Brian Kelly, Fighting Irish set to put bow on most meaningful spring yet

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's most recent open scrimmage Saturday offered plenty in terms of big plays and position jockeying. But it was the sounds of the practice that gave this spring a distinct feeling among Brian Kelly's six so far with the Fighting Irish.

There was Tarean Folston yapping at John Turner after a big run. There was Mike McGlinchey barking at Jay Hayes following a late hit. There were coaches yelling here and there, quarterbacks dropping their red jerseys in favor of contact, all in the name of creating as realistic of an atmosphere as possible for a team with no shortage of experience entering 2015.

So forgive Kelly for his fashion choice of a goatee this spring. The 53-year-old is finally a bit liberated, stacked with a full deck and plenty of experience on a team he hopes to ride toward a College Football Playoff berth this fall.

It allows you to do so much more relative to the day-to-day practice schedule," Kelly said of his personnel this spring. "Inside drill, 9-on-7, our scrimmaging. Just the tempo in practice. We've banged a lot. This is the most we've hit, this is the most 11-on-11, 1s vs. 1s that we've done in the five years that I've been here.

"So it just allows you to get really quality work and the preparation work necessary to develop your football team to the level that you want. And so you know exactly what you have, and you know where your weaknesses are, and you know what the strengths are of your football team."

A green team last season marched through an uneven 8-5 campaign, looking as talented as anybody one week (at Florida State) and as vulnerable as anybody during another (against Northwestern, notably). One mistake by a still-growing quarterback (Everett Golson) often begat a flood of them. One big injury to a young defense (Joe Schmidt) seemingly broke the dam. Round and round it went, one player overcompensating for the next, and a promising 6-0 start ultimately gave way to a four-game slide to end the regular season.

But 19 of the 22 guys who started the Irish's bowl win over LSU are back. What's more, a 20th man with extensive starting experience could return in corner KeiVarae Russell, who had All-America potential before getting suspended for the 2014 season because of academic misconduct.

And then, of course, there is the plethora of faces who saw extensive time last fall out of necessity, players who are now a bit more seasoned and thus a little bit better-equipped than your run-of-the-mill "next men up."

"Right now I feel I'm an older guy, as a returning veteran, which is, well, that's weird to say," joked junior receiver Corey Robinson, who has played in all 26 games the past two seasons.

Everything adds up to a roster that, as it currently stands, is inching closer to 90 scholarship players than the allotted 85 with the entrance of 20 freshmen this summer. Kelly has not sounded concerned about getting to 85 by the Sept. 5 opener -- a welcome problem he has yet to encounter at Notre Dame.

"For me it's really not about feeling good as much as you really know what you got and you know where you need to get better," Kelly said. "You know where you need to focus your attention on when you hit camp, and where your question marks are and where you really need to get to work on in Day 1."

The quarterback position has somewhat embodied this first-world conundrum. Kelly drew attention earlier this week by saying that he would take his two quarterbacks over the trio at defending national champion Ohio State, but the comments did underscore the luxury he has under center.

Golson raced toward Heisman candidacy early last season but struggled down the stretch, finishing with 22 turnovers. It was not until the bowl game that Malik Zaire took over as starter. Assuming Golson is here come fall -- Kelly has said there's no indication he won't be, though Golson has refused to meet the media this spring -- the redshirt senior's margin for error would be slimmer, given Zaire's experience as a redshirt sophomore. This assumes that Zaire isn't the starter, which is also a possibility considering the pair have split reps this spring.

"From the offensive standpoint, the depth has been very encouraging," offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said. "Honestly, in 10 years of doing this, every spring I've been a part of, you're rolling guys out there consistently (that) you know aren't going to play for you in the fall, and I don't think we're at that point really with any position. So that's incredibly encouraging."

"(I've) been really impressed that we get meaningful reps," he later added. "And it quite frankly makes the quarterback competition I think really good, because you're not surrounded by guys that have no chance of playing in the fall, and we're getting good reps with the guys that are going to contribute for us."

Both signal-callers will be live in Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game, the finale of their honeymoon with Sanford, who came over from Boise State. Stadium construction has forced the event to the LaBar Practice Fields, but the location is about the only thing differentiating it from what Notre Dame expects to see on the field come fall.