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Football: Springing into action

Andrew Gastelum | Thursday, March 22, 2012

With a steady mixture of familiar faces and position changes that Irish coach Brian Kelly referred to as a blend of “continuity and change,” Notre Dame kicked off its spring practice schedule on a sun-splashed Wednesday morning.

“What I really liked today was the enthusiasm that we had,” Kelly said. “You go into your third year and you try to balance continuity and change because it is important that continuity is part of what you do. But change brings sometimes an energy and an enthusiasm.

“So in day one of spring, [there was] great effort, great enthusiasm. Veterans looked like veterans, young guys looked like young guys, and now we are off and running where we now can start to build our football team and get everyone looking the same.”

One of those veterans is junior linebacker Manti Te’o, who spurned a likely first-round selection in the NFL Draft to return for his senior season. Te’o heads a defense that returns six starters from last season’s finale against Florida State, but suffered heavy losses in the secondary, including the graduation of cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton and captain and safety Harrison Smith.

With the departure of highly-touted early enrollee Tee Shepard from the university, sophomore cornerbacks Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson took reps with the first team defense, along with freshman defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch.

“It’s always a confidence issue [with young players],” Te’o said. “You come to college and people are bigger, faster, stronger but at the end of the day, it’s still football. I think once they understand that, they’ll be fine.”

Te’o described the opening practice as intense and competitive from the start, even without fully-padded contact.

“You could do everything but hit,” the 2011 second-team All-American said. “Guys were going after the ball, going to pick off the ball. Receivers are going up for the ball. We understand that we can’t put our teammates in dangerous situations but everybody was competing out there.”

Due to Notre Dame’s depth at linebacker, 6-foot-7 freshman Troy Niklas moved from linebacker to tight end to complement athletic junior Tyler Eifert with a physical presence along the line.

Meanwhile, junior Theo Riddick returned to his original running back position amid the absence of freshman transfer Amir Carlisle due to a broken ankle. Riddick, who spent the previous two seasons as a slot receiver, said the move came immediately following the Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State, but the lessons learned at the position added an extra skillset to the versatile speedster.

“[Playing running back] is completely natural,” Riddick said. “I have been playing it since I was eight-years-old. I can play it in my sleep. I was trying to enhance my skills and I never felt like me moving to wide receiver ever hindered my skills … It was just one skill I had to develop.”

Kelly spent most of his time developing the four quarterbacks fighting for the starting job. Sophomore Tommy Rees, the incumbent starter, took reps with the first team, while early enrollee Gunner Kiel, wearing a red No. 1 jersey, debuted in his first practice with the Irish.

Kelly said the performance and improvement of freshman receiver DaVaris Daniels impressed him the most.

“He showed up. It’s the first day and I am not ready to anoint him as the next Michael Floyd,” Kelly said. “He still has a long way to go but he’s extremely athletic so we are looking for his ability to translate that and I saw that a little bit today.”

The Irish continue their spring schedule with practice 8 a.m. Friday.

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]