Notre Dame Football: 4 Takeaways from the Start of Fall Camp
Football is back at Notre Dame.
Well, for the most part.
The Irish opened up fall camp Monday, kicking off a week’s worth of practices at Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana, roughly 45 minutes from Notre Dame’s campus. The Irish will then return to South Bend and practice on campus beginning Saturday.
Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 4, 2014
Before practice No. 1 even began, Irish head coach Brian Kelly addressed the media for nearly an hour—56 minutes, to be exact—on Friday.
Kelly covered a host of topics, and we’ll pick out four of the most intriguing takeaways as camp gets started.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
The Leadership Search Continues
Following Notre Dame’s win over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl in late December, reality began to sink in: This would be a much different-looking Irish squad in 2014. Leaders Tommy Rees, TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Dan Fox and Bennett Jackson, among others, would be moving on. Who would be in the next crop of leaders? Who would be the captains?
In his opening remarks last week, Kelly said the team’s leadership remains a fluid dynamic.
“During that [first week] you're also looking to build leadership within the ranks,” Kelly said. “That is an ongoing process that will continue to work itself into our team as we go through. I don't look to name any captains right away, but we are seeing players emerge in leadership roles, and a lot of those guys have experience and a lot of those guys are our best players, and that's always the best form of leadership within your ranks.”
Kelly did later highlight senior center Nick Martin as the clear leader of the offensive linemen.
In selecting captains, Kelly could go in a variety of directions. There are seniors like Martin, and those “best players,” such as Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and KeiVarae Russell. As Kelly said, it's always ideal when the best players are the best leaders. If those top defensive stars, for example, can develop into the leaders, Notre Dame should be in good shape.
In 2012, Manti Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore were the defensive captains, and Te'o in particular was a stalwart. Leadership can be easier and more natural when it comes from the top players.
Freshmen Will Provide Depth on Defensive Line
Kelly announced senior defensive lineman Tony Springmann will no longer be playing football because of a “lingering back issue.” Springmann, who had come back from the knee injury that forced him to miss the entire 2013 season, will stay involved with the program, per Kelly.
When asked what the nose guard position looks like with Springmann out of the mix, Kelly said freshmen Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah provide “good depth” behind junior Jarron Jones, the expected starter.
“If you count Jones, Mokwuah and Cage, you’ve got three guys that are over 300 pounds, and I think … particularly 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,” Kelly said.
“Their ability to go in and take reps immediately because they are so strong, as well. Both of them physically are able to compete right away. We'll have to see what their football ability brings, but from a work volume standpoint and from a strength standpoint … we feel pretty good at that position right now.”
Kelly may be high on the freshmen, but the loss of Springmann further thins an unproven position group. Cage and Mokwuah may have impressed over the summer, but Notre Dame only offered Cage on Jan. 12, and Mokwuah was committed to Rutgers merely 13 days before national signing day. All of a sudden, the rookies could now be forced into early action. If so, they'll have to grow up quickly for the Irish.
Ben Councell Will Be a Key to the Defense
In some ways, senior linebacker Ben Councell has become a bit of a forgotten man at the linebacker position. Jaylon Smith, Jarrett Grace, Nyles Morgan and even Joe Schmidt have attracted more headlines, but Councell will be a crucial part of the defense.
Kelly said Councell has the versatility to slide around the linebacking corps in different situations.
“Ben has a unique quality in that he played in space at that position,” 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. He can play over a tight end. He can play in some space.”
Kelly said between Councell and fellow senior Jarrett Grace, the two linebackers allow Notre Dame’s defense to go big and physical at the position, with smaller players matching up around them.
“We can't underestimate how important [Councell] is to the overall picture of our defense,” Kelly said.
As new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder aims to be more "multiple" with the schemes and looks, Councell should be a valuable option. He brings much more size than converted safety John Turner and converted wide receiver James Onwualu, not to mention the experience from his three seasons and 21 games as a reserve.
Wide Receiver Remains Deep and Unsettled
When asked to discuss the wide receiver position, including a possible pecking order, the first two names out of Kelly’s mouth were upperclassmen—senior DaVaris Daniels and junior Chris Brown.
Daniels certainly appears to be a lock to be Notre Dame’s No. 1 receiver, and Kelly said Brown has consistently been the best leader since January, following up on his five-catch, 54-yard performance in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Beyond Daniels and Brown, Kelly said he thinks sophomore Corey Robinson will be a “big-time player for us” following a great summer in which he got stronger and faster.
According to Kelly, the Irish will utilize sophomore speedster Will Fuller much more in 2014, and redshirt freshman Torii Hunter Jr. has looked “impressive.”
“We may not have an established guy other than maybe Brown and Daniels are on that cusp of establishing themselves; we have got a lot of depth,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of guys that are going to get an opportunity to go in there and compete and really allow us the opportunity to get the ball out to a number of guys.”
This seems like a position that could sort itself out. If Daniels settles in as the clear-cut top target, someone figures to emerge from the horde of pass-catchers behind him. Whether that means two or three receivers separate themselves or five or six players continue to rotate, Notre Dame's starting quarterback will have skilled targets to whom he can get the ball.
Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com. Star ratings reflect 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.
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