Three consecutive losses at Notre Dame elicits not only a sky-is-falling phenomenon among the fan base, but a predictable line of questioning toward the head coach from the media.
Is the team still focused? Are they confident? Will you change your approach? Where are you after three losses?
To any and all of the above, Brian Kelly offered the following:
“I coach and I teach. That’s what I do. I’m going to coach and I’m going to teach, motivated student-athletes. If you’re not motivated to be coached or taught, then I’m not going to teach you,” he said.
“Our guys understand what that means and they’ll come to practice ready to win and ready to be coached and taught.”
There's relevance contained within the preceding statement, but only the players know to whom that directive was offered. With that in mind, our first of two press conference reviews focuses on Kelly’s personnel observations through four contests.
Next Man In
The head coach’s philosophy is rooted in the ability to overcome injury: when one player goes down, his teammate steps up in his absence. Saturday, the next-man-in approach could be performance-based.
A Single Happy Return: Kelly has done little to hide his displeasure with the team’s kick return unit, now ranked 88th nationally despite a 38-yard return (that was fumbled and recovered by the Irish) in Week One. As a result, freshman Bennett Jackson is competing for role there vs. sophomores Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick, and senior Robert Hughes is now challenging Wood at running back.
“Bennett Jackson is somebody doing a great job in other areas of special teams so we want to get the ball into his hands as well.”
The senior strikes back Listed on the depth chart for the first time since the initial copy provided in August is senior combo-back Robert Hughes. Hughes leads all Irish running backs in touchdowns scored over his career (13). Hughes isn’t suddenly the unquestioned No. 2 back, but he’s ready to lend a hand Saturday.
“He and Cierre…we’re still really high on Cierre Wood. This is not ‘let’s push Cierre to the side,’” Kelly offered. “He didn’t play last year; this guy has four games and everyone wants to throw the poor kid under the bus. I think he’s going to be a really good player, he just needs time.
“One of the things Robert can do and utilize against BC is he’s a big, strong, physical kid and he may be able to help us a little in pass protection.
“I want Cierre to know: ‘There’s no pressure on you son. Go play. Sometimes he plays like there’s all this pressure on him to be the next Heisman Trophy candidate. He just needs to go play and relax.”
With only junior Jonas Gray in question for the upcoming contest, Kelly noted the Irish are healthier this Tuesday than they were last week at the same time heading into the Stanford contest.
Boys to men Redshirt-freshman offensive tackle Zack Martin earned commendation from Kelly for his effort after the opening pair of home tilts. Kelly was asked today if his evaluation has changed a bit after the offensive line as a whole struggled through Saturday’s loss.
“He’s been solid but he’s made a couple of mistakes. We probably didn’t play as well at the tackle position the way we had played in the prior two (contests); it probably wasn’t our strongest game,” Kelly offered. “Zack felt like the competition was pretty keen as well. Both of those guys (including RT Taylor Dever) were challenged.
“(Martin’s) growing and developing. If we were to grade him on the entire season I think we’d still be happy with his play. He can get better. Somebody that’s getting his fourth start, we’re going to be very careful not to be too critical.
Also discussed was emerging junior defensive end Hafis Williams, who knocked down a pass and registered a quarterback hurry (pressure) vs. Andrew Luck Saturday.
“He’s taken more reps; him and Sean (Cywnar) have increasingly played more and really have helped us out considerably in terms of lowering some of the reps (for the starting defensive linemen).
“We’re getting to a 48 to 50-play max for our D-Line in terms of their reps, which is outstanding. That’s where we’d like to be and the two players who are allowing us to do that are Hafis and Sean Cwynar.”
Its better than starring on Tuesdays…
At the conclusion of the spring, junior linebacker Anthony McDonald appeared to have a firm grasp of the inside linebacker role next to stalwart Manti Te’o. By the end of August, sophomore Carlo Calabrese had ascended to the role (Calabrese joined the first unit prior to a knee injury McDonald suffered late in camp).
Through four games, the sophomore Calabrese has maintained a stranglehold on the position.
“You know, he plays really well on game day,” Kelly noted of Calabrese. “Carlo’s one of those guys that just has it. He has a great sense for the football and sometimes we didn’t see that during practice. So leading up to the start of the season; not seeing him much in game situations, we weren’t sure what to expect.
“At game time he plays really well. He’s on things. Mac’s still a very good player for us, but when he gets his opportunities, he has to be productive, because Carlo right now has been so productive.”
Free to roam Manti Te’o’s 21-tackle (16 in the second half) afternoon has been lauded across Irish nation. The sophomore ranks as the nation’s leading tackler and his effort predictably was overplayed as a one-man show by Monday Morning Armchair Coaches.
Kelly was asked if that total was actually a negative because it meant others in front of him weren’t doing their collective job.
“Actually I think it’s the opposite. The reason he was able to do that was because they kept him in a free position so he could run,” Kelly offered.
“We were our best in the D-Line this game relative to our gap fits. We weren’t letting guys climb (to the next blocking level). If he only has to be an offensive guard, he’s going to beat that offensive guard more times than not.
“He’s going to be able to get to a fast-flow guard most of the time. The key block is the four-technique and we were able to keep those (offensive) tackles from climbing up and that’s why he was in a great position most of the day.
Kelly added that the staff had Te’o for 19 tackles on Saturday.
“He was clearly a presence on the football field,” Kelly said of Te’o. “He’s moving in the direction that we expected and he’s expected of himself. I thought he played with a lot more grit, too…an emerging, top-flight player for us on defense.”
The sophomore tandem of Calabrese and Te’o have nearly identical roles and responsibilities, though Te’o’s alignment results in one natural advantage…for both his stat sheet and the Irish D.
“In terms of flow; in terms of run fits, there’s no difference,” Kelly said of the two inside linebacker positions. “The thing with Manti is, because he plays so much to the field (side)… by position due to formation, that he’s going to be around the ball a little more (strictly field side vs. boundary side).”
“The other thing Manti has a little different is coverage. He generally has to be involved in a little more coverage situation, but other than that they have similar roles.
Four-deep Saturday’s addition of John Goodman to the Irish receiver rotation gave the offense a fourth outside target for the first time this season (senior Duval Kamara has one catch with one pass thrown in his direction through four games). Goodman is now listed as Tai-ler Jones’ backup at the X receiver spot and should see increased reps now that he no longer serves as Michael Floyd’s backup on the other side.
“He’s doing a nice job,” Kelly said of the Fort Wayne product. “The thing with John, we just felt like he was close but he wasn’t finishing his plays off. He’d go up and make a catch but not put the ball away, or drop a ball here or there.
“There were a lot of inconsistencies in his play relative to practice. There was no debating whether he had the ability to do it. The question we had was the mental capability to play at that high level. He’s getting there; he’s certainly not there yet but he’s pushed himself to the point where he can get on the field and we expect to see continued improvement there.”
Goodman will also challenge Armando Allen this week for punt return duties in Chestnut Hill.
“Goodman and Armando will continue to work back there this week. We think they’re both very capable. If Armando feels comfortable back there, he gives us a little bit more of a burst.
Welcome to the weekly grind, kid In football, no player is more popular among the fan base than the backup quarterback with purported talent. That is, until that backup encounters live bullets and the inevitable warts in his game are revealed.
Such has been the case for Dayne Crist, who waited two years to lead the Irish offense behind productive but polarizing Jimmy Clausen.
Is Crist merely fighting through the growing pains that the vast majority of new starters endure?
“I see it more so that he’s throwing for over 300 yards a game,” Kelly said, choosing the glass half-full option. “His interceptions aren’t crazy; they’re higher than I want (but) it’s the combination of making 4 or 5 really, really good plays and maybe 1 or 2 not-so-good plays.
“I think where we are in the development is playing more consistently. How do you get consistent? You gain confidence. And when he’s confident, now, he’s really, really good. When he loses a little confidence at times, that’s where we’re working on the development of Dayne Crist…that just takes a little bit more time.
Crist struggled through his worst start as a collegian in Saturday’s loss to the Cardinal. Kelly acknowledged it was a learning experience for the first-time starter.
“It certainly was a game that provided many opportunities for him to grow,” Kelly said of the Stanford contest. “And not just from completions to incompletions; but leadership and body language…all the things quarterbacks need to develop.
As for the prevailing notion that Crist must lend a hand to the read-option aspect of Kelly’s offense, the head coach offered a revelation for upcoming opponents.
“We’re going to put a package in that’s similar to the package that Denard Robinson runs. We just have to do some things with (Crist’s) speed,” Kelly deadpanned before admitting, “there has to be an element within the spread that the quarterback can keep the football at times. We’re moving in that direction.”