Four practices down, 17 to go, including a quartet of two-a-day sessions. Ample time exists for Irish competitors in search of a starter's or major rotation role prior to Notre Dame's game week preparations for Temple on August 26, and today's full-pads practice -- the first of the season -- offers an initial proving groun.
Head coach Brian Kelly told UND.com that it was incumbent upon the staff to "insert (players) to give them an opportunity to compete" for the scant starting positions and myriad backup and rotational roles still available.
The fourth-year Irish leader offered that offensive line (namely Ronnie Stanley) and running backs would be spots of immediate focus, with defensive packages under the watchful eyes of coordinator Bob Diaco also part of the long-term evaluation process.
Irisheyes.com has an opportunity to view all or part of four practice sessions this August, today's is the first of two (August 22) open fully to the media. A few players and points of interest include:
Three spots appear there for the taking, including two from the secondary:
Field Safety: Sophomores Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti appear locked in a duel for the role. Both will play; both will be watched at every opportunity this August by Irish Eyes, but my focus today is on another spot in the secondary
Field Cornerback: Senior Lo Wood vs. incumbent Keivarae Russell. Again, both will log major minutes this fall, but will the "loser" of this camp battle shift to a nickel role? Will that again go to a safety, or perhaps as standout freshman linebacker?
Also in heavy competition are three players for two inside linebacker spots, with 5th-year seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox presumed to hold a slight edge on junior Jarrett Grace entering camp. I'll keep a watchful eye on Grace during my time with the defense today.
Other defenders under my purview today: linebackers Jaylon Smith, Ben Councell, Romeo Okwara, and Ishaq Williams and defensive linemen Tyler Stockton and Jarron Jones.
Smith has long been my pick for the crucial nickel defender role, but I doubt we'll see much in terms of sub-packages from the Irish defense in practice No. 5.
How does Councell look after earning Diaco's "most improved" award in the spring? Where is Okwara lined up, boundary (Prince Shembo's domain) or to the field? (Spond, Councell, and we presume Smith)? Can Okwara make up ground vs. Shembo's regularly-used backup Ishaq Williams?
Williams will be a player of great interest for me during Friday's morning session as well. His role was expected to expand, but the cat (boundary) linebacker competition is no joke. He'll have to bring his A-game to hold off Okwara.
Finally, who has the edge for the crucial "No. 4" DE role, 5th-year senior Tyler Stockton, redshirt-freshman Jarron Jones, or spring winner Justin Utupo in his first season at the position after adding nearly 40 pounds since last fall?
Staff writer and chief recruiting reporter Anna Hickey will focus today on freshmen defenders Cole Luke (CB), Michael Deeb (ILB), Isaac Rochell (DE), and two wild-cards in the secondary, Devin Butler and Rashad Kinlaw, defensively, with reports on each post-practice.
Offense: Up front and on the Perimeter
Six offensive linemen are of interest, including two freshmen tackles: Steven Elmer and Mike McGlinchey. Will Elmer work at guard and tackle? Which of the pair will toil at left tackle behind starter Zack Martin, and does that give him an upper hand in the battle for the job entering 2014?
More timely, can junior guard Conor Hanratty hold down the right guard spot he earned in the spring, or will a healthy Ronnie Stanley -- projected as a backup tackle -- make enough waves to warrant competition there? Could Stanley impress enough at right tackle to move Christian Lombard to guard, putting the team's "five best" on the field?
My hunch is Lombard isn't going anywhere, and if Stanley is to start, he'll have to beat out the battler Hanratty inside.
Junior center combatants Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty will also be evaluated post-practice, namely how each fares vs. big Louis Nix in live situations. I'm told Martin will win the job out of camp but Hegarty will continue to push.
Outside the trenches: No player is of greater interest than RB/slot Amir Carlisle. If healthy, I've projected the USC transfer to finish as high as No. 2 in rushing and No. 3 in receptions this fall. He hasn't taken a game hit since November 2011, so practice No. 5 is hardly is proving ground, but its a first look at his forthcoming role.
While all eyes should be on starter Tommy Rees, I'll be equally interested to see how Andrew Hendrix has progressed, and how many reps he earns as the team exits its first week of fall camp.
Hickey today has her eye on running backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, quarterback Malik Zaire, and early enrollee wide receivers Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, the latter representing her second look after viewing the pair closely during an open practice last spring.
My top long-term receiver prospect in the class, Will Fuller, deserves a full evaluation today as well.
Three More Competitions to Monitor: It's our summer staff intern Megan Bastedo's last day on the job and she'll be missed. Bastedo will report on the progress of redshirt-freshman slot C.J. Prosise and his classmate Chris Brown on the perimeter, as well as the aforementioned battle between Shumate and Baratti, and that of tight ends Ben Koyack and Alex Welch in their bid for playing time alongside presumed starter Troy Niklas.
Points of Interest
A few other things to keep an eye (or six) on:
- Stephon Tuitt's purported girth...
- George Atkinson hitting the hole...
- T.J. Jones and DaVaris Daniels ability to separate...
- Freshman Max Redfield vs. the varsity...
- Senior Austin Collinsworth: will he press for time at safety?
- Kendall Moore's supposed slimmer frame (a note passed along courtesy former staff member Jeff Baumhower)...
- RB Cam McDaniel vs. the first unit defensive front...
- Backup CBs Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown vs. top Irish receivers...
- Lo Wood vs. the deep ball and KeiVarae Russell in space...
- Sheldon Day -- the most important new defensive starter on the squad