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October 22, 2013
BRIAN KELLY: Coming off a satisfying victory against our rival USC. As a coach, you're excited about the win but you're also cognizant of the fact that you've got to get your players back mentally and physically after an emotional and tough football game. So that will be my focus today, has been my focus for the last 48 hours.
We prepare now for the Air Force Academy, certainly as a university and a football program, have a great deal of respect for the academies and have a great and long‑standing tradition in playing the academies and the Air Force Academy in particular. Have a lot of respect for coach (Troy) Calhoun and what he's done with their program.
We'll be traveling to Colorado Springs. We'll have to deal with the travel. Certainly playing at the altitude. We have no hills and altitude here. So we will do the best and adjust as we go.
But certainly preparing for an option team requires great preparation, attention to detail and focus. Now we're transitioning over the next couple of weeks to option football, different style, compared to what we've seen over the past seven weeks.
Defensively now we'll be challenged in different ways. Assignments. Discipline. This will be another, now, important test for our defense and the growth of our defense. A lot of young players playing. Now we'll have to test them and making sure that they’re assignment-correct and making sure that they follow the details of assignment football when you're playing option.
Coming off of a satisfying win against USC and the challenge of playing option football on the road against Air Force is what's in front of us, and we'll begin that preparation today.
QUESTION: Who do you think is going to start (at quarterback), (freshman Nate) Romine or (sophomore Karson) Roberts, for Air Force?
BK: That's a very good question and that's a slider and not a curve ball. I think that certainly the Air Force Academy has had their share of injuries to deal with, in particular, the quarterback position has been one of them.
They're challenged there, when you're talking about the quarterback position. I would say both of them have shown some things that coach is going to have to deal with.
We're going to have to prepare. Their offense didn't look that much different when they were in there. I think both of them add something to it. So we're preparing more for the structure of the offense more than the particular quarterback.
Q: And following up on those two, when they got down to that level, did they become a little bit more option than multiple when they got to those two, rather when they had (sophomore Jaleel) Awini and the other guy earlier in the year?
COACH KELLY: I think with Awini, there's definitely more diversity to their offense. But I think there's more option-base in their offense right now. I think you go back to what you do when there's a little bit more inexperience at the quarterback position. Just as the same would be for us here at Notre Dame. I think everybody would go back to basics and certainly there's a little bit more option.
But they've had a lot of time to prepare both quarterbacks. They've had 16 days. They had the bye week plus they played on a Thursday night. So I think there's plenty of time to have them both prepared and ready to expand that package a little bit.
Q: (Senior quarterback) Tommy Rees, what's his status, and is there a thought of even holding him out if he is healthy to give him an extra week?
BK: Well, you know, we thought certainly the medical team is going to make any decisions as it relates to any neck injuries. We're not talking about a knee or a shoulder or an elbow. But he was cleared today to practice.
I think if we got later in the week ‑‑ and answering your question as to whether you hold him out this week ‑‑ I think if we got later in the week and you get to Wednesday and Thursday and you're not clear but maybe you get cleared on a Friday, I think that enters into your thought maybe a little bit. But he was cleared today. And when you're cleared on Tuesday, your first day of practice, I don't think there's any hesitancy to go out and play somebody when he's cleared so early in the week. And so he's been cleared by a medical team to practice today.
Q: Given the production you've gotten from (senior quarterback) Andrew (Hendrix) in games -- I know you felt he played well in practice -- is there a thought of giving (freshman quarterback) Malik (Zaire) a longer look as being the number two?
BK: He'll get more reps. There's no question that we've got to prepare Andrew, he's got to get some more reps, clearly. And you know Malik's gotta get some more reps.
But looking good in practice and playing in the games, obviously, are two different things and I think what Andrew has to do he's got to take that practice now and he's got to take that into games. And hopefully he'll use the experience that he had against USC and he'll take that as a learning experience and translate what he does in practice now into games.
He knows what it looks like. Now it's incumbent upon him as a competitor and he's a competitor. And he wants to succeed. Now he's going to have to take what he does in practice and he's going to have to carry that into games.
Q: I would assume (sophomore safety Elijah) Shumate's out another week?
BK: We're not ready to say that. He is ahead of schedule. Generally speaking, the PRP for us has been a 10-to-14‑day procedure. Now, he's had a hamstring in the past, where he's dealt with this before. ?We ran him on the treadmill yesterday without pain. Pain‑free. He's ahead of schedule. I'm not ready to declare him ready to play Saturday. He will go through drill work today and I'll have more to say on him later in the week. ?He's questionable right now. He's not out.
Q: And (senior defensive tackle) Big Lou (Nix) went back in the game, I wonder how sore he is with the shoulder.
Q: (Freshman linebacker) Jaylon Smith, sometimes with your Drop, you put a safety or even a corner at times when you've played more option‑oriented teams. How has Jaylon Smith been against option. Is that something he saw a lot in high school that he can adapt to?
BK: We think so. We're putting a couple of packages together for that, as we've talked about. Air Force is an option team, but they do have some other principles. They're a little bit different than, say, Navy in terms of their formation. So Jaylon Smith will be on the field quite a bit for us.
Q: Just to clarify, why is it that not Nix’s cup of tea, a little more patience involved?
BK: You're not going to be two-gapping it's not a two‑gap defensive structure. There's a lot of ‑‑ there's a lot of low blocking, a lot of cut blocking. Just for a big guy, that's not the kind of guy, the game you'd like to play. You'd like to get your hands on somebody and really physically try to get your strength and that being Lou’s size, he's going to be going against the guy who is 245 pounds. And he's probably going to be fending off cut blocks most of the game.
Q: Just to clarify, on Rees, this is probably assumed, but since he was cleared today, when you said neck, it was a muscle problem as opposed to a structural vertebrae problem. Is that correct?
BK: The specifics of it, I don't have the specifics for you. Our doctors have dealt with the necks. There are a myriad of different things that go into that. When they get into neck, head, those kinds of injuries, I stay clear of those, because they're way too ‑‑ there's just too many things there for me to get involved in. Give me the knees, the ankles, the shoulders, and I'll talk all day on those.
But neck and head injuries, I stay away from those. And this with the neck, they come to my office and they tell me when he's cleared.
Q: Defensively, you guys have made such great progress the last couple of weeks. I know this is a different animal you'll be dealing with the next two weeks. But in terms of the progress you've made, what is now the next step in the evolution of your defense?
BK: Well, I think you have to take the schedule as the evolution of our defense, because I think we're all in agreement that the evolution of college football for defense is winning football games.
We want to win against two option teams. So the next evolution of this defense is to play assignment football, disciplined football. 11 players fitting a play.
If one guy breaks down in the 11 here, it doesn't matter how well (junior defensive end) Stephon Tuitt plays. It doesn't really matter how well (senior linebacker) Danny Fox plays. If we don't have our corner playing option football, we're going to give up a lot of points. So this is about 11 players playing together. So that's the next step for this group and playing that for the next couple of weeks is really the most important thing.
Q: I'm sure the players welcomed the week off from classes and I'm sure the coaching staff does as well, but do you have to do some things to guard against the disruption of the routine of not being in classes?
BK: We've had this before and we've handled it. We bring them in, like, for example, right now they're in having brunch. So they're in early, getting some treatments. They'll have lunch here. We practice a little bit earlier, which gives them a little bit more free time.
I don't think it disrupts the routine too much. I think it's a welcome relief for the guys that they get a little bit more free time. But I think we still stayed with the same kind of they know the mid-afternoon it's go-time for them.
Q: Is there anything that you guys do tangibly to prepare for the elevation, is there anything?
BK: No, there isn't anything.
Q: Coach, when (junior linebacker) Jarrett (Grace) got hurt, what had (junior) Joe (Schmidt) shown early in the season or what is it about his character or his play that gave you the confidence to say, okay, it's your turn, you go in there and you fill that role?
BK: Mistake‑free. Smart. Knew his role and how to do his job. We’d like him bigger, we’d like him faster, and we'd like him stronger. But we knew putting Joe Schmidt in the game, he was not going to get us beat. And that's the mark of the next man in. He continuously worked on getting stronger and getting faster. But at the same time he was getting smarter as a football player.
And you saw a couple of plays that he made. (Freshman cornerback) Devin (Butler) got fished out of the dig route twice late in the game on the last drive. They hit (USC receiver Nelson) Agholor on the dig. Devin got fished. They came back to it again with the tight end, and Joe saw it coming, to the tight end, and came back out of his front-side curl and broke on the ball.
Just those little things, he's a football player. And we knew that about Joe Schmidt that if you put him in the game, he was not going to get you beat because he was a smart football player.
Q: What was the experience when you gave him the scholarship?
BK: Well, it's always, you know, for us, measuring the 85. And he helps the group. He helps the football team. We saw that the other night. He was worthy of one of our 85 scholarships.
But he also, from a character standpoint, the team was excited to see Joe Schmidt on scholarship as well. So that's measured as well in offering a scholarship to a walk‑on. Because they, too, trust in Joe and believed in him. So all those go into making that kind of decision.
Q: Not to beat a dead horse, but going back to Tommy, what are you looking for this week, just that he played pain‑free like he normally does or are there any other circumstances that you would figure on that would prevent him from playing at this point?
BK: No, I mean, we'll monitor him. The doctors will monitor him in practice, making sure that he feels comfortable in everything that he's doing. He'll get ‑‑ we won't over-work him in practice, but we'll prepare him accordingly. Let's just say we have 6-4 or 5-3 rep breakdown, he'll get the first two or three reps and make sure that he's functioning properly and then we'll pull him out.
We'll get Andrew some first team reps and get Malik some second team reps and just make sure that he's functioning and progressing during the week. And then when we get to Thursday, you know, that he's functioning on all cylinders.
And as long as Thursday looks good and he feels great on Thursday, then we move into Saturday without any hesitation.
Q: Why is Thursday critical?
BK: It's our last day on the field.
Q: Suppose he wasn't great Thursday but felt good Saturday, would that change things?
BK: Well, we would have a plan to move quickly Saturday in another direction.
Q: Your defense played really strong, particularly in the second half last Saturday. Is that something that you have seen coming? Was there like an aha-moment for those guys, a flipped switch, or was it just a matter of time, do you think?
BK: Well, we thought that we would eventually get to the position where with some returners on our defensive line and some experience that we would play the kind of defense necessary for us to win close ball games. We didn't expect it to be as close against USC. We expected to score more points.
We didn't convert on a fourth down early in the game obviously which was disappointing. And then losing Tommy in the second half we didn't expect to be as ineffective.
So we put too much on our defense in that situation. But we did expect our defense to play better and better during the year and they certainly have.
Q: And from a scheduling standpoint, this may be a better question for next week but is it purely a stroke of luck that you get the two option teams back-to-back or is it by design or just fortunate that it worked out that way?
I think this is more of a coincidence than it is, hey, you know Coach Kelly would like to get both option teams together back‑to‑back weeks. I don't think that conversation ever happened.
Q: Is that a good coincidence?
Q: On Nix, do you think he's not going to play?
BK: No, I'm saying we have to be careful with him. He's banged up. He's sore. And he's a guy that we're going to count on and we've got to be careful with him and I think Big Lou loves to play. He's a competitor. But we just have to be judicious in how we practice and how we play him.
Q: Stephon Tuitt, you talked about some of the obstacles he's faced over the season. It has seemed in the past two games all that's behind him. What have you seen, what's he doing that's allowing him to be so successful?
BK: He's continued to work hard in the weight room. He's continued to monitor his nutrition. He's doing the things that we've asked him to do from post-surgery on and I think it's just a collection of those things. He's played himself into the kind of condition and shape necessary for him to exert his physical prowess on the football field. Playing at a high volume of plays for a longer period of time.
Q: As a coach who in a season who went through five quarterbacks, I'm sure it's stressful going into the season with three, you see numberone go down, you don't know how long it is, what's going through your mind at that point and just going forward, how tough is it thinking that if he gets hurt, your options are limited?
BK: Yeah, this has not been the easiest run in four years here at Notre Dame with quarterbacks. So we're prepared for it at this point. I think Andrew and I and coach (Chuck) Martin expected him to play better. He did not. And that's behind us. So we're going to go back to practice today with the expectations to learn from it and build on it and have the expectations that if we're called upon to be out on that field again to improve on it, and I'm confident that he can do that.
Q: Evolution of the defense, you came in here knowing as a coach, you goal was to make sure the defense plays first, that's what you need here at Notre Dame. But statistically, at your other schools after two or three years you were a top-25 passing offense. You haven't been close to that here. What's it going to take to get to that point and what's been the delay in the offense that you're known for?
BK: You're going to make me answer the question, because I'm not going to answer the question.
Look at college football, look around college football. The teams that are scoring a gazillion points, it's not innovative gurus on offense. It's pretty clear why they're scoring a gazillion points, if you guys can figure that out.
You have to play great defense, there's no question. There's no question about what you have to do if you want to win a national championship. You've got to have a defense in place. The rest is I think if you guys watch college football, you guys can figure out what you have to do from there.
Q: I agree. You have to have a great defense. But you have a great defense and a great offense to go with it, seems like ‑‑ I know what you're striving for. What I'm saying is what has been the challenge you're able to do at other schools that just seems, after four seasons, you haven't had an offense that looked like you had at other schools?
BK: Consistency. You have to be consistent on offense.
Q: I was looking at Tommy through 2011 and this year, and through the seven games, he has one more TD, one fewer interceptions but he completed 65 percent of his passes two years ago to 53 now. What are you seeing differently there?
BK: A lot more man‑to‑man coverage. A lot more. Again, I think the last couple of years in college football, your teams are going away from playing zone coverage. Offensive passing schemes have kind of gotten to the point where everybody's getting five out, plugging zones. It's impossible to run zone coverages and keep the passing percentages down and get teams off the field.
Consequently, much more on‑body. Much more cover one. Penalties are not as severe for tugging and holding. So you're seeing a lot more man coverage, consequently your percentages are going down.
But your big play opportunities can go up. Chances of big plays go up, scoring can be quicker, things of that nature.
Q: We'll have a chance to talk to (senor linebacker) Danny (Spond) the first time since the injury this week, what's his role with the team?
BK: He hasn't missed a day. Hasn't missed a day, hasn't missed a trip. He got upwards of 10 job offers on the trip to Dallas. He spoke at the pep rally and after the pep rally, I think he had 10 job offers. He's an amazing young man.
He's done a great job of handling the transition, which, as you know, for somebody that has played football all his career and now in his senior year has it taken away, now he's on the other side of it, he's been great. He's been upbeat. He's been positive, coaching, if you will.
His coaching has been more of a communicator and translator, if you will, of information. He doesn't sit in the coaching room breaking down film, but he's at every practice. And he travels with us. He's on the sideline. Just been a great mentor to our linebackers, in particular Jaylon and (junior) Ben (Councell).
Q: I was going to ask specifically about Jaylon, with him coming in. How close do they work together and what are some of the things you have seen him do with Jaylon to help move him along?
BK: I think passing along experience has probably been one of the singular important elements he's brought. Hey, I've seen this before, this kind of look, be prepared for this. Don't forget, get your head around on this particular situation.
I think he's been able to pass on a lot of real life experiences at that particular position. That's invaluable. You can talk about it as the linebacker coach, which coach does a great job of it, but when you have somebody that was in it last year, was practicing at that position in the spring, it's just been great information that he's had firsthand from Danny, and it's obviously shown to be very effective information for Jaylon.
Q: Shifting gears to goal line offense. I think throughout college and the NFL you see a lot of teams get down to the one or two and they remain in the shotgun rather than getting under center. Is that all to do with keeping the quarterback healthy or what's the advantage there?
BK: Keeping goal line defenses off the field is one of the reasons. Trying to keep your personnel on the field lessens the chance of putting another defensive lineman on the field. I think most of it is you want to run your plays when you get down there, because you feel like you want to ‑‑ you don't want to get into that scoring zone and then have a new batch of plays when you get in there. You want to kind of run what you run. So that's, generally speaking, in those terms why most teams want to stay in their traditional offense down there.
Q: Wonder how (sophomore defensive lineman) Sheldon Day came out of his first action back, and I know you'll run out of defensive linemen if you do this against everybody, but with Air Force and Navy, do you have to watch him with these injuries?
BK: I think we crossed that after this game. I think we crossed that bridge with him. He moved well. He made some nice plays, had a nice play in the fourth quarter where he ran down a back on the play. We feel pretty good about him this week in terms of that not being in the back of his mind. I think it was a little bit in this game. But I think now we're past that where he can just go and play.
Q: ?I had you down for your dime package 10 times and nickel once with no first downs allowed. That was not the case often in September. Can you talk about the incredible improvement they've had on third down?
BK: Again, sometimes it's pass rush has something to do with it. I think we've gotten a better pass rush out of that look. We've mixed that up a little bit, as you know that front four is a little bit different than what it was in September. (Sophomore linebacker) Romeo (Okwara) is at the three-technique now. Not that he's made that significant difference, but we've changed up that group a little bit.
I think we've mixed up the coverages. And those guys got a little bit more experience out there now. Maybe got a couple of opportunities in there, and that down-and-distance has been in our favor. So I think they've played better. They're as a unit growing together, as we move deeper into the season. And I think that we've gotten some better pressure.
Q: With your defense kind of in the pass rush being ramped up in the second half of the game at the end, do you see that as automatic adjustments, is it your conditioning starting to show, or is it just down-and-distance, they have to pass, you know they have to pass so you're going to have a better pass rush?
BK: Well, I would add some of those, plus Michigan had a scrambler where he was ‑‑ (Devin) Gardner was not holding the ball. He was getting out right away. He was out of the pocket. He was not in the pocket to throw the football. He was looking at one receiver and he was gone.
And if you look at early in the season, we were getting quick game. It was a lot of quick game. The last few weeks it's been more drop back with Arizona State in particular, USC, much more of a drop back passing team, progression read, which gets us a chance to get home.
Q: Curious from a head coach/CEO standpoint when you have a player who is practicing one way and playing another way, you kind of referenced Andrew, how do you try to bridge that gap after something like Saturday, where you have to think about confidence, think about how it's going to carry over to Saturday?
BK: I don't know if the sample size is big enough to really lay that on him. He came in the (2011) Stanford game and ran around a little bit, ran some options, but completed a pass or two.
I don't know that from my standpoint that there's enough of a sampling size to really put him under that yet, you know what I mean. I think if he comes into the game again and doesn't perform at the level that he's held himself to, then maybe we can talk in those terms.
But I think there's better days for Andrew Hendrix. I think he's going to play better. I think he expects to play better and I expect him to play better.
Q: You see that more as just a one‑off type of thing as opposed to something to be concerned about?
BK: I do. I think he's a better player than what he showed against USC. I think he's got to calm his emotions down. I think he's capable of much more. I have much more confidence in his ability to come in and play better football. And I expect he will.
Q: ?Quick question on (senior cornerback) Bennett (Jackson). He got banged up and looked like maybe a shoulder on Saturday, came back in and played the rest of the way. I guess if you could speak to his toughness, that's something he played through all last year, too.
BK: Nothing showed up on the medical report. It's a surgically-repaired shoulder. He's going to have some soreness in that joint probably. Got overextended on a tackle, anytime you get overextension with that shoulder you worry about subluxation. We didn't have any of that. He's a tough kid. He's always been a tough kid and didn't surprise me that he got back into the game.
Q: Wondering how much time you spend on the option in the spring and in camp and if you found there's pretty good retention with your guys year-to-year since you face it on a regular basis?
BK: We spent a little bit more on it, starting this spring and moving forward in the camp. We spent a little bit more. Can't say that I'm pleased with the way we've blocked it. We need to block it a little bit better. We had some missed assignments out there on Saturday.
Our reads have been pretty good. Our blocking has not been where it needs to be yet. We left Andrew out there on some islands where he should have had some better looks. So we need to progress in that respect.
Q: This is off topic but wondering what sort of contact you've had with Everett throughout this fall and how his progression on his game has gone?
BK: He's working hard. He's on the West Coast. He's in a disciplined environment, one I'm very comfortable with. He's in contact weekly, either with myself or with coach Martin. He's in contact with our graduate assistant coach (Pat) Welsh, two or three times a week.
Just catching up on what we're doing, game plans, staying connected. He's staying connected weekly from that standpoint.
Q: You're coaching a team that isn't sure who will play starting quarterback on Saturday against a team that will have a mystery quarterback starter. How tough is it for you and your coaching staff with all this mystery? And one thing the skill sets of your quarterbacks are quite a bit different. So how difficult is it for you to prepare for this situation?
BK: Well, as it relates to the Academy, we're really preparing for the option scheme. And so I think that's absolutely, for us, the most important element. The quarterback certainly is part of that scheme and so when we look at both of the quarterbacks that have played in the last game, the last couple of games, it really, for us, is not as important as preparation for the scheme.
Then you take the passing game and the likes within the passing game and we're prepared for that. So that's not as much of a mystery. It's really the discipline of preparing for the scheme that the Academy runs.
Q: For your team, how difficult is it to prepare not knowing who is going to be ready?
BK: Well, we believe that Tommy's going to be ready. He was cleared today to practice. So we're moving forward that he will be the starter. But we'll certainly have to give reps to Andrew Hendrix and our third quarterback, Malik Zaire. But I think we're all very confident on Tuesday, which is we're not ‑‑ it's not Wednesday or Thursday. I think if it's later in the week you're more concerned. But knowing that it's Tuesday, we feel a lot more confident that Tommy will be prepared and ready for Saturday.
Q: Since 1984, Air Force has had two coaches, Fisher (DeBerry) and coach Calhoun. Notre Dame has had eight. What are the negatives and maybe there's some positives with that kind of turnover. Has it prevented the program, which I know has a very strong identity nationally, but does it drain some of the identity? Or is Notre Dame immune to those problems?
BK: Well, I think you're talking about the University and its brand recognition is stronger than the one singular coach or the eight coaches. I think the University and its strength as a brand is stronger than any one individual.
I think that's what's the most important element there. As it relates to the football program, continuity certainly is important. But it doesn't necessarily guarantee success. I think success at this University is very important on the football field. There's no question about that. But I think, again, this University is measured as it relates to its University and its brand recognition nationally than it is strictly by the eight coaches that were here.
As it relates to the Air Force Academy, the Academy again is recognized by its brand and as it represents our United States, football program‑wise, you know, that consistency with two coaches obviously helps in recruiting, because you know what you're going to get when you go to the Air Force Academy with those two coaches.
Q: And I've been listening while you've talked, but just wanted you to go a little bit more into the upside for you and for your program to be playing the service academies, playing Navy and Air Force, what do you like about it, what do you maybe not like about it? And what I'm thinking what you might not like about it is the option. But what do you like about it, what do you not like about it?
BK: All right. So now that we've got that covered in terms of what I don't like about it, what we love about it is the academies and the mission of the universities, the honor, the tradition, the code, you know what it represents, the academics, the kind of young men that will be represented on the football field, all those things make for that Saturday on that football field a great collegiate environment when both these teams play.
Q: Want to talk a little bit about what's not so much fun about facing the option?
BK: It's something that you don't see and prepare for so it's difficult in its preparation, because you have to be so disciplined to face it. And you know the game of football, especially on defense, is that you want to play a little bit reckless at times.
And it really slows you down and forces you to play assignment football and takes away sometimes that skill advantage that you have, that size advantage becomes minimized in some instances, because you have to play so disciplined and play assignment football.
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