As any hardcore football fan will attest, the offseason is one of the most difficult times of the year. Saturdays somehow feel empty after months of waking up early to a cup of coffee in order to hear what foolish thing Desmond Howard will say, or what gimmicky hat Lee Corso will don at the end of College GameDay. So when the opportunity to attend Notre Dame’s Coaches’ Clinic this past weekend appeared my father and I decided to take full advantage of it. It was a chance to learn more about the game of football as well as a rare opportunity to tour Notre Dame’s football facilities. Should you ever get a chance to go, do it.
The biggest perk of the Coaches’ Clinic was the option to attend several of Notre Dame’s football practices in the Loftus Sports Center. Below are some of the highlights for Irish fans wanting to know how the football team is progressing.
It’s the topic everyone wants to hear about so why not lead with it? Quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford is the real deal. The drills Sanford gives the quarterbacks will, without question, increase their accuracy and ability to successfully throw on the run. He also focused on protecting the football while the quarterback is in the pocket, which should come as a huge relief to all Notre Dame fans.
Everett Golson was accurate and has a lively arm. Zaire also looked good but was a little off with his timing and overthrew a pass to Tarean Folston in the flat. Overall Golson looked better, but it’s important to note it’s only one practice. It will still be awhile before Irish fans know who will be the starter against Texas this fall.
DeShone Kizer looked good and can really sling the ball all over the field. He made a number of impressive throws, but he also overthrew a ball to newly converted tight end Chase Hounshell. And by overthrow I mean I wasn’t sure the ball landed in the same zip code.
As soon as the warm-up period was finished Notre Dame immediately broke into a special teams drill where they practiced field goal attempts. There is no question the Notre Dame coaching staff did this to send a very clear message to the media.
“Hey, we know this is a problem, and look how committed we are to it.”
The plan backfired. There were several low snaps and missed field goals attempts at very short range. Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer took turns as holders and Tyler Newsome was the kicker. It was great to see the staff has made special teams a priority, but all that showcase did was confirm Notre Dame still has a long way to go to even be considered average at special teams.
The starting offensive line was Ronnie Stanley at left tackle, Quenton Nelson at left guard, Nick Martin at Center, Steve Elmer at right guard and Mike McGlinchey at right tackle. Everett Golson was the starting quarterback.
I was originally watching the tight end drills but my attention was turned to the offensive line by the entire Loftus Center being filled with Harry Hiestand screaming for the offensive line to “accelerate through!” their blocks.
The line is big, nasty, and Hiestand is in complete control. It was easy to see why Hiestand is a successful recruiter and why members of the offensive line are completely loyal to him. Notre Dame is very fortunate to have Hiestand as an offensive line coach, and the offensive line will be ready when called upon.
New defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is a really impressive coach. I wasn’t entirely sure what Notre Dame had landed in the former North Carolina line coach, but all skepticism was removed this weekend. Gilmore is an engaging and laid back personality who will recruit very well at Notre Dame. The hand drills being run were even more exciting, and I fully expect the defensive line to penetrate effectively this fall. Notre Dame should have a lot more tackles for loss this season.
Sheldon Day is unbelievable. He’s so compact and explosive, and his quickness off the line is even more evident in person. He hit some of the tackling dummies so hard the sound waves bounced all over the Loftus Center. Even more encouraging is the role he has taken as the unquestioned leader on the defensive line. Whenever the defensive line moved to a new drill, Day led the way, skipping and singing loudly while the rest of the defensive line followed suit.
Those Irish fans worried about Jerry Tillery switching to defensive line should stop. After watching Byron Dawson, Jerry TIllery’s high school coach at Evangel Christian in Shreveport, LA, speak at the Coaches’ Clinic – and he was undeniably the best presentation there — Tillery will be ready to play this fall. And I’m confident saying that not only will Tillery play, he’ll start.
Between how fundamentally prepared Tillery was coming out of high school thanks to Dawson, who played football at LSU, and how well built he is – Tillery looks like an upperclassman as an early enrollee true freshman – Tillery will be an immediate impact on the defensive line, and moving him to the position was the right call by Brian Kelly.
The wide receiver play was mixed due to the number of drops. Torii Hunter Jr. dropped a pass on an easy drag route, though it was encouraging when senior wide receiver Chris Brown gave him a hard time about it, yelling, “C’mon, Torii!” as Hunter jogged back to the wide receiver group. Perhaps Brown is starting to take on a leadership role.
There has been lots of talk about Justin Brent and his inability to focus, with Kelly most recently saying he will not wait for Brent to develop. If Justin Brent doesn’t step up his game he will be passed on the depth chart. Perhaps that message was received, as Brent made an incredible one-handed catch on an overthrown Zaire pass.
Overall, the practice was very informative. It’s still very early in the process but Notre Dame is looking good as it heads toward the 2015 season.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.