Improvement is hardly assured, but defensive line coach Mike Elston has a unit that's the envy of…
A few initial observations as the team made its way through the Loftus Center hallway and into aerobic stretching lines:
- Junior linebacker Prince Shembo walked gingerly into practice with a boot on his left foot. Head coach Brian Kelly later informed the media that Shembo is suffering from turf toe and has been in a boot for 2-3 days.
- Sophomore defensive end Chase Hounshell was in full pads but jogged out of media view with classmate Tony Springmann, the latter in a jersey and shorts while still recovering from off-season back surgery. Hounshell, who had surgery on his shoulder following the season, presumably left for conditioning work/treatment, before the team began contact. Springmann began practice on the exercise bike.
- January enrollee Sheldon Day, lauded recently for his efforts by defensive line coach Mike Elston, has the body of a shot-putter. Short, compact, and built like a Mack truck, it would seem extremely difficult to move him in close quarters. Day appears quick in short space and probably would have been a dominant nose guard in the late 80s. Listed at 6'2" (no chance) and 285 pounds (no doubt), Day will work at defensive end in 2012.
- Junior nose guard/defensive end Kona Schwenke looks like a new man. Used sparingly (and begrudgingly, as he was slated for a redshirt season) last fall, Schwenke is almost trim at 6'4" 285 pounds. If Schwenke can emerge this fall the Irish will have their best and deepest defensive line since 2004 (Tuck, Budinscak, Landri, Pauley, Abiamiri, Laws).
- Newly-minted scholarship safety Chris Salvi's hair might have exceeded Dan Fox's long locks. I didn't get a good look at tight end Tyler Eifert today from our balcony view (we were near the defense) but I doubt it's longer than Salvi's. Regardless, I'll give Eifert the edge over both because he's an All-America, and I grade on a curve…
- New walk-on wide receiver Andre Smith (6'2" 190) certainly moves like a scholarship player. We'll find out in two weeks (open practice for the media) if he can catch, etc. Smith attended North Broward Prep in Davie, FL.
Inside Look: Front SevenDefensive coordinator Bob Diaco took his nickel defense through interception return drills (retreat, catch, return vs. walk-ons equipped with blocking pads). Running out with the first unit were inside ‘backers Manti Te'o and Carlo Calabrese and a four-man defensive line consisting of, from left to right: Justin Utupo, Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Ishaq Williams.
Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood took their positions on the corners, with Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta at safety, and redshirt-freshman Jalen Brown as the nickel corner over the slot receiver position.
Regarding Utupo: his past as a pass-rushing presence (high school) might be his most direct path to scrimmage time as he's unlikely to supplant any of the top four inside ‘backers, his listed position. It's also likely he was elevated to the spot in the absence of Prince Shembo (in a boot as noted above).
The second team nickel include inside ‘backers Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace and a defensive line (from left to right) of Ben Councell, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sheldon Day, and Anthony Rabasa. The cornerbacks included former running back Cam McDaniel and Josh Atkinson; safeties were Chris Salvi and Austin Collinsworth while Eilar Hardy appeared to line up as the nickel defender.
The third group to take the rep included notables Kendall Moore and Danny Spond, safeties Matthias Farley and Dan McCarthy, a defensive line of Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke, Tyler Stockton, and walk-on defensive end Dominic Romeo. I wouldn't read anything into the players listed in the third team: it simply means they are presently part of the defense's nickel packages.
Pass Coverage DrillsNot previously regarded for his downfield pass coverage, senior linebacker and All-America candidate Manti Te'o made a tremendous one-handed catch of a (relatively) hard-thrown ball by Diaco to open the drill. It was easily the most athletic move of the media viewing session. Te'o was joined by linebackers Carlo Calabrese (caught an easy pass at his chest), Danny Spond (field) and Ishaq Williams (boundary) in the drill. Williams looked fluid making an easy catch during the drill.
The second unit ‘backers were Dan Fox – who turned his hips and easily caught a helmet-high ball at full speed. Fox looked like a tight end rather than an inside ‘backer. Fox was joined by Jarrett Grace inside (no opportunity). The pair was flanked by flanked by Anthony Rabasa, whose false-step cost him a chance at a one-handed interception, and Ben Councell (no opportunity).
The third unit included Kendall Moore (another false step casualty, though Moore made up for it with a high-pass pick-off later), and Justin Utupo (inside ‘backer, false step = no chance at the ball), with walk-on Joe Schmidt (nice break on the ball, but easiest pass of the day).
(Diaco challenged them with pass fakes and passes often out of their reach, so false steps were a killer for most, with the exception of Te'o's impressive grab.)
10-yard line Zone DefenseOur final session included the back seven involved in zone coverage vs. a variety of 5-man patterns, but the bulk of the looks included three wide receivers (trips) to one side with a solo receiver opposite and a running back flaring from the backfield. (The offense was manned by defensive walk-ons).
The most challenging roles belonged to the OLB/S/CB trio that was charged with guarding the three receivers to one side. Each receiver crossed or used a pick to try to confuse the trio of defenders, the challenge was communicating the right coverage option with Diaco running out to praise Dan Fox (who took 1st team reps as well) and Jamoris Slaughter for their communication during the full-speed coverage drill.
The first unit was Te'o and Calabrese/Fox with outside ‘backers Spond and Williams. The defensive backs were Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson on the corners with Motta and Slaughter at the safety spots.
The second group included Jarrett Grace and Kendall Moore inside; Ben Councell and Justin Utupo outside; Chris Salvi and Austin Collinsworth at safety; and Josh Atkinson/Jalen Brown on the corners (our last moment of practice viewing).
Kelly noted post-practice that Bennett Jackson has separated himself from the pack on the corner. Jackson will man the boundary position next fall, assuming his ascent continues.