After remaining a recluse for the past few weeks while his peers suffered through the circus of conference media days and trips to ESPN, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly returned to the spotlight Friday, holding his season kickoff press conference prior to the start of the Irish's fall camp Monday.
There was the usual gushing about the growth of certain players over the summer months and the standard coaching cliches about having the potential to be a really good team if everyone buys in, but there was also some important news from Kelly.
Kelly revealed that senior nose guard Tony Springmann was forced to retire from football following complications from a chronic back injury. Like linebacker Danny Spond a year ago, who had to give up football in August due to repeated head injuries, Springmann will remain in the program.
"[Springmann] has come back from his knee injury, but he's had a lingering back issue and that is not going to allow him to continue to play football," Kelly said. "Tony has done a great job of mentoring a lot of our younger players in the program. He's shown great leadership, great resolve in coming back from his knee injury, and he'll stay connected with our program..."
Springmann missed 2013 with a knee injury but was expected to be part of the nose tackle rotation with junior Jarron Jones.
With Springmann no longer available, defensive line coach Mike Elston will be forced to expedite the learning curve for freshmen Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah, the two newest members of the team who best translate to 1-technique tackles.
"We think we have got some depth at that position," Kelly said. "We have got some size. We have got, if you count Jones, Mokwuah and Cage, you have got three guys that are over 300 pounds, and I think what in my conversations with [strength and conditioning coach Paul] Longo way and particular with Cage and Mokwuah, their volume is ahead of any of the freshmen that we have had at that position since we have come here."
Notre Dame will move to a 4-3 defense this year under new coordinator Brian VanGorder, but there will still be two defined tackle positions, usually 1-technique (between center and guard) and 3-technique (between guard and tackle). Junior Sheldon Day is a star in the making at 3-technique, so the concern is primarily at the 1-technique now that a reliable backup must be replaced on relatively short notice.
Both Cage and Mokwuah were not on the Irish's radar until VanGorder took over for Bob Diaco in January. Cage, a Cincinnati native, chose Notre Dame over Michigan State, while Mokwuah, from Staten Island, decommitted from nearby Rutgers shortly after the Irish offered.
Notre Dame's official roster lists both Cage and Mokwuah at 325 pounds, 10 pounds heavier than Jones, the presumptive starter. However, even for a defensive lineman, not all weight is good weight (see Stephon Tuitt circa 2013), so fall camp will give a better indication of just where the freshman duo is in terms of translating size to the rigors of playing in the trenches.
"We'll have to see what their football ability brings," Kelly said, "but from a work volume standpoint and from a strength standpoint, and obviously their size, we feel pretty good at that position right now."
For Cage and Mokwuah, going from no Notre Dame scholarship offer eight months ago to possibly being in the opening-day two-deep as freshmen is a quantum leap. The timing of their first on-field contributions remains uncertain, but with the loss of Springmann, they're bound to happen at some point this fall.
Notre Dame will practice off campus at Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana, for the first week of fall camp before returning to the on-campus practice facility on Aug. 9. The Irish open the 2014 season at home Aug. 30 against defending Conference USA champion Rice.
All quotes were obtained from UND.com.