Summer to help Irish avoid fall

Summer to help Irish avoid fall

Veteran leaders such as Manti Te'o have aided the early development of first and second-year competitors.

Shortly following Notre Dame's first aerobic team stretch of the 2011 season, freshman wide receiver Matthias Farley ran to his slot position with the third-team offense. Classmate and fellow pass-catcher DaVaris Daniels did the same, sprinting to his X spot on the outside.

Freshman running back George Atkinson dutifully lined up as well, and the third-unit offense, led by redshirt-freshman Andrew Hendrix, eventually relieved by freshman signal-caller Everett Golson, ran through a quintet of plays without a huddle – each play signaled in from the sidelines, each ensuing snap quicker than the last.

The exercise was as unspectacular as it was seamless...and therefore, telling:

Four of the five players noted above ran through the first five plays of their first official football practice at the University of Notre Dame…and none among them made a mistake.

Welcome to modern college football – a year-round endeavor in which green freshmen can, with ample aid from their seasoned teammates – hit the ground running on Day One.

Not mandatory, necessary

No college football players, not even those that populate the top tier programs of the BCS, must participate in summer workouts with his teammates. He need not attend summer school. He need not study toward his degree, nor workout with weights or cardio training, nor develop a further understanding of a single aspect of his voluminous playbook.

On a related note, I don't need a lap top computer, technically. I just couldn't approach functionality at my job, without one.

"The summer is invaluable for those freshmen, especially if they have any aspirations of playing," said Irish wide receivers coach Tony Alford, for whom two newcomers will toil this fall. "Not only to learn the system, but also to understand the tempo and what we're doing."

Atkinson and Daniels know what to expect thanks to the unselfish nature of their teammates. When players gather today for summer workouts, a team's veterans pull double duty: amateur player/amateur coach.

"I really worked with Justin (Utupo) with his footwork and proper reads," said junior linebacker Manti Te'o of his summer work with the redshirt freshman inside linebacker.

"And (senior outside linebacker) Steve Filer is really trying to perfect his game and get in there, asking a lot of questions. Plus Troy (Niklas). I call him ‘Hercules,'" Te'o said of the 6'6 ½" 250-pound freshman. "He's a specimen. Justin, Steve and Troy have really got it going."

While no one will confuse sophomore Tommy Rees with Hercules, the sophomore's first summer at the school prepared him for the unexpected challenge of leading Notre Dame's sub-.500 football team to a fantastic finish last fall.

"Absolutely right, that's when I made my biggest strides last year in understanding the offense," Rees reflected of his 2010 summer session. "You're out there a couple days a week, working on routes, you're with all the guys and they're coaching you up and having older guys telling you the ins and outs of the play helps a lot.

"The freshmen do a great job of coming in and understanding what's going on."

Rees' in-season mentor, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar, concurs.

"I'd like to think that we've recruited some really smart, attentive guys, that like to play football and will do the work that's necessary over the summer to get themselves prepared, but I was shocked at the base of knowledge that some of these guys demonstrated," Molnar admitted of the 2011 freshmen class.

"Now it all goes out the window when you start practicing and Coach Kelly is out there and the rest of (the staff). Suddenly they've forgotten a whole lot of football," he joked. "But it comes back to them and we can tell, ‘You know what? these guys know what they're doing.'"

"Learn from book?"

Notre Dame freshmen, not unlike Daniel LaRusso in the 80s classic, The Karate Kid, didn't develop at an accelerated pace simply from burying their noses in a playbook. They're not self-taught, but rather, learn from those whose jobs and roles with the Fighting Irish they one day hope to take.

"That's one of the things that you can tell this football team is really developing," Molnar said. "The leadership of the upperclassmen and the mentoring that they've done with these younger guys is light years ahead of where it was last year. It's really encouraging as a coach to know that the upperclassmen care about winning enough to work with the younger guys and show them the ropes, so to speak."

The newcomers aren't the only players that hone their craft during the dog days.

"(7-on-7) features a lot of pass coverage and it helps a lot not hitting," said junior linebacker and known run-stuffer Carlo Calabrese. "It's about getting your eyes where you're supposed to be looking. I think I'm a lot better now (because of it)."

Why is it easier to develop coverage skills when contact is limited?

"Coverage is more mental than physical," Calabrese continued. "Just knowing who's around you, who the receivers are, what routes they're running, (which teammates) are behind and in front of you.

"It's repetition, seeing it over and over to get better."

It's invaluable, it's necessary…it's relatively new.

"Nobody came in," said Molnar of the summer months years prior. "10-15 guys would work a job (around town); everyone else went home and cut grass or worked at their dad's place or washed cars. It's a totally different environment in college athletics (today), especially at the BCS Universities where you have most, if not all of your football team, basically all of your scholarship guys, there."

Then again, is it an advantage if everyone is doing it?

"Everybody we play does that same thing," Molnar noted, "But it does make for a safer game, because guys are in better shape when they show up. Our guys have a plan 52 weeks a year from (strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Longo. It's all worked out from the day they sign to the day they graduate, recovery weeks included."

That plan pays its first dividends in early August.

"We don't have to go over the little things. We can do big picture things because we already know the little things," said Te'o. "That's a positive of being in the second year and having guys that know what the coaches expect.

"Without the coaches being there (in the summer), we can show the young guys: ‘Okay, this is what you can anticipate or expect or what coach wants."

And did the defense's pupils hit the ground running?

"Well, the first day, freshmen pick up concepts, but they get shocked by the speed," Te'o added. "But overall, the younger players have really caught on from the veterans and they know what it's going to take."

Which should in turn yield the ultimate dividend in September and beyond.

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