Its telling that the requisite rhetoric wasn’t present during Friday’s interviews – the first of the 2011 season with Brian Kelly’s incoming freshmen.
The tired, repetitive, rehearsed response, “I just want to get on the bus,” permeated the previous regime, as Charlie Weis’ incoming freshmen, regardless of talent level or potential impact, had been obviously coached to answer as such.
Plenty of Kelly’s new crop will be on that bus – a football phrase designating an assured spot on the game day roster, the travel roster, and that a first-year role exists for the player in question.
Kelly offered last week that as many as 10 freshmen could see time – a number not incongruous with recent seasons (9 in 2010; 7 in ’09; 8 in ’08). But interviews conducted since suggest that number could grow as the season unfolds.
With 17 of 19 training camp practices in the books, Kelly offered a few thoughts on his younger competitors.
The recruiting battle waged for the services of defensive end Stephon Tuitt has been well-documented (click here for a sampling.)
Cautiously listed at 6’6”-plus change and 295 pounds, Tuitt’s early adjustment to college life and the practice field have been promising.
”As a young man (Tuitt has proved) that he’s very capable of being a strong student,” Kelly began when asked in general about his massive freshman defender. “He’s gained confidence in the classroom this summer and I think that was huge for him coming from a high school that doesn’t normally predict to Notre Dame. He’s done very well there, which gave him a lot of confidence to go play football.
“Now it’s taking a raw player, I think we all know he’s pretty raw, I think a lot of you guys evaluated him as such, and getting him to develop into a guy that is disciplined. And he’s made that progress. We’ll get him ready.”
Tuitt’s classmate on the other edge enjoyed a previous semester of assimilation. Aaron Lynch enrolled in January, starred in the spring, and has all but cemented a role as the No. 3 defensive end for Week One.
“Aaron will jump out of his gap once in a while. But Ethan (Johnson) did last year,” Kelly admitted of the propensity for any defender looking to make a play. “We’re keeping it in perspective, but they’re making the right kind of progress.”
As for Lynch’s primary focus for improvement?
“Discipline; maintaining his emotions,” Kelly said. “Every single day those guys have to come to work. And at 18-years old, they’re not used to that.”
Ready or not, the second unit defensive line appears well-stocked with first year competitors, as Tuitt and Lynch have a leg up at defensive end, and redshirt-freshman Louis Nix is a lock for near half-game duty on the nose.
How has the young trio forged a role so quickly?
“Well, to get there they had to do some work,” Kelly explained. “We have other players there as well: Brandon Newman, Hafis (Williams), Tyler Stockton, Kona Schwenke...so they’ve made progress since they’ve been here to (position for) second team reps.
“Now their role is to fill in when we need it, so we can keep Ethan and Kap (Kapron Lewis-Moore) fresh for four quarters. They’re not there yet but they are making progress. They know how to get there.”
Expectations and wonder regarding the pair’s ceiling is natural. Fans should know that barring injury, neither will start a football game in 2011.
“Listen, they’re not starting for us; they’ll play a role,” Kelly stated. “I’ve made sure that our players all know that they have a role. They’re going to have to accept what that role is. I’m pretty confident that our freshmen know what that role is and that’s to assist our veterans players.”
Starters Johnson, Lewis-Moore, and nose guard Sean Cwynar were instrumental in the team’s 4-0 finish last season – their efforts at scrimmage dominant following two months of sometimes solid, sometimes humbling (Michigan, Navy) outings. The trio of seniors has two years of eligibility among them: Lewis-Moore and Cwynar were withheld from action as true freshmen in 2008.
No. 3 on the nose? Kelly noted last week that freshman nose guard Tony Springmann had positioned himself for playing time as a (necessary) third-string nose guard. Since, senior Hafis Williams has fought back and appears to have control over the role.
“Hafis is holding him off, it’s been very spirited there, but Hafis has done a nice job,” Kelly said of his senior who contributed 244 snaps last fall (fifth among DL). “Hafis needed to come to work every day, too, and Tony’s been that guy to get him to work every day. He’s holding that battle off, but that’s going to continue throughout the year.”
A defensive end at Fort Wayne, Bishop Dwenger, H.S., Springmann is still acclimating to the demands of the nose guard position. (Williams in his first year as a full-time nose guard as well.)
“It’s a whole different game. Technique, hands, feet, everything. It’s completely different. Oh definitely,” Springmann noted while offering a bit of a chuckle.
Also noticeably different is the quality of athlete he battles each day in practice – senior center Braxston Cave ranks among the strongest players in the nation and Springmann has been pitted against him often.
“He’s a beast,” the freshman admitted.
A Head Up
The stature of the freshmen class has been a topic of constant August conversation (click here for a breakdown).
The new guys on campus noticed the trend as well, as did their head coach.
“We’re bigger, we’re leaner, we are more athletic. We’re physically more fit. We’re where we should be in the second year,” Kelly said.
“We have a lot of big guys and over the summer we made that observation quite a few times,” said 6’5” 255-pound tight end Ben Koyack, whose weight exceeds that of his quartet of veteran position mates (6’6” junior Tyler Eifert is the only tight end taller than the true freshman).
Another Irish freshman capable of reaching any top shelf is outside linebacker Troy Niklas, who's earned an early role as well.
He’ll be on all of our kick teams,” Kelly said of the 6’6” 250-pounder. “All of these guys that have to get ready this year…I don’t think we would get the kind of play that we got out of Bennett Jackson, for example, at corner (this fall) if he didn’t have all those (special teams) snaps last year.
(Jackson was the squad's Special Teams Player of the Year as a true freshman.)
“Same thing with Lo Wood,” Kelly continued. “Both of those guys are now quality corners that can go into games. I don’t know if they had been there if we didn’t have them on the field.”
Dubbed “Hercules” by junior All-America candidate Manti Te’o, Niklas noticed his classmates stature from the outset.
“All of us came in and kind of looked around (at the first meeting) and were wondering if everyone was a D-Linemen,” he joked. “The whole room was massive.”
Regarding Koyack’s role, Kelly offered, “’Emerging’ would be the word that I would use more than anything else. ‘Emerging.’ He’ll play this year.”
Pressed, but ready for action
There’s a proven junior; a senior backup anxious for that same adjective to finally precede his name in print, and a pair of freshmen.
Running back depth is a concern for Kelly and Irish fans alike. How far away are Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson from game-ready?
”I think they both can contribute. George is going to be a really good player for us,” Kelly began. “He’s 6-2, 205 and he’s going to get physically stronger when he knows what he’s doing. Cam is physically fit enough right now.
“Both of them will have to have some role. I hope it’s limited,” he joked. “But they’ll both have to have some role. They’ll both play; they’re on special teams.”
Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels is also just weeks away from his first taste of college football.
“He’s a guy that, unfortunately, has to play,” Kelly admitted. “He’s not ready to play, but he has to play.
“You know our limitations. I spoke candidly that it’s a weakness in our program, and that’s why we have to recruit the receiver and running back position,” he continued. “Daniels is going to be forced into playing out there, but we’ll probably have to be creative with other (veteran receivers) in terms of playing more than one position. They’re going to have to play X and Z and W. I don’t like to do that, but that’s kind of where we are with that position.”