Notre Dame utilizes depth in spring practice
Brian Plamondon | Thursday, March 26, 2015
In springs past, attrition has meant Notre Dame would have to practice with a shortage of linemen.
After several recruiting classes focused in the trenches, this spring is different.
With limited personnel losses and the addition of three early enrollees between the lines, the Irish now have a plethora of linemen that have allowed head coach Brian Kelly to institute more physicality and toughness in spring practice.
“That’s so important in terms of controlling the line of scrimmage and being able to really develop the kind of toughness that you want on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said. “I leave spring practice feeling so much better because you can work on so much more when you go and really allow your big fellas to get after it.”
One of the defensive linemen that has impressed Kelly so far has been freshman Jerry Tillery, he said. Tillery has been working with the first team at times.
“He’s just a unique player, one that I can’t remember that I’ve ever coached,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in the Hall of Fame. I’m so leery to talk about a freshman, but he’s a unique talent.”
On Wednesday, the only linemen who sat out of practice were on the defensive side of the ball — senior Jarron Jones, who is still recovering from a Lisfranc injury, and sophomore Andrew Trumbetti.
Others who did not participate in practice included junior receiver Corey Robinson and graduate student cornerback Matthias Farley. Graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace, who has thus far participated in spring practice after missing the last 17 months due to a leg injury, was sidelined with a concussion.
“Some typical practice ailments, nothing that would keep anybody out for the remainder of the spring,” Kelly said about the injured group. “The guys that were out today will be back in short order.”
For now, junior Durham Smythe holds the starting spot at tight end, Kelly said, looking to follow in the footsteps of the now-departed Ben Koyack.
Smythe is being pushed by sophomore Tyler Luatua, who is slotted as the backup, as well as sophomore Nic Weishar and graduate student Chase Hounshell, who are vying for the third spot this spring.
“I think Durham Smythe is someone that we feel really confident as a pass-catcher in our offense,” Kelly said. “It’s been really more about consistency in the in-line blocking for him. Tyler Luatua gives us that second tight end that kind of has a little bit more strength and size, [but] has not established himself as the type of pass-catcher as Durham.”
Hounshell joins the fold in his final year of eligibility after spending four injury-riddled years on the defensive line.
“You know he wants to go out and attack like he’s a defensive lineman,” Kelly said. “But there needs to be a little more patience there.”
The other significant battle taking place is at left guard because graduate student Nick Martin has moved back to center after Matt Hegarty, who started the final 10 games last year at center, announced he will play his fifth year elsewhere. The competition pits sophomores Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson against each other and is one that Kelly said is too tough to call at this point.
“Quenton Nelson is an extremely explosive, strong [player] and can overwhelm a defender,” Kelly said. “Alex Bars is extremely efficient and technically so far above the normal redshirt freshman.”
Quarterback philosophy changing
Although coy on who has the edge at quarterback, Kelly did describe what new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford brings that is different from the past two quarterbacks coaches, Chuck Martin and Matt LaFleur. Martin emphasized protection, and LaFleur focused on concepts, while Sanford is spending more time on fundamentals, Kelly said.
“There is that piece that was missing that is really being coached, and we’re seeing the development of some of the fundamentals that maybe weren’t emphasized the way I liked,” Kelly said.
New face at holder
After well-documented, costly struggles at the holder position last year with senior Hunter Smith and junior Malik Zaire, Kelly said someone new is getting a shot at the position this spring.
“Our focus [on special teams] has been on a lot of technique work, really working a lot on developing our holder, [sophomore] DeShone Kizer,” Kelly said.