Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly's 4 Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Spring ball is over, all wrapped up following Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.
We saw plenty of good and also a fair share of bad, a duality to be expected from any team in the spring, but also especially for a squad as young and unproven as Notre Dame's.
At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, let’s zero in on some of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s concerns after the 15 spring practices. Some of these are robust concerns, while others have become less problematic since the spring season began in March.
Let’s get to them.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Throughout the entire spring, Kelly and offensive coordinator and receivers coach Mike Denbrock stayed away from naming specific receivers who were stepping up and separating themselves from the rest of the pack. It’s a deep group, but right now it appears to be a fairly even competition.
Consistency has been the key for the entire team and, specifically, the receivers, something that’s been harped on all spring by coaches and players alike.
Kelly was pleased with what he saw on Saturday.
“We were looking for a little bit more consistency from our wide receivers,” Kelly said. “[Junior slot receiver] C.J. Prosise was not, in my opinion, having great practices and today he showed. He flashed today.
“I thought we had some consistency across the board other than [junior receiver] Chris Brown's drop on a drive route right before the half. We had some consistency at the wide receiver position. So I think we answered some questions there.”
Some questions, yes, but Kelly reiterated there’s a long way to go. He said the separation at the position likely won’t come during summer workouts because many of the players still need a lot of development.
Kelly also mentioned they’re “very hopeful” that DaVaris Daniels will be able to return for the upcoming season. Still, the current group is lodged in a competitive situation, and Kelly seemed confident the concern would take care of itself.
“You've got a half-dozen guys there that can compete,” said Kelly. “So what's going to be the deciding factor for me is, I'm not settled on any one of those guys right now. I think it will be a very competitive situation. I think they are going to push each other and we're going to be the beneficiary.”
In the final third of Notre Dame’s 15 spring practices, Kelly said the Irish were beginning to work on more red-zone scenarios, where improvement was necessary.
Last season, Notre Dame’s 53 percent red-zone touchdown rate ranked 100th in the nation, according to CFBstats.com. A few weeks ago, Kelly said it is absolutely crucial for the quarterbacks to be able to take care of the football inside the 20-yard line.
After Saturday’s scrimmage, Kelly again stressed the importance of converting in the red zone, an area where success is needed to become a more proficient offense, overall.
“We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country,” Kelly said. “So that's certainly been the focus and it will have to be this fall again playing the kind of schedule we do. We can't go down to Florida State [on Oct. 18] and hope to win 10-7. We're going to have to put some points on board.”
On Saturday, running back Cam McDaniel (one yard) and quarterback Everett Golson (five yards) punched in touchdown runs from close range, and quarterback Malik Zaire connected with receiver Amir Carlisle on a six-yard touchdown strike. Kicker Kyle Brindza had one of the few red-zone blemishes for the offense, as the senior booted a 36-yard field goal off the left upright.
Kelly has also expressed concern over the red-zone defense during the spring. After practice No. 11, Kelly noted how that was not an effective area for the Irish last year.
Opponents scored 81 percent of the time inside the 20-yard line against the Irish last season, slotting Notre Dame 45th in the nation.
Between the wretched winter, which forced Notre Dame inside for 11 of 15 practices, and the Blue-Gold Game structure, which called for fair catches on each punt, Notre Dame has yet to nail down what the punt-return game will look like, as multiple players are still under consideration, according to Kelly.
“We’re gonna find somebody, anybody that has got a pulse, we’re gonna keep trying them back there,” Kelly said Wednesday. “We just don’t know right now who that punt returner is going to be.”
The Irish are looking for punt-return production after years of struggles. Notre Dame ranked 81st in the country last year with 7.07 yards per return and tied for 96th in returns per game with just 1.2 (the latter stat is obviously dependent on defense, but it also reveals an Irish return game heavy on fair catches). Two seasons ago, Notre Dame finished 120th (of 124 teams), averaging 2.19 yards per return. In 2011, the Irish ranked 111th, and they were 101st in Kelly’s first season in South Bend.
Running back Greg Bryant was the first returner back deep to field the first punt Saturday.
“He did a nice job last fall when we really tried to focus on him as being that guy before TJ [Jones] took that role over,” Kelly said Wednesday. “So we have some previous experience watching him and really spending some time with him. So we’re relying on some of that quite frankly as to why we have some confidence he can do it. But I can’t say for certain that we’ve got that thing figured out yet.”
A week ago, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder admitted he was concerned with receiving a consistent pass rush from the defensive line. That being said, VanGorder noted it’s a great group that wants to work hard, and he said they looked their best in some of the last few practices before Saturday.
Kelly, meanwhile, seemed less concerned when we spoke with him Saturday.
“I guess it's how you characterize pass rush,” Kelly said. “We don't have Stephon Tuitt. We don't have [Kapron Lewis-Moore]. We don't have some of those guys.
But [defensive tackle] Sheldon Day is a handful. I think we're going to be able to get some pressure from some of the other guys that we have.”
On multiple occasions during the spring, Kelly has expressed his faith in VanGorder to generate pressure from different players from different spots on the field.
It’s difficult to read into Saturday’s stats, especially certain defensive totals considering the quarterbacks were not live, but Notre Dame racked up eight sacks—three from junior defensive end Romeo Okwara, a team sack and one each from Andrew Trumbetti, Isaac Rochell, Chase Hounshell and Jacob Matuska.
“You have got to find ways to get after the quarterback, and it's not necessarily just those big guys that put their hand on the ground,” Kelly said. “Our defensive staff is an experienced staff that knows how to manufacture ways to get after the quarterback.”
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.