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September 10, 2013

Kelly Q&A: Sept. 10

BRIAN KELLY: Well, any time you lose, you want to get back out on the field. Our guys will get an opportunity to get back to work, and you know, obviously there's a number of things we've got to get better at. We're playing another Big Ten opponent in Purdue. Coach (Darrell) Hazell has been very successful as a head coach, and certainly we'll have a challenge on our hands. This is an in‑state rival that plays very well against us. We just need to look at last year's game.

Offensively, (running back) Akeem Hunt, started off last week's game with a kickoff return. He was an integral part of their offense. You know, certainly, (quarterback) Rob Henry back. Experienced Big Ten performers. So they have had some big wins and play great competition. It's a group that obviously is going to play their very best against Notre Dame.

Defensively, a very solid front four. I think that's a strength of their defense, led by (defensive tackle) Bruce Gaston. Ricardo Allen is a corner that's been there, a kid that competes. We've seen him for a number of years, veteran corner. And then again, up front, (defensive end) Ryan Russell; they are physical up front. Again, I think that's a strength of their defense.

Their kicking game is solid and they have always been very good in the kicking game. Again, when we talk about Indiana schools playing against each other, you know, it's going to be on ABC television, it's going to be a big crowd, great atmosphere. We are going to have to handle ourselves in a manner that allows us to win the football game down the stretch.

We start that today with practice and our preparation. We'll have to do a better job this week in our preparation. With that, I'll open up to questions.

QUESTION: You talked after the game about missed opportunities, and in the preseason you talked about doing better in the red zone. What do you have to do to improve on that?

BK: Well, we're talking about execution. So you guys have been around the game long enough. When you have a lack of execution in those areas, you have to look at the details. And there's a number of things that go into that. I could give you five or six different scenarios why we didn't execute, but it comes down to performance. It comes down to practice and preparation. we have to continue to work on those things.

Q: Is one of those things, just (senior quarterback) Tommy Rees making bad decisions‑‑the interception, you seemed to get on him afterwards. It was 1st and goal. You want him to be more patient in a play like that, and if it's not there, hopefully come, get the next play?

BK: Yeah, look, there's a number of different situations. When you're in the red zone, you never want to turn the football over. But you know, you want to run the right routes. I could give you a number of scenarios where it wasn't just Tommy Rees. There's a number of scenarios in that game where we didn't execute properly to win that football game. And we had our chances. It's 34‑27, and it's 1st and 10 from the 25-yard line. We throw a corner route, and we step out of bounds. There's little details within why we're out of bounds and that wasn't Tommy Rees.
So there's a number of little things that go into execution, and it's attention to detail. It's the little things that decide ballgames. We catch that, we're 1st and goal from the three. So we could go on here for 45 minutes about things we've already turned the page on; it's about execution and the details and of that.

Q: You passed about 74 percent of the time; was that a result of the game or was that the game plan going in?

BK: There's eight guys on the line of scrimmage. If the box is plus‑one and plus‑two, there's not much of a running game. When we had two‑shell and we had the ability to run the ball, we ran the ball effectively. And then we got behind. We were down two scores. We had to speed the game up and throw the football.

Look, I want balance just like everybody else in America wants balance. But look, we have to throw the ball effectively when we are called upon to throw the ball and we have to run the ball effectively when we are called upon to run effectively. Balance is this panacea that everyone looks for, but you need to win football games and whatever it takes to win football games, we'd better be good at it. We'd better be good at scoring points running the ball, and we'd better be good at scoring points throwing the ball when the situations call for it.

Q: On third down plays, of the 15 you had, seven went either pass or run to (running back) Amir Carlisle. Is he becoming your go‑to guy when it comes to a back?

BK: You know, he was in for those plays. (Running back) George Atkinson could have been in for him. It was more the way the plays kind of went. He was in the game at that time. I wouldn't look too much into Amir being the guy. We are two games into this. Really too early. We like the way he ran. Ran hard, had yards after contact. Obviously we like that a lot. But we're still a work‑in‑progress there.

Q: It's been a while since your team has had to come back from a loss a week later. What do you watch for this week in that?

BK: Well, I mean, why do you lose? Those are the things that you have to look out for. And, you know, dinner doesn't taste good. Meetings are a lot harder. Practice is probably a little bit more spirited. But it still comes down to the attention to detail. We've got to be smarter and more-disciplined as a football team and that's what I'll be looking for this week.

Q: In two games, what have you seen from (freshman linebacker) Jaylon Smith, what are the benefits from playing him early and what are the things that you have to live with?

BK: I think you said it all right there. The benefits of playing him are that you get a lot of experience early on. Especially with our schedule, we are not playing easy squads. We are playing good football teams early on and he's getting an opportunity to learn a lot.

You're going to have to live with some mistakes that are made, but I tell you what, he made some really good plays for us as well. He's an athletic kid that loves to play, plays hard. Occasionally you're going to be put in some compromising positions. He's a young man that makes up for some of those mistakes with the way he plays, too.

Q: Could you evaluate your defensive line both in terms of what you've gotten out of your starters and where you are feel like you're at with your depth?

BK: (Defensive tackle) Louis Nix was a beast. They couldn't block him. Played as well as he's played for us. Just they had no answers for him inside. I thought physically, when we're talking about play after play, fit after fit, (sophomore defensive end) Sheldon Day played outstanding. I would point to those two. (Junior defensive end) Stephon (Tuitt) played well. Missed a couple of opportunities. Obviously had a great interception in the game. You know, he continues to play more and more for us.

But those two guys in particular were outstanding. Probably got to play a little bit more. We've got to get more guys into the game. We're probably going to see (sophomore defensive lineman Jarron) Jones a little bit more. We've got to see (freshman defensive lineman Isaac) Rochell a little bit more to keep these guys fresh. But those two guys in particular were outstanding.

Q: As you move forward with the defense, do you feel like you've got the right personnel on the field in the right places, or do you feel like there's players that may push up on the depth chart that you might make some movement? What's your thought there?

BK: I think by-and-large, what you see is what you got, and we need to continue to get better. I thought we got better inside. I thought that the combination of Grace and Calabrese and Fox, their play was considerably better from week one to week two. We'll continue to improve there. We've got to get consistently better at the corner and safety position. I thought (junior safety Matthias) Farley was better. We've got to continue to get better there.

So it's, again, what you see out there‑‑you're going to see some other guys get some playing time during the year obviously because you're going to get guys banged up and nicked up. We just need to continue to progress and continue to get better, and be more consistent as a defense.

Q: With your offensive tempo, are you playing the tempo that you want? Do you think there's room for you to tweak that a little bit?

BK: I think with the personnel that we have and the quarterback that we have, we are not a team that really can run a lot of the read-option. A lot of the stuff that's meant for real fast tempo, you need a quarterback that is going to be a run threat as well. Tommy is not a run threat. Where he's going to make up for it is getting us in the right plays. So our tempo is get to the line of scrimmage, give us enough time to get into the right plays. So tempo can be interpreted in different fashions. Let's give him enough time on the clock where we can get into some good checks.

Q: One of the things you mentioned since you've gotten here is the important thing about coming out on top is not to lose a game. Was this the ultimate example for you about taking care of business? Michigan played a great game, they had some great, outstanding performances, and yet without the mistakes, you win this game.

BK: Well, there's getting beat and then there's losing. You know, I'm okay going across the sideline and shaking somebody's hand after, you know, losing to a team that took it from us. It was a game that‑‑Michigan played well. I'm not going to take anything away from them, and I would like to move on here sooner or later.

But we made a lot of mistakes and that's on us and we've got to clean up. We've got to coach better and we've got to play better. Look, at the end of the day, this comes down to execution when you need to. And this game boils down to this: There's 115,000 people in the stands, and you have 18‑ to 21‑year‑olds, and you've got to get your players to execute to the finest of details in those situations. That falls on me during the week to make sure that that happens. That didn't occur, so I've got to look at myself; our coaches have to look at how we prepare our football team so we get them to perform in those situations, and that's really what that's about.

Q: Want to ask about the wide receivers, I think 37 of your 40 catches by wide receivers are with the same four people. In the weeks to come, and obviously got good competition every week, but in the weeks to come, do you expect maybe to spread that out a little bit more, maybe get more people involved?

BK: I think there's a lot of guys that are catching balls. (Freshman receiver) Corey Robinson caught a ball for us. We'll continue to move guys in there. I think we've shown that there's balance in the receiving corps. (Junior tight end) Troy Niklas is catching some balls, some big balls for us. Obviously (junior DaVaris) Daniels and (senior) TJ Jones, and (sophomore) Chris Brown is obviously a guy that you've got to pay attention to. I think we are going to continue to move in that direction.

I think we've got to continue to grow at the running back position and they have got to help us, as well.

Any Purdue questions out there? You know, we should try to do this on Monday when we have this press conference on Monday, we might be able to do a lot of this Michigan work and then we can get to Purdue. You guys are a little groggy I guess on Monday when it comes to Michigan.

Q: Here's a Purdue question for you. They only scored one offensive touchdown Saturday against Indiana State. How do you get your kids not to let down as they get ready to face Purdue?

BK: Let down? They just lost. They lost a football game. Look, we've got to worry about all the things I just talked about: The attention to detail, the way we work, all the things that we have to do. We've got our own work to take care of. We've got to be smarter, more disciplined. We've got to practice better. We've got to take care of a lot of things on our own.

Again, Purdue's going to be ready for Notre Dame. We have no doubt about that and we respect our opponent. But, look, we've got to put blinders on and we've got to focus on ourselves. We're not a finished product. We've got some work to do.

Q: Defensively you mentioned how physical they are on the defensive line. How do you counter a physical team like that? Do you just look to take it right at them and challenge your offensive line to go at them physically, or do you try to approach them on the outside?

BK: Well, we're certainly going to have to do a good job up front. Our offensive line, I thought has shown the last couple of weeks they can hold our own. I was really pleased with the effort of our guys up front. Made a couple of mistakes early in the game in recognition of some stunts. Gave up one sack after throwing the ball over 50 times; that's pretty darn good against an aggressive defense.

So all signs point that it's going to be a physical game up front between a very good offensive line and a very, very stout defensive line.

Q: From the concerns in the secondary from Saturday, what are you going to do work on starting today?

BK: They have got to play the game the way they can play it. In other words, more confidence. They have got to go out there and compete, and they have got the ability to do it. We've got to get it out of them. And so we've got to compete in practice and we've got to carry that over to Saturdays.

And so (defensive backs) coach (Kerry) Cooks is going to make sure that those guys are competing in practice and we are going to get that carryover. (Sophomore cornerback) KeiVarae Russell is a young guy and he was in a big stage, and he's going to have to use that learning experience from Michigan, he's going to have to carry that over, and he's a very smart, competitive kid, and he's going to use this as a great learning experience, and I think he's going to benefit from it.

(Senior cornerback) Bennett Jackson is a captain for us and he has a responsibility to come back and bounce back from not playing his very best, and we are all confident he'll do that. The key is to not make it two games or three games or four games; it's to take this game, and play at a higher level and I'm pretty confident that they will.

Q: How does Louis (Nix) deal with being double‑teamed with more than half the plays, every snap, and just still be that beast?

BK: I tell you what, I've been more impressed with his demeanor. Last year, the year before, you come to the sideline and it was hard sometimes to communicate with him because he got frustrated. Now he comes to the sideline and you can communicate with him. He can give you the information that you need to get relative to what's going on out there.

It's been really impressive, his maturity. He's doing his job and he's really wanting to focus on that this year. Obviously he has not spoken to the media a lot, because he's wanted to focus on being the best football player. He thought he got a little too much into the social media and all that stuff and really wanted to focus on football. His professionalism has been outstanding, and you can see it on Saturday. Where we were getting into some extended drives, he wouldn't come to the sideline and be pointing a finger. It would be, all right, what do we got to do here. I think that's a sign of maturity and a guy that's battling his butt off, getting double‑teamed in there and still giving us really good information.

Q: When you talk about coaching better during the week or preparing better during the week, is that changing up the format of practice? Is that changing your message? What are some of the specific things you do after a weekend like that to get ready for a game like this?

BK: Sometimes you try to get the feel for your team. It's a different year compared to last year. Sometimes you don't invoke your personality in there because you're trying to get a feel for your team. Well, I got a feel for this team, so we're going to do it the way we need to do it. And so we're going to practice and compete and do the things that we need to do to prepare, and sometimes you're kind of feeling your way through that a little bit as you get your hands on your team, learning more about your group. So I think we've got a good sense and feel of where we need to go in our preparation and we'll be better prepared as we play Purdue.

Q: For now, do you feel like this is a team where you need to invoke your personality on them more until they show you that they are ready to kind of take it back over?

BK: I wouldn't go that far. They know what winning looks like. When my seniors sit up here in the front row, they know what it looks like. We've just got to make sure that we remind them that we do all these things every single day when it comes to winning. They get it. My job on a day‑to‑day basis is to remind them about the little things. We did and I'm right back on it and I'm very confident that we'll be back where we need to be doing all the things necessary in practice to be prepared to execute when we are called upon to execute.

Q: You talked earlier about you are not going to run plus‑one and plus‑two boxes; do you anticipate that's how teams are going to play you until Tommy can be more efficient and force teams to stop doing it?

BK: Well, I mean, I wouldn't say that we're that far away from being very efficient at it. I would welcome it every single week. I think we're close, if not right there. I mean, we're a step away here; we're an alignment away here or there. We're a check away. I'm very confident that if you want to play us that way, we're going to beat you, and that's just fine with me.

Q: And I guess what happened on Saturday, you kind of move past that; is that something you see on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, or was it a surprise that it played out the way it did against Michigan? In terms of your confidence, you load up the box, you're going to find a way you’re going to win?

BK: I have absolutely no question in my mind that if you want to play us that way, with Tommy Rees, you will pay for it.

Q: Troy Niklas has obviously made a big impact in the first two games. What do you think his ceiling is at Notre Dame?

BK: Well, I think he has a great opportunity here to be one of those great tight ends at Notre Dame. He can be that guy that can dominate at the line of scrimmage in the run blocking game; can vertically be an asset to any passing game. I think what we saw was a guy that can catch the ball on those linebacker matchups at five to seven yards and get you 10 to 12. I think that's what tight ends are born to do, and he's starting to show that. So, consistent improvement. He's still learning the game. Every day is a learning experience for him. I like his maturity. I like the way he's growing as a football player.

Q: The program has been churning out, as you know, great tight ends for about a decade now, under three coaching staffs. What do you think it is about the program that allows that?

BK: I think success begets success, and you start to have it. Recruits look at it. Then we've done a nice job of featuring the tight ends within the offensive structure. You get one, and then it just starts to kinds of snowball a little bit. And helps out that obviously you get a guy that wanted to play tight end who is recruited as a defensive lineman. You get a little lucky along the way, too.

Q: You mentioned Amir earlier. What have you seen out of him the first couple of weeks and what do you want to see going forward, as well?

BK: What I liked in week two was the physical running. I think I mentioned earlier, he ran over a linebacker who was unblocked one time. His running after contact was probably the thing that I liked the most.

You know, we still have some work to do in the passing game, as I mentioned, and then durability, right. Then we have to see what his ability is to continue that week‑in and week‑out.

I like George, too. George had some really very good runs, instinctual runs, and you know, (junior running back) Cam (McDaniel) only got a couple of touches, but I like the way the backs ran.

Q: And then with Purdue, going up against a guy like Ricardo Allen, what are the challenges when you face a corner with that kind of skill?

BK: Well, you've got to be on time. If you lay some balls out there that are not on time, he gets great breaks on the ball, and he's very competitive. He wants the ball thrown his way. He's a very competitive kid. He's got very good ball skills, and like I said, if you're lazy with the ball, if your routes are not precise, he'll take the ball from you. So you better be on top of your game.

Q: A very broad, national question. But when a program like Texas fires their defensive coordinator after two games, does that create ripples through you and your coaching peers? Do you take note of that?

BK: Not really, no. I think every program has within their own units their own issues, so we don't know what was going on there. High‑profile programs obviously have scrutiny and I think that's why we're talking about it. But, it happens. I think Wisconsin fired their offensive line coach two games into it last year. It's not like it's unheard of, but, you know, we don't spend much time thinking about that.

Q: (Freshman quarterback) Malik Zaire, any update on him lately?

BK: Yeah, he's been cleared for cardiovascular work. We're going to be able to get him moving, throwing the football. He has not been cleared for contact yet, and that's obviously a second level of the mononucleosis, the spleen enlargement. We haven't got to that point yet, but the blood work came back positive; positive in a sense that he can do cardiovascular work, throwing the football, doing those kinds of things. We're moving in the right direction. He's not officially cleared yet. We wouldn't know that until later in the week.

Q: Would (senior) Luke (Massa) still be your third quarterback?

BK: He would, yes.

Q: I wanted to ask you about (senior linebacker) Carlo Calabrese. A lot was made during the off‑season about his desire to sort of reshape his body and fine tune his game a little bit. Could you kind of talk about what that has meant to him as a player?

BK: Did he talk about reshaping his body? Let me get this straight. Does that come from Carlo?

Q: Yes, it did.

BK: Really. I think he eats too much pasta to reshape his body, but I will tell you, he's reshaped his game. He's played really well the last couple of weeks. I liked his game against Michigan. He's playing physical. He's playing downhill. As a senior, he's really impacting our special teams game, as well. We played very well on special teams. It's the first time since I've been here that we hit all of our goals in special teams.

So he's impacting what we do at the linebacker position and ST, so we like the way he's reshaped his game.

Q: He seems for lack of a better term, more committed this year. He really seems like he's grasping his last go‑around. Have you noticed that, his commitment level to his position?

BK: Yes, I would grant you the fact that as a senior, he's taken much more of a leadership role. He has professionalism about him. Carlo is still a kid that has got a great personality. He's fun to be around. But I would agree with your assessment that there's a guy that's really locked in to his job and what he's asked to do on a day‑to‑day basis.

Q: Can you give us your assessment on how you think (junior center) Nick Martin and (sophomore tackle) Ronnie Stanley played their first two weeks?

BK: I couldn't be more pleased with Nick Martin under the circumstances. We had one illegal snap in probably one of the most dynamic atmospheres that we'll play under. Just did a tremendous job. Again, as you know, we checked almost 40 percent of our plays, just an incredible job, great snapping all night. Handled himself very well up front.

Ronnie continues to get better. He's learning the game. We had a couple early missed assignments, but did a very good job. One sack let up, but he continues to get better and better. We only see that offensive line improving from week‑to‑week. But Nick Martin, outstanding, and Ronnie continues to get better.

Q: Irrespective of the fuss last week, do you regard Purdue as a rivalry kind of game, and do you sense a buzz amongst your players, or do you play so many of these big games that you don't feel that?

BK: You know, I think any time that you're playing a team in‑state, there's certainly a recognition of that as a rivalry game. Our guys know Purdue. They know how difficult the games have been, particularly here, at home. You know, so from that standpoint, you know, especially coming off a loss, it's a little bit different because you're more focused on yourself after a loss. You're not thinking about your opponent quite as much, because you want to get what you do right. So I don't want to minimize the fact that we're playing Purdue, because I think that we clearly understand who they are as a Big Ten opponent, somebody within our state, and the natural rivalry because we've played so much. But we're coming off of a stinging loss and our guys are really focused on themselves.

Q: All things being equal though, as many big games as you've played, do you tend to have to as a coach tamp down that rivalry aspect and just make it a game?

BK: Well, we certainly have to maintain a preparation level that doesn't get us too high, because each and every week, we come back with Michigan State. That's another rivalry trophy game. In front of our offices, I think we have five or six rivalry trophies sitting in front of our office, and each and every week, it's a rivalry game.

So we have to be careful. I would agree with that, but we also know who we're playing. We're playing a Big Ten opponent and any time you're playing a Big Ten opponent, you'd better be ready to play.

Q: What are some of the advantages that Tommy has when there's an empty backfield, and how do you balance those positives with the likelihood that there's no running threat when he's alone back there?

BK: Well, it's pretty easy. It's the ability now to have the entire field. As you saw, there's no middle safety. It becomes a one‑on‑one situation, and the defense has clearly shown what they want in that situation.

We empty out the backfield to give Tommy the opportunity knowing what we're going to get. You know, we're getting loaded boxes, cover one, man‑to‑man; hard to run in those situations, and we're going to throw the football. We need to execute a little bit better in those situations, and we will.

Q: He had mentioned in the past, that wasn't after Michigan, but he tends to get in a pretty good rhythm when he can do that a few passes in a row. Is that another thing that kind of helps him out?

BK: We were in obviously in no‑back when we were down 34‑20. We were trying to obviously get back into the ballgame. But again, it just depends on the kind of scheme you're playing. Michigan plays a lot different than other teams that we'll see across the board. We won't see the same defense and we won't look the same from week‑to‑week. It's just the way Michigan played. We forced them to play the way they wanted them to play. Once we emptied it out, we knew we were going to get pressure. We were prompting that. Last year, we played with two tight ends and we didn't get any pressure. So it's just the way we decided to play the game.

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