Notre Dame football: A few surprises scattered in Irish practice
The musical backdrop during stretching and early drills took a hairpin turn, from a string of country and western standards to one of Eminem's hip-hop anthems.
Later, there was walk-on linebacker Connor Little creaming freshman QB prodigy Gunner Kiel in the backfield, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore picking off a pass from ascending starting QB candidate Everett Golson, and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco donning headwear that could probably best be summed up as a mini-sombrero.
But the absolutes and strong trends already outweigh the lingering mysteries, with the season opener still more than three weeks away. With the help of a full-practice media window on Wednesday, here is what's we've learned less than a week after training camp kicked off:
1. The Notre Dame media guide is already obsolete.
Never mind the late uniform number changes, the Irish encountered a couple of more roster deletions Wednesday.
The most significant of them is backup left tackle Jordan Prestwood heading back to Plant City, Fla., for what are being called "personal reasons."
"I'm not able to get into the specifics of that because of privacy laws," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of the 6-foot-5, 295-pound sophomore and Florida State transfer.
Junior running back Cam Roberson, who suffered a serious knee injury two springs ago, is headed to medical hardship. He redshirted as a freshman, missed all last season because of the injury and hobbled valiantly through this past spring's practices.
He can remain on scholarship through graduation, and won't count against ND's limit of 85. Nor will previously announced medical hardship, offensive lineman Brad Carrico.
That opens two more spots in ND's building recruiting class -- Irish Mob 13, as they have anointed themselves. But don't recalculate Prestwood's scholarship just yet. The door isn't necessarily closed for good.
"We really haven't reached that level of conversation," Kelly remarked.
Freshman safety Elijah Shumate, meanwhile, has joined the thin cornerback corps and looked impressive Wednesday for a newcomer.
"I think he's got a lot of athletic ability, and physically he's very, very mature," Kelly said of the 6-0, 190-pounder out of New Jersey prep power Don Bosco Prep. "He's physically able to compete right now. We want to make it easier for him.
"He's got some really got some good football instincts. It's easier to get (him) on the field at that position than trying to break through (at safety)."
Two injuries sustained during Wednesday's practice could alter the roster as well, but there's no confirmation yet as to the severity of either.
Junior Danny Spond, battling sophomore Ben Councell for the starting drop linebacker spot, suffered a concussion. The concern is that Spond had a concussion history in high school.
Then, very late in practice, just after the Irish moved from their FieldTurf fields to natural grass, tight end Alex Welch went down with a right knee injury and had to be carted off the field.
2. Tommy Rees is impacting the starting quarterback race -- just not the way you might think.
The junior QB is suspended for ND's Sept. 1 season opener with Navy in Dublin, Ireland, and that was reflected in his dearth of practice reps Wednesday.
"His work has been done in the classroom," Kelly said.
Junior Andrew Hendrix and Golson split roughly 80 percent of the reps, with Kiel gobbling up virtually all of the remaining ones -- a pretty representative split by Kelly's estimation.
But for Hendrix, Rees is the go-to guy when he has questions about quarterback play. It has never crossed his mind to reach out to willing Irish legends at the position.
"There's no one who knows this offense better than Tommy," he said.
And for Golson, well, he and Rees are roommates during training camp.
"It is awkward," Golson admitted of the stream of pointers Rees has offered. "And I praise Tommy for that, because honestly, I don't know if I could really do that. But Tommy is a great guy, going through what he had to go through.
"So many times we'll be talking in the room, and he'll be like, 'If you need anything, I'm here for you.' That's how it is for this whole unit. Though it's competition, we help each other out."
Golson appears to be helping himself out as well. Wednesday, he looked the sharpest of the quarterbacks in most of the drills, though the gap closed significantly when the Irish defense was free to play as fast and as hard as it wanted to in the last four five-minute periods of practice.
Kelly, meanwhile, assured that the freshman Kiel won't evolve into the scout-team quarterback -- at least not on anything close to a regular basis. Walk-on Charlie Fiessinger, Hendrix's former backup at Cincinnati Moeller High, will primarily fill that role, Kelly said.
At other times, it may be a position player running option for the scout-team offense and perhaps at others one of the scholarship guys taking a turn.
"I think you can do both," Kelly said. "We did it with Andrew last year in certain situations. I think if you just throw him down there and you don't think of him ... I don't think we'll ever have a situation where our quarterbacks wouldn't be in our position meetings."
3. Lo and behold, the Irish solve their cornerback questions.
Well, that might be a minor embellishment, but the most pleasant surprise of the first week of training camp at any position, per Kelly's accounts, has been maligned junior corner Lo Wood.
"He's 192 pounds, up from 178," Kelly said, "Breaking on the ball, tackling, communicating. I'm not anointing him that guy, but ... I've noticed Lo."
A healthy junior wide receiver Daniel Smith, of South Bend Clay, continues to surge, and all three freshman receivers -- Chris Brown, Davonte' Neal and Justin Ferguson saw significant reps. Of the three, Brown made the strongest impression Wednesday.
The 6-2, 177-pounder from Hanahan, S.C., was expected to contribute significantly as a freshman -- to the Irish track and field team. He was one of the nation's top high school triple-jumpers last spring. But most recruiting analysts saw him as a football project.
"We threw a lot at them," Kelly said. "We've got what we feel are three talented young men, so we're giving them reps. We think they all have a chance to contribute as true freshmen. It's kind of early to say for sure, but we're not afraid to put them out there. They certainly are not afraid to play."
Brown and Neal also fielded punts as did senior running backs Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood.
Outside (cat) linebacker Romeo Okwara and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, the latter of whom moves up with Prestwood's departure, have also stood out among the freshmen.
Kelly, though, would like to redshirt Stanley if possible, so it would likely take a couple of injuries to get him into the mix.
4. There's no sophomore jinx.
At least not where some of ND's impact athletes are concerned.
Converted outside linebacker Troy Niklas continues to soar at in his new role at tight end, running over would-be tacklers Wednesday like they were dandelions.
Councell was disruptive at the outside linebacker, showing the ability to cover both wide receivers and tight ends, while also being a physical presence in the running game.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt's lateral quickness is a scary complement to his improved pass-rushing skills, and outside (Cat) linebacker Ishaq Williams is closing the gap quickly on projected starter Prince Shembo.
"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," Kelly concluded. "That's a good thing -- a lot of practice opportunities for us to continue to develop our players."
Staff writer Eric Hansen: