SOUTH BEND - For college football fans, the month of February is devoted to dreaming of the future. However, March – and the beginning of spring practice – is a time to get back to reality.
Notre Dame football fans spent the national signing day last month doing what they always do, bragging about the great days that lie ahead for the Irish program. And perhaps that’ll come to fruition. But Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said earlier this week, as spring practice got underway, any greatness that lies ahead for this team will begin now, not next fall with a group of heralded freshmen.
“This is not about ‘Well, we know we have a number of young men coming in in the fall, they're at this position,’” Kelly explained. “They come in and they fill in at the back of the line. We'll see how that takes form when they get here.”
Perhaps there is no more anticipated recruit than Bishop Luers’ Jaylon Smith. Many members of the Irish Nation have already written his name over returning starter Danny Spond at the outside linebacker spot. But Kelly isn’t ready to do that – yet.
“Those guys will fill in the ranks when they come in the fall,” Kelly reiterated. “If they're that good, they'll move up the ranks. But we're going to set our football team through the spring, compete, and set our roster accordingly.”
Spond won’t be the only competition for Smith. The linebacking group is in a state of flux, as Kelly observes through these 14 practice sessions to see who can be versatile enough to possibly play inside and replace former All-American Manti Te’o. Maybe it can be Spond. Maybe it can be veterans Carlo Calabrese or Kendall Moore. Maybe it’ll be Jarrett Grace.
“Clearly we have Carlo, Kendall Moore,” Kelly said. “We've got a number of guys that we think can play in there. I think it's just going to be, again, setting depth. You saw us play last year. We're not just going to play one guy.”
Aside from Spond and Smith, another candidate to play outside is Ben Councell. The junior has made the most of the past two months and like many of the Irish players, has developed himself physically in order to compete for more playing time.
“Some of the things that are exciting for me would be just some of the weight gains that we've had, strength gains at really key positions,” Kelly said. “This does not mean they'll are First Team All American, this just means that we have addressed some of the areas that we think were very, very important.
“Ben Councell up 16 pounds. Now he's 248 pounds and he was 230.
Kelly went on to say that Councell has increased his number of repetitions on the bench press to 19 at 225 pounds. So he is adding bulk and strength. The number of players that are vying for time is a sign of strong recruiting, development in the off-season and continuity within the coaching staff (all of Kelly’s assistants returned for the 2013 season).
“That's what we're looking for,” Kelly said. “We want competition. Your program is in good shape when there's competition within. And competition, without thinking about who is coming in.
“We want that competition. So it's going to be a competitive situation. The best guys are going to play. We'll choose the right 11.”