Brian Kelly discusses defense, skill positions after first post-break practice
Marek Mazurek | Wednesday, March 21, 2018
The spring season marches on.
Notre Dame held its first practice coming back from spring break, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly said his veteran group looks “clean” in the first few practices.
“You see it in [senior quarterback Brandon] Wimbush and [senior wide receiver] Miles [Boykin] — they’re going to connect on some big plays this year. You see it in [graduate student center] Sam Mustipher — his experience out there, controls things from the snap and his recognition up front,” Kelly said. “I don’t think you see it in a transformational sense, but you see it in smaller areas that look to be really clean.”
The Irish return nine starters from last year’s defense, but there are still changes to be made.
One of the most important changes will be figuring out who starts at the Rover linebacker position come the fall. Graduate student Drue Tranquill, who played the position last year, will move inside to the Buck linebacker slot, leaving a gap to fill. When opposing offenses line up with run personal and tight ends on the field, Kelly said he’s confident in senior Asmar Bilal at Rover. But when opponents go to a spread look, who plays Rover is still up in the air.
“If you want to get into the detached game and four wide, we can nickel out as an option, or we can look at another Rover that has maybe an ability to cover that No. 2 receiver down the field,” Kelly said. “We have some other options there. I don’t think it needs to come to, ‘Alright this has to happen in the spring.’ I think the nickel position will help us decide the Rover position. … I think we just keep working some young guys.”
The other Irish unit on the defense that is sure to see some change is the secondary. At cornerback, Kelly said senior Shaun Crawford is getting time at both cornerback and at the nickel position.
“We want to take our game to a new level. That new level is we have to be much more efficient in driving on some of the more intermediate and short routes, getting off the field on third down,” Kelly said. “The emphasis for our corners is to tighten up some of the quick game.”
At the safety position, Kelly said he is expecting improvement from a group that recorded no interceptions in 2017. The emergence of Alohi Gilman — a junior who transfered from Navy and was unable to play last year due to NCAA restrictions — could greatly improve the group, Kelly said.
“We’ve talked a lot about the safeties in run support and run fits. We know his toughness, but he’s a really good cover safety,” Kelly said of Gilman. “He’s on the ball; he’s somebody that can play the ball in the air. He’s a guy that will get his hands on the ball.”
On offense, all eyes will be on Wimbush and junior Ian Book, as the two look to win the starting quarterback job.
But beyond the quarterbacks, the skill positions — running backs, wide receivers and tight ends — will see significant changes as well.
At wide receiver, Boykin has emerged as a consistent target, and Kelly said he hopes others can step up to Boykin’s level.
“[Miles] is playing with a lot of confidence,” Kelly said. “With [Equanimeous St. Brown] moving on, he has that opportunity to really shine. And he’s had three good practices.
“I think everybody else is in that process of developing to that next level — [junior] Chase Claypool, [senior] Chris Finke, [sophomore] Michael Young. [Junior] Javon McKinley’s going to have to step up now and show, ‘Count on me in this spring.’ And as you know, we have a host of young freshmen that are going to get a chance to come in and compete for playing time.”
The Irish offense could also see some old faces in new positions as Kelly and his coaching staff experiment with their personnel. Two changes Kelly has made to this point include testing out sophomore Avery Davis at both quarterback and running back and sophomore Jafar Armstrong at both wide receiver and running back.
The Irish had just three scholarship running backs on the roster ending the year after Deon McIntosh and C.J. Holmes were dismissed from the program. Junior wide receiver Mick Assaf already switched positions to running back in response to that need.