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Kelly discusses spring practice, QB competition, fifth years

| Wednesday, March 18, 2015

When Notre Dame takes its first snap of spring practice Wednesday morning, Brian Kelly will be focused in on a few key position battles, the Irish head coach said at his press conference Tuesday.

However, he does not expect every starting job to be locked up seven weeks later for the April 18 Blue-Gold Game, including the No. 1 signal caller.

“I really don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about if a starting quarterback will be determined in the spring. “I think it’s going to take us some time to get a feel for how this competition is going. … It’s one thing to go out there and compete without footballs. It’s another thing to put the football in their hands, go run the offense — then we’ll have a better sense.”

Irish senior quarterback Everett Golson throws a pass during Notre Dame's 49-14 loss to USC on Nov. 29 at LA Coliseum.Kevin Song | The Observer
Irish graduate student quarterback Everett Golson throws a pass during Notre Dame’s 49-14 loss to USC on Nov. 29 at LA Coliseum.

Graduate student quarterback Everett Golson started every game of the 2014 regular season, while junior Malik Zaire earned the nod in the finale against LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. The quarterbacks split series under center against the Tigers, and both took snaps on the final, game-winning drive.

“We need to see him continue his development in the disciplined approach of playing the position,” Kelly said of Golson. “Taking care of the football. Take the last drive in the LSU game, for example, some of the plays he made there — poised in the pocket, checking the football down, staying within the realm of the offense. Much of that needs to continue.”

Kelly said he will be looking for a different type of development from Zaire in the next seven weeks.

“Leading his group, being vocal, being consistent, all those things need to be built on a day-to-day basis in the spring,” he said of Zaire. “He’s capable of doing it. He showed he has that in him. Now it has to be on display both in practice and not just in games.”

While Kelly was quick to clarify that he never told either quarterback that they would assuredly split time under center in 2015, the head coach said he believes both will help the Irish in the fall.

“Based upon what we saw in our bowl preparations, based upon what we saw in the LSU game, I think they’re both going to compete,” Kelly said. “I think they’re both very much going to be part of our success in 2015.”


Extending their stay

In addition to Golson, eight other Irish players are expected to return as graduate students next season, Kelly announced.

That list includes cornerbacks Matthias Farley and Connor Cavalaris, linebackers Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace, offensive lineman Nick Martin, receivers Amir Carlisle and Cam Bryan and tight end Chase Hounshell, who played on the defensive line in previous seasons.

Kelly said he expects a battle for the starting middle linebacker job with the return of Schmidt and Grace, whom he added both provide vocal leadership on defense.

“We’ve got a very good situation where we have both of these guys that can help us lead there,” he said. “And we’ve got a very athletic, young player in [sophomore] Nyles [Morgan]. We think it’s a good problem to have. We’ll take those kinds of problems. Last year during the season, we didn’t have that kind of luxury.”

However, the Irish will not return three players who had another year of eligibility left with the team.

Offensive lineman Matt Hegarty, who started the final 10 games of the 2014 campaign at center, announced March 5 that he would not play for Notre Dame next year.

“We’re in a situation certainly where we had a spot for him on our roster,” Kelly said. “We thought he would be competing for a starting position. He chose to take another option that is available to him because he’s going to graduate.”

Martin will take his place as starting center heading into spring, Kelly said.

On defense, Kelly said cornerback Jalen Brown, who did not see game time in 2014, was not invited back to the program in 2015.

Linebacker Ben Councell, who played in all but one game last season but never seemed fully recovered from a 2013 ACL injury, will not return as well.

“For Ben, that was Ben’s decision that he wanted to move on,” Kelly said. “He chose not to continue to play. We respected that decision. … He’s just going to get his degree and move on to the next chapter for him.”


Uncertain futures

After sitting out all of 2014 as part of the University’s academic investigation of five Irish players, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive lineman Ishaq Williams are still hoping to return to Notre Dame next season, Kelly said.

He added that he has “communicated effectively” with Russell, but his contact with Williams has been through a third party.

“I know what KeiVarae’s situation is and have had a lot of contact with him,” Kelly said. “I can confidently say, standing in front of you today, he’s making all the steps necessary to be back here, be part of our football team this summer.”

The head coach said Williams is currently working while he figures out what his future will hold at Notre Dame.

“Right now, he’s got to get re-enrolled into school,” Kelly said. “He’s got to reapply, go through that process. There’s some uncertainties there. He’s trying to do the things necessary to have a Plan B if he needs one.”

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