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Brian Kelly discusses injuries, running back competition, receivers

| Monday, April 4, 2016

Another injury struck Notre Dame’s spring practice sessions, as junior cornerback Nick Watkins fractured his left humerus Saturday during drills.

Watkins, who underwent a successful surgery for the injury that night, will be sidelined for the remainder of the spring and is expected to be ready for summer workouts. He had been seeing many of the starter’s reps alongside senior Cole Luke at the cornerback spot this spring up to this point.

“I’m a starter, being out there with the ones,” Watkins said of his approach to the secondary competition prior to the injury. “In my mind, I’m a starter, and that’s just how I feel. That’s the confidence you have to have to play the position. … I feel like I’m my only competition.”

Irish head coach Brian Kelly also discussed senior receiver Corey Robinson’s progress as he continues to recover from a concussion he suffered over a week ago during practice. Robinson spent time Friday getting in work on the stationary bike.

“We’re going to get an evaluation with a specialist to make sure that we’re covering all the basis with [Robinson],” Kelly said. “He’s had a couple concussions, so obviously we want to do everything that we can to get him all the information necessary so we don’t put him in a position where he doesn’t feel comfortable getting back onto the field.

“We’ll [get the evaluation] next week, and then I think we’ll have him in a better position relative to making a decision to get back on the field.”

Additionally, sophomore receiver Miles Boykin, who had been out for over a week following surgery on a broken finger, and senior offensive lineman Colin McGovern, who had been out with a concussion, both returned to practice Friday.

Running back competition

Addressing the competition this spring for the starting job amongst the running backs, Kelly said senior Tarean Folston and sophomores Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are all getting reps and could all see carries this season given the way their strengths complement one another.

“[Folston’s] got some strengths,” Kelly said. “He runs the inside zone play very well, so when we get into some of our spread offensive sets, he’s very very good at keeping the ball inside the tackles. … Josh runs the outside zone extremely well, and Dexter has the speed that we’re looking for, so it’s really all three of those guys and balancing their rep work up over the last three days.”

Senior running back Tarean Folston cuts upfield during spring practice March 23 at LaBar Practice Fields.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer
Senior running back Tarean Folston cuts upfield during spring practice March 23 at LaBar Practice Fields.

After entering last season as the starter, Folston tore his ACL in the season opener against Texas and watched Adams and former running back C.J. Prosise handle the majority of carries the rest of the way. Despite no longer being the guaranteed starter for the Irish, Folston has been focusing more on his recovery and less on the competition, Kelly said.

“It’s been really for Tarean just rounding himself back into the physical condition necessary to play in the offense and getting confidence to make that explosive cut,” Kelly said. “I think the last time he put his foot in the ground and really was explosive, he tore his ACL, right? So getting past that I think is where he’s more focused. I don’t think he’s frustrated at all.

“ … I think the competition has brought out the best in him.”

Replacing Will Fuller

With Will Fuller leaving early to declare for the NFL draft, the Irish now have to find a way to replace the 1,258 yards and 14 touchdowns they got from him at receiver last season.

One player that Kelly thinks could develop into a similar role as a game-breaking receiver is junior Corey Holmes, although he is not quite there yet, Kelly said.

“There’s track speed and there’s in-line, straight-line speed and then there’s, quite frankly, football speed,” Kelly said. “I think that that’s been the struggle with Corey in the first couple years, is to get that to translate through playing fast and playing with confidence. And I think he’s gaining that. He’s gaining the confidence, and we’re seeing definitely a different football player.

“He’s not Will Fuller speed yet, certainly. Although he runs at the same speed, he’s not playing at that same speed yet. I think he’s capable — he’s certainly not there yet — but he’s moving and trending in the right direction.”

Instead, Notre Dame’s best bet to replace some of Fuller’s production right now is senior Torii Hunter Jr., he said. Hunter Jr. had 363 yards and two touchdowns last year for the Irish.

“Torii Hunter [Jr.] would be that guy right now,” Kelly said. “I think he’s got top-end speed, elite speed that he can compete with the very best in the country. We think Corey [Holmes] is trending that way — he’s not there yet, he’s got to play with more confidence and attack the football a little bit more aggressively — but Torii Hunter would be a guy right now that we think can continue to grow into that position.”

Freshman Kevin Stepherson has also been impressive during spring practices thus far and could have an immediate impact for the Irish, Kelly added.

“Stepherson, I hate to put a lot on a freshman, but right now he is an outstanding ball catcher, maybe our best right now in terms of catching the football,” Kelly said.

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

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