After Notre Dame's first week of fall camp, Brian Kelly's Irish squad is beginning to come into focus. With the team spending their first five days at the Culver Military Academy, the Irish returned to campus on Saturday for two practices, strapping on pads as the depth chart begins to emerge.
As you'd expect, camp has helped unearth a few surprise contenders for starting jobs, while also separating the pack at some crowded positions.
Let's take a run through some of the interesting depth-chart battles and update the ongoing competition as kickoff against Rice on August 30 approaches.
Just about every first team rep has gone to quarterback Everett Golson. But this week will be an important one for Malik Zaire. After spending much of last week simply installing the system, Zaire will get his opportunity to step forward, with evaluations starting to take place as the offense evolves.
"Look, if you're making the decision in these five days, you already knew who your quarterback was," Kelly said over the weekend. "I wanted to get the installation in, and then we'll really start to focus on who the guy is this week because we'll put them in those competitive situations in 7-on-7 and in our team [drills] that will allow them to make those kind of decisions."
Kelly has been consistent in his message that both quarterbacks will get their shot at winning the job. But unless Zaire takes a big step forward this week, it's feeling more and more like a matter of when Golson is named starter, not if.
That's not to say that Zaire won't play. The more the sophomore quarterback gets comfortable, the more Kelly will give him an opportunity to play a supporting role in the Irish offense, with the staff likely giving Zaire a chance to get comfortable taking live game reps on their own schedule.
With three candidates capable of handling starting duties, depth and competition is welcome during camp. While senior Cam McDaniel is a steady performer who will continue to play a role in the Irish offense, Kelly talked at length about what he's seen from sophomores Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston through their first week of work.
For Bryant, the sophomore might still be trying to do too much, eager to make up for a lost freshman season that earned him a medical redshirt.
"I think with Greg, mental errors and trust of his offensive line," Kelly said, identifying some areas where improvement is needed. "To give you an example, you have to be patient to let those linemen move to the second level. Greg will have a tendency to just spurt out without that block setting up. Cam does a great job of setting that up and then hitting it.
"Greg's gotta trust his linemen and not just let his athletic ability take over because that will work sometimes, but when you need it in those crucial situations, he's gonna run into an out. So learning the playbook and knowing all the ins and outs of what we do, and then trusting the blocking schemes."
Kelly's criticism of Folston speaks to the promise the young back has already shown. While most already assume a key role for all three backs, Kelly continues to push Folston to believe that he's capable of being the team's lead back.
"Tarean, I think just, take it over, you know?" Kelly said. "At times I'd like to see him be more than just who he is. It almost seems like you have to push him a little bit more than I'd like. I'd like to see a little more, 'Hey, I'm gonna take this position over.' He's really talented, and it looks like we have to push him a little bit. I'd like to see a little bit more from him that, I want to be the starter and I don't want to share the ball with anybody. I think he's just got to decide every day that he's going to be the guy."
In a change from spring drills, left guard has been manned by senior Matt Hegarty, while sophomore Steve Elmer has been outside at right tackle. That's left sophomore Mike McGlinchey as odd man out, one of the big surprises entering fall camp.
But after a week of mixing and matching, Kelly talked about using this week as the one to start putting together a cohesive unit.
"Monday, we've probably just gotta say, 'This is the five' and start to build," Kelly said. "We've been in a lot of different lineups out there. We're trying to find the right matches there. We're probably gonna have to start kind of settling in.
"When you guys see us again next week we're probably gonna be close to finding those five. We'll have an in-depth conversation, and that will probably be our No. 1 conversation as an offensive staff this week."
That means finally deciding what to do with Elmer, who has bounced between tackle and guard so far in his young career. After spending most of last season and all of the spring on the interior, flexing back outside hasn't been easy for the sophomore.
"He has all the tools, but he's playing like he's a guard at tackle right now," Kelly said. "That's why it's important that we kinda settle in on where he is."
Finding a Role for Tyler Luatua
If there's been a surprise on the offensive side of the ball, it's been tight end Tyler Luatua. The Southern California native looks like a versatile battering ram for the Irish, giving Kelly a weapon in both the run and pass game.
"He's gonna play. We're gonna feature some backfield sets that will allow him to really use his size," Kelly said. "He's close to 270 pounds, and when he brings it, he's a heavy load. We haven't had that kind of downhill physicality that changes the pace. We can still play fast and then play down hill. He gives us some really good flexibility. He's a fullback/H-back that gives us some versatility that we would like to have."
Notre Dame beat out Alabama for Luatua, and while his recruiting profile seemed to diminish throughout his senior season, he's a unique player who could pull the fullback position out of extinction in Kelly's spread offense.
Young Talent Has a Chance to Help the Front Seven
If there's a place where young talent has a chance to step in and contribute, it's in the front seven of Brian VanGorder's rebuilt defense. On Saturday, Kelly identified four key freshmen who will likely make an impact off the edge.
"I can tell you the guys that will help us. Jhonny Williams will help us. [Jonathan] Bonner will help us. [Daniel] Cage will help us. Let's see. Kolin Hill will help us," Kelly said. "Those four guys have shown an ability to pass rush on third down. Now they're probably not going be every down players, but they can come off the edge for us."
Two other high profile youngsters will likely be given a chance. Defensive end Andrew Trumbetti likely didn't qualify as a freshman in Kelly's mind, with the early enrollee already taking part in spring practice. Veteran center Nick Martin told Bob Wieneke of the South Bend Tribune that Trumbetti has stood out to him.
It's too early to count out linebacker Nyles Morgan, though the young linebacker has a ton to learn as he tries to absorb the playbook at middle linebacker.
"We're trying. It's a lot. We're bringing him along," Kelly said. "Brian [VanGorder] and [linebackers coach] Bobby Elliott are doing a great job, it's just a lot of work to get there. We had Manti Te'o, and in his freshman year...I said this when I watched him on film, he had a long way to go after his freshman year. And he was a five-star and one of the best players in the country."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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