Notre Dame football opened fall camp for the 2021 season Saturday. The Irish are re-tooling somewhat after four straight 10-win campaigns and two College Football Playoff appearances in the last three years.
There wasn't much news made during the practice itself – media was only permitted to watch the first 30 minutes, which included stretching and some 7-on-0 drills before practice was closed – but coach Brian Kelly, entering his 12th season at the helm, provided plenty of insight in his first post-practice press conference of the season.
Here are some takeaways from the first day of camp
- The quarterback position isn't as unsettled as it appears: Notre Dame nominally has a three-way battle for the starting quarterback spot vacated by Ian Book's departure for the NFL. Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan, redshirt freshman Drew Pyne and true freshman Tyler Buchner will all get looks, but Coan is the clear front-runner entering camp. He got the opening first-team reps in the first practice (with Pyne second and Buchner third) and performed well enough in the largely pressure-free drills the media saw. Kelly said the quarterback competition won't last long. The team plans to name a starter after the first scrimmage, which will come during the team's sixth practice of camp later this week. The coach also acknowledged that his staff has "a pretty good sense of where this is going to go." All of that points to Coan, the only player among the group who has started a college football game, as the choice, unless something significant changes. "We took (Coan) because he had battle-tested experience in the Big Ten in a very good program, and quite frankly one that we respect in Wisconsin and Coach (Paul) Chryst and what they do," Kelly said. "A lot of that had to do with where he came from and him being battle tested."
- Patterson remains at center, rest of line unsettled: Jarrett Patterson was an All-American at center for the Irish in 2020 and is the only returning starter from one of the best offensive lines in the country. The Irish toyed with moving Patterson to the more demanding guard position this season and slotting Zeke Correll at center, but Kelly said Saturday his staff eventually decided against doing so. "I think as we looked at a couple things: one, what's in the best interest of Jarrett Patterson, he's one of the top centers in the country," Kelly said. "It's hard for me to take a player and really put him in at a position where it could affect him down the road. He's done so much for our program. Could we be better served if he played another position? You could make the case. But I think my feeling was we're a good football team with Jarrett Patterson at center, and it helps him in the long run playing that position." So if Patterson's at center, what does the rest of the line look like? Kelly emphasized that everywhere else remains unsettled, but offered some clues. First, he said that fifth-year senior Josh Lugg, who has been the team's sixth offensive lineman for the last two seasons, filling in at nearly any position when needed, will get plenty of playing time. Kelly added that true freshman Blake Fisher, who got first-team reps in practice at left tackle, is going to have to earn his way to being the starter at that spot, although reading between the lines it seems as though Fisher has the inside track. Marshall transfer Cain Madden, a preseason All-American at guard will likely take one of the guard spots, while Correll could get the other. That leaves Lugg at right tackle. Those five could make up the Week 1 starting lineup, but true freshman Rocco Spindler and more experienced players like John Dirksen and Andrew Kristofic will have opportunities to make their cases in camp, as well.
- Wide receivers take a leap: Receiver is a position where the Irish have plenty of potential, but also plenty of question marks after losing top pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek to the NFL. Avery Davis will likely be a top target and uber-talented Michael Mayer will help from the tight end spot as a Tyler Eifert-like target, but beyond that Notre Dame needs someone (preferably several someones) to step up. The Irish are hoping Kevin Austin is finally ready for prime-time. After being suspended during the 2019 campaign and injured for all but two mid-season games in 2020 with a broken foot, Notre Dame is hoping the physically-gifted former top 100 recruit is ready for a long-awaited breakout. After having surgery on his broken foot late in the 2020 season, he participated in some summer workouts and the Irish will be "measured" with him in fall camp, Kelly said. However, Kelly was extremely excited about the offseason progress of some other receivers, namely Joe Wilkins and Braden Lenzy. Both of them have shown flashes of brilliance at Notre Dame, but neither has been a consistent top target. "Transformational," Kelly said of the summer for Wilkins and Lenzy. "Transformational, and I underline that word. I know that sounds strong in terms of what I use a word like that, sometimes it's hyperbole, but these kids have changed their body, their commitment level, what we've asked them to do, they've taken it to heart. Now, they've got to go make plays. I get that. But they understand how important they are to our success, and they look it. (Strength) Coach (Matt) Balis was absolutely impressed. Joe Wilkins won the battle for points at the wide receiver/tight end position (in offseason workouts), and he was probably in the lower third last summer. Braden Lenzy was in the top 10%. That is transformational for those guys. ... Kevin Austin has always been a physical presence, so he continued on that realm. There's great optimism from (the wide receiver) perspective."
- Other news and notes: Kelly said the Irish are 95% vaccinated against coronavirus, which he added has kept the team from requiring masks in workouts or when eating as a team. ... Backup linebacker and special teams ace Paul Moala is a full participant in practice after tearing his Achilles in the third game of the 2020 season. If fully healthy, he could be the backup at "Rover," the position vacated by Butkus Award-winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, whose starting spot seems relatively likely to go to 2018 Indiana Mr. Football Jack Kiser. ... The safety position opposite All-American Kyle Hamilton remains up for grabs. Former top recruit Houston Griffith, who had a great spring and is now in a leadership position, has a good shot at it, but he'll be pushed by DJ Brown. Litchfield Ajavon also could be in the mix after a good spring. ... Kelly said the Irish have the "deepest group of leaders I've had here." He attributed that base of leadership to standards set within the program in recent years, so players stepping into new leadership roles already know what their responsibilities are.