NCF Nation: Alex Welch

100-day checklist: Notre Dame

May, 21, 2013
Notre Dame does not have quite as many question marks heading into the 2013 season as it did last summer. For one, the Irish have their quarterback of the future. They also have a coach who proved during a perfect 2012 regular season that he is the right man for the job. And they have -- for the next 24 years, at least -- erased questions about their relevancy within the college football landscape.

But no teams are perfect (seriously, it hasn't been done since Auburn in 2010-11). So, with 100 days standing between us and the college football season -- and 102 standing between the Irish and their Aug. 31 opener against Temple -- we will take a look at three things the program needs to cross off its checklist this summer.

1. Find offensive playmakers: George Atkinson III bulked up this offseason and did not run for the track team to focus on adding to his workload. He is the most experienced man in an Irish backfield that lost its top two rushers from a season ago, but he will be pushed by redshirt sophomore Amir Carlisle, redshirt freshman William Mahone, junior Cam McDaniel and incoming freshman Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston, both of whom are four-star prospects. The three-man battle to replace Tyler Eifert at tight end, meanwhile, will be waged among Troy Niklas, Ben Koyack and Alex Welch.

2. Integrate incoming freshmen: Bryant and Folston are two of the incoming freshmen who appear ready-made for the college level. Linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Max Redfield figure to see time as freshmen, too. Early enrollee receivers such as Corey Robinson and James Onwualu, both of whom saw added time following the spring departures of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, also may see playing time.

3. Stay levelheaded. This really shouldn't be much of a problem for a program and players who seemingly always have the bull's-eye on their back, regardless of the win-loss record. Still, a renaissance 2012 campaign and a return to college football's elite will only up the ante for this group to do similar things this fall, especially with so many pointing to Alabama's title-game rout as a sign that 2012 may have been a fluke.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The expectations for the next-in-line at Tight End U. are as basic as can be for three relatively untested faces. What Alex Welch, Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas have done in two-plus years hardly registers when measured against the legacies Tyler Eifert and others before him have left behind.

So yes, Niklas concedes that, just more than halfway through spring ball, there is still a feeling-out period among Notre Dame's tight ends, a trio that will bear large responsibility in one way or another on an offense that returns upward of seven starters but only two of its top six pass-catchers from last season.

"That's a tough question to answer," Niklas said. "But I would say the expectation for our group is just to block when we need to block, catch passes when we need to catch passes and just be as dynamic and aggressive and open to new things as we can and just be really flexible with what we do."

All is up for grabs at tight end, where Eifert re-wrote the school record books in grabbing 140 passes for 1,840 yards during the past three seasons.

[+] EnlargeTroy Niklas
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireTroy Niklas counted this touchdown against Boston College among his five catches last season.
There is Niklas, a converted linebacker entering his third season with the Irish and second at tight end after grabbing five passes for 75 yards and a score in 2012. There is the junior Koyack, the most seasoned of the three despite grabbing just four balls the past two years while being limited to mostly blocking. And there is the redshirt junior Welch, who missed all of last season after an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee suffered during fall camp ruined any hopes of becoming Eifert's No. 2 in 2012.

The distinction of succeeding a likely first-round pick in Eifert -- and NFL players Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson and Anthony Fasano before him -- is not lost on this group.

"I wouldn't say it's a pressure, it's kind of like a prestige," Welch said. "You feel good about yourself to be a part of the tight ends at the University of Notre Dame, but at the same time we're not trying to be any of those tight ends; we're going to be ourselves. We lost Tyler Eifert, he's a great tight end. He'll be playing in the NFL. But none of us are trying to replace him. We're just trying to be ourselves and go out there and help the team."

For Welch, that means getting back up to speed after a dream season spent on the sideline. Holding his own in winter workouts was the first big hurdle cleared, and now he is hoping to use the spring to make up for what was lost in a year off the field, with fall camp later serving as the true barometer among his peers.

"You don't really forget, just when you're out there on the field you take for granted certain things," Welch said. "When you get 15 practices under your belt you feel much more comfortable, especially after I got my knee done."

Emerging from the unit as the next future pro is currently off the radar. For now, this spring is simply a start toward filling out one of the offense's biggest holes.

"[Tight ends] coach [Scott] Booker always has high expectations in general," Koyack said, "but I feel like as long as we just do what we're coached to do, we may not be put in the same exact situation as Tyler was put into, but as long as we do well in the situations that we are put into I think that's pretty much the expectations of the group at this point."
Brian Kelly re-enforced Sunday that Everett Golson is his starting quarterback, but the decision to put Tommy Rees in for Saturday's final drive had little to do with Golson's thumb injury.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Matt Cashore/US PresswireEverett Golson put up good numbers (21-of-31 for 289 yards, 1 TD) before leaving the game.
"I had already begun the conversation with Coach [Chuck] Martin about installing Tommy into that situation, so the knowledge of running our two-minute trumped any kind of injury that he may have had," Kelly said during a teleconference. "Now, it contributed at the end to make it an easier decision for me."

Kelly again used a pitching analogy to describe his quarterbacks' roles, though he was careful not to peg Rees as his "two-minute" guy should a similar situation arise in the future.

"I don't see it as a role, I see it as if we feel like Tommy can help us win a game or he can come in a situation where we believe its the right fit, then he'll be prepared to do so," Kelly said. "I used this baseball analogy: We like our starters to finish the game. We want them to go all nine innings. Occasionally we might need some help. Maybe we need long relief, maybe we need short relief. I don't want to take anything off the table but we'd like our starter to start it and finish it."

Injury/personnel updates: Odds and ends:

  • Asked if he has a No. 1 running back with Cierre Wood back in the fold, Kelly said: "Yes, Theo Riddick."
  • Justin Ferguson will wear No. 82 for the rest of the season. Notre Dame was penalized (Purdue declined) during a first-half kickoff Saturday because the freshman wideout, who was No. 15, was on the field at the same time as senior Dan McCarthy, also No. 15. Ferguson changed to No. 82 at halftime. Alex Welch, out for the year (ACL), was No. 82 before.
  • Kelly elaborated on why he allowed only Te'o and Zack Martin to speak to reporters after the game: "I had to do what I thought was in the best interests of the team. At times that might put me at odds with you guys, and I understand that. Last night I thought it was best for our team to have a couple captains speak and I'll just leave it at that."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Chuck Martin received a late Christmas gift after he moved from safeties coach to offensive coordinator. The gift, former linebacker Troy Niklas, received a chance to play with an All-America tight end. That tight end, Tyler Eifert, received more responsibilities after he decided to return to Notre Dame.

Just how much more the tight ends will be utilized in the Irish's offense remains to be seen. But don't bother asking Martin if he can make it work with multiple tight ends, as the abundance of talent at the position -- Alex Welch and Ben Koyack are also capable options -- presents a good problem for the offense to work out.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Tyler Eifert
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIREAll-America tight end Tyler Eifert is spending the offseason learning every receiver position.
"Everyone's like 'Are you going to go two tight ends?' I don't even think in those terms," Martin said. "When I learned offense from Coach [Brian] Kelly back when I was an assistant the first time, it was like, personnel's for fans and media. Like, if Eifert's flexed out is he a Y or a Z? I don't know, you can call him whatever you want. He's just playing there, you know? And [he has] pass-catching ability, which we all know is unbelievable. So they can think you're in two tight ends, let them think we're in two tight ends.

"Eifert could be at Z or X or W, he could be a running back. We've got a package where Eifert can play running back. I don't know if we'll hand him the ball ever, but he could be our running back and throw the ball to him."

A junior season that featured more catches (63) and receiving yards (803) than every other FBS tight end has only led to a bigger challenge for Eifert, who is charged with learning every receiver position for his senior year.

It is not quite the intensive pre-draft process Eifert could have been undergoing this spring had he declared for the NFL, but it is not exactly the typical spring for a returning senior starter, either.

"All last year I knew what I was doing pretty much every play, and I knew what most of the guys were doing," Eifert said. "But it's been a little challenging having to learn, first time I've had to learn some stuff in quite a while, as far as concepts go."

Another addition to those duties has been helping with the transition of Niklas, nicknamed "Hercules" for his 6-foot-7, 252-pound frame. The former high school tight end actually started one game last season as a freshman outside linebacker before the offseason move, which he believes presents him with a higher upside.

Mastering in-line blocking has been his first course of duty.

"The biggest thing about the transition is that I guess I know what the defense is trying to do," Niklas said. "So of course I've played that outside linebacker position, I know coverages, I know different defensive philosophies that I think will help me in film study and getting open and all that kind of stuff."

New tight ends coach Scott Booker has been open to both the possibilities and the number of tight ends Notre Dame could put on the field at the same time. Seeing teams such as Stanford and the NFL's Patriots have successful offenses revolve around the tight end position has certainly presented workable models.

And that could mean the good problem of Notre Dame's offense turning into a bad one for opposing defenses.

"It's one thing if the guy's a blocker and this guy's a catcher. They're kind of 'That guy's a tight end, he becomes a wideout,' I get that," Martin said. "But if they can both block and catch, which I think we have the ability to do that, then it causes major issues for the defense, because they don't know what personnel we're in. We do everything defensively based on personnel. Twelve personnel, two tight ends on the field. Eleven personnel, one tight end.

"In our whole game plan, we have our 12 game plan and our 11 game plan, not only do you come in and say Eifert and Koyack are out at the same time and we're actually running 12 formations and 11 formations, then what do you do as a defense? As a guy who thinks he knows a little bit about defense, it's not fun, picking basically [a] game plan for 12 because you have to, and then they come out in 11 and you're not really in what you want to be in."

Roster breakdown: Offense

March, 28, 2012
With Notre Dame a week into spring practice, the fifth-year players officially returning and the 2012 recruiting class finalized (we think), let's break down the Irish's complete roster, position-by-position, as it gears up for Year 3 under Brian Kelly.

We'll start with the offense today and delve into the defense tomorrow, with special teams coming Friday.


The players: Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson, Gunner Kiel

The incoming: None

The breakdown: Experience is the only real way to rank these guys, as Rees has 16 starts, Hendrix has played in five games, Golson has sat a year learning the offense and Kiel arrived on campus just two months ago. Nonetheless, that likely won't matter as Kelly goes to a square-one approach, opening the playbook from the beginning to allow for a fair chance for everyone. The decision -- which will likely be up in the air deep into the summer -- may prove to be Kelly's biggest so far with the Irish.


[+] EnlargeCierre Wood
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireCierre Wood is still the clear favorite in Notre Dame's backfield, but the Irish have other running backs ready to vie for playing time.
The players: Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, Amir Carlisle, Cam Roberson, Tyler Plantz

The Incoming: Will Mahone, KeiVarae Russell

The breakdown: Wood is the clear No. 1, as he was heading into last season as well. Riddick broke off a pair of huge runs toward the end of Saturday's scrimmage, and Kelly wanted both him and Atkinson to see more time back there as Wood rested with a minor quad injury. (Kelly said Wood did go in the rodeo drill earlier.) Both Riddick and Atkinson are capable of playing in the slot, and may end up seeing more time catching balls this season than taking handoffs, though Tony Alford will coach both regardless.

Carlisle, the USC transfer, is eligible to play in 2012 but out for the spring with a broken ankle. Where he fits in will be interesting, as carries may be hard to come by if Atkinson really progresses this spring in the backfield. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Carlisle was featured on kickoffs last season with the Trojans, and there, or on the punt return team, may prove to be the fastest way on the field for him.


The players: John Goodman, T.J. Jones, Robby Toma, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith, Luke Massa, Eric Lee, Nick Fitzpatrick, Ryan Liebscher

The incoming: Justin Ferguson, Davonte Neal

The breakdown: Goodman has talked about making the most of this last chance, and the coaching staff would not have invited him back for a fifth year had it not believed in him. Whether he can be a top target is up in the air, but he should bring some stability and leadership to a group loaded with youth. Jones has been solid through two years and Kelly has said he is on the cusp of breaking out. Toma has done everything asked of him and then some in the slot when replacing the oft-injured Riddick, and he may have the position to himself this year.

Daniels has the complete package physically, but he has yet to take a snap after redshirting last season. He was seen running with the 2s to start spring, but that could easily change with a strong showing. Smith, too, ran with 2s to open spring, but he must stay healthy first. Ferguson has the tools to compete for playing time upon arrival, but that could likely depend on how the incumbents step up in front of him. Neal is pegged as an athlete, but Kelly said there are no plans right now to play him at corner upon his arrival. He could possibly be a playmaker at receiver or on special teams.


The players: Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas, Alex Welch, Ben Koyack, Jake Golic, Arturo Martinez

The incoming: None

The breakdown: We all know what Eifert can do, which is why he almost entered the draft this year. Niklas is the big question mark. And by big, we mean it literally. A switch from linebacker -- where he started one game last fall as a freshman -- to tight end for the 6-7, 252-pounder has many excited to see what the offense can do with a potential two tight end set. Everyone saw what the New England Patriots did last year with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

It would be foolish to expect that much so soon -- both without Tom Brady as the Irish's quarterback and without Niklas having played the position since high school. How quick Niklas can master the playbook and blocking could go a long way in seeing some of these sets come to fruition. The move does leave some to wonder what this means for Welch and Koyack, but the duo is young and, according to tight ends coach Scott Booker, up for the challenge.


The players: Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Mike Golic, Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard, Bruce Heggie, Jordan Prestwood, Matt Hegarty, Conor Hanratty, Nick Martin, Brad Carrico, Matt Tansey, Dennis Mahoney

The incoming: Mark Harrell, Ronnie Stanley

The breakdown: Cave will not be playing much, if at all, this spring as he recovers after injuring his foot last season. Golic, who started in his place, is the center with Cave out, but it would not be surprising to see Golic move to right guard upon Cave's return. Right now Lombard is manning the right guard spot, with Nichols at right tackle. How the second unit gets shuffled upon Cave's return to the starting unit remains to be seen, but to open spring, it consisted of Heggie, Prestwood, Hegarty, Hanratty and Martin.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The question caught Gunner Kiel off guard, despite the fact most of his friends have likely spent much of the spring finalizing their end-of-high-school plans for the coming months.

So, college kid, will you still be going to prom or graduation this year?

"I haven't really thought about it too much," Kiel said. "I've been thinking about schoolwork. A lot of stuff going on here, so I need to work on that. I need to probably do that first."

Life is only busier for Kiel now that Notre Dame's spring practice season is underway, giving the early-enrollee freshman his first live look at the same college players he hopes to lead on the field when the Irish face Navy a little more than five months from now.

It is a process that, by all accounts, started the minute the quarterback showed up on campus Jan. 17 after de-committing from LSU.

"He's always asking for playbooks, always asking for reads," said Andrew Hendrix, a sophomore quarterback. "When we'll be back there watching the play, if he doesn't understand something I'll explain it to him. Sometimes I'll nudge him and be like, 'Well, what'd you see out there?' just to make sure he's understanding, because I can honestly say I wasn't as great at taking mental reps as I was now."

Added receiver John Goodman: "He came here with confidence, and that's what we wanna see out of a guy that's gonna be an early enrollee. You don't wanna see a guy come in here and be scared to talk to guys or be scared to take initiative or anything. He's a leader, he's definitely a leader, and he's gonna be a great player. But right now he's gotta prove himself and we'll see what happens with that."

The credentials may help explain the hype, as Kiel left Columbus (Ind.) East High School as an ESPNU four-star prospect, the No. 1 player in the state and the No. 3 quarterback overall from the Class of 2012.

He also has at least two inches on each of his competitors for the Irish's starting job.

"He's extremely talented, and he has something that the other three quarterbacks don't have, and that's 6-foot-4. When you've got that size it allows you to see some things," Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

"He's asking about, 'What time is film study?' " Kelly added. "I'm like, 'Listen, we're on a 20-hour rule. So everything's voluntary.' He goes, 'Oh, I'll be here.' So you can tell early on this is a guy that's gonna spend the time on watching film, doing those things necessary."

Kiel said the transition to college has been more of a mental challenge than anything else at this point, though he repeatedly expressed how difficult it is to adjust to the speed of the game.

Chuck Martin, the Irish's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, described Kiel as "over-exuberant," saying he's already requested the whole playbook.

"Coach Kelly's like, 'Hey, if we give you the whole playbook you're gonna be useless all spring. Let's give you things you can do every day and be successful and keep growing within the package,' " Martin said. "So far, so good with him."

In his first padded practice Saturday, with media members and Junior Day visitors looking on, Kiel hit Alex Welch for a modest gain on the left side, prompting a slap on his helmet from Martin upon his return to the sideline, along with a hearty "That's it, Gunner!"

Prom can wait. Graduation, in this life, is not even in sight yet.

"It's tough. I can't imagine leaving high school and coming into the flames like this," said Hendrix, who enrolled in the fall of 2010. "I was on my entire year coming into spring and it was really difficult for me, so I can't imagine what it's like.

"He handles it well, he's a big kid, he's got a cannon. But right now I think he just has to start understanding the jump between high school and college. It's not an easy jump, but I think that he can definitely do it and it'll just be about him developing more in his future."

Punt return situated remains unsettled

September, 18, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame was good enough Saturday to notch its first win of the season, but it was far from perfect.

One of those imperfections once again was in protecting the ball, as John Goodman fumbled a punt return deep in his own territory late in the fourth quarter. The gaffe by Goodman, in his second week as punt returner after Theo Riddick struggled in Week 1, might lead head coach Brian Kelly to re-evaluate the punt return position.

"Obviously we're disappointed that we put the ball on the ground again in punt returns," Kelly said during his weekly Sunday afternoon teleconference. "We'll have to talk about that later today when we have our meetings on special teams personnel. We feel like John's got great hands, he obviously turned the ball over late. We'll have to evaluate it. It's not certainly where we want to be, but it's not like we have a number of guys that we can go to, either. We felt like Theo and Goody were our two best. We may have to look at other players at this point, I really haven't decided that."

Kelly said Robby Toma is in the mix as one of those other players. Toma, part of the Fighting Irish's five-man receiving corp at the beginning of the season, has not made a catch through three games this season as Riddick's back-up in the slot position.

At the beginning of the season, Kelly said Riddick's breaks would come on offense, potentially opening the door for the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Toma to see more action because of Riddick's punt return duties.

Of course, Riddick's life as a punt returner lasted only a week, which might be only a week shorter than Goodman's.

"When we evaluated our punt-returners he was as sure-handed as anybody that we've had; he was last year, too," Kelly said of Goodman. "So hopefully it's just one of those things where he had a turnover and a tough time in the game and that's it. But like I said earlier, we'll continue to evaluate him because he was the best guy we had at the time."

Notes: Lo Wood had an MRI today after aggravating his quad against Michigan State, but Kelly didn't think it was anything serious. ... Daniel Smith has been fighting a leg injury that forced him to not dress against MSU. ... Prince Shembo (family emergency) is expected to be back on campus today and in classes Monday. ... Reserve tight end Alex Welch (foot infection) is day-to-day. ... Danny Spond (hamstring) is still doubtful to play Saturday at Pitt, though he could be dressed for emergency use.

Brian Kelly: 'I'm excited'

September, 13, 2011
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The world isn't coming to an end with Notre Dame off to an 0-2 start. In fact, Brian Kelly has been encouraged by his team's performance through two games.

"I think you can sense that I'm not, 'Oh my God, we're 0-2, what did I get myself into?'" Kelly said at his weekly news conference. "I like our players. I like where we're going. I know you've got to win, I get that. But we're where I believe we should be -- we should've obviously taken care of the football better, made a couple plays here and there, coached a little bit better. We're all disappointed, it's not acceptable to lose, especially at Notre Dame, but we're on the journey that I'm excited about."

Kelly corrected a reporter who began his question suggesting he said he had a good football team, but the second-year head coach added that he doesn't think his team has been beaten through two weeks.

Kelly compared last year's loss to Michigan to this year's in showing the difference between the capabilities of the two teams.

"I said we have a chance to be a good team; we're 0-2 right now," Kelly said. "It's been what I've expected it to be. And they're not pleased with their performance, they're not happy where they're at, coaches are not pleased with our performance. We're all in this together. It's not, 'Hey, they did this, we're smart, they're not.' We're all in this together. I'm 0-2. But I did tell them this: I said I really believe that you haven't won a game yet but you haven't been beaten.

"Last year we were beaten. We got beat by Michigan last year, as much as I don't like to say it. They beat us last year. We've really had a hand in beating ourselves and that's the big difference. If we do not beat ourselves, we've got a chance to be the kind of football team that we all believe that we can be. I can see it. I've coached almost 250 football games. I can feel and see a football team coming together. They've got to take care of the football. They've got to execute better and they will. I know it's just a matter of time for them."

Notes: Kelly also said reserve tight end Mike Ragone will undergo season-ending surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. ... Alex Welch (foot) and Jake Golic (broken arm) have been cleared to practice. ... Danny Spond (hamstring) is questionable. ... Sean Cwynar (broken bone in hand) is regaining strength and doing better.
The Notre Dame offense has gone in fits and starts this season. And now the Irish will be without one of their top playmakers for rest of the year.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph will undergo hamstring surgery later this week and will be out for as long as six months. Rudolph had, by coach Brian Kelly's estimation, been playing at only about 75 percent all season because of hamstring issues that began this summer. Yet he still managed 28 catches for 328 yards and three touchdowns through six games.

But against Pittsburgh, the muscle separated from the bone as Rudolph tried to play through the injury. Now Kelly has to look for other options

[+] EnlargeEifert
Robin Alam/Icon SMITyler Eifert will be the starting tight end for Notre Dame.
Starting out at No. 1 on the depth chart will be sophomore Tyler Eifert. The 6-foot-6, 242-pound Eifert missed most of last season with a back injury, and he sprained his shoulder a few weeks ago and was very limited in practice.

"He's going to have to tape an aspirin on that shoulder," Kelly joked. "Because he's going to play. We think he's able to play winning football for us or we wouldn't put him in there."

Backing up Eifert will be senior Mike Ragone, who had an interesting preseason. He was arrested and charged with marijuana possession in May. Then in preseason camp, he suffered a heat illness and didn't practice much. His rustiness showed on Saturday when he dropped a wide open pass that would have gone for a first down and sealed the game.

"He just needs more playing time in an offense that's obviously a bit different than what he's used to," Kelly said. "This is really just about getting him more and more reps."

Kelly said Eifert and Ragone would split reps since neither is in the physical shape to play an entire game. Sophomore Jake Golic will serve as the third-string tight end. True freshman Alex Welch was a well-regarded recruit, but Kelly said he probably won't burn Welch's redshirt this year.

While Kelly said he's "very confident" in all three tight ends, none offer the package of skills that Rudolph had. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder is nimble and a great pass-catcher who could line up wide as a receiver in certain sets. Though Kelly runs a spread offense, he likes to keep the tight end in on most plays.

This injury does increase the likelihood that Rudolph will come back for his senior year rather than go the NFL draft a year early. Rudolph, who missed time last year with a shoulder injury, may need to prove to scouts that he can play a full year healthy.
Tuesday was media day in South Bend, and here's a quick recap of what head coach Brian Kelly had to say in his 40-minute news conference:

  • [+] EnlargeKelly
    AP Photo/Joe Raymond"All the players have done exactly what we've asked them to do," said Brian Kelly in a 40-minute press conference on Tuesday.
    Kelly said his spread offense has a place for the Wildcat formation. The three guys he's looking at to run the Wildcat are tailback Armando Allen, receiver Theo Riddick and somewhat surprisingly, tight end Kyle Rudolph.

  • Kelly said there has been little resistance from the players since he came in to replace Charlie Weis. "All the players have done exactly what we've asked them to do," he said. "They knew there had to be a sense of urgency. They were sick and tired of being sick and tired too. It's just different leadership styles."

  • Riddick and Cierre Wood will be the kick returners, and Kelly called them "dynamic." Allen leads John Goodman for punt return duties.

  • Plenty of young players could see the field right now. Kelly identified nine true freshmen which his staff is preparing to play this year. They are, on offense, Rees, receiver T.J. Jones, linemen Tate Nichols, Christian Lombard tight end Alex Welch and receiver Austin Collinsworth, who will play a lot on special teams. On defense, freshmen Lo Wood (cornerback) and Prince Shembo (linebacker) and Danny Spond (safety/special teams) have impressed. Kelly said this is the most true freshmen he's readied to play in his career.

  • Injured linemen Dan Wenger and Matt Romine (concussion symptoms) have returned to practice, but Kelly said Nichols and Lombard asserted themselves in their absence. Mike Ragone (heat illness) and Rudolph (hamstring) are back to doing individual work.

  • The battle for the inside linebacker job continues to rage on between Anthony McDonald and Carlo Calabrese. Both bring separate strengths."Mac needs to be more physical, and Calabrese needs to be more finesse," Kelly said.

  • In maybe the most interesting exchange, Kelly said he thought star receiver Michael Floyd was "overhyped" when he first watched film upon taking the Irish job. His opinion has changed 180 degrees."In 20 years, I have not had a player who has worked as hard as Michael Floyd has worked," Kelly said. "He has outworked everybody on the offensive side of the ball to the point where he has singlehandedly set the bar for where everybody else needs to bring their play. He's been dominant."

  • Finally, Kelly said his goal is for his team to "be better in November than they are in September." That certainly hasn't been the case in recent years.