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Multiple position battles come down to last day

Laura Myers | Thursday, September 2, 2010

The depth chart released Monday shows which players will be on the field for Saturday’s first snap, but many positions are still up for grabs, and could remain battles for the rest of the season.

Starters and backups on both sides of the ball were set in place on the two-deep chart, but nothing was written in stone.

“If you’re afraid of competition, maybe you shouldn’t come to Notre Dame,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said in a press conference Tuesday.

Junior Braxston Cave, who will start Saturday at center, said players are still competing on a daily basis.

“It doesn’t lighten up at all,” Cave said. “Around here there’s no relaxing. And I think that’s why this team has come so far. Every day you’ve got a guy on your back, pushing you. And the moment you let up is when he slides in. So we’ve got to come out here and bust it every single day.”

Cave was neck-and-neck with senior Dan Wenger for the starting center job leading up to the release of the chart.

Coaches said performance in practice, from big plays to fundamentals, was key to who got the starting jobs.

“We notice simple acts that they do well,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said.

Of course, bad performances were also noted.

“I’m not going to let anything slide in practice and hope that it doesn’t happen in the game,” Kelly said.

Cave, too, pointed to the importance of practice.

“There’s always someone there pushing you,” he said. “When it comes to game time, the rotation is how it is, whatever the coaches want, but the preparation in practice is the key point.”

Kelly preaches a philosophy of “next man in,” to ensure that any players on the field are at full strength. This lessens the pressure to be a No. 1 or No. 2, coaches said, because many players will play.

“You can call us starters, but we don’t use the term starters,” junior safety Jamoris Slaughter said. “Just next man in if anybody ever goes down. But if you want to call us starters, you can.”

Slaughter and senior Harrison Smith will be the starting safeties Saturday, with junior Dan McCarthy and sophomore Zeke Motta as backups. All four were vying for what anyone but Slaughter would call the starting spots, but the more experienced backs ended up in front.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a battle, it was just coming out every week,” Slaughter said. “There were no set positions when we first got here, but they knew who knew most and who was most experienced, which was me and Harrison, and they just went off that and went off our production of Spring all the way through now.”

Another defensive battle is in place at the outside linebacker position, where senior Kerry Neal overtook classmate Brian Smith, who has started there for the last two years. But the “next man in” strategy is in place there, as well, Kelly said.

“We’ve got two seniors in Neal and Smith,” Kelly said. “They’re both going to play.”

On offense the biggest question was where the many receivers would land — but receivers coach Tony Alford said the decisions were not hard.

“I don’t think they’re difficult decisions,” Alford said. “You put the guys on the field who can make plays. So I don’t look at it as a difficult situation. What you see in practice is hopefully what you’re going to get in the game. If you’re not doing it in practice you’re not going to do it in the game.”

Junior Michael Floyd and freshman TJ Jones will start on the outsides, and sophomore Theo Riddick will be in the slot position. Jones was selected above senior Duval Kamara, but said his spot is anything but secure.

“Any day it could change,” Jones said. “So I’ve got to give my all every day. It’s a competition day in and day out.”

Jones, who enrolled in the Spring semester, rose to practice with the first team in Spring practice, but was in a real competition with Kamara in the fall.

“[Starting] was definitely a goal I was working towards,” Jones said. “That was the first goal and now that I’ve got that it’s to keep that job this year.”

Part of the reason that Jones won the spot, Kelly said, is that Kamara is still adjusting to the new position after being shuffled between all three receiver spots.

“To be quite honest with you [Kamara] hasn’t had a chance to settle into that position yet,” Kelly said after Wednesday’s practice.

The competitions are ultimately good for the team, Jones said.

“It pushes everyone to get better,” he said. “You never know, you could be third one day and start the next day. You never know.”