Change has been a consistent theme since Brian Kelly took over last winter.
In December, Kelly stressed player development as the key to building and sustaining a program’s success.
Four months later, Spring Practice brought an eye-opening breakneck pace to practice – one that tested the Irish players and likewise pleased the masses.
Most recently, August training camp focused on constant competition’ position; jockeying among freshman and seniors alike for starting roles and the ultimate ascension of at least five first time offensive starters.
Today, in his first Game Week press conference, Kelly brought about another change, this one music to the ears of the local media that sat through the former coach’s tedious ten-minute opening pre-ambles that touched on every player with a pulse for the upcoming opponent.
Since 99 percent of you don’t care about the latter, I’ll get on with today’s highlights:
He’d fit right in with Kelly's Fighting Irish
Purdue senior defensive end Ryan Kerrigan ranks as an underrated player nationally – the best player on a poor defense for a sub.500-team rarely receives anything but local love.
But Kerrigan, he of the 13 sacks last year and dominant effort vs. Notre Dame’s overmatched offensive line last September, has a fan in Irish head coach Brian Kelly.
“When you talk about defense you start with Kerrigan,” Kelly noted. “He’s one of the best pass rushers in the country. Just extremely tough in the way he plays the game. He’s coming after you for four quarters.
“If you want a model player in terms of the way we’d like to play, Kerrigan’s that guy…he’s relentless.”
Toughness, both mental and physical, has been the consistent quality Kelly has stressed from last December through this week. If any of his offensive line troops are lagging behind in the category, Irish fans will find out mid-afternoon Saturday.
Also on Kelly’s mind is the new combination of former Miami Hurricanes QB Robert Marve and another 2009-Irish killer: wide receiver Keith Smith.
“I know a lot about Robert,” Kelly said of Marve, who made 11 starts for the ‘Canes in 2008 before sitting out last season in West Lafayette due to NCAA transfer rules. “I tried to recruit him to Cincinnati. I think it starts with his ability to keep plays alive. He’s shown he has great athletic ability.
“He has some great weapons: Keith Smith led the Big 10 in receptions last season; he’s an elite player on the perimeter. Their receiving corps is as good as we’ll see in terms of depth and athleticism.”
The 6’2” 226-pound Smith burned the Irish for 11 receptions, 136 yards and a bull-dozing touchdown last September.
Forget the Erasermate: We need dry erase boards
We’ve reiterated the theme throughout August, largely because Kelly and his staff have done the same: If you’re upset with your favorite player’s standing on the depth chart, don’t fret…it’s probably already changed.
“We think we’ve got four really good players out there,” Kelly said of the oft-discussed outside linebacker positions. “Two of them are seniors (Brian Smith and Kerry Neal).
“Steven Filer is in that group,” Kelly said of Filer whose name was the most glaring omission from the Purdue game two-deep chart. “The real issue here is, ‘Who’s your next player in at Cat if we have to spell Darius Fleming? And that’s Kerry Neal. So Kerry Neal is our starting Drop (Dog) linebacker and our backup Cat.
“Then obviously that opens up your depth chart. Filer’s going to be a drop (linebacker). We tried him at the Cat position; it’s not the right fit for him. He could play there in an emergency situation but right now, we list on the depth chart: Shembo No. 2, but he’s really No. 3,” Kelly noted of freshman linebacker Prince Shembo’s depth chart debut, a technicality behind Fleming at the Cat.
“Filer would be in the game before Shembo. That’s why I wouldn’t get married to who’s first or second, because they’re interchangeable pieces.
“We have two seniors in Neal and Smith; they’re both going to play,” Kelly continued. “I’m not trying to look ahead to next year, but Steven Filer’s going to be a heck of a player for us and he has to be ready to go because he’s going to take over that Drop position when those guys graduate.”
Inside Injury Issues: While Manti Te’o locked down one inside linebacker spot and never looked back, the position next to the sophomore – the WILL linebacker role – saw two leaders: Anthony McDonald after the spring; Carlo Calabrese at present.
Part of the evaluation process inside has been stunted by a string of injuries, most notably McDonald’s hyper extended knee from the tail end of camp’s second week.
“We’re making progress with McDonald,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’ll be in 7-on-7; ‘Skelly’ (vs. air rather than an opponent). We’re going to be running him around pretty hard; he looked good yesterday. We’re hoping to have a good day with him again today.”
Out for Saturday is physical senior Steve Paskorz – a player switched to fullback under the Charlie Weis regime, but was an immediate competitor back at linebacker last April.
“Paskorz is going to be out at least three weeks,” Kelly said of a player that appeared headed for starting duty on the Irish special teams. “We’ll then evaluate where he is.”
Paskorz strained his knee in practice late last week. Fellow inside backer David Posluszny has also lost time due to injury.
“Poz right now is still hampered by a hamstring; that’s limited his reps.” Kelly offered. “Right now he’s probably doubtful for Saturday.”
With three backup inside linebackers down, Kelly moved sophomore Dan Fox inside. Fox however, was not the surprise name on the media’s two-deep depth chart; that designation belonged to former high school quarterback Danny Spond.
“The kinesthetic awareness; the ability to play in space, to use your hands and have body control…we don’t spend time teaching that stuff, you just have it naturally,” Kelly offered of the 6’2” 230-pound freshman listed behind Te’o on the depth chart.
“He’s not physically ready to play championship level football, but he can make up for it in his awareness of how to use his hands and how to be in a good leverage position.
Kelly used a bit of trade humor to illustrate his point:
“How do you get a defensive lineman off a block?” Kelly asked rhetorically before answering, “Well you yell at him louder…”
“You just have to have a way of getting off blocks,” he continued. “And it’s the same with Danny Spond. He has a way of using his hands, his body control; he just has a good awareness for the game.”
QB1 and QB2…A and B
Fans of the show Friday Night Lights know the real difference between “QB1” and “QB2”…but only the former exists in South Bend this season.
“Tommy Rees is the No. 2 quarterback because there were only two slots to fill out; I didn’t have 2A and 2B,” said Kelly of the distributed opening game depth chart. “Really, that position is still one that will be evaluated all week and all year. Rees and (Nate) Montana will be treated with second team reps – they’re splitting them right now.”
Kelly was presented with the presumptuous query whether he planned to work in a backup QB for critical reps to open the season.
His response was that of a coach that has learned his every word is analyzed…by every opponent:
“I just don’t want it to be mop-up reps because we’re down by 40 points.”
The unquestioned starter is junior Dayne Crist. The first-time starter will be almost exactly 10 months removed from ACL surgery when he takes his first snap Saturday.
Crist has been put through the ringer mentally by both Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. But the QB that Kelly has noted will have to “extend plays” to be successful has yet to take a live hit since last October 31.
“He’s got to be able to extend plays; that runs the football. He’s going to get tackled; he’s going to get hit; he’s going to have to run around,” Kelly offered. “He’s not just going to stay in the pocket. We’re not going to protect him and run three-man routes. We get five out (in the pattern),” he continued.
“Dayne Crist is a guy that’s going to have to use all of his tools. He’s a pretty good athlete. He can run and extend plays; he’s going to get hit out there, but we’re not going to put him in a position where we get running hits on our quarterback. That’s just not smart.”
The “running hits” Kelly speaks of are shots that standard pocket quarterbacks tend to absorb as stationary targets. Kelly’s Cincinnati quarterbacks suffered just 11 regular season sacks last season in 12 contests.
My Man Milt
As noted back in May on IrishEyes, no true freshman wide receiver has started for Notre Dame in the season opener since Milt Jackson took the field vs. Michigan, under the lights in 1982.
28 years later, January enrollee Tai-ler Jones appears poised to join Jackson after edging by senior Duval Kamara for the X receiver spot.
“I think he’s been a little bit more consistent at that position,” Kelly said of Jones before adding, “Now keep in mind, he’s been a little more settled into that position while we were moving around other pieces and in particular Duval Kamara.
“Duval has played all three positions (W, X, Z) and to be quite honest with you, he hasn’t had a chance to settle into that position (the X) yet. That gives T.J. a little bit of the nod in terms of lining up. In our tempo of offense you have to pick up a lot and digest a lot.
“But Duval’s going to play a lot as well,” Kelly noted. “As we continue to move forward, you’re going to see multiple players at that position. Duval, quite frankly, could play more than one. He’s a very valuable player to our football team.”
The worst kept message board secret of Week One was the imminent transfer of sophomore wide receiver Shaquelle Evans.
Kelly acknowledged the rumor Tuesday.
“He made a decision that he felt was in his best interest to transfer. We’ve granted him a release and we wish him the very best. He’s a good kid.”
Kelly later added that while a player’s decision to transfer always affect him, he’ll rarely stand in the way of someone that wants to move on.
“I am not really good at talking anybody into staying on our football team,” Kelly said. “I’ll point out some things that are important. But I don’t know that my role is to talk somebody out of quitting, but maybe (rather) pointing out ‘Have you considered this?’
“I always will ask if a player has talked to his family: ‘What are your family’s thoughts on this?’ Because if they haven’t talked to their family, that’s a red flag for me,” Kelly offered. “He (Evans) said he did; he’s talked to his family about it and that’s why we wish him the best.”
Asked if he had a shortcoming as a player, Kelly offered that patience might have helped Evans in the long run.
“He was better suited in the slot position for us and Theo Riddick was outstanding (in August at that same position),” Kelly noted.
“It would be easy for me to say ‘Be patient’, but he (Evans) didn’t see it that way,” Kelly continued. “I don’t know if it was anything he couldn’t do, but maybe some were able to move a little bit quicker along in the process. But we were happy with his development. He was moving in the right direction.
Kelly added that he felt Evans would have become a strong player for the Irish had he remained in the fold and that as a west coast guy, Evans would probably head in that direction to continue his playing career.
Evans gave his head coach no specific reason for the transfer, though Kelly noted (Shaq) didn't see himself fitting in the offense.
Unlike the past regime, Kelly expects to grant Evans a release to any school, even a future opponent of the Irish.