The pads haven’t come on just yet for Notre Dame during spring practice this year, but once they do, practices are going to get physical – possibly more physical than they’ve ever been during the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame thanks to the depth Kelly and his staff have built up after five years on the job.
“This is the first time since I’ve been here where I feel like I can go into practice and I can bang around,” Brian Kelly said earlier this week while addressing the media for the first time this spring.
Depth was a major reason behind Notre Dame’s second half landslide a year ago. Defensive injuries mounted and as a result the Irish were relying heavily on contributions from freshmen like Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, Nyles Morgan, and Greer Martini over much of the final six games whether or not the frosh were ready. By the time the USC game rolled around, the Notre Dame defensive line depth was paper thin.
One of the very few benefits of the injuries from last year is that those freshmen all got valuable experience that will give Notre Dame depth like it hasn’t had in some time this year so that if the injury bug hits again, the Irish will be better prepared to deal with it.
“We have so many young defensive linemen, we need to see contact. We don’t need to see them run the hoop, go over an agile bag. We have a lot of guys that can come and do that at a practice. I know I’m excited about that,” Kelly said.
Some of those young defensive linemen that Kelly is referencing, in addition to the frosh who played last year, include Pete Mokwuah, Jonathan Bonner, and Jhonny Williams. Bonner didn’t play last year but is up to 272 lbs and could be ready to see the field. “We really like what we see from him right now. So a lot of eyes on him,” Kelly said on Tuesday.
Linebacker is another area where depth isn’t the problem it was a year ago. Morgan and Martini both cut their teeth last year, Jarrett Grace is finally back on the field after his long recovery, and early enrollee freshman Tevon Coney has already passed the eye test in drills. Combine that depth with the return of all three starting linebackers from a year ago and you have some real depth.
One area, however, where depth will still be an issue, at least for spring is safety. Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate return, but Drue Tranquil is limited this spring leaving the Irish with just two safeties from the 2014 roster on the 2015 spring roster. To compensate, John Turner will be playing at safety this spring. “We’re not deep at the safety position. We’ll see what he can do, ” Kelly told the media earlier this week. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Matthias Farely playing there too.
The lack of depth that Notre Dame has had in the past has made Kelly cautious about being overly physical in practice before. Kelly mentioned on Tuesday that in the past spring practice specifically was a time during which he had to hold back.
“It feels like for me that we’ve got the depth necessary to go and play football. I always felt like I’m tiptoeing around this roster in the spring because we’re afraid over here or afraid over here,” he said. That isn’t the case anymore though. “We can go play, really target some of the younger players in certain areas, let them get in there and get after it.”
Kelly plans on doing that through some practices and drills the Irish might not have done too much of in the past. “When I’m scripting our practice, I’m able to put nine on seven, rodeo drills, things like that, three‑on‑threes.”
“That’s pretty exciting. I haven’t been able to do that. That makes for an exciting observation relative to the development of the depth of your football team.”
Much has been talked about Notre Dame needing to get down to 85 scholarships this year because of the numbers crunch that they face, but the ability to bang around in practice more is one of the luxuries Notre Dame will be afforded because of it.