Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Brian Kelly Pleased New & Old Players Stepping Up

September 14, 2020
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Notre Dame opened the season on Saturday and it was the first look at several players in significant roles on both sides of the ball. 

Some names were familiar to Irish fans, while others might have been on the backburner. 

Junior receiver Joe Wilkins Jr. made an appearance when grad transfer Ben Skowronek went down with a hamstring injury. The Florida native delivered with four catches for 44 yards despite not getting a ton of time with quarterback Ian Book in August. 

"Not as much as we would have liked," Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly said of the work Book got with Wilkins. "I think in general, it was kind of an in-and-out situation with a lot of the receivers. I think Ben (Skowronek) had the most consistent offseason and now Ben will probably be out this week with a hamstring. It's been kind of an in-and-out situation and we've just got to fight through that situation relative to the reps and gaining that confidence that he knows where his group is going to be. He will. 

"Again, Joe, I thought he did a great job Saturday. He made some big plays for us. I hope his confidence is up that he can do that on a consistent basis for us. Again, we've got to all stay healthy and stay in the lineup, to build that consistency and build that sixth sense in terms of that quarterback-wide receiver relationship."

Wilkins should be in line for more playing time because of production, but also position flexibility as he can play either outside spots. 

"Joe can flip back and forth," stated Kelly. "He can play out to the field. He can play to the boundary, gives us some great flexibility there."

Not to be outdone, freshman tight end Michael Mayer came up with momentum-changing plays on Saturday. 

The 6-foot-5, 249-pounder recorded three catches for 38 yards, but still has plenty of room for improvement. 

"I think he's got great potential," explained Kelly. "He's still a freshman. There is still a learning curve there. I think his athletic ability is pretty evident. He showed that in the way he catches the ball. Soft hands, puts the ball away, can run after the catch, can shake a tackle or two. It'll be fun to watch his growth and develop. 

"There are things in the running game. He got knocked down a couple times. He got matched up a couple times in the passing game against (Chris) Rumph and he did a good job on the backside. Dimukeje, he did a good job 1-on-1. Overall, it was a great first performance. There is room to grow there, and he knows that, but he's got to be excited and he's got some confidence from his first collegiate experience."

Defensively, Notre Dame rotated Drew White and Bo Bauer at Mike. White recorded five tackles, while Bauer was credited with two stops. 

While it was a productive rotation, Kelly doesn't expect to see them both on the field at the same time moving forward. 

"We haven't trained them necessarily to do it in that respect, because we have a lot of confidence in Shayne and certainly Marist (Liufau)," Kelly said. "Those two have been getting a great deal of the work at the Buck. Bo has played a lot of that position as well. 

"Right now, we like where we are in terms of that rotation. It looked really good to us on Saturday and it's a competitive situation. Anytime you can keep those guys in tune and into the game in some form of rotation is always good. I don't want to belabor the point, but they are being trained at a particular position right now and at the Mike linebacker. We like that 1-2 punch."

Bauer made a name last year for his energy on special teams, which was sometimes detrimental to him when it came to defense. 

The junior linebacker has made strides in his assignments and that's allowed the staff to be more confident in giving him more snaps. 

"It's the attention to detail," stated Kelly. "Bo did not play at all times in that zone that allowed him great energy and great focus and attention to detail. What Bo has done is from a mental performance standpoint and a mental preparation, he still can now play with that right energy and play focused on his assignments.

"Sometimes, that energy that he plays with got him outside that zone. Maybe he'd run through that A-gap when he needs to bounce and not run through the A-gap. That discipline that he's playing with - with that energy is putting him in a really good position. Hats off to Bo in terms of putting that mental performance piece together with the athletic ability and that energy."

Kelly was also pleased with what he saw from the cornerback position on Saturday from Nick McCloud and TaRiq Bracy. 

According to Kelly, the goal moving forward will be fewer snaps for them as both played too many snaps. 

"I thought the evaluation was that we probably needed to rotate them out a little bit, they played a little bit too much, they got a little tired. We'll do a better job there. All in all, a really good first performance. Nick did a really good job. He had a couple of back-shoulders (completions) that he competed for. We're not going to lose if you throw back-shoulder on us once in a while. Nick, he wants to compete for every football. We told him, 'Look, they throw back-shoulder here or there, we're in good shape. Just stay in fundamental position.'

"TaRiq handled his business in a manner that we feel like there weren't a lot of opportunities and when he did get called on, he was fundamentally in good position. There was a chance maybe he gets a pick to the field on a miscommunication but all in all, we thought they were solid. We need to get some rotation in that group. And the same thing with the safety position, we've got to do a better job with our rotation there.”

 
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