With Notre Dame set to begin spring practice on Wednesday, head coach Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday to kickoff the ensuing five weeks of practice, leading up to the annual Blue-Gold Game on Apr. 20. The full transcript is available here.
“For me, it is about developing the identity of this football team, developing the leadership within the group and certainly, the players that are on hand in the spring is the primary focus in developing out depth for 2013,” Kelly said of goals for spring practice. “I want to leave spring ball knowing what we have.”
The million-dollar question was the status of quarterback Gunner Kiel, who reportedly decided earlier this month to transfer. Kelly confirmed those reports.
“Gunner Kiel is no longer part of the program,” Kelly said. “We worked on his release last Friday. He was actually told he’d be given the opportunity to compete. It’s my understanding that he’s still enrolled in school and will finish out the semester.”
Kelly added that Kiel would transfer to a school that was “appropriate” based on Notre Dame’s schedule, which likely means schools that the Irish are slated to play between 2013 and 2016 would not be options.
While Everett Golson has brought some clarity to the starting quarterback position, Kelly expects seniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix and freshman Malik Zaire to prepare with the mindset of being a starter.
“I want them to push to be on the field. It’s [their] job to go out and show us that you can be the starting quarterback.
Other topics Kelly addressed on Tuesday included player health, position switches, fifth-year players and the progress of the team’s early enrollees.
Six players applied for a fifth year and all were approved. Linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, offensive linemen Zack Martin and Chris Watt, defensive lineman Tyler Stockton and kicker Nick Tausch all will return this fall. All but Stockton and Tausch were obvious returnees. An extra scholarship will be available due to Kiel’s pending transfer. Notre Dame requires all fifth-year players to have already earned their degree.
With Braxston Cave departing, the open competition at center will revolve around juniors Matt Hegarty and Nick Martin and sophomore Mark Harrell. Kelly said Hegarty has been fully cleared after suffering a stroke last year.
“The first thing we have to do is find that center position and really lock that center position down,” Kelly said.
Safety Austin Collinsworth (shoulder), cornerback Lo Wood (foot) and running back Amir Carlisle (ankle), all who missed the 2012 season, will be back at or close to full speed for spring practice.
The only position change Kelly mentioned was sophomore safety C.J. Prosise, who will see time at both safety and wide receiver this spring. Sophomore Elijah Shumate will focus strictly on safety rather than cornerback. One surprise addition to the roster was tight end Joey Brooks, who also plays basketball at Notre Dame.
“We like [Brooks’] attention to detail,” Kelly said. “We’re gonna give him a fair opportunity.”
While Kelly spent most of the press conference looking forward, he also provided some reflections on the team’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.
“We’re a lot closer than I thought,” Kelly said of where his team stands in relations to the two-time defending national champions. “They all want to get back there. For them to do it again, they probably have to do even more. 2012 and the personality of that team is gone.”
Five members of the 2013 signing class are already in school and will participate in spring practice. Kelly touched on the progress of a few of the early enrollees.
“[Wide receiver] James Onwualu has been outstanding,” Kelly said. “He’s such a conditioned athlete. He can play with the veterans. I’m really, really impressed with [tight end] Mike Heuerman. He’s put on almost 15 pounds. He’s got a burst to him. [Offensive lineman] Steve Elmer is 317 pounds. He’s a guy who, we think, can go in there and compete.”
Zaire and wide receiver Corey Robinson are the other two freshmen already on campus.
One of the most interesting position battles this spring will be at running back, as the Irish must replace their top two rushers, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood. Junior George Atkinson III is the most experienced of the returnees.
“It’s [Atkinson III’s] time,” Kelly said. “He did not participate in track and field because he wanted to be solely focused on being the No. 1 back. Now, he’s got some guys that are gonna have something to say about that as well.”
Challengers to Atkinson III include Carlisle, junior Cam McDaniel, sophomore Will Mahone and incoming freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.
Kelly also provided an update on safeties coach Bob Elliott, who is doing “extremely well” after a kidney transplant last month. Notre Dame will return its entire coaching staff from last season, a rarity in modern-day college football. To compare, of the 14 SEC programs, only Vanderbilt did not have any coaching turnover this offseason.
“All these coaches had opportunities and saw Notre Dame as the place they wanted to be,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame will practice primarily Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings over the next month to reach the NCAA-mandated limit of 15 practices. The team will break for Easter with no practices between Mar. 27 and Apr. 3.
The Blue-Gold game is set for a 1 p.m. ET kickoff in Notre Dame Stadium on Apr. 20.
Live television coverage of the Blue-Gold game will air on the NBC Sports Network for the third consecutive year..