Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly met with the media after Friday’s practice, the team’s seventh workout of the spring.
Near the conclusion of his 23-minute post-practice press conference, Kelly was asked about the progression of the Notre Dame defense and whether he is seeing improvements.
Midway through spring ball, it’s clear the eighth-year head coach has.
“I know going into the season we’ll be smart and we’ll be fundamentally sound,” Kelly said. “If we walk away from every game going, ‘Dang, that’s a smart defense and that’s fundamentally sound,’ with the players that we have, I have to envision that that’s going to probably be pretty good.”
Fundamentals have been a major focus this spring, and Kelly said Notre Dame became a more fundamentally sound team as the season progressed last year. But under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko, it’s a major point of emphasis.
As well as taking away the ball defensively, which Kelly spoke about at length Friday.
“We’ll be better at taking away the football because it’s an emphasis every single day,” Kelly said. “Last year before we went to team, and this is not better or worse, but this is just a different emphasis, defense spent five minutes on our pressures. We spent five minutes today before we went to team on stripping the football, getting the football out.
“It’s just a different mentality in terms of you teaching the fundamentals. Today we spent 25 minutes in different segments during the practice on how to get the ball out.”
Creating turnovers is what Elko’s defenses are known for, and that takes on all forms. Defensive linemen batting down passes has been a focus, Kelly said, as his players learn when to rush the passer and when to simply get their hands up. Recognizing that when the opponent needs six years on third and fourth down that a quick pass is coming is another step for the young Irish defensive linemen.
“It’s the combination of fundamentals and knowing down and distance and getting some of those young, athletic players in a position where they can impact,” Kelly said. “What I like about Mike is he’s putting guys in a position when they’re needed. It might be specific to a particular down and distance and front and not having to train them in everything that we do.”
Junior Nick Coleman took first team reps at free safety during Friday’s practice, and Kelly said the 6-foot, 187-pounder is at safety to stay.
After two years as a cornerback, Coleman has showed the Irish he’s capable of transitioning to the middle of the field. On the first play of the team portion of Friday’s practice, he made a diving pass breakup of a ball intended for junior Equanimeous St. Brown.
“Based upon what we’ve seen through seven practices, he won’t be moving to another position,” Kelly said. “For me to tell you today, however, that he’s our starter, he’s our guy, we need more body of work. He won’t be moving anywhere else, he’ll be a safety.”
Kelly called Coleman a “dynamic” player and that his athleticism translates well from corner to safety. The Irish have several physical safeties in sophomore Jalen Elliott and senior Drue Tranquill, but Coleman brings a different element.
“Profiling somebody that has corner skills playing the safety position, you can imagine that he brings a different skill set to the position,” Kelly said.
Coleman is battling Elliott, sophomore Devin Studstill and junior Nicco Fertitta for time at free safety.
Kelly was asked Friday where he’s seeing the most competition in the depth chart. The head coach named the following positions and players:
• Defensive tackle: Senior Jonathan Bonner and junior Micah Dew-Treadway
• Defensive end: Senior Jay Hayes and sophomore Julian Okwara
• Buck linebacker: Senior Greer Martini and junior Te’von Coney
• Safety: Studstill and Elliott
• Right tackle: Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg
• Tight end: Fifth-year senior Durham Smythe, senior Nic Weishar and junior Alize Jones
• Rover: Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal
BOYKIN AND CLAYPOOL
Receivers Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool have both been impressive in spring practice, and Kelly spoke about both of them Friday.
Boykin, a 6-4, 225-pound junior, is tracking and catching the ball consistently this spring, Kelly said.
“The thing last year was about consistency,” Kelly said of Boykin, who is seeing some first-team reps. “He’s starting to show the consistency that will allow him. He’s very sneaky, he eats up a lot of ground with those long strides and before you know it he’s running past people.”
Claypool, a 6-4, 224-pound sophomore, is another big target for Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush.
“It’s been a learning experience for him,” Kelly said. “We threw him right into the fire last year and he was swimming. He’s such a great kid. I would like to underline, on the offensive side of the ball this is really more about consistency of performance.
“Clearly he is definitely benefited from being here over the year and is more consistent.”
ODDS & ENDS
• Junior running back Dexter Williams missed Friday’s practice due to an exam, Kelly said.
• With the size Notre Dame has across the board offensively, it’s not hard to imagine what the attack will look like.
“You can see where this offense clearly is going,” Kelly said. “We’ve got depth at the tight end position. We’ve got big bodied wide receivers. We’ve got a very physical offensive line and we’re very deep at the running back position.”
Even the smaller offensive weapons — 5-8 C.J. Sanders and 5-9 Chris Finke — will have a key role in the offense.
“They have a place in our offense and they’ll be used accordingly,” Kelly said of the shorter receivers. “The offensive structure is such that we can use those guys. They have a place, they can be effective players and they will be. They’ll be used accordingly.”
• Shaun Crawford is still working himself back from a torn Achilles, and the Irish are monitoring what the junior cornerback does in practice.
“As we’re moving through he process, he’s on a GPS and he has a target number,” Kelly said of Crawford. “That number when he gets to it, I’ll monitor it during practice and let Mike Elko know, Todd Lyght. Say, ‘Hey, his number today is 375. When he gets intensified reps at 375 on his GPS he’s done. Right now he’s at 200, so if you want him to get more reps during practice, you’ve got to monitor him. You can’t get all these reps at this time. If you want him to get to team time, you’ve got to be careful with him to get him to 375.’”
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