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November 3, 2013

Kelly Q&A: Nov. 3

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could give us an update on the injuries of (senior defensive lineman) Kona (Schwenke), (junior linebacker Ben) Councell and (sophomore defensive lineman Sheldon) Day.

BRIAN KELLY: Kona has a high‑ankle sprain, so he will be out this week. Ben Councell has a significant knee injury. I don't want to get into the specifics other than he'll be out for the season. We're still doing some additional testing on him, but he'll be lost for the season. Sheldon Day, re‑aggravated the high‑ankle sprain, but he was better today, and we're optimistic that we think we may be able to get him this weekend.

I would say that of the news of the injured players, it's clear Kona and Ben are out. But I think we may get Sheldon back. We'll see how he progresses during the week.

Q: (Senior offensive lineman Chris) Watt and (sophomore safety Elijah) Shumate, was it just they didn't look right in pregame or what would you attribute them not playing yesterday too?

BK: Watt has that PCL tear, and with that PCL tear there is a lot of really kind of ‑‑ you have to adjust a lot in terms of your movements. He just didn't feel right in pregame. Didn't feel like he could do some of the things and didn't want to hurt his team. He wanted to go; he just couldn't go. (Junior offensive lineman) Conor (Hanratty) stepped in there and did a nice job for us.

I think he's going to feel a lot better this week, be able to make some of the compensations that he's going to have to make with that no PCL. I'm pretty confident that he's going to be able to get back in the lineup this week.

As it relates to Elijah, he was in a back‑up role for us this weekend because he was not quite 100 percent, but he's 100 percent this week, and he'll be activated for Pittsburgh.

Q: As you mentioned yesterday with taking such a hit upfront on the defensive line, could you just talk a little about the way the linebackers have stepped up and embraced this role as the backbone of that defense in a sense?

BK: Well, I don't know if I would say that it's just the linebackers. Everybody has to do their job wherever that ball hits. I'll just give you an example on Saturday. (Sophomore defensive lineman) Jarron Jones played extremely well for us when he was asked to go in there. (Sophomore linebacker) Romeo Okwara is doing the best he can flailing away there at 245 pounds playing defensive end. So it's a little bit of everybody contributing across the board.

We know a lot about some of the names that keep popping up, but I think those two guys and then you add (senior defensive lineman) Justin Utupo who did some really good things for us, (junior safety) Eilar Hardy. I think those are the guys that you really were counting on late in the game and made some plays for us.

Q: Lastly, it feels like it was 100 years ago, but you faced (Pittsburgh quarterback) Tom Savage when he was at Rutgers and you were at Cincinnati. Do you remember anything about what you saw that day from him?

BK: Yeah, he’s a big kid, strong‑armed and obviously they like to throw the football with him. He's got some talented receivers. We're going to have to prepare ourselves for a kid that likes to throw the football and has some weapons.

Q: Specifically want to ask you about Romeo. Do you envision him staying in the five-technique or does he slide back over to Dog now that you only have (freshman linebacker) Jaylon (Smith) there perhaps?

BK: It's too early to tell. He's going to have to, obviously -- by virtue of where he plays, that Cat position -- he's going to have to go down and play a little bit of five. But he's still growing into the position. Right now we're going to have to kind of assess our depth at that position before we make any firm commitments at it. But I think he's still a guy that can do that. He's probably better suited to stand up right now. But we've seen him in our nickel package, and I think you'll continue to see that. I think we feel more comfortable with him in our nickel fronts more than lining up against a big, physical offensive line like Pittsburgh.

Q: Could you envision him playing some Dog at all this year or is that just like throwing too much at him at this point?

BK: Well, I hope he doesn't have to go play dog because that means Jaylon Smith is off the field, and as you know, we don't like taking him off the field. He's been cross‑trained at the position. So Romeo now, because of our depth position in losing both (senior linebacker) Danny Spond and Ben Councell, he knows both positions. (Senior linebacker) Dan Fox will have to learn that position a little bit. He has in an emergency situation.

Again, I think we’re now at that point with three games to go, we're a little thin in certain positions and we'll have emergency plans, but the starters are going to have to play a lot of football.

Q: I was curious, a lot of leg injuries the last two weeks, how much do you attribute that to the cut blocks?

BK: I can attribute it to Kona Schwenke's injury. He got cut, and it caused that injury. I can contribute it to (junior linebacker) Ishaq Williams' ACL. He was cut, and it caused that injury. And Sheldon Day, his re-injury, all of them contributed specifically to those. You know, it's unfortunate. It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is.

Q: Well, let me ask you a follow‑up to that: Does it make sense to maybe not play more than one in a year given that you have to practice the cut blocks or have to deal with the cut blocks and you've had quite a few injuries because of the cut blocks?

BK: All makes sense. There is no question that as you look at our schedule moving forward, I don't believe that both of them appear on our schedule for quite some time.

Q: Ishaq, you mentioned ACL, is he out long‑term?

BK: No, he was in an immobilizer this week. He’ll begin rehab this week. We'll get him moving. We'll have the bye week, and he should, our protocol has been pretty standard relative to where these guys come back. We should have him back for the BYU game.

Q: How is (senior defensive tackle Louis Nix) and do you think you'll have him this week?

BK: He is right now getting an MRI. He's with our doctors as we speak. We'll have all the information on Lou here in the next hour or so. So I don't have that information for you, but we should know on him within the next couple of hours. Once we do, we'll get that information out to you.

Q: If Kona's out and let's say (Nix) is limited or out, do you think about shifting (junior defensive end Stephon) Tuitt over there? Do you have something else than just making (senior defensive tackle) Tyler Stockton play a zillion reps?

BK: No, we'll probably play Jarron Jones inside at that nose position with Stockton. That would probably be the way that we go right now as we sit here on Sunday. We'll still have some more conversations about it, so I don't want to get held to that today, but that's probably. Tuitt will stay on the outside. We're hoping to get Sheldon Day back. Then you'll have Day and Tuitt and certainly that gives us a little bit more flexibility outside.

Q: Then did (senior safety Austin) Collinsworth suffer something that would limit him this week or was he out for a few plays?

BK: He has a neck strain. We're going to have an MRI on him tomorrow, so we'll know a lot more about his situation tomorrow. But, again, it limited him. He came out. That's where Hardy played in his absence. He was sore today, and, again, we'll have a little bit more information on him.

He may be getting that MRI. We were trying to get it set up based upon where he came in today, he was a lot more sore than we had anticipated so we scheduled an MRI for him today.

Q: In speaking about Hardy, and I know you referenced him earlier, just from watching it live and not going over the tape, he seemed fairly active. Do you anticipate him being able to be that active against conventional offenses?

BK: Certainly. Again, it depends on the circumstances whether we're putting our safety in a run‑support situation or whether he's a half-player. He's got good instincts. He's got good ball skills. He's a smart player. Obviously, he has not been in that rotation, but now with injuries, we feel like he's got the ability to certainly help our football team. He's got a good nose for the ball, and he’s a physical player.

He was on scout team for a number of weeks where I got a chance to see him, and I think he can help our football team. It will just be now to see where that fits relative to injuries. But he's got pretty good instincts, he can fire, he can tackle, and, if given the opportunity, I think he can help us.

Q: Kickoff coverage, when you came into your first year, you guys were pretty good at that in the top-20 in the country. Even some teams that haven't been particularly good with dynamic kickoff returners have gotten big chunks. I know that's probably frustrating for you. What do you feel like is causing that and what can you do to fix it?

BK: I think kickoff coverage has a lot to do with being more physical than the return team. We've just got to get back to being more physical. We were a little hesitant trying to get off blocks without being more physical. We're looking and feeling our way through it. We're going to go back to just being a little bit more physical on that team and getting guys on there. We maybe got caught up with having too much speed and not enough power on that team.

So I'll take a good look at it over the next 24 hours and we'll get some guys down there that are going to be a little bit more physical.

Q: I was curious about a couple schematic things. One, you had (senior quarterback) Tommy (Rees) under center quite a bit yesterday. Was that true to game plan or something that might be in the playbook moving forward even more?

BK: Little bit more game-planning in terms of how we wanted to attack maybe in terms of scheme. It's certainly part of our playbook. It really changes in terms of what we’re getting in terms of the defenses that we see. I would say it was more game planning and it certainly gives our backs the ability to run some more downhill.

Q: Defensively you had your inside defensive linemen in a two‑point stance yesterday. Can you talk about the strategy behind that and what you felt like you gained and what you trade off when you try to do that and how you feel like it works?

BK: What we were trying to do specifically is take away the quarterback-lead and cutback play which I think we kept the quarterback to about 33 yards. So we wouldn't trade that. We thought that that was effective from a schematic standpoint. It's, again, the execution of that offense where you've got to handle all three phases, right? If you take away the quarterback, then it's the dive you've got to manage. If you manage the dive, you've got to take care of the pitch. You've got to do that on all plays.

So to answer your question, part of that, and it's not something we did every down, but one of the reasons why we did it, we thought that it would help us with the quarterback and his ‑‑ he likes to cut things back and caused a lot of problems for some defenses.

Q: Just lastly in your 20‑plus years doing this, have you had a defense that's been hit as hard by injuries as this one?

BK: No, I think this is probably close to the pinnacle. But I've had some offenses that have been hit this hard, and I think if you're in college football or at any level in the pros, you're going to have these times. They don't give you any points for complaining about it. If they did, I'd complain every minute. So we just take care of it internally and get the next guy ready.

Q: Just following up, you talk about the strategy of next man in. How worried are you though that you're running out of next men at certain positions and playing with a patchwork defense?

BK: Well, point well taken. We are running out of next men. We're at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we're left with very few options, especially when you're talking about Schwenke, (junior defensive lineman Tony) Springmann. It becomes an issue now where we have to be very creative in what we're doing and how we're doing it. That's why I don't want to commit to anything today on Sunday because we have some more work to do in terms of looking at our personnel.

We'll figure something out. We'll get 11 guys out there. It's just not going to be one of those things where we're going to have the same group of guys out there all the time. As you know, we're going to have to find a way to stop a big, physical offensive line at Pittsburgh, and that is the thing that concerns you the most.

Q: Just to clarify, when did Chris Watt suffer the PCL, and is it a concern that it could be season-ending?

BK: Well, there is no surgery involved when you tear your PCL, so this is a matter of managing it. It's loose. There is that feeling that there is some instability there, so you are really adapting to it. That's really where he felt in pregame that he couldn't do some of the things that he wanted to. He felt like he couldn't cut off a backside three or get up to the linebacker.

I think as he adapts to it this week, I think he's going to feel a lot more comfortable. He tried to go, he just didn't feel like he could do some of the things. He didn't want to let his team down. Again, I think as he acclimates to the injury, that he's going to be able to go, but it's going to take a little bit more time. So it's not something ‑‑ he's going to play with it, and it's just a matter of how long it takes him to really ‑‑ I don't want to say get used to it, but that's really what we're talking about.

Q: Was it against Air Force though that it occurred?

BK: Yes, that's correct. I'm sorry. It happened against Air Force.

Q: I think last week you mentioned one of the things that the defense was doing better was they didn't have any missed tackles. It seemed that recurred yesterday. Did you see a theme there or was it just the Navy style trying to cause that?

BK: There are so many factors. I thought there are a number of factors that go into it. I think that when we're talking about missed tackles, we're talking about guys that getting off blocks. We're talking about guys playing assignment football. They're not as free.

I wouldn't say when I look at and I spent time with the defense watching the film, I wouldn't say, hey, that was a poor tackling game. There were a couple tackles that we missed and poor execution in plays. But we didn't leave feeling that was a game where we had poor tackling. We would have liked to make a couple plays here and there to get off the field, but there were other things that we were more concerned with.

Q: Kind of wanted to drill down on getting the next man ready. A guy like Eilar or Romeo, can you talk about the progression of what they would be doing week-to-week as the season has gone on here, and maybe how quickly they have to learn some things with how few reps they get?

BK: Well, the first thing we do is we condition them every Monday, if they haven't played a minimum of 15 plays. So the first thing you have to make sure is they don't lose their conditioning, so when they do go in there, they're able to handle the volume of plays. I think the biggest mistake you can make is if they're not playing a lot of plays and they're not getting a lot of work, then you put them in the game, they can't go very long for you. So maintaining their conditioning in the next man in theory and philosophy has been the first thing.

The second thing for us has always been making sure that those guys get an opportunity to get some reps in practice. Even though it may not be as many as the first group, but they're getting some reps. I think it's absolutely crucial, and I've always done that.

The third thing is when they're not taking, we're demanding that they're taking mental reps and there are not a bunch of peripheral things going on, they're focused and paying attention. I think all those things have to happen if you want to have an effective next man in.

Q: Can you give me an idea in the last couple weeks how many reps those guys were getting in practice? Were they dealing with just a couple three, five reps here and there, or was it more substantial than that?

BK: It generally goes when we go 11-on-11, and our offense goes against our defense, it's usually for our break down it will be for example, the first team will get four, the second will get two, so they'll get a couple of reps. Then when we go scout team, it's generally, and again this could change from week-to-week, but generally we're talking about a six rep and a three rep situation. So they're getting about half of what the first team would get.

Q: The MRI with Lou, is there something additional that is concerning about the knee or is it just trying to check where the knee is at?

BK: Yeah, we want to see where he's at, and we want to make sure that there is nothing there. This is more for Lou to make a decision in terms of where he's at in terms of his health and making sure he feels he's capable of playing the rest of the season. So we're taking extra care to make sure that medically he's good to go. That's why we had (team surgeon) Dr. Ratigan come in today to meet with him and essentially give him all of the information necessary for the decision to be made as to whether he goes or he doesn't go.

Q: As far as you guys, it's still knee tendonitis or something else he's deciding on?

BK: No, he's got a small meniscus tear which is a very minimal issue relative to the knee. One that normal situations would not be attended to until after the season. It’s the tendonitis that has been primarily the issue here. That is generally the bigger issue here is the tendonitis that they're dealing with.

Q: Just following up on the Louis Nix decision. When you make those decisions does his individual future and does looking forward to next year have any effect on how he looks at those injuries and what you guys are looking at there?

BK: Well, obviously all those things come into play. We're going to look at and get medical information for him that talks to first his ability to play for Notre Dame and to be medically safe to do so. So that is the first thing.

You sign up to play for Notre Dame. If you're medically cleared and there is no harm in playing, no further harm can come to you because of a particular injury, then that's the first piece. If it could impact in some fashion or surgery needs to be part of that process because of how it may impact the next level, then that has to be part of the thought process as well.

So, again, Louis hasn't made a decision yet as to what he's going to do next year. But we've got to consider all of those factors. The most important thing is transparency. Getting all the information, laying it out there, and having a conversation about it so a good decision can be made.

Q: On the other side of the ball you had four first‑year starters on the offensive line last night. How did they work together and what was the chemistry and learning curve there for them?

BK: I'm glad you brought that up. Conor went in and battled. He's a battler. What you love about Hanratty is you've got a chance when a guy goes in there and battles, and he's an aggressive, tough kid. We'll clean up some of the mistakes that he made in there, but it was nice to watch him go in there and compete. (Junior center) Nick (Martin) did a heck of a job. He was on his own most of the night. We didn't give him much help, and he handled himself very well. Then on the right side you have two first‑year players that have immense talent and when they start translating that immense talent, they're going to be pretty special.

They can make up for a lot of mistakes because they're long and athletic. But on the whole with four guys in there that are playing in their first year, it was pretty impressive.

Q: How much does (senior offensive tackle) Zack (Martin) take credit for that? How much does he have to do with kind of holding that group together with all the experience he has?

BK: Well, he's a great guy to model after. For example, on Monday we'll show some clips of Zack in terms of instincts. When to climb to the second level and when to not climb to the second level, just those instincts. He can pass those instincts because of his experience on to a number of those guys on the offensive line.

So he's a great guy to model after because of his experience and how he plays the game.

Q: Regarding (freshman running back) Tarean Folston, one of the things you mentioned was that earlier in the year he would not have been able to handle the type of load, especially with 11 carries in the fourth quarter for 91 yards. Was it a case of fresh legs or is there something in play during the season that aids the conditioning? Because usually it's perceived the other way around. As the season goes on, it becomes more of a grind.

BK: Yeah, well, he was not 100 percent earlier in the year. He had a severe calf strain coming into camp which hampered him probably the first three or four weeks. Then he had a hip flexor where he was not 100 percent. Then you saw he had a little bit of a hamstring. So he was battling some soft tissue injuries.

So he had been committed in the weight room. Coach (Paul) Longo was working with him, he was doing a little extra and coming on. I think now he's physically at 100 percent. His conditioning level is high, and he's really obviously put himself in that position where he's worked hard at his conditioning level. His strength is up, and that's why he was able to handle the load he did in the fourth quarter.

Q: With Eilar Hardy, I remember last year around this time he wasn't even on the radar. He wasn't on special teams. Some walk‑ons were ahead of him. It seemed like his career just wasn't progressing. When did you sense the light had come on for him? Can you talk specifically about that play where he was able to string out (Navy receiver Shawn) Lynch? In hockey, I know you're a hockey guy, he may have gotten an assist for that tackle, but it didn't show up on the stat sheet but the value of that play of stringing it out?

BK: Yeah, I would agree. I think the thing for Eilar, it's been more of the little things. We know he's had a pretty good innate football ability, if you will. He's had to work hard at the little things. Attention to detail is how I'll leave it. He's focused a lot more on attention to detail.

 





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