Kelly names starters for opener against Texas
Mary Green | Tuesday, September 1, 2015
For the most part, Brian Kelly said his typical Monday practices are lethargic and low-energy.
But with Texas coming to town for Notre Dame’s season opener Saturday, the Irish head coach said his team was ready to go for this week.
“It was focused,” Kelly said. “There was an intent to really work on getting better in all phases. Great communication. High energy. Very good Monday. So you know that they are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Kelly revealed which players will start against the Longhorns this weekend, with sophomore Daniel Cage nabbing the slot at defensive tackle left open in the wake of senior Jarron Jones’ season-ending injury in August. Cage won the starting job over freshman and early-enrollee Jerry Tillery, which Kelly said in large part was due to the improvements Cage made between his first two seasons.
“He’s in much better condition,” he said. “He’s so much more mature, understands our defense so much better. He was always off the charts in terms of his strength and foot quickness. Now he’s bringing a lot of that for much more of the game in terms of number of plays.”
However, Kelly said Tillery will still see playing time Saturday, rotating with Cage and senior Sheldon Day, adding that he’s taken on a big role for a freshman by learning both the nose tackle and defensive tackle positions along the line.
“Did that hurt him a little bit? Maybe, possibly, because we asked him to do two things and play two different positions,” Kelly said. “I think you will not know, as you watch the game, you won’t be able to count up, well, Cage played more than Tillery. It’s going to be pretty seamless.”
At the crowded tight end position, Kelly named junior Durham Smythe the starter over sophomores Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, graduate student Chase Hounshell and freshman Alizé Jones.
“I think you’re going to see them all play,” Kelly said. “I think they will all get an opportunity to contribute in some fashion, and some may play a little bit more than others, but they are all going to get a chance to be in the rotation and play, and I think Saturday will largely determine how that is doled out relative to the reps.”
As for which coach will be calling the plays for those tight ends and the rest of the offense Saturday, Kelly remained reluctant to publicly name himself, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford or associate head coach/receivers coach Mike Denbrock, saying it will be a collaboration.
“We are all going to be working off the same play sheet,” he said. “We are going to all be working off the same openers. We are going to all be working off the same down and distance sheet. So whether it’s coming out of Mike or Mike or Brian’s lips, is really immaterial as far as I’m concerned.”
Special teams starters
Two true freshmen swept up starting jobs on special teams: Justin Yoon at kicker and receiver C.J. Sanders at punt returner.
Sanders is listed ahead of junior receiver Will Fuller as the returner, which Kelly said gives the Irish two speedy options on special teams.
“We are splitting hairs probably with both of them,” he said. “And I could see us going back and forth with both of them playing. … I just think C.J. just has kind of a unique knack of breaking some tackles and hard to find sometimes and kind of comes out of there and pops out of there. That’s why we went with him.”
Sanders is also listed at kick returner, alongside graduate student receiver Amir Carlisle and senior running back C.J. Prosise.
To no surprise, high school All-American Justin Yoon will start for Notre Dame at kicker Saturday, and Kelly said he hasn’t shown a drop off during his practices with the Irish.
“I was thinking that as camp wore on with the tired leg, we would see a drop in that area, but he’s been solid,” Kelly said. “We’ve hit him with a lot of different situations. He’s responded quite well to all of them.
“I think the thing that stands out with me as it relates to him is he is so focused on just doing his job. There’s not a lot of things that kind of distract him. He’s extremely focused.”
Under the lights
For the first time in program history, the Irish will open their season with a home night game, which Kelly said has a decidedly different feel than the typical 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium.
“It’s just electric,” Kelly said. “Whether it’s Texas or USC or Michigan, the ones that I’ve experienced, it’s just a different atmosphere. So I expect it to be an electric atmosphere, one that will be memorable for everybody.”
Though the Longhorns wrapped up last season with a 6-7 record in head coach Charlie Strong’s first year in Austin, Kelly said he anticipates a challenge Saturday.
“Should be a great test for us in an opener,” Kelly said. “These are the kind of openers that really test you in everything that you do. You have to be fundamentally sound. You’ve got to take care of the football. And you’re playing against quality, quality athletes that are well coached.”