Notre Dame Football: Top Takeaways from 2015 Fall Camp

Posted by Mike Monaco on August-31-2015 Add Comments

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Finally, after the long months of winter workouts, spring and summer sessions and now weeks of fall camp, Notre Dame football’s first game week is here, as the Irish prepare for their season opener against Texas on Saturday.

Before we preview the matchup with the Longhorns, let’s take one final look back at fall camp and assess our top takeaways.


Veteran Leadership

Just a few minutes into the start of his first fall press conference—before Notre Dame’s first official practice—Irish head coach Brian Kelly said that this team has some of the best leaders he’s had during his tenure at Notre Dame.

Kelly didn’t waver on that sentiment over the course of camp, as the sixth-year head coach went on to say a few weeks later that this is the deepest group of leaders he’s had in South Bend.

Fifth-year center Nick Martin, senior defensive lineman Sheldon Day, fifth-year linebacker Joe Schmidt, junior linebacker Jaylon Smith and fifth-year defensive back Matthias Farley are the team’s captains, Kelly announced Thursday.

Throughout the fall, the head coach said that Notre Dame could have had as many as 10 captains.

“I really had a hard time,” Kelly said. “I went back through the media guide to check what the most captains were, because I had seven. I had it whittled down to seven. I was trying to make the case for seven. I don’t think I could make the case for seven.”

Kelly’s comments, with no hint of humor, speak to the quality and quantity of leadership on this Irish squad. Beyond the five captains, senior left tackle Ronnie Stanley, redshirt sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire and senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell, among others, have drawn praise as leaders over the past few weeks.

As is the case with many preseason takeaways and predictions, it’s tough to truly quantify the value of this leadership until it plays out over the course of a season. But with a veteran squad, Notre Dame seems well-positioned heading into the 2015 campaign.


Holes to Fill

While Russell has been cleared by the NCAA and Schmidt and fellow linebacker Jarrett Grace have returned from their respective injuries, Notre Dame has been hit with personnel losses in recent weeks.

Most notably, senior nose tackle Jarron Jones suffered an MCL injury during fall camp, underwent surgery and will miss the 2015 season. Jones’ absence is a major blow for Notre Dame, which must now turn to a pair of inexperienced replacement options: true freshman Jerry Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage.

Tillery, who enrolled early for the spring semester, stood out in spring ball. Still, he’s in line for a sharp uptick in snap count. Kelly said Thursday that Tillery has maintained a high level of play for a rookie.

“There have been some of the dips there that you would see with a freshman, but not great dips,” Kelly said.

For what it’s worth, Kelly then praised Cage, citing his lightened playing weight of 307 pounds.

Notre Dame freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford suffered a torn ACL earlier this month and will also miss the upcoming season. Crawford had earned first-team reps at nickelback. Now, Russell will step into the nickel role, while junior corner Devin Butler will fill in on the perimeter in those situations.

It’ll be interesting to see how long Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stick with that plan, as the Irish do have options should things go awry, with Farley and backup cornerbacks Nick Coleman and Nick Watkins, for example.

And while it wasn’t a surprise, Kelly announced Thursday that fifth-year defensive lineman Ishaq Williams had his appeal denied by the NCAA and will not play for Notre Dame. The big-bodied end is not allowed to practice with Notre Dame, either, though he will have a locker and access to work out in Notre Dame’s facilities, Kelly said.

“I think Ishaq knew it was going to be an uphill fight there,” Kelly said. “But where he never wavered was coming back to school and getting his degree. The silver lining here is he’s in school and we’re very optimistic he’ll be able to finish his degree here in the short term.”

It’s clear Notre Dame has been prepared for this result. Still, adding Williams, though he’s only tallied one career sack, would have been a solid boost for the Irish. Williams’ pass-rushing production never met the potential of a blue-chip recruit, but Notre Dame will turn anywhere for pass-rushing help.

The Irish do have depth in second-year players such as Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner and Andrew Trumbetti.


Freshmen Making Impact

We expected freshmen like Tillery, Crawford, tight end Alize Jones and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown to flash in the fall, staking their claim to spots in the rotation.

But fellow rookies such as Coleman and slot receiver C.J. Sanders impressed as well and could be in the mix for Notre Dame sooner than expected.

Kelly praised Coleman’s makeup speed on the perimeter, while Sanders brings an explosiveness and suddenness that makes him a dangerous threat out of the slot and, potentially, on punt returns.

Overall, Kelly said that the freshman class upped the overall competition level throughout camp. How much those freshmen actually contribute on Saturdays remains to be seen.


Depth at Wide Receiver, Tight End

Thanks in large part to the play of those freshmen (Sanders, St. Brown and Jones), Notre Dame’s depth at wide receiver and tight end is even more pronounced.

Between Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Corey Robinson, Amir Carlisle and Torii Hunter Jr., the Irish have a wealth of options at receiver, even without factoring in the freshmen. Hunter, in particular, stood out in the fall, and Kelly expects the third-year athlete to contribute at each of Notre Dame’s three wideout positions, not just the slot.

Tight end, meanwhile, is still an uncertain position for the Irish, with Durham Smythe, Tyler Luatua, Nic Weishar, Chase Hounshell and Jones all jockeying for reps. Kelly has said that the tight ends can be used situationally, as he’ll find roles for the different options and their respective strengths.

But while depth is great, the production at these spots isn’t certain. Smythe, who had one catch for seven yards against Arizona State last season, is the only tight end with a reception in his career. Robinson (40 catches for 539 yards and five touchdowns in 2014) and Brown (39-548-1) produced in secondary roles in 2014. Can they take the next steps as a junior and senior, respectively?


All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is the lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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