Justin Brent in a practice session at Culver.

Irish Football Extra: A Day at the Culver Academies

Aug. 12, 2015

It’s 7:10 a.m., birds are chirping, crickets are humming, the waters of Lake Maxinkuckee are absolutely smooth and not a leaf is moving on Monday at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. The University of Notre Dame football squad is embarking on its fourth and final full day of preseason work here.

The humidity is 98 percent, it’s 68 degrees and overcast as the legion of green-shirted Irish players in camo shorts (emblazoned with a leprechaun) file mostly one at a time into the high-ceilinged, tile-floored Lay Dining Center for breakfast.

There are two buffet lines of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage breakfast burritos, hash brown potatoes and oatmeal, plus a salad bar cart full of fresh fruit. Against the wall is a separate omelet station.

There’s a standup Coca-Cola cooler just inside the door and most of the players grab a Gatorade or water as they pass it –with another 30 cases of Gatorade stacked around the corner for the rest of the stay in Culver.

There’s generic music playing in the background, but no one is paying attention.

There’s a 10-foot-wide sign attached to windows above the second floor of the South Barracks. It reads “Welcome Fighting Irish!” with both Culver and Notre Dame shamrock logos.

7:25 a.m. — Assistant head coach Mike Denbrock and quarterback coach Mike Sanford wander in the door and spend 10 minutes eating.

New strength coach Aaron Wellman quizzes the players via a survey that asks for individual information on sleep, soreness and fatigue in the last 24 hours, with GPS devices to assist in recording some numbers.

7:45 a.m. — Head coach Brian Kelly, with a cup of coffee in hand, and strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo walk into the dining hall.

8:15 a.m. — In room 127 of the Roberts Math and Science Building, assistant coach Scott Booker gathers about 60 of the Irish players for his special teams meeting. The players are spread out over four rows, and assistant coaches Mike Elston, Autry Denson and Todd Lyght sit in. Booker runs a depth chart off his laptop for the players to view personnel assignments.

Today’s presentation is punt return–and the players all have playbooks in front of them with the same pages that Booker displays on the screen.

“We’re gonna take the field after the D-Boys get a stop. We are going to sprint on the field. We are taking over with an attack mentality,” says Booker.

In a white long-sleeved pullover and grey shorts, Booker reviews the goals for the unit and then reviews individual personnel roles. He goes through various play calls and calls out players by name to answer questions about terminology and philosophy. It’s only been a week since the Irish players reported, but they are already well-versed on what is expected. Booker uses a laser pointer to note specifics on video.

8:52 a.m. — The special team meeting runs a few minutes long, so the receiver position meeting begins a few minutes after it was scheduled. Denbrock has 10 players under his command as they sit in a second-floor math classroom. Graduate assistant coach Ryan Mahaffey’s laptop projects formations and tip sheet details. Irish standouts Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Corey Robinson all sit next to each other in one row.

In a blue short-sleeved pullover and light gold shorts, Denbrock and his booming voice command the meeting. As players take notes in their notebooks, Denbrock says “Any questions on that? Good to go?”

9:10 a.m. — “I like what Breezy (Brown) is doing here. Taking as much grass as I can,” says Denbrock as the group watches a play unfold on the screen.

Denbrock shows a play from the 2014 Navy game as C.J. Prosise scores: “That was fun. That was the second play of the game.”

There’s a lined walk-thru area behind Roberts, and the offensive linemen head by the door on their way there.

Denbrock explains what will happen in practice today, previewing several of the drills.

The numbers, letters, directions and other terms roll out in rapid-fire order as he lets his players know what plays will be reviewed today.

“Get that safety’s attention.”

9:45 a.m. — The horn blows to signify the end of position meetings and Denbrock finishes his comments: “That should be pretty good. Be greedy. I liked our energy a lot better yesterday. Let’s build on that. Let’s get better today.”

The players head off to dress in the Culver basketball arena and then they walk east to the Eagles’ football stadium as the chapel bells toll at 10 a.m.

There are dozens of sailboats moored on the lake just south of the practice area, as the players head to work in shoulder pads and cut-off football pants with no pads.

10:05 a.m. — Kelly arrives at the field via a golf cart. It’s 73 degrees and awfully humid. Malik Zaire in a red jersey throws with Brown.

10:20 a.m. — The music begins from two sideline speakers, and the Irish stretching session commences. Among practice observers are Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick along with Jim Rohr, chairman of the athletics affairs committee of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees.

10:40 a.m. — Kelly calls the team up for some quick instruction and encouragement and then it’s off to work. The offense stays on the main field, while the defense heads to the grass fields south of the stadium. The music returns and the offense begins running quick-tempo plays versus no defense.

10:50 a.m. — The offense goes through the same three-station drill Denbrock had detailed 70 minutes ago in his wide receiver meeting. It’s lots of quick throws and catches. No one stands still for long, especially with the head coach watching.

11:05 a.m. — Kelly instructs rookie signal-caller Brandon Wimbush on his dropback technique, while the receivers work together.

11:10 a.m. — The receivers are the only group left on the artificial turf field as the QBs head back to the grass. The action is up tempo and no drill lasts for more than a few minutes.

11:35 a.m. — The running game gets some work on turf with the top offensive and defensive units.

11:45 a.m. — “Get a break, get a break, get a break,” says Kelly. Defensive linemen depart for the grass, the offensive linemen to the east end of the stadium. Now it’s one on one, receivers versus defensive backs, with the quarterbacks throwing.

“Drive, drive drive,” calls out defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. “Sit down, nobody’s winning at the line.” It’s high intensity with lots of individual corrections after each play.

The sun fades, a breeze comes up and it’s as close to comfortable as it will be. The Irish are still a day away from full pads.

Noon — Booker, Elston and Lyght lead the three punt return technique drills. Then it’s more position drills, as VanGorder stands on sidelines with Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith talking strategy. In uniform, Schmidt is Xing and Oing with paper and pen with VanGorder.

12:10 p.m. — Now comes a passing shell drill–seven on seven, with Kelly watching.

12:20 p.m. — The QBs work with the receivers on various routes — with five QBs throwing to five different receivers, all at the same time.

12:25 p.m. — More seven on seven, and the intensity ratchets up. Cole Luke knocks away a Zaire throw intended for Fuller, and the defense erupts. Says Lyght, “One-play focus, one-play focus.”

12:40 p.m. — Defensive back Nick Watkins and receiver Corey Holmes go to the ground together with the ball on a long throw over the middle, and now everyone is watching. Matthias Farley makes a play, and Schmidt is there immediately to congratulate him.

12:55 p.m. — Practice is done. Kelly reviews the schedule for the afternoon, and the players are off to get out of the humidity. Jack Nolan of Fighting Irish Media does an interview with Sanford. Zaire and safety Max Redfield exchange some good-natured banter about results of the last drill. Then it’s on to lunch–shrimp and chicken and all the fixings for burritos.

2:30 p.m. — The Irish squad spent an hour listening to Marcus Luttrell, the former U.S. Navy SEAL who was awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart, was deployed six times and was the subject of the movie “Lone Survivor” starring Mark Wahlberg. Luttrell also is the author of a New York Times best-selling book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10.” A trailer for the film ran first, then Kelly introduced Luttrell who mainly emphasized the value of a team via his military training.

Here are some of his thoughts:

“It’s very simple–our end result is failure, the same as your team. In our business, it’s death.

“I started training to be a SEAL when I was 14. I was a grown man by the time I was 18.

“Do you think you’re a team? Or do you just play on a team? You are formed into a team when chaos comes, when pain comes. When you love that guy next to you, you’ll know it when it happens.”

Luttrell (of his 164-man SEAL class, only 10 graduated) was part of a four-man reconnaissance team that was sent in 2005 to Afghanistan as part of Operation Redwing. He was the only one of the four not killed by Taliban forces, though he did suffer a broken back, multiple other fractures and shrapnel wounds. He later went back to Iraq on another SEAL mission.

He told an hour’s worth of blunt, harrowing tales of intense gunfight, torture and heroism in the field:

“My team was my strength–it’s everything to me. When I left the SEALs and they separated me from my team I didn’t know what to do.

“You are responsible for the guys on the left and right of you. The only way it’s acceptable is those guys on either side of you do their jobs. You are a grown man. Attention to detail is what makes you a champion.

“There’s almost nothing your body can’t do. It’s a perfect machine. It’ll take a beat down like you’d never believe.”

4:15 p.m. — The Irish offensive units lift weights, while the defense meets by position. Then the two sides flip when a horn blows after an hour. About 5:20 p.m. Zaire enters the darkened receivers room and stares intently at the laptop containing video of that morning’s practice. In a few minutes he’s joined by the contingent of Irish pass-catchers.

5:32 p.m. — The receivers are all in their seats and Zaire walks into the room and begins a review of video from that morning’s work, offering his own commentary as he goes. He uses the laser pointer proficiently and provides thoughts on how to improve each route. Ten minutes later, Denbrock and Mahaffey enter the room, Zaire departs–and the review continues. They look at every play from both a sideline and end zone view.

“This is good stuff by Chris Brown, good stuff by Amir (Carlisle) on the outside. Good hustle. We’re doing a good job with our feistiness and our willingness to block. Love you sticking your nose in there,” says Denbrock.

“Good route. Make sure we are securing the football.

“Stay high here. Don’t worry about being too flat. Snap your head. I love the quarterback-friendly attitude here.

“Short window here. You’re gonna get hit. You’ve got to snatch the football. You’re not running in open grass. Great decision. I like it.”

The video freezes briefly.

“We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please stand by,” says Denbrock.

Once the players head for the dining hall, Denbrock and Mahaffey stick around to plot the next day’s offensive practice plan.

6:30 p.m. — It’s now 81 degrees, as warm as it has been all day. Dinner consists of filet mignon, General Tso’s chicken, mushrooms, rice, mashed potatoes, mixed green vegetables, asparagus, egg rolls and vegetable spring rolls, with strawberry shortcake for dessert.

7:30 p.m. — Players are back at Roberts for another hour of position meetings. The receivers pick up where they left off before dinner on their practice video review.

Denbrock several times quizzes his charges on whether the defense is playing man or zone in determining their reads.

When the teamwork portion ends, the group watches the one-on-one matchups, again providing critiques on every play.

“Snap your head. Looked like you needed an oil can on your hips right here,” Denbrock says.

“Great job tracking the football. Run hard coming out of the break.”

They finish with nearly 10 minutes worth of seven-on-seven review. The horn sounds at 8:15 p.m.

8:45 p.m. — The coaching staff meets at 8:45 p.m., then the players head back to the dining hall for a 9:30 snack. By 10 p.m. the players are in their rooms, ready to rest up for a final practice day at Culver on Tuesday, then a late afternoon bus ride back to campus.

There are nearly four full weeks of prep work remaining for the opener against Texas.

It’s one step–and one day–at a time.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director, reporting from Culver, Indiana