One week after breaking routine and tackling live during a Wednesday practice, the Irish returned to their normal mid-week operation – physical, but without the taxing result of runners hitting the ground in game day preparations.
“We had intensity from a different resource,” Kelly said. “A little bit more demanding today for our players and what we want from them, but no, we didn’t go live today. We banged, it was live, but we didn’t take the ‘back down.”
Thursday's practice focus will be perfection; always unattained, but demanded in the less physical session nonetheless. Regardless, Kelly feels his squad needs no schedule adjustment for Saturday’s rare noon kick-off time in Pittsburgh.
“I think we have a 7:30 wakeup call. We stay with the same routine relative to leading up to the game,” Kelly offered. “They’re in a pretty good routine because they have weight training (in the morning), so they’ll be up early. We (generally) have seven, eight and nine (a.m.) for weight training, so they’ll be on the same routine.”
Return to action: literally and figuratively
With Prince Shembo back this week, freshman Troy Niklas will resume his reserve Dog (Drop) linebacker role and continue to serve as a special teams regular. The Drop position, one used by Barry Alvarez's defense's at Notre Dame in the late 80s, has long-been considered among the most difficult to play relative to area of responsibility, run-pass decisions, and the varied skill sets needed to succeed.
But Brian Kelly offered a positional evaluation tip for any viewer that fancies him or herself an amateur scout-in-the-making.
“The key for that position is not letting the ball get outside the defense,” Kelly began. “So it’s an easy one to critique, even from the 50th row. If the football is getting outside of the defense, you know you’re having a problem with the drop (linebacker).”
Niklas earned plaudits from his defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (relative to the challenge of an emergent first start) and felt his debut start was enough to help the Irish win.
“There were definitely points out there where I felt like I could just play, but some of the times I was thinking a little too much,” Niklas offered. “Toward the end I started to find that balance. I feel like I did alright but there are improvements to be made…some of it is recognition (both pre-and post-snap) and having faith in my abilities and technique, executing it.
“I put my trust in God and in my teammates and let that pull me through the game and get me out of my nerves.
Kelly added of Niklas, “He did a pretty good job there in terms of the run defense. He’s got a lot to learn, but it was great to get him out there.”
While Niklas is likely hundreds of snaps away from his best football, the Irish offense needs junior slot receiver Theo Riddick to play at a more consistent level in the near future. Riddick’s opening-game struggles have been well-documented, but he bounced back with the team’s first and last touchdowns in the loss at Michigan, catching six balls during the contest.
That number dropped to a single reception for seven yards (with two nice moves in space following the catch) in Saturday’s win over the Spartans.
“He’s got to get more involved in our overall concepts,” Kelly said. “In other words, we can’t just say, ‘All right, we’re going to get him involved in a reverse or a screen, or manufacture a handoff sweep.’ He’s got to get within the flow of the offense, and he was against Michigan. We did some things a little differently (vs. Michigan State). We used Mike (Floyd) a little bit more to open up some things. But Theo will be thrust into that role.”
Quarterback Tommy Rees believes that won’t be an issue as the staff generally finds a way to exploit mismatches as games, and series within a game, progress.
“If someone doesn’t get a catch (during a long drive), that’s just us playing within our offense. But we’ll come off and try to draw some things up to get guys involved if there’s a matchup we saw on the (previous) drive that we can take advantage of,” Rees said.
“I think the coaches do a great job of building series to series to get guys involved and how to attack the defense in every way. It’s not, ‘let’s get an individual involved,’ but lets take advantage of something and let the playmakers make plays.”
Prior to a Week Seven ankle sprain that truncated his 2010 season, Riddick had enjoyed a four-game run in which he led the team with 33 receptions, 343 yards, and three touchdowns. Previous to that, Riddick caught just four passes for 52 yards to begin the ’10 season, his first as a receiver.
Not just a spare dime
The season-opening loss to South Florida afforded sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth his first dose of scrimmage work as a college defender. Collinsworth resumed that role vs. Michigan State, serving as a *dime linebacker vs. the pass-heavy Spartans. (*The “dime” refers to a sixth defensive back, because “nickel defense” equals five defensive backs...)
Kelly noted previously that Collinsworth’s presence and the coverage ability he provides allowed the backline of the Irish defense to roam more freely, and in greater number (dividing the field into three instead of two zones). But it’s the converted wide receiver’s approach to the game that earned a spot on the field so quickly.
“He’s a guy that plays really fast. I’ll give you an example,” Kelly said. “In one-on-one, he’s just as physical as if it was live tackling. Guys almost want to stay away from him because he’s going so hard in so many different drills. He just plays the game with that reckless abandonment.
The multi-talented Collinsworth appeared destined for slot receiver duty, learning the craft from his father, former Pro Bowl receiver and Notre Dame color commentator, Cris.
“He’s one of those kind of guys that you want him on your side of the ball because he’s so smart and savvy and has a great understanding of the game,” Kelly said of “losing” Collinsworth to the defense. “But our needs were immediate at (safety). We felt like with Robby (Toma), we had a guy that could do the job for us (in the slot), so (Collinsworth) was a (offensive) luxury given our depth situation.
“He’s such a valuable player to us in so many ways,” Kelly continued. “Defensively, he gives you the luxury to know you’ve got a next guy to come on the field if any of our safeties need a blow or in some of our dime (packages).
“Of course, he’s outstanding on special teams.”
Which begs the (weekly) question: Could Collinsworth be in the mix as a potential punt return option for the perennially struggling unit?
“No, it’s really (John) Goodman, Theo and Robby Toma. Those are the three guys who are taking the kicks right now. Those are our three best at this point, and we may use Harrison Smith a little bit as well.”