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Football: Unexpected shifts

Sam Werner | Wednesday, August 25, 2010

When Brian Kelly advised media members not to “get married to a two-deep right now” at his fall camp opening press conference, he wasn’t kidding around.

With every passing day, it seems like the Notre Dame depth chart enters an even deeper state of flux.

Sophomore running back Cierre Wood, who started the fall as the fourth running back on the Irish depth chart, has risen to No. 2, Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday.

“Right now, [senior] Armando [Allen] and Cierre [Wood] have shown that they’re running one, two,” Kelly said.

Wood, who didn’t see action in his freshman season last year, said he was ready for his shot in the Irish backfield.

“It’s really exciting,” he said. “There’s a difference between stepping on the field knowing you’re not playing and stepping on the field and [knowing] in a couple of hours [you’re] going to be playing.

“I just hope I don’t faint back there.”

While Allen may be the most complete of the four running backs, and senior Robert Hughes the most physical, a quick look at Wood’s high school film will show his uncanny ability to find holes and break long runs.   

“I can look at one point and basically see everything around me,” Wood said. “I’m not saying I have special powers or anything like that, but I can sometimes sense who’s behind me and whatnot.”

On the other side of the ball, a new starter has emerged at one of the outside linebacker positions. Senior Kerry Neal has unseated classmate Brian Smith at one of the outside linebacker positions in Kelly’s 3-4 defense.

“Kerry Neal is a pretty good football player,” Kelly said. “He plays physical. He’s a very smart football player.”

Neal, who has been close friends with Smith since the two were roommates freshman year, said that the duo are constantly trying to help one another, even though they’re fighting for the same spot.”

“Me and Brian hang out together, crack jokes together,” Neal said. “Of course we get on the field, we’re going to compete.”

Neal added that being named ahead of his friend has only motivated him more.

“Brian is one of the best players on the team, so there’s no days off,” Neal said. “I’ve got to come with it everyday.”

Kelly noted that this linebacker position may be one that changes between now and Notre Dame’s Sept. 4 opener against Purdue.

“It’s a very, very competitive position,” he said. “And Kerry’s ahead right now, but Brian has shown a fight in him.”

In one of the more surprising depth chart changes, Kelly indicated that sophomore Chris Watt was in a close battle with first-year law student Chris Stewart at left guard. After practice Tuesday, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said the two were in a “close to a dead heat.”

“Watt has just come to play everyday in practice,” Molnar said. “He is tenacious. He’s a powerful guy, and he’s not sitting back and saying, ‘This job belongs to a guy that’s had it.’ He says, ‘I want the job.’ He wants to play now.”

Kelly said junior linebacker Anthony McDonald was “doubtful” for the season opener against Purdue with a knee injury. McDonald had been battling with sophomore Carlo Calabrese for a starting inside linebacker position.

Kelly acknowledged that he and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick had spoken to NBC regarding the tempo of games this fall. Kelly’s no-huddle spread offense emphasizes a quick pace, and many have complained about NBC commercial breaks disrupting gameplay.

“There’s certainly a need for us to address it,” Kelly said. “I think we’re working with NBC to make certain that they get what they need from an advertising standpoint, but also as the network that carries Notre Dame, that we’re able to do the things that we need to do, as well.”