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September 24, 2013

Kelly Q&A: Sept. 24

BRIAN KELLY: We finish off the month of September with another great challenge in Oklahoma -- Want to grab that door? Just in case we have anybody stop in, and want to pay their respects to me. That happens once in awhile. -- Obviously, we’re finishing up the month of September with another great challenge with Oklahoma and Bob Stoops’s program, which has been a benchmark for consistency and success. Our players are really excited about the challenge and the opportunity to play Oklahoma, a great game last year in Norman and now they’ll come up here to South Bend.

Hard-fought victory last weekend, physical game. Our guys have recuperated and are excited about getting back out on the practice field today. We’ve got a lot of work to do.

We’re going against an extremely skilled and talented football team. Their offensive depth at the skill positions is as good as I’ve seen across the country. Their wide receiving corps in particular, they can roll out as many as six to seven wide receivers. Again, extremely talented wide receiving corps, depth at the running back, veteran offensive line, top two running backs returning. I could probably go on and on.

The quarterback position now seems to be solved in their minds, and a challenge there as well with (Blake) Bell. He’s a guy that, obviously, gives them a dual-threat that you’re looking at at the quarterback position of late in college football.

Defensively, very athletic again. Corners that can cover, linebackers that can run. Very, very good in the special teams in the return game. I don’t know of any more superlatives that I can use. It’s just a well-coached, deep and talented football team. We’re going to have to play extremely well. We’re going to have to be in great position, extremely disciplined across the board and play our best game of the season. With that, I’ll open it up to any questions.

QUESTION: You touched on Bell a little bit. This will be really the fourth game in a row that you’ve seen a quarterback with the threat to run, and I would say you’ve done a better job progressively week-by-week. Can you just talk about how your defense has improved against that? And more specifically what kind of challenges do they face this week in particular?

BK: From a scheme standpoint, they put you in a position where you have to cover a lot of different scenarios. You’re put in a very difficult position when you can be running the football and have options to throw as well. That constant bind that the running quarterback gives you is a stress on your defense. We’ve had that for the last couple of weeks. Our staff and coach (Bob) Diaco have done a great job of formulating the plan and we’re going to have another great run this weekend.

Q: Specifically what have you been happy with that you’ve been able to do the last couple weeks and what are you failing it?

BK: I think a lot of it has to do with our ability not to give up big plays. Keeping the ball in front of us has been one of our mainstays defensively. You start there. There’s going to be some completions. You have to minimize the big plays off of that attack. You’ve got to be sound and fundamental when you’re playing. You can’t give up easy runs. I think that’s really what it comes down to. When the quarterback is running the football, you’ve got to make sure that you’re minimizing their ability to get big plays.

Q: I think your record is 10-1 in your last 11 decided by a touchdown or less. How do you coach confidence in those moments, when you’re in a game that could go either way at any point? There’s got to be something that is allowing you guys to pull those wins out over and over again.

BK: I think it just happens over a period of time. When I first got here, we weren’t able to win some of those games. I think it’s just a matter of time. We’re four years into our program. Our kids believe if they prepare the right way, and they take care of the things that they’re supposed to do, they have a belief. It’s the will to prepare and the belief that they can win. You carry those with you. You still have to perform. We didn’t perform late against Michigan, and we lost a football game. Even though we prepared and believed we could win, you still have to perform. We were able to perform to win football games. You have to have those two things. I know our guys have confidence that they can win each and every game that they play, but they also know they have to make plays.

Q: How much of that comes from having done it? They know they’ve done it 10 of the past 11 times, they’re not thinking oh no. How much do you think they believe they’re going to win those games?

BK: There’s definitely a positive reinforcement that they believe they can win. We won a lot of football games, 15 out of the last 16 games. 10 in a row at home. Those things all go towards that belief that they can win. They believe they can win no matter what the circumstances are. I would caution you to say that, it’s sill about you’ve got to make plays. We made a couple more plays at the end. And we’ll have to make a couple more this weekend. But there is that belief system, there is no question. That foundation has definitely been laid.

Q: Last year against Oklahoma, one of the keys was the defensive play. Can you talk about what they did well and how important that’s going to be in this week’s game?

BK: They’re very balanced. They run the ball extremely well and two weekends ago they really showed their ability to throw the football. Bell threw it extremely well vertically. He’s got a nice touch on the football. One week it’s one receiver, this past weekend Sterling Shepard had eight catches. They’ve just got great depth and they find their big-play receivers. We have to minimize the big-chunk plays. That’s one of our goals each and every week, minimizing those big-chunk plays. We were able to do that last year. We’re going to do it this year if we want to win the football game.

Q: Last from me, a green out, does that mean the team will be wearing green jerseys for this game?

No, we will not be wearing green jerseys, but the Leprechaun Legion and Kelly Cares Foundation will be giving out upwards of 40,000 pom-poms.

Yes, a green out officially for this weekend for Oklahoma.

Q: From a scheme standpoint, Oklahoma, have they made any significant adjustments in terms of their approach since last year?

BK: Yeah, they’ve gone to a 3-3-5 defensive structure, whereas they were a four-down team last year. You’d have to ask them why. I believe, if I was to guess, it is probably to handle a lot of the spread offenses in the Big 12. Still an extremely talented group of players. Obviously, we’re seeing the same group of talented players across the board, but it is in a different scheme from last year.

Offensively, very similar. The difference being (last year’s quarterback) Landry Jones to Bell, now you have a guy that can run the football at the quarterback position.

Q: In layman’s terms, can you throw out one example of how that 3-3-5 forces you to adjust a little bit?

BK: You’re dealing with different edge pressures. With the three-down defense, you’re protecting the edges. You have guys that are obviously going to be in space and extremely athletic coming off the edge.

Q: Saturday was (Michigan State cornerback Darqueze) Dennard against (Notre Dame receiver DaVaris) Daniels, and Dennard had a pretty good day. What lessons do you hope DaVaris can take out of that matchup against a great corner?

BK: I think we all know that our guys are not finished products. The challenges that they get from playing the schedule that they do allow them to grow as players. I think anytime you look at our players, you want to see them grow from the experiences that they have. DaVaris is a very smart kid. He watches film. He’s very competitive. I think what we’ll be looking for, and he will be as well, is to learn from his experiences. Whether it’s Daniels or anybody else on our team, when they are put in those challenging situations, for them to grow from them, that’s what we’re looking for.

Q: Strategic question from Saturday, you had a bunch of 3rd-and-1s. I think you had 13 for the game and 10 of the came in the first half. You tried to run a few, ran empty, threw the ball downfield. There weren’t a lot of intermediate throws. Was there something that Michigan State does in terms of coverage, that prevents an athlete on a linebacker or did you just like your chances better with a jump ball/interference call downfield?

BK: We had a 4th-and-1 where we ran a rollover slot route to (receiver) TJ Jones. They fired the corner, and didn’t cover him. We missed the blitz. (Irish quarterback) Tommy (Rees) never saw him because the blitz was in his face, so that was a big fourth-down situation if you remember. We just missed a very easy blitz pickup situation there. The other one we ran a boot, and we’re supposed to slow the release the tight end. He’s supposed to fall out late as the late checkdown, and we don’t’ slow release. Execution, as well as not picking up 3rd-and-short. It’s certainly something that we have to be better at and we have to be more efficient at.

Q: With all the tight games and everything, the way the team is developing, there’s not a lot of margin for error. How do you keep the team from playing tight?

BK: I think it’s important for them to know more than anything else that the way we play right now, we can’t afford to not let it go. If we go and we play tentative, that’s not going to be enough for us to win football games. I guess you guys have been around me long enough, it’s not one of my personality traits to play tight. We’re always talking about being more aggressive and playing loose. It probably comes down from me and the staff and making sure we let our guys play, and not to be too controlling in a sense. Nobody wants to put too much control over their team that it doesn’t allow them to play. I think I’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve never seen it work well when they play tight as well.

Q: With that 3-3-5 alignment, how does that impact your run game, what you guys might be able to do?

Again, the last three weeks have been a real challenge for us in the running game. We certainly have to run the ball better. We know that. I think everybody in this room and America knows that. We think the circumstances are such that we’re going to continue to work at it in practice, and we know we have to be better at it. Oklahoma is going to compete. It’s not going to be against Oklahoma. We just know we have to be better at it. We’re working on 3rd-and-short. We’re working on being more efficient, executing better. I think the things that we have to be better at are some of the things we’ve talked about. We have to be better at 3rd and short.

Q: You mentioned that you’re going to have to play your best game on Saturday. Do you feel like you played your best game last season, or maybe since you’ve been here, last year when you went down to Norman?

BK: I thought we played very well. Defensively, our game plan was to keep the ball in front of us, minimize their big plays. I think that’s going to have to be the case again.

Offensively, we were able to find a way to run the ball into a very difficult box look, and eke out a couple of big plays. I think you’re going to have to see a similar kind of effort. It’s going to have to be our best game of the year in all phases, including special teams. We certainly know that because we’ve played Oklahoma before. We know what to expect.

Q: I guess that prior knowledge of knowing what to expect and knowing how to prepare, how valuable do you think that is for you guys this week on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday?

BK: I think our guys know exactly what they have to do, playing them before, watching them on film, knowing the tradition and history. There's a feeling around the room that everybody's attention is on Oklahoma. They know what to expect and they know what Oklahoma is bringing to South Bend. This isn’t a week where have to get our guys' attention.

Q: Keeping the ball in front of you, last year I think you played a lot of base defense, regardless of what Oklahoma did. How much more flexible do you feel like your defense is, and is this a week that that really is going to show, where you have more of a nickel and a dime and a confidence that you can execute those sets efficiently?

BK: Well, ideally you'd love to be able to be the deepest on the field and stop the run with even numbers. Tthat's the ideal situation. We were able to do that last year most of the time, but we have to be prepared for all situations. As you know, if the numbers are fair, that means you're able to do a lot of things defensively. We'll have to see how that plays out.

The bottom line is the skill that they have creates so many problems for you down the field that you have to look at how you're going to play this team from so many different perspectives.

Q: Kind of a formation question: When you guys go two tight end, do you feel like that set has been productive for you this year? Do you feel like you can push that farther moving forward?

BK: Oh, I think there's a lot more that we need to do and will do moving forward.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about (junior linebacker) Jarrett Grace, when you recruited him, if you were familiar with him having been in Cincinnati and the fact that he was kind of behind (former linebacker) Manti (Te’o) for so long, just what his development was like since we didn't kind of see it unfold in front of us?

BK: Yeah, I recruited him when I was at Cincinnati at Colerain High School, one of the top public high schools in the Cincinnati area, a great tradition there. Was a character kid from the day that I got a chance to know him, just great character kid, leader. And so I knew not only was he going to be a great player, but he was going to be a leader. He's lived up to that. Even though he was behind our best leader in our program, and that has a tendency, obviously, to overshadow you, he led in community service. He led in fellowship. Now he's starting to become more vocal as a football player, as well. He'll continue to develop in that manner, as well.

Q: Did Manti work with him, much knowing that he wasn't going to play a lot of downs? Did they have a pretty good rapport?

BK: I would say very good rapport. Manti was somebody that at his position was always communicating with the linebackers, and that was a very close room, and it still continues to be a very close room. So there was a lot of conversation about the position. If you were to ask Manti today, he would probably say that's my guy, and I'm not surprised that he's having success.

Q: Are you still kind of in the same place you were with (sophomore defensive lineman) Sheldon Day, feeling like you might be able to get him to practice today?

BK: I am. I expect him to practice today. I think he's going to be gradual as the week progresses, that we're going to see more and more from him. The reports were pretty good yesterday. He went through all of our conditioning yesterday, and we hope to see him a little bit more today.

Q: A couple running back questions: I think you mentioned Sunday you were in a four‑man rotation. I don't want to get tripped up on the word problem. Does that mean (freshman running back Greg) Bryant is kind of out of the loop?

BK: No, we just got to four. I'd like to get to five. Greg certainly has a skill set that we just haven't gotten into the game yet. But again, we're trying to get him in on special teams. He's on kickoff right now. We're trying to get him involved in some of the other running teams. But we got to four, we're trying to get to five.

Q: (Junior running back) George Atkinson, where do you feel like his progress is right now? Where do you see him fitting in?

BK: George, the next step in his development for us is ‑‑ and as we know, he's got to continue to work on his ball skills. I thought he did a nice job on Saturday on a tough catch. He's got to run through tackles.

Q: I forgot to ask you this on Sunday, but the penalty where they called it on the bench in Saturday's game, can you tell us what exactly that was about?

BK: Yeah, he felt that we were racing on to the field and that we were creating a larger altercation, and I was trying to explain that we were simply, that was our offense in a transition coming out to the field. He didn't see it that way and felt like we were inciting, that it was kind of like coming off the bench in a fight, which wasn't the case. We were just transitioning our offense, and they were coming out onto the field because we felt the play was over.

And I was standing right there, so it wasn't like there was a situation where it was out of control. The guy that was running out was Tommy Rees, for crying out loud. I mean, really. He's hobbling out with a knee brace. Worried about Tommy.

Q: Just wanted to clarify on the four running backs out of five, just because we get that question a lot, is that something that you don't have space for five yet or Bryant needs to get himself to the level where he can be on the field?

BK: Yeah, it's about scripting five and trying to get five into the game more than anything else. We have him scripted into certain plays, it's just really the flow of the game and the circumstances in trying to get him in.

Q: Another question on Jarrett Grace: I think coming out of the spring at least the outside perception was that middle linebacker spot was going to be his or he had done enough to kind of get there. Is he on schedule as far as moving into that starting role and playing a little bit more at the Mike?

BK: Yeah, he played quite a bit on Saturday.

Q: So I guess my question is did you expect him to have a couple weeks where (senior linebacker) Dan (Fox) was out there first and he was sort of slowly working his way in?

BK: Yeah, we always err towards the senior first and foremost, and Dan has played a lot of football for us. Even though he was transitioning, Danny did an incredible job of ‑‑ his whole career really was at Will, and for the team he moved over to Mike. You know, that's how great of a team player he is, that he moves over to Mike as we continue to get Jarrett some more work.

And Dan played a lot of Mike on Saturday, as well. I think it's even. Both of those guys are playing the position. Jarrett is not taking every single one of those reps. I think you're going to continue to see Dan take some Mike reps, and obviously the Will linebacker position, as well.

Q: So Jarrett is at a position now that you can use Dan more at the Will?

BK: Yes.

Q: And kind of along a similar line to (sophomore defensive back) Elijah Shumate, a guy who's had to learn and get his feet wet, I saw he's a starter now on this week's depth chart?

BK: Yeah, I would just say again, I think it's a very similar situation with the three guys. You've got (senior linebacker Carlo) Calabrese, Fox and Grace. I think you now can look at Shumate along with (senior safety Austin) Collinsworth and (junior safety Matthias) Farley. You've got a three‑person rotation that's working out pretty good for us, in situations we're moving the personnel in-and-out.

So I think in both of those situations, all three of those guys are working well together.

Q: On Blake Bell, you talked about his dual-threat capabilities as a quarterback. I think he threw for 400 yards in his first start. What have you seen on film of him as a passer and how much is that a threat?

BK: He threw it to really fast receivers. He's got an outstanding receiving corps. You know, he's got a nice touch on the ball, a good presence about him. He looked like a thrower, not a runner. I know he's a big, physical strong kid, and I think he was used last year more in the goal line offense. He's much more than a goal line offense quarterback. He's a skilled passer of the football, and I think he maybe got a reputation that is not really fitting of who he is. I think he was a five‑star quarterback, and he can throw the football. There's no question about that.

Q: Could you evaluate (sophomore offensive lineman) Ronnie Stanley's play through four games?

BK: He's been solid. He's a young kid, new experience, a rugged schedule in September against three Big Ten opponents, two really aggressive defenses in Michigan and Michigan State, and then seeing something with Purdue where a lot of movement, a lot of pressures, a lot of stunting. He hasn't gotten an easy baptism into playing offensive tackle in the first month. He could have used a couple of easy ones along the way. But it's been a great learning experience.

I think what I was most proud of him on Saturday is he took a pretty big hit on the interception that was called a penalty, which caused a bit of a hip pointer, and really needed to be attended to but sat out one play and came right back in and was part of our last touchdown drive on the right side where Cam went in on the outside zone play untouched, and showed some real toughness getting in there.

I'm proud of the way he's battled in the first month of the season.

Q: Coming from the West Coast, I know there may have been some unease initially when he first got here, weather, climate change and so forth. How has that maturity helped him get on the field at such a meaningful position so soon?

BK: Well, I think not playing last year was a tough transition for him and I think it is for most kids, but I think it was beneficial for him to really get comfortable here at Notre Dame. You know, he went to a school that has so many similarities to Notre Dame that I think that helped him with the transition, as well.

Q: Regarding the offensive line, what would you say would be the main difference in terms of a unit that's able to pass block so well while the running game is struggling a little bit?

BK: There are so many factors to that. You know, I think we're blocking the five guys ‑‑ they're blocking the five guys that they're supposed to block pretty good. There are times when obviously we need to be better at it. We have to block seven and eight, and we've got to get better at that. But they're doing a great job in pass protection. We need to do a much better job as a unit, as a whole, and that's not just the offensive line, that's everybody, coaches and tight ends included, in blocking the whole play.

Q: You mentioned Tommy with a missed read earlier in the press conference. He had a couple of those on Saturday. When he comes off the field after that, is that something that he knows right away that he missed it, or what's that conversation like?

BK: Yeah, there weren't many misreads as much as there were just misses. This was put on a guy ‑‑ it was all man‑to‑man 100 percent, there was no zone, there was not one snap ‑‑ I think there was one snap of Tampa Two coverage the whole game. Other than that it was all 100 percent man‑to‑man coverage. You know, it was a total departure in that sense, is that you've just got to put it on him. Sometimes we had a touchdown where we got tugged and it didn't get called, he overthrew a guy, other times where he needed to put a level one ball. We're going to see more of it. He's just got to be more accurate in those situations.

Q: I've noticed this year you're throwing ‑‑ seem to be throwing a lot more on first down than you have in the past. Is that because of the way defenses are playing you, or is that because of your confidence in your personnel?

BK: It's a little bit of both. Certainly we're looking at our tendencies, defensive tendencies, what we get on first down, and then obviously what the box looks are. You know, just the way things have unfolded on first down, it's a little bit of all those things.

Q: It's the second week in a row that people have talked about your offense tipping plays a little bit. Are you seeing those things on film? I assume obviously if you were seeing them, they're being addressed. Is that something that you are seeing?

BK: No. I think everybody knows what we're trying to do on 3rd-and-1. If you know what we're doing on 1st-and-10 or 2nd-and-4, then you know a lot more than we do.

I think if it's the fourth quarter and if you don't know that we're running the ball out of two tight ends, then you're not paying attention. We're pretty predictable in those kinds of situations. We have to find a way ‑‑ like I said, I think Tim asked a question, there was a fourth-down situation where we threw the ball and we didn't pick up a blitzer off the edge for an easy first down where we threw the ball. Yeah, there's always going to be predictable situations within the game where it's a run versus a pass, and I also think there are going to be times in the game where you're going to be predictable if you're going to manage the football game.

But I don't believe that we're at a point where people say, well, we know what we're going to get on this play.

Q: I just want to talk to you about the other two freshmen receivers, James Onwualu, who's kind of carved a role as a blocker, and then Will Fuller coming in and giving you guys a big spark off the bench.

BK: Yeah, and I would say that both of those guys have been kids that have developed to the level that we are hopeful. We knew Will had great speed, but he tracks the ball so well. His catch was indicative of that, and it was an over‑the‑shoulder catch where he had to track the ball. He tracks it well. He's got strong hands, and obviously he's got great speed. He's got to continue to get stronger. And that's the case for all those freshmen.

James is physically more developed than all of our freshman receivers, so he can go in there and carry a different load for our receivers. Now, we throw the ball while he's in there, sometimes he's not targeted, but a lot of the times James is in a more rugged role for us because physically he is far beyond a freshman in terms of his strength.

So they have developed along the way, and both have done very well for us.

Q: And I wanted to circle back to Shumate. He looked like he won the nickel role. Was it opponent‑specific? What did he do to move ahead of (freshman defensive back) Cole Luke for next week?

BK: Well, as you know, we were getting a lot of action in that nickel position, a lot of drive routes, so we felt like we wanted somebody a little bit more physical in there, disrupt the timing of those drive routes. Cole does a nice job in man‑to‑man coverage, so we moved him on the outside and moved Shumate inside. It's a fluid situation. I think it goes from week to week. But I thought that was a good changeup for this week.

Q: More in relation to Blake Bell, but who do you have running the scout team this week?

BK: (Senior quarterback) Will Cronin. He's not as big as Blake Bell. Sorry. We're going to maybe get him a little bit more. But we've got Will and then we've got (freshman) Rashad Kinlaw. Both those guys usually work that position for us.

Q: How did you prepare for them last year? I know you mentioned he's more than just a goal line kind of battering ram, but is there any certain tackling drills you can do to prepare for a guy who's built like a tight end but is a quarterback?

BK: No, not really. I think we go with our normal tackling circuit every week. Now, you have to prepare for him within your scheme. Somebody has got to have the quarterback within what you do defensively. I think that's probably the biggest thing. And you certainly just have to make sure that you're solid in your tackling.

But the biggest challenge is him having runs and passes built into the same play. That's where it really becomes a challenge, because the kid can throw the football. I think that's being overlooked, is that he throws the ball very well. I think we see him more as a passing threat. He can certainly run it, but he's a passing threat.

Q: Just kind of changing gears, you guys have been running that variation of the fly sweep a little bit where you kind of pitch it to Daniels or someone. Did you talk to Bob Stitt at Colorado School of Mines or did you pick that up from watching film like West Virginia or some team like that?

BK: I've had it in and out of my system for many, many years. It's been around. Again, it goes back to what Michigan State, their Sam linebacker just came in every play, was their extra hat. We were just trying to do something to give him a threat of an outside play to hold him for a second, just for a split second so we could get something up inside because he was folding in on every play. So you're using some misdirection to hold some guys. But it's something that's been in the offensive system that I've had for many, many years.







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