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October 29, 2013

Kelly Q&A: Oct. 29

BRIAN KELLY: Winning, as I've always said, is difficult in college football. And last weekend's win, although on the scoreboard looks like for many to be an easy victory, playing the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs we would not make much of it the week leading into, but the altitude does make a difference. It does affect your group.

Our kids had to adjust to it. Playing an offense that coach (Troy) Calhoun puts together. Actually amazing what they do offensively, and I use that word as a guy that, I think, knows a little bit about offense. Their scheme is very difficult. And our guys just did a very good job of persevering and finding a way to get through it and finding a win.

And it starts with putting more points on the board than option teams, because it was a very good win on the road. It was for us, again, one where we were able to get a lot of players. 60 players played in the game. And that's the most that I've had involved in a game since I've been here at Notre Dame.

Some of it by need. Some of it because we're able to get some other players some playing time late in the game. So all those are important, but more importantly for me getting a win against an Academy is not as easy as sometimes the score would indicate.

Moving forward, we get another Academy that we have a great deal of respect for, and we know quite well and a team that we'll play if we can every single year. Coach (Ken) Niumatalolo does an incredible job of getting his team to play week-in week-out regardless of the competition. He plays a very difficult schedule, whether it's Big Ten or the ACC. Each and every week, his team is prepared. They're disciplined as you would imagine. And will provide us another great challenge this weekend.

Certainly from our standpoint, the most important thing for us is to be disciplined again defensively. In one respect having gone against Air Force and having the principles of option already repped out is an advantage. But certainly they've seen us and how we defend the option as well. So that gives them a week to do some things as well. And they certainly have been running the option longer than we've been defending it. So they'll have some things for us that we'll have to adjust to along the way as well.

What they do defensively is they don't give up big plays. (Navy defensive coordinator) coach (Buddy) Green has been around a long time. Defensively, they're fundamentally sound. I really like the way (linebackers DJ) Sargenti and (Don) Pearson play inside, their two inside linebackers, extremely athletic. I think, I'm not certain, but I think they came in as skilled athletes now that are playing the inside linebacker position, and they play extremely aggressive and around the football.

Again, they're a team that does not give up big plays. Last week we were able to get a lot of big plays because of the way the Academy played the game. They were looking for the opportunity to take the run away.

In this instance, they're playing the ball and keeping it in front of them and they've done a great job, the Naval Academy has, all year. They're led offensively by (Keenan) Reynolds, outstanding quarterback who has really been the catalyst for their offense. And you know he can throw the ball extremely well. And so he gives you that option. No pun intended, that he can, if you're sitting on just playing the triple option, he can throw the ball effectively.

So, again, a weapon for them. (Fullbacks Myles) Swain and (Noah) Copeland inside. We were just breaking down film the other day I think against Toledo. Those guys touched the ball combined about 40 times inside-out running the dive.

So they're not afraid to run the dive, if you give it to them. The quarterback. Or getting the ball out on the perimeter. So, again, a great challenge for our football team against the Naval Academy. So, again, disciplined, smart, all those things that you expect. They've got some great wins against a Big Ten team who is playing real well in Indiana, a great win against Pittsburgh and certainly coming here they understand how to play against Notre Dame and had a win a few years ago against us. So we'll have to play well against them. 

QUESTION: First of all, can you give us an update on (senior defensive tackle) Louis Nix and how he's progressing?

BK: Yeah, he's progressing well. He worked out yesterday. But we won't know of his status. I would say he's questionable at this point. Depending on how he moves and what he can do. Again, we're not prepared to play anybody that can't get in there and practice and do the things necessary to prepare for the triple option. So if we're using terms, I would say he's questionable at this point.

Q: Both you and Ken have had a lot of success in the month of November. What does it take to groom a team so that it is peaking at the end of the season?

BK: Well, there's a lot of things. First of all, you've got to stay healthy. I think we would both probably say that sometimes that has to do with being fortunate. But a lot of it also has to do with the way you train your group and making sure that it's not a sprint but it's a marathon and understanding how important November is and getting to November.

I think your guys have to be mentally and physically fresh as well. They have to feel as though when they come in in November that there's an energy to them. They enjoy coming to the Gug, that it's not a chore.

I think there's a lot of things involved in there. There has to be great morale in the group and they want more. They want to come out and practice and prepare and win football games in November.

So a lot of that has to work your way. You have to be winning. I think you have to stay injury‑free and I think you have to have a comprehensive plan that prepares you for success in November that goes 365 days out of the year.

Q: Part of that, too, is building depth. You've had the opportunity to play a lot of freshmen this year. Can you pick one or two that maybe at the beginning of the year you maybe thought you would not get a contribution from but you've been able to get some?

BK: I don't know. I think we go into the season with a thought that we got a pretty good idea who we're going to play and who we're not going to play. I think those young men, we don't believe that they're going to come in and be all‑Americans, but they're going to be contributors.

And I think if you look at the freshmen, the one guy that's been more than a contributor is (linebacker) Jaylon Smith, obviously. He's been more than just a contributor.

So if there's one freshman that has really impacted our football team, I think you'd have to point to Jaylon.

Q: Making it fun, how do you go about making it fun now? Because I assume after seven, eight games it does become a bit of a grind.

BK: Yeah, I think just the way you practice and making sure that you change some things up. And I don't practice very long. We'll go for about an hour and a half today. Last week we took the pads off on Thursday. Haven't done that in a long time.

I think you just try to keep things moving in a sense that it's quick. They know that there's a start and there's a finish. Pretty transparent with the schedule. You post it so they can see what's going on. Today's for us a Tuesday. They know what to expect today in practice.

I think it's communication, transparency. They know what to expect when they come in, there's not a lot of curveballs that we throw at them, and I think they just get into that routine that helps them really understand and shape the day. So they're prepared when they get here.

Q: You talked Sunday about engraining in the mindset that this is the part of the season that's important. Do you talk to them about goals or stress this is the time of season it's more important, or do you just assume they understand that?

BK:  We start the season just like every other program in talking about what our goals are. When we lost our second game, obviously the championship was getting back to it was obviously everybody's goal. So we had to reshape our goals.

The conversation we had after the bye week was all right we've got six games, what do you want to achieve. And our team wanted to win every game they played and have an opportunity to get back to a BCS game.

So redefining them. Then we broke them down into like we normally would, how we prepare, the will to prepare, to go out there and practice and understand how that's going to dictate wins and losses.

We're down to two more games before bye week. So we can see how this is moving forward. So I think breaking it down and showing them what's in front of them and then highlighting obviously how important November is to get to those goals, it's kind of where we're at and it's communicating where we need to go.

Q: And (junior running back) Cam McDaniel became kind of a viral sensation last week because of the photo.

BK: I heard about that.

Q: Did you see the anchorwomen on the Today Show or Good Morning America swooning over him?

BK: No, but I was aware of it by (sports information director) Mike Bertsch. He called me and asked me if he could be on Good Morning America in New York on Friday. I said sure just take him off the flight and bring him to New York. It's not a big deal.

That's how I was first aware of how he was this sensation. But if you know Cam, that's kind of the last thing he would want to do. He's just not that kind of guy. I think he had to clear it through his fiancée first. I think once she was on board he was okay with it.

Q: Did his teammates give him a hard time over it, do you think?

BK: If I was his teammate I certainly would have given him a hard time over it. I don't know what his teammates did. But I've been in a locker room for 25 years. I'm sure there were a couple of guys who did.

Q: Air Force and Navy both triple option teams. Obviously a little bit different. What are the main differences between those two offenses?

BK: Well, there's a standard of play that's as we know it starts with the ability to run the triple option. There's just a lot more to Air Force as they're doing so many other things. They're running power. For example, their number one run play was power. You’re not going to see power from Navy. If you do it will be the first time.

It was just a lot more things that you have to worry about. But Navy runs the triple option better than anybody in the country. I mean, it's what they do. And they have so many variations off of it, just little variations that make a huge difference, splits, the preciseness of how they run it may not to the untrained eye look like much but it's a real big difference.

Where they really hurt us a few years ago they ran triple option but they went to an unbalanced look and we couldn't get our middle linebacker over the top and it made a huge difference.

So they're really good at what they do and they can make some slight variations to what they do, and it's very significant in the overall effectiveness of their triple option.

Q: What does that mean for your defense, just assignments are more important or how does it change?

BK: No. There will be some slight changes, obviously, in how things are defended. But your basic principles still have to be in effect. There's still dive, quarterback, pitch, the ability to force the football, the ability to have answers for things that are occurring down-and-distance, throwing the football, all those things are still in play.

Q: Your corner backs had more than 20 tackles against Air Force. How important is their role in getting up in the run and stopping the option?

BK: Formation will have a lot to do with it. How they obviously utilize their formations will dictate. Air Force was in some formational looks that required our corners to be involved in force and I'm sure Navy will employ some of those looks as well. It really has a lot to do with their game plan and then how we employ our corners.

Sometimes they could be involved quite a bit and other times they may have other jobs and responsibilities.

Q: Asking about (sophomore cornerback) KeiVarae Russell. He had very high expectations for himself coming into the year, but maybe didn't have the start he wanted. How has he matured throughout the year and where is he at now?

BK: I think the things that I would point out for KeiVarae is that he's become much more of a student of the game. Not just an athlete playing the cornerback position. I think he came into year two as an athlete playing corner.

I think by mid-season he became somebody that has now developed himself into a cornerback. He understands the position. He understands the split of the receiver and how it might affect the route. He understands his sequencing within coverages. And I think what you've seen is somebody growing into playing corner. Again, understanding where he came from as an offensive player, I think you saw an athlete playing corner earlier in the year and somebody that has developed himself, and coach (Kerry) Cooks has obviously done a great job of helping in that development of him being a corner and understanding his position.

Q: Could you break down the pluses and minuses of (freshman offensive lineman) Steve Elmer's first start?

BK: Well, I'd say the plus is that he's a very smart kid. He's not going to have a lot of missed assignments. Very conscientious kid. The other plus is he's long. I mean, he's a long athletic kid. He can make up for some deficiencies in terms of some of his techniques, because of his athleticism.

He’s got to get stronger, physically stronger. He's still just a freshman, a true freshman, so that physical strength needs to continue to come along and develop. And he needs to play with a consistent technique. He has a tendency to get out in front of himself a little bit if you know what I mean. He just needs to slow down a little bit.

But all in all, if you're asking about a true freshman playing, the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses.

Q: What did either you or coach (Harry) Hiestand say to him after the false start on the first drive?

BK: I usually talk to Coach Hiestand when it comes to the offensive line and he'll address them on the bench. It's much easier, when you have a group of five guys -- unless it's the center and the cornerback, I'll get involved in that because sometimes because it's a matter of communication -- but when there's a false start with a particular lineman, coach Hiestand usually handles that in his own manner. He's got a way of correcting that quickly.

Q: How is his manner?

BK: His manner is kind of ‑‑ it's an interesting one in that sometimes it doesn't require much conversation at all. It's just a look. And that look really works quite well with those guys. He's got such a great relationship with them.

Q: With Cam how hard is it to get a helmet that fits or chin strap that works?

BK: I was asking (equipment manager) Ryan Grooms about that. I guess they must have some kind of deal going where he gets cuts on any kind of placement he gets on the front page. I don't know. But he needs to keep his helmet on because he's got to come off the field every time that happens.

Q: I think it was before the Arizona State game, after the Oklahoma game, when you said you felt like the defense was good enough to win the rest of the games. Since then they've been more than good enough. They've pitched a couple of second half shutouts and three straight third-quarter shutouts, what were some of the indicators that led you to make that statement at the time?

BK: Fundamentals more than anything else. We weren't giving up big plays, except for the two against Oklahoma, which obviously I felt were very correctible mistakes, in cover three and one was a missed assignment. So I felt the fundamentals were in place. I thought we were beginning to play the kind of run defense necessary to keep us in every ballgame. And we were starting to get some really good play on the edge of our defense, which is so important to everything that we do in the 3‑4 defense. So there were signs that were pointing in that direction. Now you've got to put it all together. But I was very confident that the markers were there and they were pointing in the right direction.

That was just a matter they all had to put it together. And they're putting it together. We've had to replace some players along the way, but I think those young guys that have stepped in have continued to progress. So that was my assessment when I made that comment that the markers were pointing in those fundamental areas which coach (Bob) Diaco does such a great job of working on.

Our tackling was good. And so if you just take those basic tenets of defense, they were in play. We just needed to be more consistent.

Q: Speaking of tackling, I think it might have been that week where you spent a little bit more time, or so we heard, a little more time live tackling, have you been happy? Have you seen a significant improvement in the last three weeks, just the overall tackling?

BK: Yeah, I think so. I think we were talking specific on the edge of our defense, our corners, our safeties, we needed to tackle better there. We didn't tackle at the level that we thought we should have.

We stayed with our fundamentals, our tackling circuit, our coach calls it our musts. We were working on some of those things that we must be good at and stayed the course with it and just I think it was probably a little bit more of an emphasis, if you will, by verbal demand. Hey, we have to do this if we want to continue to be successful.

Q: Following up on KeiVarae Russell, we've had an opportunity, obviously, to speak to him a little bit more this year. He's quite a unique personality. Upbeat and optimistic and turn the page when you struggle. I was wondering when you decided to move him to corner if that personality played into the decision of moving him to a position where you've got to be able to bounce back when you fail?

BK: It did. Yeah, his demeanor certainly helped in making the decision. But his demeanor also needed to change a little bit this year for him to move to that next level. And so as much as it helped us in making the initial decision to move him, in that he's a guy that I thought could handle both success and failure, I think this year he needed to be more focused on his craft, really the game of football and him being so absorbed in being a corner that that was the next charge for him. And I think he made that next level this year. So, yeah, I think those were in play.

Q: With (freshman receiver) Corey Robinson, when you were looking at him as a potential player for your team, I'm wondering how difficult is it to evaluate kids who play small ball, given that they're probably going to be pretty dominant in every game.

BK: You have to project. You've got to be willing to trust your instincts on some of these things. And that's where this in the recruiting process sometimes, you know, you have those longer discussions in the staff room where everybody wants a sure thing or what is perceived to be a sure thing. I'm probably the guy on the other side. Being a Division II head coach, I took flyers all the time, because I was forced to. So they come easier to me.

I'm not saying I'm the reason behind taking Cory Robinson. But you do have to have a sense that you can project. And it is more difficult when you play competitions that you're superior to. Coupled with the fact that he's just bigger than everybody that he's playing against. But we took into the fact his pedigree. We took into fact in how our individual meeting with him we were just struck with his intangibles and it's that he was going to continue to grow and get stronger and he was going to want to achieve like he's achieved in everything else, that this was probably a pretty good bet for us.

Q: If he continues to grow, I don't know if he still is, if there's any indication, but if he continues to grow, is there any way he grows out of being a wide receiver or is that never going to be a problem?

BK: Well, I think the kid,Jurevicius kid at Penn State was 6-9, 6-10, we've had those quick conversations about it, what if his dad genes kick in he gets to seven foot, I think we're out of business here. Might be (Notre Dame basketball coach) Mike Brey is talking to me a little bit.

But I think he can sustain a couple more inches. It hasn't affected his ability to ‑‑ look, it's still about his hand-eye coordination, his catching radius, his ability to go up and catch the football. Even if he's not a 4.4, 4.5, guy you can see what he can do if the ball is put in a good location. So I think we can absorb a few more inches. But if we get into the next level of 6-10, 6-11 then we'll have to have another conversation.

Q: Saturday he mentioned that the team makes fun of him because often when he catches the ball he is kind of stop, drop and roll. He was pretty happy with himself that he kept his feet. Is that a concern to you at this point or do you figure that's just a natural evolution?

BK: He's just growing into his body. He's still growing into his body. When he gets a strong core in his lower body is strengthened in the off season through coach (Paul) Longo's program, you're going to see a kid who is going to be able to hold his line and not ‑‑ there were some teams that really he struggled with in terms of holding his line. He's getting so much better at it technically that he's able to do it now. But when he gets stronger, I don't think we'll be dealing with him having issues of being on the ground.

Q: Switching gears to (senior defensive lineman) Kona (Schwenke), such a different body type than when he showed up here. And it looked for a while that maybe he wasn't going to be a contributor here. What do you feel like put the light on for him and just comment on his year, because he's gotten a lot of action for you.

BK: Yeah, we're getting a lot of favorable reports on him being able to play next year as well, at the next level. He's a kid who is lean at 305 pounds right now. They're hard to find at 6-4. And he's played well for us. And here's a young man that didn't play a lot of football. He was in my office early in the year. Hey, where do I stand?

Am I going to get an opportunity this year? And we felt like he would. He had a great preseason camp. And he's been really important to us this year. And his play has been for us the best it's been since he's been here.

Q: Gotten a lot of mileage out of those Hawaii kids, and he's the last of them. As far as your recruiting philosophy and the logistics that it takes to get over there, is it worth going over there? What really has to happen for you to get back involved with that state?

BK: There has to be an initial connection with Notre Dame. And we're staying connected with obviously the contacts that we have at Punahou (High School) and where Kona is from. If we get an initial connection with, hey, we've got a young man that has an interest in Notre Dame, we'll make the personal investment of going out there and recruiting.

But there has to be an initial, hey, we have a young man that has an interest in Notre Dame. If we have that we'll certainly spend the time and put in the investment there.

Q: (Senior offensive lineman Chris) Watt, (junior linebacker) Ishaq (Williams) and (sophomore defensive lineman) Sheldon (Day) still on the same trajectory you thought on Sunday with those guys?

BK: Watt, I believe is. Ishaq is out for this weekend. Did I say he was out on ‑‑ yeah, he's out. He won't play this weekend. Watt looked good today, we're going to move him around. So I would say if we're using words like the NFL teams do, I would say he's probable.

Day is probable. We've got an MRI on that ankle. We wanted to rule out any further high ankle damage to the ligaments, and it was a bone bruise. So it was totally different. So we feel pretty good about that. He'll practice today.

Q: (Sophomore offensive lineman Ronnie) Stanley, in that group is he ‑‑

BK: He'll practice today. He'll be out today. I heard he had a tweet about being at Saint Liam's or something. He gets the same -- we call it the Zaire treatment -- today. Our new standard in our books.

Q: Eric was asking about guys who required some projection, Corey, Kona. (Freshman linebacker) Jaylon Smith is on the opposite end of that?

BK: No projections there. There was a projection: Is he a running back, safety, linebacker, wherever he wanted to play.

Q: This season he's had, I don't know if it's been a surprise to you or not, but at what point did what he's been doing stop surprising you based on your recruitment of him, what you knew about him, his personality, all that?

BK: It hasn't stopped surprising me because of the different things that have tested him. Let's go to this weekend. Having to defend options. And if you watched him, which I know you did, when you're a 3‑4 linebacker playing Drop, you force the football. That's what you do.

You immediately attack and force. He was not in that role. He was slow-playing the quarterback, the pitch. And the patience that he showed to buy time for the Mike to get over a block or the safety to come from the backside hash, you just don't teach that. It's just instincts that he had that he could slow-play the options.

So, again, another weekend where you go the kid just has those things that are hard to teach.

Q: You were talking about goal adjustments a little bit earlier. Your previous stops, maybe it was easier because you had a conference championship to divert your attention to. Have you found that to be a unique challenge here in terms of getting guys to focus on something else when going all the way is off the books?

BK: Yes. Yes, it is. But we've never talked about it, really. This is the first year we've even talked about bowl games and things of that nature. We were too busy kind of putting the thing together and you know what I mean, talking about building it from day-to-day.

And last year, if anybody brought up anything relative to a bowl when you're on the run that we were last year, we would have taken their tongues out.

So this year it was a bit of an adjustment and adjusting to the circumstances, but it's not normally something that we would do, the circumstances are unique, where you're not dealing with a conference championship, though.

Q: Back on Louis a little bit. This might be putting too fine a point on his injury but you mentioned you can't play an option team and not prepare during the week. If you were playing Stanford this week, would he still be questionable, or because that's a little more traditional, would he be more probable or in?

BK: That's a good question. That's a good question. I don't have an answer for you, other than I think you can't go into playing the option team with hesitation or doubt.

But when you're playing Stanford and you're firing off the ball and it's just a matter of beating the guy over you, there's less hesitation.

So I don't know if I've answered your question, but there's a little bit more hesitation in there when you are playing an option team. And we can't have that from our inside guys.

Q: Every time you've been asked about (senior quarterback) Tommy (Rees) is in a big picture, legacy type thing, it’s in the heat of the moment after a game. On a Tuesday like the last game here, what do you think he's sort of meant for the program, meant for your time here, could you just sort of speak to him on kind of a panoramic view?

BK: Yeah, you know, I don't normally have much time to think about those things, because I don't think big picture. But you've asked the question and he kind of resembles that kind of fighting Irish.

He just keeps coming. He just shows up every day and keeps working and sometimes it doesn't look the greatest. But he keeps playing. And keeps persevering. And when it's all said and done, he represents all the things that we like. He's a great teammate.

You really like your relationship with him. You love his competitiveness. Cares about the right things. So I guess that's how without having a chance to really formulate anything, he's just fighting Irish.

Q: Just to build on that, you had mentioned I think it wasn't his first start but his first game where he really got in there against Tulsa you thought he did great. And it was something where it was more of an intangible thing you threw a guy in there and he competed the whole time. Did you have to project for him coming out of high school, I know he wasn't part of the recruiting plan, you weren't here yet but was he the type of guy he doesn't have all the qualities you were looking for in a quarterback but you could see the main ones that make a quarterback successful?

BK: Honestly I didn't know much about him out of high school. I don't even know if I watched any high school film. I was on a mission to kind of hold the class together more so. And I kind of just took it on faith that, hey, these are the guys that have been offered, let's just keep the class together.

I loved him when I met him in person. He's a great kid. And that was kind of enough for me. But I didn't spend much time researching, because it really wasn't going to change anything. I wasn't going to sit down and watch him and say, I don't like him let's not recruit him. That ship had sailed in my estimation. I had never taken over a program and said we're not going to recruit them.

If a scholarship had been offered, we were going to honor the commitment.

Q: My question is more for just specifically for Tommy, when you saw him go in and compete and the next four games compete and win, did you say wow that's something different than I saw just in practice drills? He had “it” for a quarterback?

BK: I love the ability for a freshman to go in there and in the moment be not too big. Certainly you're the starting quarterback at Notre Dame, it's a big moment. But it didn't seem to really overwhelm him and certainly that was the first thing that struck me is that this kid loves to compete, loves the moment, and being the quarterback at Notre Dame, I don't think it's going to be too much for him.

Q: Switching gears, about two weeks ago you mentioned you might get (junior defensive lineman) Chase Hounshell in pads. Did that progress where ‑‑

BK: Yeah, he's in pads, but I don't think we're going to play him this year. But he's in pads. He's in drill work. But I don't believe we'll play him this year.

Q: (Sophomore safety Elijah) Shumate was the other guy.

BK: He's moving around well. He'll practice. What his role will be, we'll determine that as we work our way through the week.

Q: Couple injuries, potential injury situations, (junior receiver) DaVaris Daniels, was he okay coming out of that game?

BK: Yes, he had great strength, bit of a hip flexor. Had great strength, looked good yesterday moving around well. We don't think there's anything there that would hold him back.

Q: And we saw, I don't think any of us saw it in person, but the replay on the TV version (junior running back George) Atkinson was on the sideline with sweats at the end of the game. Was he banged up?

BK: Not that I'm aware of. Not that I'm aware of.

Q: So your decision, he only carried six times Saturday and the announcers had said that you had indicated you wanted to get Atkinson and (junior running back Amir) Carlisle more involved. So the six carries was just a decision ‑‑

BK: Yeah, I think we at that point felt like the game was in hand, and we wanted to run (freshman Tarean) Folston, give him a lot more work. So there was a commitment to get him a lot more work.

Q: Since you mentioned Folston, just your impressions as he doubled his amount of carries for the season in that game?

BK: I thought he looked good. I liked the way he ran. I thought he was elusive. Made some nice cuts inside the hole. I thought he looked good. I think that for Tarean, it's just the little things, hold onto the football, just the little things are really the things we've got to clean up. But he was fun to watch.








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