Notre Dame Football: 5 Players Who Took It to the Next Level in Summer Workouts
Brian Kelly kicked off Notre Dame's 2014 season with an opening press conference on Friday.
With the Irish ready to start fall camp on Monday, the Irish's fifth-year head coach gave us a long-awaited update on the status of his football team.
With a schedule that features 10 opponents with winning records in 2013, including six teams that are coming off of double-digit victories, Kelly knows the battle his team faces on a weekly basis.
So as he got the media and fans up to speed on the state of the Irish, he highlighted a few key players who took a big leap forward this summer.
The Irish coaching staff used June to stage its own version of OTAs, while July was spent training with Paul Longo's strength staff.
Here are five players who took their games to the next level this summer.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Official heights and weights provided by Notre Dame Sports Information.
If you're looking for a comeback story, the return of Jarrett Grace is probably the best one you'll fine. After suffering a catastrophic leg injury against Arizona State last year that required multiple surgeries to heal, Grace is on his way back to the football field.
That didn't look possible this spring, when Grace was still on crutches and required an additional surgery in his fibula, where multiple bone breaks had his career in jeopardy.
But Grace was diligent in his rehab this summer, and he will be on the field with the Irish when camp opens.
"We think that he's in a great position now where he's going to be close now to being ready when the season starts," Kelly said. "We think he's in a position now where he's running, and it's going to be for us a wait‑and‑see process, but he is so much closer than we thought he could be as we go into the month of August."
The Irish desperately need Grace's presence in the middle of their defense. While former walk-on Joe Schmidt looks like the starter at middle linebacker, a healthy Grace gives Notre Dame a complete playmaker who also has the heft to battle in the trenches.
Grace may not be 100 percent against Rice, but after looking like a long shot to ever see the field again, Grace returning to the field is terrific news.
Another veteran leader coming off a major injury, senior Nick Martin is healthy and returns to his job as the team's starting center.
The younger brother of two-time Irish captain and Dallas Cowboys first-round pick Zack Martin, Nick picked up the leadership role that his brother filled for so long, leading the offensive line through summer workouts.
"Nick Martin is the leader of that group, it's pretty clear," Kelly said of a talented offensive line group that's pacing the program. "A lot of that has been passed on from Zack.
That's why I consider him one of the great captains of my career, because he passed on so much of that, and they are just following from a lot of what he passed on."
Martin's season was ended against BYU, a late-November injury that took him out for all of spring. But his return solidifies the interior of the offensive line.
Along with fifth-year senior Christian Lombard's return to health, Martin's return gives Harry Hiestand's offensive line four clear-cut starters: junior Ronnie Stanley, sophomore Steve Elmer, Martin and Lombard.
"With Lombard being healthy, a starter returns," Kelly explained. "Nick Martin being healthy, a starter returns. Elmer, a starter returns. Stanley, a starter returns. So you're really talking about four starters returning on the offensive line. That's a good place to be. Now we have to figure out who that fifth player is."
With Martin 100 percent, fellow senior Matt Hegarty could take over a guard spot, pushing Elmer outside to right tackle, with Mike McGlinchey the odd man out. Expect a lot of shuffling this fall as the line takes shape.
Senior Ben Councell was in danger of becoming a forgotten man. After a redshirt season, Councell lost his starting job at outside linebacker to Danny Spond in 2012. Then Jaylon Smith took that spot in 2013.
Add to that a serious knee injury suffered in November, and Councell returns nine months after surgery to repair an ACL tear.
With some thinking that Councell could've been the odd man out in Brian VanGorder's new defensive scheme, a big summer had Brian Kelly talking about the key role Councell will play in the revamped Irish scheme.
"We think Ben has a unique quality in that he played in space," Kelly said. "He can play outside, and he's 250 pounds and he's strong and he's got very violent hands.
When he gets his hands on you, he can really control the line of scrimmage. ... We can't underestimate how important he is to the overall picture of our defense."
Most of the spring, the Sam linebacker featured smaller players like John Turner and James Onwualu, matching up as jumbo safeties with speedy perimeter players.
But Councell's size—the just-released fall roster lists him at 6'4.5" and 254 pounds—gives VanGorder another hybrid type, only a player who's capable of going head-to-head with power offenses like Stanford.
Earlier this summer, we pointed out the amazing maturity and wisdom incoming freshman Jonathan Bonner possessed as an eighth-grader. It turns out he's going to be pretty good on the football field as well.
If there was a surprise revealed in Brian Kelly's opening remarks on Friday, it was the incredible athleticism and versatility that Bonner possesses, one of the summer standouts from any class on the Irish roster.
Listed as a linebacker, Bonner's fall measurables are remarkable: At 6'3" and 269 pounds, he's a physical freak who should be a shiny new toy in Brian VanGorder's system.
"It's going to be fun to watch him, because his numbers, his physical prowess, really stood out in our testing, and he's had a really good summer," Kelly said. "A big kid, athletic, strong. We are going to find out in the first week where that kind of shakes out."
Kelly said Bonner flashed a 35-inch vertical leap during summer testing, quite an impressive number for a 270-pounder.
While he's currently listed as a linebacker, don't be surprised to see Bonner put a hand on the ground and play defensive end, supplying a much-needed pass rush for the Irish defense.
With a weekly matchup that might be as difficult as any cornerback's in the country, junior KeiVarae Russell spent the summer pushing himself to be the best player he could possibly be.
Notre Dame's head coach took notice and said the veteran cornerback is trying to be among the best in the college game, and Kelly also mentioned the NFL's premier cover corners.
I think he has taken on this role as one of a challenge where he wants to be that [Darrelle] Revis. He wants to be that, you know, [Patrick] Peterson. He wants to be seen as that kind of player, and he knows he's got some work to do.
I'm not comparing him to that. I'm saying at the highest level in college. So he wants to be that kind of player. He wants to be the very best at his position, so he's driven to be that player.
He's not there yet, so that's his focus. So we are pretty excited about having a player that has that kind of passion and desire to want to be a great player, and he's moving in that direction.
In Brian VanGorder's man-coverage scheme, Russell will have the ability to measure his progress from the start.
If Russell is able to be that elite cover man, the Irish defense should provide Notre Dame with a chance to win a lot of football games.