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Kelly praises overhauled staff after first practice of 2017

| Thursday, March 9, 2017

In each of the two prior years, attention during Notre Dame’s opening spring practice has centered around the battle for the starting quarterback role.

With a new signal-caller in junior Brandon Wimbush set to take over the reins, it would be understandable to expect focus to stay under center. But after Irish head coach Brian Kelly hired seven new assistant coaches in the hope of seeing some change from 2016’s 4-8 season, much of the attention during the first practice of the 2017 system — held on Wednesday morning — was on the new coaches’ schemes and a brand new position: the Rover.

Irish senior safety Drue Tranquill leaves the field after Notre Dame's 45-27 loss to USC on Nov. 26.Michael Yu | The Observer
Irish senior safety Drue Tranquill leaves the field after Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss to USC on Nov. 26. Tranquill is being considered for new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s “Rover” position.

With new offensive and defensive coordinators in Chip Long and Mike Elko, respectively, as well as special teams coordinator Brian Polian, strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis, linebackers coach Clark Lea, receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander and quarterbacks coach Tom Rees, Kelly’s staff in 2017 has been almost completely overhauled from 2016’s assistants. Kelly said he saw during the practice session that his new assistants are the kind of coaches he wanted around him.

“We vetted all of these coaches out in the process and I wanted great communicators, great teachers, guys that are very positive,” Kelly said. “I was able to get around and see all the position groups, and I was really pleased with how they interacted with the players and communicated effectively with them. There was no lack of communication in an effective manner. It was a good day for me to get a sense of how our coaches are teaching and communicating with our players.”

Kelly added that the changes in coaching staff have allowed him to take a new approach — one that is much more hands-off in regards to the offense.

“I have different priorities,” Kelly said. “My priorities [in previous years] were making sure that the offense is running the installation effectively, doing the things necessary to make sure that the offense is running the way it’s supposed to. That’s not my priority right now. My priority is emphasizing the things that I want. Today was about evaluating the personnel and where they are.”

Of the changes brought about by the new assistants, the installation of Elko’s defensive scheme looks set to be among the most significant. Elko’s 4-2-5 system utilizes a “Rover” — a safety/linebacker hybrid — with linebacker Asmar Bilal and safety Drue Tranquill among the likely starting candidates for the role. Bilal started at Rover during the opening practice, with Tranquill starting at safety. However, Kelly said the player who starts at the position is likely to depend on week-to-week opposing schemes, and is not set in stone.

“I really think it’s going to be a week-to-week matchup situation,” Kelly said. “You’re going to look at the teams that can stress the position with a slot receiver versus a tight end. We play some power run teams in the first month of the season.”

On the other side of the ball, Kelly said the focus was on running the offense at tempo, and credited Wimbush’s experience as a backup and in his redshirt year for allowing him to learn the system and develop chemistry.

“I think in the first day we were really looking at tempo in our offense and we achieved that,” Kelly said. “To go fast and be sloppy is certainly not the end. But to be able to run a little bit more tempo with our offense and to be effective and execution was really the most important thing … There is a relationship built already with these guys. Brandon has been with them for the last couple of years, so we’re not starting from scratch. But there are the nuances that they’re going to have to work out. I thought in particular there’s already a pretty good sense of relationship, if you will, between the receivers and Brandon.”

Spring season for Notre Dame will last until the annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium, which has been scheduled for April 22 at 12:30 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

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