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November 5, 2013

Kelly Q&A: Nov. 5

BRIAN KELLY: I know for both teams we're excited about getting away from the option offenses that we have both seen over the last couple of weeks. Pittsburgh-Notre Dame, it’s been some exciting football games, especially in my tenure both in Cincinnati and here at Notre Dame. I think we all know about last year's game.

I think what we're focused on is for our guys, one more step in the progression of our football team, and that is, you know, again, in November, playing better football.

Offensively, we found a pretty good rhythm, offensively, over the last few weeks. We want to build on that. Defensively, we want to get back to playing traditional football, get away from the option. We played extremely well against USC, and we want to build on that. That's what we're looking for.

We're playing a good defensive football team in Pittsburgh. (Defensive lineman) Aaron Donald has been a one‑man wrecking crew, especially last week against Georgia Tech. Against the option, he was a force.

We know about him from last year. Big, physical defensive line, and he will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down. Tackles for a loss, he's in the backfield, very active. I think for him, you have a powerful guy, but he's also extremely quick at the point of attack. He uses a lot of different techniques to get into the backfield, and we're going to have to ‑‑ we were just talking about things that we will have to do to mitigate some of the things that he does.

Offensively, you know, two outstanding receivers, we know about Devin Street, been a consistent performer for Pittsburgh, year-in and year-out, somebody I'm quite familiar with, and their freshman, Tyler Boyd, he had a great game last week and now gives them great balance in the passing game and (quarterback) Tom Savage. I know Tom -- when I was at Cincinnati he was at Rutgers -- big, strong physical kid who can throw the football. Big offensive line, coach (Paul) Chryst does a great job of wanting to display a physical presence on the offensive side of the ball. They're well-coached, and, again, we have had some great battles with them and expect another very close, tough, hard‑nosed football game against Pittsburgh.

We go on the road. It's a nationally-televised game, our guys are excited about that audience, and certainly for us another challenge as we go on the road.

QUESTION: How much more does (freshman linebacker) Jaylon Smith know about what he's doing now than he did in week one and week two?

BK: I would say that each and every week he builds on his knowledge base. That doesn't necessarily happen in all the players that I've coached in my years. Sometimes it takes a year to kind of digest everything and then come back that next year and you really see kind of a rise in your play. But with this young man, things happen to him, and they stick. He learns from mistakes that are made, and applies them the next week. He's an extraordinary player in the sense that an accelerated learning curve for somebody that experiences it for the first time and very rarely does it come back to hit him again.

Q: He seems to be in the right place for big plays. Is that a function of not necessarily being a good athlete but being a function of being a good athlete in the right place?

BK: I think it's both, a function of his athletic ability ‑‑ I'll take the reverse. He was halfway on the other side of the field when the reverse occurred against Navy. His athletic ability brought him back to the play, went from speed to power, after two people missed a tackle. I mean, really, (junior safety) Eilar Hardy and (senior cornerback) Bennett Jackson missed the tackle. He went from speed to power and made the tackle on the play but was all the way across the field, so that was a product of his incredible athleticism. But he also has a sense, a football sense, that contributes to that development as well.

Q: Your defensive line, I think everyone thought (junior defensive end) Stephon (Tuitt), (senior defensive tackle) Louis (Nix) and (sophomore defensive end) Sheldon (Day) was a pretty good place to start for a defense. How frustrating and how much of a setback has it been when you have not seen that group at 100 percent health?

BK: It has been difficult. We played some good stretches of football, other than maybe the last drives against Arizona State and USC. We put together some good football against some very good offensive football teams and never really getting the three those guys on the field at one time says a lot to the group coming together.

Then you lose (junior linebacker) Jarrett Grace, and we continue to play. I would like to look again at the development of some of the players that have come in and played really good football. The option is a different set of circumstances. We're looking at this weekend hopefully getting at least those three guys on the field at the same time. At what level of health, we will see where it is.

I think everybody at this time of the year isn't at 100 percent, but I think we're getting close where we may get all three of them on the field at one time.

Q: You mentioned getting into a rhythm offensively. As you're grading your offensive efficiency, do you balance the opponent that you have just played where maybe you have physical advantages that you won't have in the next three games or is that irrelevant, you're just looking for execution regardless of who it's against?

BK: I think each and every week you're trying to establish who you are and what you know you can do well against your opponents.

You look at the Michigan State game, everyone was talking about why you couldn't run the football. Well, nobody has been able to run the football on Michigan State this year, so you try to do the things you can do the things that you can do, each and every week. We felt like we could run the ball against Navy and we did.

This week it might be something else. So when I'm talking about the offense, it's knowing what we can do well, based upon what we're going to get. That's the rhythm for me. Knowing what we can do, what we're going to call on in terms of pass plays, and what we're going to ask our offensive line to do in terms of the running game. I think we know what we can do when afforded that opportunity.

Q: You mentioned on Sunday maybe moving some guys around the front seven. You weren't ready to commit to it at that point. Are you going to make subtle changes? Does (sophomore defensive lineman Jarron) Jones become a next Kona Schwenke? Do you move a linebacker around?

BK: I don't think anything drastic, really. (Freshman defensive lineman) Isaac Rochell obviously, Jarron Jones, (senior defensive lineman) Justin Utupo’s going to be asked obviously to do more for us, (junior linebacker) Anthony Rabasa’s going to have to do some things for us at the Cat. But the guys that have been in our defensive meeting room are going to have to be those guys that step up and perform in roles that are expanded.

Again, we're hopeful about Louis being able to play a role this weekend. He will practice today. We're hopeful that we're going to see more of Sheldon. He will continue to practice and see where that takes us. Then Stephon moving out to more of his natural role outside is going to be a benefit for us as well.

Q: With Louis, is conditioning a concern of yours or are you just going into the week knowing you're not going to get 50 plays for him on Saturday regardless of how healthy he is?

BK: That's a good question. I normally would be concerned about the volume and maybe I am a little bit, but he's worked really hard. He's been in at 7:00 in the morning, and that's really early for most people, really early, and that's really early for him, too.

He's really worked hard in these last couple of weeks to stay fit. He had a jug of water with him today, hydrating, I think he's really committed to giving everything he can. He's committed to getting himself back here and doing the best he can to help our football team.

Q: On Sunday you were unclear about (junior linebacker) Ben (Councell’s) injury. Did you get clarification on that? What's the outlook?

BK: It's an ACL, yeah.

Q: And surgery ‑‑

BK: He will have surgery once that quiets down a little bit, probably a couple of days, and then we'll have surgery on the knee.

Q: Couple of weeks ago it seemed like Stephon Tuitt was the one that was hurt, whether it be his back or another hernia. Now he's come into his own. How instrumental has he been the last couple of weeks playing like the guy everyone expected him to?

BK: The option offense that we saw really minimizes what he can do for us. I think getting into a more traditional offense this week you will see more from Stephon. I think he can influence the game a lot more than, say, inside where they can simply block back or scramble block on his legs and neutralize. I think he will have more of an impact on the game this week in terms of what he can do with his size and athleticism than maybe the last couple of weeks.

Q: And (senior safety Austin) Collinsworth?

BK: The MRI came up clean. He has some neck issues and when I say "issues" spasms, facet joints, I don't want to get too in depth because I don't want to say something that's not medically correct, but it has to do with soft tissue and some joint areas and he will not practice today. We're hopeful that clears up, but I would say he's questionable right now.

Q: For a guy like Collinsworth, who had season-ending shoulder surgery last year, it may be unrelated but do you have to be extra careful there?

BK: That was not brought up to me from our doctors or our chiropractor, Jerry Hofferth, who does all the work with our teams. They weren't concerned about any other pieces that were related to any other surgeries, because he's had back surgery as well. They thought this was isolated to the neck itself. He was better today, but he's going to need another day before we know where he is.

Q: You talked about (junior offensive lineman Conor) Hanratty and how aggressive he played on Saturday. Is he ‑‑ presuming that (senior offensive guard Chris) Watt moves back in the starting lineup -- is Hanratty in the running for time at right guard in competition with (freshman Steve) Elmer?

BK: No, he would not be. Steve would stay there and would continue to take the reps there. Conor would come in strictly for Chris or if there was another injury.

Q: You've played against ‑‑ coached against Pittsburgh for many years, at Cincinnati as well. What are the common threads that run through that program regardless who is coaching them or where you're coaching?

BK: Running the football has always been one of their trademarks, because they always had outstanding running backs through the years that we played them.

This year it seems to be more prolific in terms of throwing the football. Maybe that's a little bit different from last year. But they always just play us so hard, and before I got here two losses I think in overtime, difficult games that went to overtime. So Midwestern team, tough, blue collar, physical. They don't seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame. I think it's one of those games where you know you're going to go in and it's going to be a fight. We're prepared for that.

Q: Obviously when you run the ball as well as you did Saturday the mix of running backs seems to work out and look good, but do you feel that you've reached the kind of three‑man mix that you were looking for? Provided that (freshman Tarean) Folston doesn't take any steps back, is he fully in the mix now in that position?

BK: I would say he's fully in the mix. You know, I think you guys have all seen that each week changes, but I would say that barring any injuries, he is definitely in that rotation. I was pleased with all of the backs. Circumstances are such that (junior) Amir (Carlisle) didn't get but one snap, but I was really pleased with the way that (junior) George (Atkinson) ran in his carries and obviously (junior) Cam (McDaniel), so we're pleased with the three of those guys and the way they ran the ball.

Q: Is Chris's injury something that you have to build the muscle around the PCL to strengthen the knee or what's the nature of that?

BK: The PCL was torn only a week ago, and he still had pain. It was an issue of pain. There was some inflammation in there. That now has subsided greatly. I won't talk for Chris relative to his own pain level, but that has definitely decreased. Talking to (head trainer) Rob Hunt this morning we don't have much information in there. Then the big piece is there is a feeling of instability without that PCL, and you have to make some adjustments along the way, in terms of how that feels. We really only got a chance to do some things with him on Thursday last week.

He felt okay on Thursday. I don't know that he really cut it loose on Thursday, and then Saturday in pregame when he really cut it loose, he felt deficient in the sense that he didn't feel like he could do some things and didn't want to let the team down.

I think with a full week of practice, which he will practice today, we think that he's going to be able to make the accommodations to be able to play at the level that he needs to play at. So I think this is both swelling out of there, pain now decreased and then making the accommodations.

Q: Is there maybe a thought that he would have had a better chance to play if he played tackle, where he has to do less lateral movement, where the knee would allow him not to have as much lateral movement?

BK: I think it would be more difficult if he was at tackle.

Q: Question about defense. Seemed like in the Air Force game you could be a little more aggressive at times, but with so many new faces in there against Navy, especially in the second half, you have to stay in a base and not take any shots because you're not sure sometimes where they're going to be. Is that a reality when you have so many new faces in there?

BK: To a degree. I would say that that wasn't the only reason. There could be a list of things. Execution on Navy's part, lack of execution on our part. They had four possessions, and we stopped them two out of the four possessions. We felt like we had a chance if we get lined up right on one of the other possessions on fourth down, we stop them three out of the four possessions in the second half. So we look at it in a different perspective relative to what happened out there.

But there are a number of factors that go to that. The bottom line is that we're past that and we feel like moving on to Pittsburgh we're pretty excited about getting away from the option for a year.

Q: In high school a lot of guys with the size of our offensive linemen might have played short time on defense and short yardage or goal line. Any guys who have come to you this week and said, "Coach, if you need me, I can give you a lift?"

BK: Yeah, we have. You're talking about the depth on the defensive line? Yeah. (Senior center) Bruce Heggie is going to play a little bit. He will be with the defense this week, in an emergency situation, if we feel like we get a need there, so he will take reps with the defense this week. Again, I think that would be more of an emergency situation.

Q: Speaking of emergency situations, did you consider either (junior defensive lineman Chase) Hounshell or (freshman defensive lineman Jacob) Matuska?

BK: We made a decision not to reengage Chase Hounshell this year, so we made that decision last week. That was made prior to the game. That never entered into the conversation. And we had already made the decision on Matuska not to put him in the game.

Q”:Where is Chase, if you had to play him now, could he play in a game and be effective or is he just getting the rust off from not playing?

BK: It's more the rust and reengaging into contact. The surgery that he had, I think we're at that point where we just want to gradually bring him back. We don't want to go from 0 to 60 with Chase. We’d like to, as we are right now, we're reengaging him into light contact, moderate contact to full contact, and we would like to take that through and space that out through the spring instead of jumping him into a full‑contact situation after a third surgery.

Using this analogy could be way off, but it's similar to somebody who is a pitcher who’s had a couple of surgeries and you're really putting them on a pitch count and really being careful. We want to be careful and bring him along slowly. A doctor can say he's medically cleared to go in. We get that. But we want to bring him along slowly. He’s worked so hard to get back, we want to reintroduce him into contact in that kind of setting.

Q: (Senior defensive lineman) Tyler Stockton, your initial inkling to bring him back for a fifth year, he's a guy that hadn't played a lot, had one career tackle going into this year. What went into your decision? What do you feel like you will get from him if he has to play extended minutes on the field?

BK: We like the young man in terms of the locker room. He’s great in the locker room. He's a great kid, really like his personality, he's a team player. He's done whatever we have asked him to do, whether it's on scout team. Just a real good team player for us. He's also a big body. The one thing that we lack around here is sometimes the depth in those positions.

So we felt like he brought a lot to our program at the scholarship level, that 1 through 85, he brought value to this program.

Now, as it relates to the reps he's got on the field, he hasn't gotten a lot but when he's gotten in there, he's done what we've asked him to do. On Saturday he was able to go in there and do his job. He knows that he's not a guy that's going to play 30, 40, 50, so I think the last piece of that is that he's somebody that when we sat him down, we told him what his role was going to be, and he accepted that role. That's big for me, too, he's got to accept the role that we give him.

Q: With Lou, he's seen, obviously, I would say, the MRI and you guys have talked to him about maybe what his concerns are. Trying to put a fine point on it, what is it with Lou, his knee, the pain, concern that he may injury himself for the longer term?

BK: The tendinitis is real, the tendinitis that he has will require the similar surgery that (freshman running back) Greg Bryant had, so this is something that is chronic and will require attention at some time.

After the USC game he was in real pain and it was a real situation for him. Coupled with the fact that the worst thing is to get reinjured the next week or the week after.

So this was a decision that, talking to Brian Ratigan, our team surgeon, and Rob Hunt it was best that he get a PRP, which puts you out for two weeks, which really mitigated the pain that he had with the tendinitis, which now will allow him to go back in and play the game the way he can play it. We don't want him out there hobbling around and putting himself in harm's way. He feels good about it, and he knows he can help the football team.

Q: With Councell’s surgery, is it likely going to push him out of spring play?

BK: He's probably going to be limited for the spring, yes.

Q: And then, from the kickoff coverage you talked about on Sunday, did you follow through with that?

BK: I did, yeah. We did a full extensive look at it. There are some things that I've addressed and I would say this: Sometimes when you look at what you're doing, you're trying to do too much.

When it comes to kickoff coverage, we were counting for probably a little bit too much out there, instead of getting the guys down the field and getting after the football. I think we were counting for the triple reverse pass as well as the double reverse pass and the lonesome end play all at once, instead of getting after it, and we will make those adjustments.

Q: (Sophomore linebacker Romeo) Okwara sort of has become like the Steve Elmer on defense as far as the number of different positions you have had to use him at. He was at the five last week, you have him listed this week as a back‑up. Can you talk about his progress and the various roles he has and where you feel his future might be best suited?

BK: I couldn't talk to you about his future. I'm worried about covering kickoffs right now. Right now he's got some versatility as you know. His ability, his size, he's right now playing in our nickel package as one of our ends. He definitely can put his hands on the ground. He has some athleticism and he can play in space. For the present he has the versatility like you mentioned, like a Steve Elmer that can play a couple of different positions. I haven't given much thought as to what that means moving down the line but right now he serves a great role for us in that he has that flexibility.

Q: In August you mentioned you just want him to get the Cat position down, because that, in itself, was kind of a struggle. For him to evolve at a point where you have utilized him in so many areas, has that spoken to his own progress and development?

BK: I'll be really straight with you on Romeo ‑‑ and I don't want to get too technical. He needs to play football more. He needs to get more playing time. When he plays more football, he's going to be fine.

The game is new to him. He wasn't brought up as a young man that played a lot of football. So each time that he steps on the field, it's new to him. He wasn't blessed with the football instincts. He's learning about the game every day and he's making great progress every day. You can see him growing as a player.

So it's less about the technical stuff from me with Romeo, just every time he steps on that field, whether it's on the special teams assignment or whether it's play-option as a 5 technique or in the nickel package, he just keeps growing. And I don't mean physically, I mean mentally as a football player. That's what he needs the most, and as long as he continues to do that, he's going to be fine.

Q: You talked about offense being at a different strength each week with a different area and the defense coming back ‑‑

BK: I don't know if I said it was a "strength" ‑‑

Q: Just in some areas ‑‑

BK: No, what I said is that we know what we can do, and we know what we can't do. We know a lot more about our strengths and weaknesses offensively, and that's pretty clear, and I think we know now where -- we're now nine games into it -- we know who we are offensively and that is where we'll move forward. I don't think we're a strength in terms of being able to carry this team. We're going to need every piece working together.

Q: Special teams, the state of the union there, these next several games are expected to be maybe like last year where it comes down to a play here or there --

BK: Absolutely.

Q: Where do you see them right now over all?

BK: Well, you know, here is what I told our team. I think we've got one of the best kickoff return guys in the country; we got to get him free. We've got to do a better job on kickoff return, although George has done a great job, we have to sustain some blocks. We’ve had two or three opportunities, if we could sustain a block for another second, he's going to score a touchdown. So we spent a lot of time on special teams showing our guys if you sustain a block with a little more effort, you're going to get him loose.

(Senior receiver and punt returner) TJ Jones, that kid is fearless, he's caught everything. He will catch the football. Give him an opportunity to return a punt, he will return a punt for us. So hang on to your blocks, hang in there. Let's not have a holding penalty behind the play, let's not have a foolish mistake. He's a heck of a return guy who is willing to do it. He's one of your best players, so let's get it done there.

(Junior kicker) Kyle Brindza will kick field goals and win games, so now let's work on kickoff coverage, which is to me want and desire and those kinds of things, because we're going to need them this week, and then we're playing Stanford and BYU that have outstanding STs, so we need to pick up the game as it relates to our ST.

Q: Just in caes Collinsworth isn't available, where does the pecking order fall with safety, there? Does (freshman) Max (Redfield) get into the mix?

BK: Eilar would be three and Max would be obviously four.

Q: We have seen what (junior tight end) Troy Niklas can do catching the ball. He had some good blocks the other day. Is that something he is improving on or has he been doing it all season?

BK: He's been a very good in‑line blocker. He's gotten better. In space he needs to continue to work. He had a holding penalty that cost us a touchdown, but he's done a nice job for us. Him and (junior tight end) Ben Koyack. I think Ben has been outstanding this year and his maturation from earlier in the year where he was just so‑so; he's really grown. His toughness, ability to stick his nose in there and block for us, has really risen. Both those guys in particular. I think Troy has developed in all those areas, and I don't think there is a bigger play in the game than on third down, (senior quarterback) Tommy Rees hitting Troy Niklas. We're down in the game, it’s third down, we’re behind in the fourth quarter, and Tommy and Troy hook up on a very big third down situation. So Troy has been key for us.

Q: The win, it raised your record in the past 10 games of getting a win by a touchdown or less, which is obviously a good stat. Is it possible that you've had so many close games, appeared in 22 games, 10 games being so close. I think half of them ‑‑ I know you don't like point spread but half of them you were favored by two touchdowns or more ‑‑

BK: So are you saying I have not covered and you're upset about me not covering? Is that the question? (Laughter.)

Q: Just asking. You were in so many close games and some that people think you might not have ‑‑ didn't expect to be close games. Does that bother you at all?

BK: I guess I just look at the games differently than maybe the public views the games. Winning in college football is hard to do each and every week. Teams play us so hard. Guys from Navy in tears, grown men crying after a game they put so much effort and their soul into the game. It's hard to win.

I'm not discounting your thoughts, I just look at it differently. A two‑point win, a three‑point win, we just look at our team and want to get better as what we do, regardless of how we do it. We just want to get better.

Q: Is that one of the challenges? Playing Navy, it's a big game, this weekend Pitt, national TV, for them it's a big game, and I'm not discounting it, but Notre Dame is on national TV every week. Is it hard to get 12 games a season, a team emotionally ready to play with the same passion as the team you're playing every week?

BK: It's a challenge each and every week to play teams that are going to play their very best, there is no question about it, but that comes with the territory, and I knew that coming in. We have been fortunate so far that we're holding our own.

Our guys play and play hard. That's all I can ask from them. They play hard. It's interesting you bring that up, because one of the things that I heard before I took this job was that, you know, the other locker room was more excited to play than the Notre Dame locker room, and I said, what do you mean, and, well, they were all excited and yelling and screaming, well, of course, they were coming to Notre Dame Stadium. And I can tell you this, before we played the game, our guys were excited about playing Navy. It wasn’t a morgue in our locker room. Our guys weren't sleeping, I didn't have to wake them up, they knew the challenge at hand.

Our guys compete, and I'll leave you with this to answer the question. There is a lot of pressure at Notre Dame, a lot of scrutiny, there were nine lead changes in that game against Navy, they were down in the fourth quarter, they had to come back in the fourth quarter, and they had to hold the lead.

Those kids can take that with them because that takes a lot to do those things. I'm proud of the way they competed and won that football game. More so than what they were supposed to do. What they did do was more important to me.

Q: Piggy-backing off that, last week you talked about keeping things fresh and fun for the guys week in and week out during this part of the season. How much of an affect does (defensive coordinator) Bob Diaco have to do with that? I know the guys see him as the energy guy on defense.

BK: Bob brings energy every day. He brings it to the office and to everything that he does. There is no question there is energy in the defensive meeting rooms every single day. When you get to, you know, week nine and week 10, you have to be careful with the way you practice. That's the most important thing. You have to be judicious in your time out there. You have to make sure you get the game plan down. Big rah‑rah stuff is not going to do it, but focused and to the point is very important during this time of the season. Making sure your team is prepared but more importantly that will they're fresh and excited about Saturday.

So there are no tricks at this point. It's making sure your team is prepared and you're spending the amount of time on it in terms of getting them ready for Pittsburgh, but also making sure that they're fresh and ready to play on Saturday.

 

 






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