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Notre Dame Football

Kelly lauds Irish's spring debut; talks injuries, staff moves

March 5, 2020
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No pads. No tackling. But an ideal opening to the 2020 spring camp.

That was Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s assessment Thursday morning after the Irish opened camp with the first of their 15 practices, which concludes with the annual Blue-Gold Game April 18.

“We practiced the right way today,” Kelly told reporters inside the team’s Irish Athletics Center. “The pace, the competitiveness, you don’t have guys on the ground on a first-day practice when you’re in helmets.

“It was competitive and there was high levels of execution. There was a really good tempo to the practice. We got a lot of work done technically and tactically and that’s what we were looking to do. From that perspective, we took a good step forward in the progression of this team.”

The Fighting Irish, coming off an 11-2 season and No. 12 national ranking in the AP Top 25, opened camp – which breaks throughout next week for the school’s spring break and resumes on March 17 – with few player limitations due to injury or other factors.

Kelly updated that group of players, including deeming offensive linemen Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey full-go after the both suffered season-ending injuries in back-to-back games against Michigan and Virginia Tech.

“No, they’re not limited,” Kelly said of the veteran offensive linemen. “We limited them on GPS today. Hainsey got up over 500 on his GPS, which is a workload number for us. It’s a number that Rob Hunt and I look at and feel like where he is, we want a certain workload for him. He got to about 500, and we want to shut him down.

“Kraemer got to about 375 and we shut him down today. But those guys are going to continue to work through and will be able to do virtually everything during the spring. We’re pleased with their progress.”

Cam Hart worked exclusively with the secondary and logged significant reps, but Kelly said the redshirt-freshman would be somewhat limited moving forward.

“Cam Hart is in shadow, aggressive shadow,” Kelly said. “We’re probably pushing the envelope a little bit with Cam. He really wants to be out there, and I think we’re being very cautious but I think aggressive with Cam.

“(Shaun) Crawford’s got a little bit of a hamstring; you didn’t see him much today. (Jack) Lamb’s about three weeks out before we can move him to the next level in his progression. Shayne Simon is doing great, he’ll be full-go for camp. Howard Cross will be full-go for camp. (Aaron) Banks is about five-and-a-half weeks out on the foot; he had a fracture. (Class of 2020 wide receiver signee and midyear enrollee Jay) Brunelle had the cleanup from high school on the shoulder.”

Graduate-transfer Ben Skowronek, from Northwestern, was largely a full participant in Thursday’s work. The wideout largely repped with Notre Dame’s second group of receivers.

Defensive end Daelin Hayes, lost early last season to injury, also returned.

“Skowronek is about 90 percent from his ankle; he’s doing much better,” Kelly said. “You saw Hayes out there, we’ll modify him a little bit but he’s doing well. Quinn Carroll the same thing.”

Kelly said Joe Wilkins missed practice with strep throat and noted the team had endured a few cases of the illness. He also said that Isaiah Robertson remained with the team but would not participate in spring camp due to both Robertson’s recovery from injury and need to work on academics.

STAFFING SOLUTIONS

Kelly revealed a key component in the ascension of Tommy Rees to the Irish’s offensive coordinator, on the heels of Chip Long’s December firing, was Rees’ role as quarterbacks coach.

“I don’t know that this has been talked about as much, what I was looking for in the offensive coordinator and one of the key components there is that I wanted the coordinator to be the quarterbacks coach,” Kelly said. “And I just think that that relationship is really key to having great communication and some of the nuances that occur in play-calling require that that relationship be with the coordinator.

“My success and my experience has found if you’re not coaching at that position, there’s a bit of a separation there that can occur. I wanted it to be at that quarterback position. Tommy had done that and was on a job interview during the bowl preparation and (I) really liked the way that that went.”

While Kelly said he always knew that Rees would be a high-level coach, his other former player on staff --- new defensive backs coach Mike Mickens --- showed great football IQ but not necessarily an obvious path into coaching.

“I didn’t know about Mike, really. Mike was very cerebral, very smart. He could always give you back what game plans were and what we wanted to do. He was really a sharp player, but I never knew that he wanted to get into the business.”

Similar to his decision regarding Rees, Kelly revealed that his hiring of John McNulty stemmed from wanting a dedicated a tight ends coach strictly for that position. He noted he felt the tight end position was at times left out with Long serving both as offensive coordinator and tight ends coach.

WATT RETURNS

Former Irish offensive lineman Chris Watt has returned to the program in a graduate assistant role. Watt starred for Notre Dame during the onset of the Kelly era before a brief NFL career after he was drafted by the San Diego Chargers but forced to retire due to medical reasons in 2017.

Kelly praised Watt’s connection to many of the Irish’s top offensive players across the past decade, including Mike McGlinchey, Quenton Nelson, Tyler Eifert and Zack Martin.

“Excited about Chris, obviously,” Kelly said. “Loved him as a player. His presence amongst our players is recognizable, still. He represents a group of … he kind of has that attachment to the McGlincheys and the Nelsons and certainly the Eiferts and the Martins.

“That group has been very successful, so he carries a lot of that. In himself he was a tough, physical, hard-nosed player and had a lot of versatility. A very smart player and he brings that to the coaching. He will be a big add for us.”

COOKS IN THE WORKS

Notre Dame also is on the verge of adding Kerry Cooks to the staff as an analyst, Kelly said. Cooks was at the Irish’s Thursday practice and roamed the field throughout the two-hour session.

Cooks was at Notre Dame from 2010-2014, including a role as co-defensive coordinator, before he spent time with both Oklahoma and most recently Texas Tech.

“We’re in the process, there’s an opening here, we’ve got to go through the (human resources) process but we have an analyst position open,” Kelly said.

MISCELLANEOUS

Kevin Austin Jr., suspended throughout the 2019 campaign, flashed brilliantly throughout Thursday morning’s opening practice. Austin made countless catches --- open, contested, otherwise --- and showed great burst and explosiveness for a player returning to the fold.

Likewise, Ian Book had a clinical day of pinpoint accuracy – yes, for an opening practice not in pads. Nonetheless, Book showed striking accuracy and improved velocity, particularly on a dazzling throw to Tommy Tremble that was placed perfectly above the outstretched hands of Jordan Genmark Heath and in front of Kyle Hamilton.

Brendon Clark had some strong moments, but none was better than his sideline throw to Javon McKinley down the right side late in the session. Clark perfectly arced the ball over McKinley’s shoulder for a deep downfield connection.

 
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