Coming off a 4-8 season in 2016, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is looking for more grit and focus from his players, he says, because “those traits are necessary to win a championship.”
March 08, 2017 1:02 AM
As practice gets started, Kelly wants focus, grit
Chris Goff | The Journal Gazette
If you go
When: 12:30 p.m. April 22
Where: Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend
Tickets: $12 adult general admission, $15 on game day
Spring practice begins today for Notre Dame – 102 days after wrapping up a 4-8 season that made fans restless.
“I can’t wait to get here in the morning,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Eight weeks in our offseason program, I like the genetics of our team.
“We’re looking at a team that has a lot more focus, a lot more grit. We want to be a lot smarter. This group really wants to be great. Attitude is the first trait you look for. The spring for me will be a lot more about the process. I’m more interested in laser focus, grit, those traits that are necessary to win a championship. If I’m talking more in process, I mean developing those traits.”
Here’s a snapshot of five storylines to watch this spring:
Rushing the passer
The Irish would like to amp up their pass rush next season, meaning getting there without a lot of blitzing. After recording an unimpressive 24 sacks in 2015, Notre Dame registered just 14 in 2016, failing to put pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
Nyles Morgan, who led the Irish with four sacks last season, is a linebacker and not someone who’ll be relied upon for more.
This is an important spring for defensive linemen Andrew Trumbetti and Julian Okwara, neither of whom were able to record a sack in 2016.
Daelin Hayes, an ESPN 300 recruit, was coming off shoulder surgery as a freshman, and if he’s all the way back, he is poised to be a versatile force considering he has the ability to play standing up or with his hand on the ground.
Two-year starter DeShone Kizer opted for the NFL draft and Malik Zaire chose to finish his career elsewhere, but Notre Dame has a clear-cut successor for them in Brandon Wimbush.
Thus, Kelly’s annual spring quarterback competition is on a one-year hiatus.
Ian Book will nominally be in the mix after redshirting in 2016.
“I am a big Ian Book fan,” Kelly said. “Talk about some traits of excellence, he’s got them. So, he’ll get 40 percent of the reps. Brandon will get 60.”
Long to call plays
The only time Kelly didn’t have a hand in calling his own plays at Notre Dame was 2013 when Chuck Martin (who also served Kelly at Grand Valley State) called them.
Well, Kelly has again turned over offensive play-calling duties. This time, he’s trusting someone he’s never coached with: new coordinator Chip Long, who comes over from Memphis.
Kelly wants to spend more time focusing on other areas, so this spring, Long will build the groundwork for what the Irish do offensively.
“I’m going to give him that autonomy to do that,” Kelly said. “The last few years it’s kind of been a committee. No committee. One guy. Get out of the way and let Chip run it.”
Elko to the rescue
Mike Elko, former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, takes over the same position at Notre Dame and does so after the Irish finished 42nd in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season in total defense, 45th in 2015 and 73rd in 2014.
Elko wants to make sure the defense regains its confidence and can play in a 4-2-5 alignment with a “rover” position in place of one of the outside linebackers.
Tight end returns
The Irish’s tight ends got a huge boost when the university cleared Jones to return from an academic ban. As a freshman in 2015, he had 13 receptions.
With Long on the lookout this spring for playmakers at tight end, he’ll find one in Jones.
“We want him to continue to work hard in school,” Kelly said. “He can’t lose focus on the most important things; he can’t get distracted. If he does those things he’s going to have a good spring. His physical tools are really outstanding.”
Also returning is starting cornerback Shaun Crawford, albeit likely in a non-contact role coming off foot surgery.