Coney, Boykin headline spring sessions
Elizabeth Greason | Monday, March 26, 2018
The onset of another spring season has brought the return of a number of familiar faces, as well as some who are expected to play a much greater role for the Irish — and, of course, a healthy dose of competition.
Notre Dame held an open practice Saturday, after which Irish head coach Brian Kelly discussed the impact of one of these familiar faces — senior linebacker Te’von Coney, who decided to remain with the team for his senior year.
“There’s a couple layers here. The first one is moving to the Mike linebacker position, which we think is a natural position for the next level for him, secondly, is, and certainly not one versus two, the academic piece in terms of getting his degree,” Kelly said. “… He was missing in action last spring. We didn’t know where he was. He did not have a very good spring. And consequently it put him behind in going into August and he didn’t come out as a starter until Week 5, so what we wanted to do was show how important it was to have a great spring. So, he is somebody who is unmistakable now on the field. Last year, at this time, I didn’t even know he was out there.”
All eyes Saturday were on the competition between senior — and last season’s starter — Brandon Wimbush and junior Ian Book, who carried the Irish to victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl.
Wimbush said he is looking for the future starter to separate himself through his fundamentals and by bringing an element of consistency to the game that was not present last season.
“I just think consistency and performance. Obviously, there was such inconsistent performance at that position, we were up and down week to week, we didn’t establish a consistent play day in and day out, so that’s going to be the separator,” he said. “That person that can continue to show every single day that these are the base fundamentals of the position that I’m going to bring with me and build that consistency, I think that’s the key.”
While Kelly said neither candidate is separating himself just yet, he noted Wimbush’s growth in confidence has been noticeable since the end of the season.
“There is definitely a difference in the way [Wimbush] is performing at that position compared to last year,” Kelly said. “So, if that continues to trend, that puts us in a really good position for quarterback.”
Book said the competition between Wimbush and himself has been exciting and pushed himself to improve his own game.
“[The competition is] fun. It’s really fun,” Book said. “I think Brandon would say the same thing. I push him, he pushes me. We’re both getting better from it. … I take it practice by practice, but I don’t want to focus too much on just this competition. I just got to every day just keep doing what I can do and better myself. At the end, they will pick a starter, but I’m not going to worry about that day by day.”
Wimbush echoed Book’s sentiments.
“Healthy competition is good competition, wherever you’re at, and whatever position it may be,” Wimbush said. “It pushes Ian Book and I every day and the rest of the guys at quarterback to grow to be better on a daily basis and to focus on the things that the coaches want us to focus on.”
One name who has risen above the rest on the offense so far in spring ball is senior wide receiver Miles Boykin.
“[Boykin is] not in the same category [as junior receiver Chase Claypool and sophomore receiver Michael Young]. He’s a guy who can defeat one-on-one coverage. He can get you out of a loaded box by just throwing fades. Those guys don’t have that and we’re not asking them — we didn’t recruit them for that purpose,” Kelly said. “We recruited Miles for that and he’s giving it to us, so if you drop an eighth hat and you’re going to leave him one-on-one into the boundary, you’re going to have to deal with neither one of you getting the football. He can take it away from anybody.”
Boykin has quickly developed into one of Wimbush’s favorite targets.
“If I throw that ball anywhere in his radius, I know he’s going to go get it and catch it for me,” Wimbush said. “Obviously, we’ve all seen that, whether it be with one or two hands, so it’s good to have him and the rest of the guys out there.”
Along with Boykin, senior Chris Finke and Young were among the receivers getting the majority of the first-team reps during practice, whereas junior Javon McKinley, sophomore Jafar Armstrong and freshman Micah Jones took second-team reps. Senior running back Dexter Williams played alongside the emerging top receivers.
“I consider myself a leader of this corps, me and Finke,” Boykin said of the receiving corps. “We’ve been here since day one, we came here together and we’re going to lead together. This isn’t something I can do by myself. I’m leaning on him just as much as he’s leaning on me. I think we can lead this corps to do great things.”
Kelly has also been impressed by the performance of sophomore tight end Cole Kmet, who saw significant action during practice. He feels the dual-sport athlete provides a needed element of competition for senior tight end Alize Mack, who was suspended for the bowl game.
“Other than the physical tools that we all see, he catches, the ball, soft hands, he’s physical at the point of attack and when he catches the ball he runs through tacklers, which in itself is pretty impressive,” he said. “He handles two sports here and is never on a list, never is a guy that we have to worry about going to class, in terms of representing Notre Dame in the fashion that he needs to. Pretty extraordinary young man in terms of the whole picture of everything that he does.”
After losing two All-Americans from the 2017 Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line to the NFL Draft in Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, the line is looking to rebuild and solidify which players will make up the starting five.
“I would say that [senior offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland] is definitely in the mix to see playing time, but I think we’re going to play a number of guys,” Kelly said. “We’re going to see [sophomore] Josh Lugg play there and then we still think we’re going to get [junior Tommy] Kraemer and [junior Liam] Eichenberg and [sophomore Robert] Hainsey on the field as well, so there’s five guys right there on the field that are going to be playing in some fashion, but I would be hesitant to think that [Ruhland has] secured anything at this point.”
Claypool and sophomore tight end Brock Wright sported red jerseys during contact drills, while senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery was in the fourth day of concussion protocol after leading with his helmet on Tuesday. Kelly said if he progresses as expected, he should return to practice Tuesday.