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October 27, 2013

Kelly Q&A: Oct. 27

QUESTION: First of all, could you start with an update on Watt, Ishaq and Sheldon from yesterday?

BRIAN KELLY: (Senior offensive lineman Chris) Watt and (sophomore defensive lineman Sheldon) Day -- Watt had the knee, Day had the ankle -- after talking to our doctors both those guys will be probable for this weekend. (Junior linebacker Ishaq) Williams has a knee and he's doubtful.

Q: Could you talk about the importance of, after so many close games, having a game where you could get so many guys in yesterday?

BK: Certainly, those are the kind of games that give you an opportunity to see some of your younger players get some confidence. It gives you an opportunity to get some reps off of your veterans that have played so much football. Just for example, (junior safety) Matthias Farley was close to 1,000 reps coming into this game, which is unheard of.

Certainly, confidence, young players playing, and then getting a load off some of your veterans. Very important. We'd like to do that earlier in the season every once in a while.

Q: (Freshman running back Tarean) Folston is a guy that we hear questions about all the time. Where is he in terms of his overall development as a freshman?

BK: We think he's making nice progress. He's trying to take reps away from (junior) George Atkinson, who's been in the program for three years; (junior) Amir Carlisle, who played at USC as a freshman and transferred in with very good ball skills; and (junior) Cam McDaniel, who's been a tough, physical runner for us.

You've got to be really good to take reps away from each one of those guys, but he's done that. He ran the ball well and effectively, and he continues to get better each and every week.

Q: What about in terms of blocking, that being such an important aspect?

BK: We haven't asked him to do a ton of it, quite frankly. As he continues to grow and mature and is getting more reps, he's going to have to do more of those things. We haven't put a lot of that on his plate, but as you begin to take more and more reps, he has to do more of those things. That'll be the next level for him.

Q: How do you feel like (senior defensive tackle) Louis Nix's chances are of playing this weekend?

BK: Lou is questionable for the weekend. It will really depend on his practices and the quality of his practices. It's really hard to say until we get out there. I think he's questionable until we get a chance to see him practice.

When you're playing an option team, as I said to you last week, it's really about getting out there and getting acclimated to what you're going to see. If he has a few days of practice where we really like it, I could change that, but he's questionable right now.

Q: Following up on that, given that you said it is knee soreness and tendonitis, is there a hesitancy to throw him in against a team that cut blocks so much where his knees are going to kind of get a workout?

BK: I don't think so. The guys do a really good job of defending themselves and not putting themselves in awkward positions. We're not talking about chop blocking illegally. They don't like it, clearly. They'd rather have teams that don't go below the waist, but they've become so much more aware of how to defend and take on those blocks that it's less of a concern. I wouldn't say it's the kind of teams they enjoy playing against, but I don't think they fear injury when they play option teams.

Q: You mentioned that it was pretty gratifying to see young guys doing so well yesterday, and obviously for some of the offensive guys who had breakthrough days. How about defensively? Was there anybody who got in that impressed you with what he was able to do defensively with the time you gave him?

BK: I think our corners. I thought, in particular, you're looking at (freshman) Cole Luke, played the edge of our defense very well. I thought (freshman lineman) Isaac Rochell had a key play on third down. I thought he played well. I think when you look at the true freshmen that are playing a lot of football for us on both sides of the ball, I think defensively those are the two guys that made some plays for us that stood out.

Q: As you go into this stretch run, what do you hope to see from your running back rotation? Do you hope to see more of a defined pecking order, or are you happy just finding who the hot hand is and progressing as the game goes along?

BK: We want to continue to get as much out of each player as possible. We never want to get to that point where we're saying we've decided on A, B or C. I think we're far enough into the season that we still want to be able to maximize the talents of each player.

Having said that, if we feel we've got a guy out there who's hot, we're certainly going to ride him as we close the month of November.

Q: You mentioned last night that you switched blocking schemes and you felt that helped your running game in the second half. As far as George is concerned, were you concerned that he wasn't running through tackles, running through ankle tackles early in the game?

BK: I think there's a lot of factors. When I talked about schemes, I think we've got to just keep changing them up. We've got to run zone schemes. We've got to run gap schemes. We need to do a better job of mixing those up.

As it relates to George, I think we just keep coming back to we want him to be physical. We want him to use his size and strength, which is speed. We're always consistently reminding him of that. I don't know if there was a particular instance out there as much as that will be the area that we continue to look for development from him.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how (freshman offensive lineman) Steve Elmer did yesterday?

BK: I thought for his first start he did some pretty good things. He's this big kid who can move his feet, pretty athletic, and he handles himself. What I like about him is he's easy to talk to on the sideline. He can come back and pass on information. The moment does not seem to great for him as a true freshman.

Again, it was his first start, there was a lot there to learn from, and he did some pretty good things out there. The thing I would probably underline is he doesn't play like a true freshman out there. There's a lot to learn, and I really like his demeanor and the way he handles himself.

Q: You've been talking about true freshmen. I think there are 10 or 11 in your two-deep. Is that a good thing? Did they earn their way in or was it injuries that caused them to be in there?

BK: I think, by and large, all of these guys we had made a decision that we were going to play. You didn't say (freshmen) Michael Deeb, Malik Zaire, Mike McGlinchey. Those are guys that we don't want to put on the field unless it's a catastrophic situation with injuries. By and large, these are the guys that we had decided we want to play. We felt they could help our football team in 2013.

Q: This week you're No. 25 in the Coaches Poll and unranked in the AP, despite being behind two teams that you've beaten. For a team trying to get to the BCS, does that worry you at all?

BK: I don't think so. I think we're still in a pretty good position as long as we win. We've got to win more football games. We're only 6-2. I think if we can take care of business and win week after week, we've got some quality teams in front of us. I think we're right where we need to be, just keep winning football games. I really believe that as long as we take care of week-to-week, we're going to be fine when it's all said and done.

Q: You started Ishaq yesterday, obviously thought he would have a prominent role against the option. Where do you go if he's not available, and how much of an impact is that not having that guy out there against another option team on Saturday?

BK: Well we lost him early in the first couple of drives. We played (sophomore linebacker) Romeo Okwara quite a bit. We played (junior) Ben Councell. (Senior defensive lineman) Justin Utupo played very well for us. We got a lot of guys involved. We feel like, again, I don't want to provide too much of a cliché, but for us next man in, really went in there and showed well for us. I think we just continue to roll those guys out there and we're in pretty good shape.

Q: On the offensive line there's a little bit of shuffling. At that spot where chemistry is so important with five guys kind of working with one brain most of the time, how delicate of a situation and how tricky is that as you move through the season that you have to replace parts in there?

BK: Certainly that's one of the areas that you want to try and keep your five together. If there's any concerns on the offense for us, it'll be trying to keep that group together. Chris Watt is a senior, he's a tough kid. We think he's going to be able to answer the bell. If we can do that, we feel like we've kept a lot of continuity there, because Elmer has played a lot of football off-and-on. He's been with that unit a lot. If we can dodge a bullet here with Watt, we should be okay.

If not, (junior) Conor Hanratty's been there. The guys know him. He's got a good relationship with them, and those guys spend a lot of time together. We feel like we can overcome that.

Q: When (sophomore offensive lineman) Ronnie Stanley was out yesterday, was that trying to get other guys in or was he banged up a little bit too?

BK: He's banged up a little bit, but nothing that really concerns us.

Q: As we discuss all of these injuries, how important has it been that you've developed the depth where you have guys you can plug in there whereas perhaps you haven't had that depth in the last few seasons?

BK: I think it's part of what college football and the NFL have shown. If you don't develop your players and have them in a position where they're ready to play for you, it's going to be a long year. We're not there yet, but we've made some significant progress in terms of the depth.

I think we'll get close to where want to be after this next cycle. I think we'll be at 85 scholarships, and continue to develop the depth within our program that'll be part of consistency and winning. These guys now can step on the field and continue to help you win.

Q: In your last six seasons as head coach, you're 20-2 in the month of November. As we head into this month, what are some of the reasons you've had so much success at the close of the year?

BK: I just think that within our program we're really focused on year-round conditioning, nutrition. We make it such that it's not a grind. It's not a sprint, but a marathon. October is for pretenders and November is for contenders. We try to ingrain that within our players' and coaches' minds. This is now the time to kick it into gear. This is where you get the opportunity to play for championships.

Q: You led that answer off with conditioning. How much of a role has Paul Longo and his program played in the November success?

BK: He's part of our team. He's been with me a long time. Part of the foundation of this program that has built into the player development area. You can't have a great November without a great plan as it relates to your conditioning, and that goes back to January. That goes back to what you do in June. If you're not trying to win the battle in June, July and August, you're probably going to come up short in November. We want to make sure the tank is full in November, and we've done a pretty good job of it.

You have to be lucky too. You have to stay away from the injury situation, and make sure that your players are developed and count on guys like we're going to have to count on some guys to step up and play big roles for us in November.

Q: You touched a little bit yesterday on (junior tight end) Ben Koyack's contributions. He was somebody who came in with some staggering numbers receiving-wise from his high school days. He seems to be contributing more in ways that don't necessarily show up on stat sheets. Can you extrapolate a little bit on that and how much he has meant to the overall offense when he's in there?

BK: He's been an important piece to our development. He's been an outstanding run blocker. You can see on a critical fourth down situation, he was on the field. He's a guy that has really earned the trust of the coaching staff and again, I really like the progress that he has made. He's really stepped up in so many areas: maturity, work ethic.

He started off last year, if you go back to the first game against Navy, dropping a couple easy passes and really never got his confidence back. This year he's got his confidence. He's stronger, he's faster, and we've always felt he's got really good hands. It's nice to see him developing, because I really think he's got so much more out there that he's going to be able to give to this offense.

Q: It seems like your offense has been most effective with two tight ends. Have you seen that kind of pattern where that seems to be the most effective?

BK: I think it has definitely added to our offense's consistency. It tends to give you some more basic looks, because of the two tight ends you can't run a lot of different sub-packages against two tight end looks. It is certainly something we ran a lot with Everett last year, and I think we'll continue to have that as a key part of our offense.

Q: By my count, I count the cornerbacks with 16 solo tackles yesterday. That seems to be an area that has really progressed. Do you see similar type of progress there?

BK: I think we go back to about mid-season where we felt like our corners needed to be better tacklers, more aggressive, and they really have -- I think coach (Kerry) Cooks has done a great job of taking on that role of demanding more from our corners.

They were a huge difference in the game on Saturday. They were physical. They whipped the blockers. We didn't get a whole lot more out of our inside-out pursuits, so our corners were having to whip blockers on the perimeter, and they did a very, very good job. I think coach Cooks needs to take a lot of that credit, and then (sophomore) KeiVarae (Russell) and (senior) Bennett (Jackson) and (freshman Devin) Butler, (senior) Lo Wood and (freshman) Cole Luke, all those guys have really stepped up and done a very good job.

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