more consistently," Kelly said.
"Cole Luke, his ability to play corner at this level as a true freshman and nickel - I mean that's a lot," said Kelly. "He's had to play nickel, which now you're playing multiple coverages."
Nix and Tuitt
Kelly said earlier during training camp that Sheldon Day, a first-year starter at defensive end, is the defensive lineman that could stay on the field for an eight-plus play drive if needed. Whether or not nose guard Louis Nix or defensive end Stephon Tuitt could do that might be another story, but Kelly is still confident in the conditioning of his two veterans.
"They're in much better condition," Kelly said of Nix and Tuitt. "We feel like we're in a better place with them this year than we were last year. We'll just have to see how it goes on Saturday and we're going to have to play a lot of guys anyway."
Kelly said the kind of offense his team is facing would also potentially determine Nix and Tuitt's stamina in a game. He is confident that they could stand toe-to-toe with a physical opponent like Michigan State or Stanford, but he says they would be more apt to need a periodic breather against a "dink and dunk" opponent that wants to throw the ball all over the field.