NCF Nation: Kerry Neal
Kelly worked with a personal trainer this offseason to shed some pounds, and though he didn't give the exact amount of weight loss, he said he went down a couple of pant sizes.
Is his first Irish team in similarly good shape? Kelly addressed that on Tuesday, along with some interesting depth chart issues.
Just about every starter on the team has been decided outside of the kicking competition. Carlo Calabrese has won one of the inside linebacker spots by virtual default, since his main competitor -- Anthony McDonald -- will likely miss the opener against Purdue because of a knee injury. Every other nicked-up player, including tight end Kyle Rudolph (hamstring) should be ready to play against Purdue, Kelly said.
"With Carlo, it's consistency," Kelly said. "He'll have a good day and then a bad day. That's inexperience, and it's getting comfortable with what the role is at that part position."
At one of the outside linebacker spots, known as the "Dog" position, Kerry Neal continues to lead senior Brian Smith, somewhat surprisingly. Kelly said Smith has played better in recent days, but that Neal "is a pretty good football player, too."
In a real twist, Kelly said Chris Watt is pushing senior Chris Stewart at guard. Stewart was seen as one of the no-brainer starters all offseason. (And I'd still be very surprised if he isn't No. 1 on Sept. 4).
Talented sophomore Cierre Wood has climbed to No. 2 at running back behind Armando Allen. Duval Kamara and TJ Jones are fighting it out for the starting spot at 'X' receiver. And true freshmen quarterbacks Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa appear destined for the scout team, with Nate Montana and Tommy Rees backing up Dayne Crist, Kelly said.
Kelly plans to start easing up on the players in the next couple of days. He said some players have asked him when they'll get their legs back, which he always sees as a sure sign that they're ready to start playing some games.
Kelly looks ready. For better or worse, the Irish need to be in 11 days.
Irish coach Brian Kelly said after Thursday's practice that senior Kerry Neal had moved ahead as the starter there. Senior Brian Smith had entered camp as the starter, but was passed up by Steve Filer in the past week. Kelly stressed that the competition was ongoing.
Several players missed practice with minor injuries. The biggest name was tight end Kyle Rudolph, who continues to nurse a sore hamstring. Kelly said Rudolph would be shut down through the weekend. But he and others like Ian Williams (toe) and Anthony McDonald (hyperextended leg) should be healthy in time for the opener against Purdue, Kelly said.
Before practice, legendary former Irish coach Ara Parseghian spoke to the team.
"It was really cool to be on the field and have him come out and really take control of the huddle," Kelly said. "This isn't a guy who doesn't have an aura about him. He really took control of the huddle. He talked about mental toughness and physical toughness and what it takes to win."
"I was hired to win football games, not just to run an exciting offense," Kelly said. "And job one was to strengthen this defense."
Former coach Charlie Weis was another offensive whiz, but his teams could rarely stop anybody. Last year, the Irish surrendered 397.8 yards per game, ranking as the worst defensive performance in school history. They ranked 86th in the nation in total defense.
The good news is that most of the best players from last year's unit are returning. The bad news is that those are the same players who couldn't tackle last year. At least big egos weren't a problem.
"Confidence is a huge factor in how you play, and it's something the coaches have been trying to build up with us," safety Harrison Smith said. "I really think we're going to have a different mindset."
Kelly brought defensive coordinator Bob Diaco with him from Cincinnati. Though much has been written and said about Diaco running a 3-4 scheme, it's better described as a defense that uses 3-4 personnel. Diaco will often walk up an outside linebacker to create a four-man front, just as he did with the Bearcats.
Most of Notre Dame's current defensive players were recruited to play the 3-4 under former coordinator Corwin Brown. In fact, switching to a 4-3 last year under Jon Tenuta proved disastrous for players who were ill-suited for that style.
Diaco says he has players that "look the part" for his schemes. Defensive linemen Ian Williams, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore should thrive in a three-man front, while Darius Fleming, Kerry Neal and Brian Smith seem like perfect fits for the outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid role.
As promised by Charlie Weis, the Notre Dame defensive line had a new look to start today's game against Michigan State.
John Ryan got the nod at defensive end ahead of Kerry Neal. Why? Well, the fact that Neal had zero tackles in his first two games might provide some insight.
The Irish got a three-and-out on their first defensive series. So far, so good.
Here are five key issues to watch this season for Notre Dame:
1. The running game: The Irish averaged just 3.3 yards per carry last year, which was actually an improvement over their even more anemic rushing attack in 2007. There simply has to be more balance in the offense so defenses can't overload on the outside receivers. With an offensive line that boasts 100 starts among the top 6 players and a talented halfback in Armando Allen, the time for excuses is over.
2. Jimmy Clausen's maturation: Notre Dame doesn't need its junior quarterback as perfect every week as he was in the Hawaii Bowl, but Clausen has to cut down on his mental mistakes and turnovers. He has thrown 23 interceptions in 23 career games. "First of all, the percentage of touchdown to interceptions has to change, OK?" coach Charlie Weis said earlier this month. "We have to be a lot more careful with the ball, not forcing the ball into coverage."
3. The defensive line: The company line is that the Irish's defensive front will be stronger at the point of attack because it is, well, stronger. Sophomores Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson have packed on pounds and will take on bigger roles, while Ian Williams was a weight room warrior this summer. Still, they must prove that they can keep other teams from rushing the ball right down their throats, and it would be nice if someone like Kerry Neal developed into a consistent pass-rusher.
4. Manti Te'o's development: The super-recruit has already caused jaws to drop with his 245-pound frame, and he could easily start at weakside linebacker from day one. Asking him to be the savior is ridiculous and unfair. But the freshman could bring much needed athleticism and playmaking skills to the linebacker position, and watching him learn and grow will be one of the more interesting aspects of the season.
5. Weis' job security: It's the No. 1 question hanging over this season for Notre Dame. The conventional wisdom posits that Weis needs to have the Irish at least in the mix for a BCS bid to feel safe about returning for a sixth year. With a nonthreatening schedule, a 9-3 record looks attainable. Anything less than that, or if there is an early-season upset or two, and the coach's job status will dominate the conversation in South Bend.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen, senior safety Kyle McCarthy, senior offensive lineman Eric Olsen and senior linebacker Scott Smith were named on Saturday as Notre Dame's captains for the 2009 season.
The selections were made by a vote of team members on Friday. Clausen and Olsen will captain the offense, McCarthy will be the defensive captain and Smith will captain special teams.
The selections weren't exactly a surprise, but it's a good sign that Clausen -- whose leadership has been a question mark during his first two years in South Bend -- was voted a captain by his teammates.
Notre Dame also named its leadership committee based on the voting results. The members will be senior fullback James Aldridge, senior cornerback Mike Anello, senior safety Sergio Brown, sophomore wide receiver Michael Floyd, junior defensive end Kerry Neal, sophomore tight end Kyle Rudolph, senior defensive end John Ryan, junior linebacker Brian Smith and senior offensive tackle Sam Young.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Of all the words you could use to describe the Notre Dame defense, intimidating is probably not close to the top of the list.
|Andy Altenburger/Icon SMI|
|Linebacker Brian Smith says the Irish defense needs to develop a swagger.|
Brian Smith wants to change that. So, in the week leading up to the start of training camp, the junior linebacker spent a lot of time on YouTube watching clips of the Baltimore Ravens' defense and its emotional leader, Ray Lewis.
"The attitude those guys take on is the attitude I want us to have," Smith said. "I saw an interview with Rod Woodson where he said if the offense scores three points, we're still going to win the game. I want us to have that kind of swagger."
The Irish defense showed improvement last year, but its stats (39th in total defense, 42nd in both scoring and turnovers gained) placed Notre Dame firmly in the middle of the nation. Very little about it screamed intimidation.
"Lately, we've been like real low key," defensive end Kerry Neal said. "Every great team has to have a little swagger and a lot of confidence. That's what we want to be."
Smith is one of the emotional leaders of the unit and said he's taking it upon himself to get his teammates to that level.
"It starts every day in practice," he said. "We've got to constantly be saying, 'Get to the ball, get picks, when you get the ball take it and score.' I believe we've got guys with the attitude we need to kind of mimic the Ravens' defense."
If they're going to go for a full-scale mimic, of course, somebody will need to copy Lewis' famous pregame dance.
"I'll leave that one to Brian," Neal said.