Brian Kelly talked about his run game, the options of Air Force and his program’s momentum. The Irish head coach anticipates a major challenge on Saturday. Read his full Tuesday transcript.
Brian Kelly: Good afternoon. Just a quick recap on last week. I think what I was most pleased with was that our team matched the intensity of Purdue early on. Again, that was a team that had time off in preparing for us. We were coming off four really tough football games. For us to go and play with that kind of energy says a lot about our team. Secondly, the physical play that we've been stressing for the past year and a half, I thought that our backs ran hard, our receivers blocked very well, we tackled. Those were all the components of playing winning football.
We got a chance to enjoy that win, then our focus shifted directly towards Air Force, a team that has played in four competitive bowl games, coach (Troy) Calhoun and his staff have done a great job of getting their players to play consistently week after week, year after year. It's a team that gives you so many different things to defend.
Offensively, as you know, one of the top rushing teams in the country, but at the same time (Tim) Jefferson has thrown I think one of every six passes for a touchdown. Their pass efficiency is off the charts.The balance there that they have offensively creates headaches for everybody in the country. This is a team that requires a great deal of not only understanding of defending the principles of option but throwing the football. It's not cupcake throws. We're talking about shot passes. We're talking about pushing the ball down the field vertically. A veteran team, 14 seniors on this team that know how to win. We saw that last week against Navy.
Controlled the game, Navy at home came back on them. They did not quit. So that's why we were quick to get our attention to Air Force after enjoying the win for 24 hours against Purdue because this is going to be a great challenge for our football team.
Don't let me forget about their defense as well. Experienced defensive backfield, starting two inside linebackers, a back. They understand the 3-4 scheme that has been implemented there for several years now. Great challenge for our football team.
We're back at home. We're excited about that. But, again, we're going to have to play very well to beat Air Force.
Q: Brian, just curious, what did you learn from those experiences of playing the option teams last year that will help you this time? What about those experiences won't help you with Air Force?
BK: Well, I just think being more familiar with it as a staff and being more familiar with it as how the game unfolds are all experiences you can take with you. Certainly we have to play the way we play. We cannot become so out of character in stopping the option that we forget about the things that we teach every day. That is playing physical, flying to the football, great tackling. I think you've got to be careful because sometimes option, you get this sense of, “Hey, it's option.” But we have to do what we do. That is, we've got to play physical at the line of scrimmage and we've got to tackle well as understanding the option being the most important principle.
Q: You mentioned Sunday that you hadn't had a chance to go over how Aaron Lynch did in the running plays. How did that come out? How ready do you think Lynch and Tuitt will be ready to play in this game?
BK: Well, they're gonna play. They have to play. I think Aaron is developing. He jumped out of his fits on a few occasions. But he's so athletic, he can make up for some of those things. Just continue to develop him. I think he did some very good things. We love his intensity. He's a game-day player. He comes to play, loves to complete. Stephon has made great progress, too. We trust his ability to go in there and stay disciplined. So you're going to see a number of those guys, those young guys, on the field.
Q: Kapron Lewis-Moore really has been productive against options.
BK: He's 290 plus pounds and he moves like a guy who is 245, 250 pounds. Quick feet plus his size give him the ability to do really good things. I think the same thing with (Darius) Fleming. Obviously strong, physical at the point of attack. If you want to base him out, he's going to be able to hold the point but he can also move his feet very well.
Q: Robert Blanton was a useful guy for you. Can you talk about him versus the option, what you continue to get from him throughout the season.
BK: I think you start with what you said, his versatility allows him to play so many positions for us. Last year he played safety and nickel. We're settling in at the cornerback position for him. I think that's where he provides us probably the best chance of success.
But, again, you can't underestimate his ability to play a number of different positions.
Q: Compare and contrast the Air Force option with the Navy option.
BK: Well, there's many more pieces in the Air Force offense. They're going to run some traditional zone, inside/outside zone, they're going to run some power, some gap. You're not going to get any of that from Navy, whereas you're going to get a balance in terms of what you'll have to defend.Jefferson is obviously a guy that can throw the ball very well. So the receiving core, it's not off of play-action or crack-and-go, it's a comprehensive passing game.This incorporates a lot of principles. Quite different in that respect.
Q: Is there any offense it really does compare to?
BK: No, not that we have gone against.The base is you have to respect and you have to be really sound against option principles. Then the next play it's lead zone. That's where they really put you in a very difficult position. That's going to require some great discipline on our part.
Q: Can you give us an update on Ethan Johnson?
BK: Yes. He is still in that walking boot. He will be until about Thursday. We'll take it off. We'll have to see how he moves around on Thursday. We're hopeful. But you really don't know. When you immobilize for 48 (hours), you're hoping for great results. We've been very aggressive in the treatment, but we'll have to really see on Thursday.
He'll be involved in all of our drills, our walk-throughs. He's going to be an inside guy for us, so he's just got to be physical at the point of attack. It's not like he's going to have a lot of different things going on. We hope he'll be able to answer the bell.
Q: Otherwise any health changes?
BK: No, we're pretty good.
Q: Obviously they run the ball very well, third in the nation. The time of possession isn't there, oddly. Is it just a matter of efficiency both for you guys on offense and almost for them?
BK: Well, it is for them because their big-strike scoring ability and throwing the ability. That's why one of every six passes has been a touchdown. They're running the ball effective, getting tons of yardage, then getting the opportunity to throw the ball over your head. Consequently the time of possession has been down a little bit. I would not say it's attributed to their ability to put points on the board.
Q: Playing keep-away from you guys almost as important as it is in the Navy game or not as much against them?
BK: I don't know that I like that term in itself for the way I would go into a game. I think we have to be physical, we have to play the way we are. I don't think we can come in this week and all of a sudden change the way we are, how we do things. Certainly we have to be extremely cognizant and aware of option, the principles of option, how important that is. But I don't want to sway our guys from thinking about how to play this game, and that is physical at the point of attack.
Q: I meant more offensively. You turn the ball against Navy you might not see it for the rest of the quarter. Is it different against Air Force? Can you weather mistakes more with them?
BK: You know, I would say that certainly in their ability offensively to run the football, you're going to lose some opportunities if you turn the football over. There's no debating that. I don't know that that's going to change the way we operate our offense.
Q: You talk about being more physical in this game. I assume that equates to being more proactive as opposed to reactive. Would that be accurate?
BK: I think what I'm trying to say is I don't want to get away from who we're becoming, and that is a team that's playing really physical. I don't think you jump into the sixth week and all of a sudden now you stand up and you take a step back. I think we keep charging. I think we keep doing what we've been doing. Certainly we have to be aware of option and the responsibilities. It's an extremely multifaceted offense. But we've got to be who we are, and that is being physical on both sides of the ball.
Q: Did you not do that against Navy last year?
BK: I don't know if that was necessarily the case as much as from our standpoint we probably got away from who we are and how we want to play. I think we saw a better indication in the Army game of controlling the line of scrimmage and playing physical.
Q: In terms of through the years when you've coached a team prior to a bye week, are there some characteristics of how a team reacts to that? Is it positive? Is there something you have to guard against?
BK: No, I don't think there's ever been an indication from me in the teams that I've coached that the bye week coming up is a potential pitfall. It's always you don't want to be around me after a loss with a bye week. I don't know that that's ever been something that has deterred our kids from playing the way they need to play.
Q: The defensive rebuilding plan, has that exceeded your expectations? Did you think when you got here you'd be playing at this level of consistency this soon?
BK: We knew it was going to be a focus. We knew it wasn't going to happen overnight. We had some decent pieces in place. When you have a guy like Manti Te'o, that provides you an impetus because of his energy and leadership skills. I think it was good that we have a good recruiting class defensively. I think once we were able to secure a very good start, then our expectations were rising relative to the kind of defense we could play.
There's another step in that process: we're going to have to continue to recruit defensively, especially on the back end, as we continue to progress defensively.
Q: This is a big question. I don't want it to be. What tact have you taken as far as recruiting defensively. There's been speculation that maybe Notre Dame would have trouble recruiting the type of players you need to be dominant defensively. What has been your philosophy?
BK: First it's been playing time, the ability to come in and play and compete. We're seeing that right now with a number of freshmen on the defensive side of the ball. We have that.Also being part of something, being part of that class that changes the defensive culture, if you will, at the University of Notre Dame. Those things. Then just good hard fashioned recruiting, building relationships with guys, being dogged in the recruiting process.
Q: You have won three games in a row now. At what point does that start to become routine for the players and they expect it more?
BK: Well, I've said this many times. There's one thing about this group, they've had a lot of confidence. What they had to exhibit is some poise. What they've had to exhibit to me is a consistency in their approach and believing they were going to win every game they play. Those things are starting to come together. That happens with winning.
But there were other components that weren't there yet. They're still in that work-in-progress mode. That was controlling the line of scrimmage. I think that's obviously very, very important. Then eliminating costly mistakes, which as you know has been the reason why we're 3-2 right now.
Confidence has been there. Obviously it gets stronger when you win. But the one great thing about this group is their preparation has been really good and their consistency to preparation. That's why we feel very confident that we don't want to change much relative to week-to-week. Certainly we have to game plan. That's got to be important. But we want to stay consistent with who we are.
Q: You may have just answered my next question. In terms of the way you ran the ball last week, also not making as many mistakes as far as turnovers, do you continue to hammer those things or do you start throwing new things into the mix with them?
BK: Well, like I said, I think the balance has always been important offensively, philosophically, and making certain that you get the ball to your play-makers. I think what we're seeing is we have play-makers both at the running game and in the passing game. They've got to touch the football.
I think that probably more than anything else is what we're finding that both of our backs have run so effectively and have complemented everything that we're doing, that's why we have to be balanced. Look, if we didn't have a running back that was capable of doing some of the things, we probably would throw it a lot more.
Q: You added the title run game coordinator to Ed Warinner earlier this year. How much was that a reflection of the commitment of building that physical identity that you have?
BK: It was more about an organizational point than it was about a mentality. Organizationally each staff member has a responsibility. The coordinator is responsible on his own for putting both the offensive run game and pass game. You operate a lot more efficiently if you can kind of section that out to one person. That's what I felt organizationally having a run game coordinator allowed us to do our work more efficiently, more so than a commitment to the run game.
Q: How much has he had an impact? The physical identity with that running game has been showing up more and more each week.
BK: There are so many components to that. I think the first component is in the weight room. There's no question that being physically strong, and I think I brought this up a couple of times, a guy like Trevor Robinson, year and a half ago was not very strong. He's now a physical player. That development physically has been probably as important to developing that running game. Ed does a great job, as well as Mike Denbrock, who is involved in the line as well. Both those guys do a great job with technique and fundamentals. I think those two work hand-in-hand.
Q: You had mentioned just a little bit ago about changing the defensive culture at Notre Dame. When you arrived here, I don't know if I want to phrase it as an inferiority complex, you yourself said when you arrived you studied the last 15 years and said, Look, we'll get our offensive guys. Did you feel there was an inferiority complex at Notre Dame?
BK: There were issues of more than anything else that weren't on equal footing here. We needed to make sure that our players knew, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that we can't win without you. We're not going to go into this and try to outscore people. That's only going to last a short period of time. We're here for a long period of time. We hope to be here for a very long period of time, and to build the foundation of long-term success, it's got to be invested in what you do defensively.I think when they heard that, knew that, they were an equal part in what we were doing, then it's just let's go to work.
Q: You mentioned Sunday Te'o may have played his best game of the year against Purdue. It seems strange to suggest his confidence grew. Was he more decisive than you saw from him?
BK: He played well. As I watched the film and had it graded out, he's pretty consistent. So I don't know if I can put one over the other in terms of particular games. Yeah, he just got a great understanding of the defense. But more importantly he can recognize things before they happen. That's film study. That's attention to detail. And the really great players have that.I think that's the one trait I've seen this year more than any.
Now, he had something to prove against Purdue, as well. He had his worst game, he believes, as a college football player at Notre Dame in the opener against Purdue last year. We made sure he knew about that.
Q: It's not that he's not going to trust himself this week. Talking to some of the players before the Navy game last year, they were wary of a different approach. They're going to get cut block. Is that a challenge this week to keep them focused?
BK: No, because we feel like, more than else, the way we're going to approach it, if you're afraid of that, you're not going to play. We have to be who we are. Yeah, we have to understand the game plan and what Air Force brings, which is they strike on such a wide front. But, no, we have to play physical.We're big, strong, physical. They're agile, mobile and smart. They play extremely hard. We have to use our attributes and we have to be a physical team.
Q: About Manti, why is he able to develop? What is it about him personally that allows him to take that step up?
BK: Well, here is a young man with an immense amount of pride, a pride in his own culture, his own beliefs, his faith, his own family. And he carries that same pride to what he does on the football field. So when people talk about the complete package, it's that he carries that same pride with him and everything that he does. That's what he brings to our football program. That's why there's never a day that he's not looking to be better. I think it's the pride that drives that.
Q: Last year he had the tendency to whiff a couple times on tackles. He hasn't done that at all. What is different that he doesn't do that anymore?
BK: We spend a lot of time on tackling. Part of it is his growth and maturity, knowing it doesn't always have to be knock somebody's helmet off. Get them to the ground would do as well. Some of it is tackling technique, some of it is maturity and understanding the most important thing here is making the tackle.
Q: Switching to the offensive line. Only five sacks this year. The last couple games much better in the short-yardage situation. Why has that development happened in the last couple weeks?
BK: Again, I think all of those things are residual to talking about it every day. How do you get them to understand that? Well, I think first of all it's a development physically. I think the second thing is a mentality that you create with your team. And we practice it. We practice a lot of third-and-short situations. A lot of times we've gone live in those situations to make sure they understand how important they are.
Q: Is this a week where maybe you could take your special teams to a new level?
BK: What level would you like me to take them to (laughter)?
Q: It would be a chance for you to emphasize knowing they have a great kick returner, they blocked three kicks this week.
BK: It is an emphasis. We're working hard at it. We know it's an area that has to get better, has to improve. But like anything else, we're up late. We're looking at everything. We're examining everything that's being done, every person out there, every player, every scheme. There's no hurt feelings here when it comes to special teams. This is raw in a sense that everything has to be examined because we've got to get better there.
Q: Is it something on the way home that maybe you thought of, “Man, we were so close to a complete game except for that one phase?”
BK: No, I didn't think about that on the way home.What I really try to do is examine all phases of the game and find out whether it's personnel, whether it's teaching, or simply is it scheme. I try to break it down in that area.
What I believe we spend the appropriate time on special teams, we would be a whole lot better if we got better play. That doesn't exonerate the coaches. We're part of that as well. But we need better play. We need to up our standard of play.
Q: I notice you have a pink tie on today. This is a special month. I don't know if you're going to do anything special as a team.
BK: We are. It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month obviously. We will wear pink on Saturday. It's very important to me personally, my wife and her battles with cancer. So I had this tie, this pink tie. It was a very lucky tie for me, too, because I wore it to the Kentucky Derby. I didn't pick the winner, but I was very lucky. It's an important week, a great week, and we're going to celebrate it.
Q: What kind of pink will you wear on Saturday?
BK: I think we've got an assortment. Everything from some shirts and hats, we got pink everywhere. We'll have a little bit of that.
Q: Since week two when Lynch and (Stephon) Tuitt didn't play, how have they risen to the challenge of not playing?
BK: Well, I think it's been a little bit of both. It's been their ability to be better during practice in terms of consistency and how they practice and understanding how important practice is to get on the field. I think we eventually had to make a decision that we're willing to live with some freshmen mistakes at that position. It was a little bit of both in that respect.
Q: Is there a way to build off a no-turnover game? Do you stress that the last five weeks?
BK: Certainly. I think that it could have been a two- or three-turnover game. We fumbled the snap on a third-and-short on a missed assignment. We threw a ball that went in and out of a defender's hands. Even though we didn't turn the football over, we're as diligent and constant in talking about taking care of the football as we've ever been.
Q: After having some success on the road, is there some excitement knowing you're coming back home to play here?
BK: Our guys love playing at home. There's nothing better than the pageantry of Notre Dame game day. Our guys will get excited for that, no question about it. I've talked about this several times. There's a balancing act. You'd like to be at home, but you don't mind being away once in a while because it allows you to really focus.
I know our guys are excited, especially this weekend when they know they're off. It really hits the midpoint of a season. I know they're excited about playing at home.
Q: Looking back at Saturday, do you classify it as a best performance as a team this season?
BK: No, I don't know that I'd go that far as saying it was our best performance. I would say there were things we did obviously in running the football that were as good as we've done since we've been here. Our special teams, our inability to stop Purdue late with our second group out there. I don't think you walk away going, “Hey, we've arrived here.” There were some good things we did, but got a long way to go.
Q: You used Will linebacker last week as an example of the kind of depth you want to see across the board defensively. Anybody make an impression on you in the last week? Where are you with that right now?
BK: They're going to continue. That position has been outstanding. They're going to continue to rotate in like the half. I think you have to look at the running back position with Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray, the way they're feeding off each other. You're seeing the same thing at the Will linebacker position. I think we're going to start to develop some great depth Ethan, Kap, great dynamic we have. We play three safeties on a consistent basis, as many as four. Those are the things that are important to building depth within your program because that's what you need for consistency.
Q: Physically with the linebackers, you talked about Manti needing some rest. Can Manti continue on with that kind of workload the rest of the year?
BK: There's two players we don't want to take off the field unless we have the game in hand, and that is Manti and Harrison Smith. They just mean so much to our defense. I don't think they have peers in that respect. But at least it's just two, it's not 11 that don't have peers.
Q: Jonas and Gary became scapegoats early on in the season. Can you talk about how they responded since then?
BK: I mean, I think I was pretty clear that both of these guys were extremely important to our success. Certainly they were criticized just like any player would be if they didn't play to the standards.But I've had great confidence in their ability to help us win. They're going to continue to do that. I'm happy for them. I'm proud of the way they bounced back. They got a long way to go because they can be goats very easily around here. Just takes one game.
They know they got to continue to play.
Q: What did you think you had in Jonas when you showed up here a year ago?
BK: What we were telling him we had in him is what he didn't believe he had in him, and that was the ability to play physical. That was the ability to use his 605-pound squat. We needed him to translate that. It's started to come to that fruition. He's a rare combination of size and speed. He's a great complement to Cierre Wood.
Part of it was convincing him. There's something that happens uniquely in their senior year that they start to tune out maybe what everybody else is saying and really focus in on what they need to do.
Q: Guard was a spot where you felt you were going to have a little rotation. Chris Watt has locked that down. What has he done to earn that right to play?
BK: He's extremely physical. He can handle himself on his own. Andrew (Nuss) is not as strong at the point of attack but is pretty versatile and a very good technician. Chris is just physically at the point of a fact stronger right now. So that's why he's gotten most of the work. He's developing into a nice offensive lineman.
Q: The pace of your offense, you were kind of known for that when you showed up here. I don't know if you're going as fast as you would like you. Maybe you're going as fast as this team can go. Talk about the pace of the offense.
BK: Well, the tempo is such that if you're going to go fast, you're calling it and hauling it. In other words, you're calling a play and you're living with it. Tommy is not able to do that because he's not somebody that if it doesn't look right he can keep it and run with it. When I've had quarterbacks that you can call it and haul it, have that ability to run, there's no fear in what you call.
We have to be careful. We can play fairly quickly. We're forcing the tempo. We're up there, giving Tommy plenty of time to get in the right play more than we're pushing the tempo. I think it's really the quarterback that dictates the kind of tempo you play at.
Q: Ethan, you get the feedback on Thursday. How much is the fact that you have a bye after this factor into what you would do there?
BK: It's relevant. It definitely factors into how you're treating, trying to get him through this weekend, then having some time to rest him.
Q: You've talked a number of times about how important momentum was important to what you were able to do at the end of last year. Do you feel you have that back now?
BK: I don't know that momentum plays into what we're doing anymore. Momentum was kind of that start of believing as to what you can do. They now know what they can do. This is about attention to detail, focus, single-minded focus, purposefulness each and every week. Momentum doesn't do it anymore for you. We're past that. Momentum fills up the sails, gets you going. We're at a different level now. Each and every week bring your very best. If you do that, you've got a chance to win.
Q: Is Cierre Wood the best running back you've ever had?
BK: He's pretty darn good. Yeah, I mean, I've had some really good ones. Isaiah Pead was a pretty good back at Cincinnati. We always try to compare him with Isaiah. They're very good backs. They're probably two of the top backs in the country, Pead and Cierre Wood. He doesn't have a huge résumé. He's got a lot of work left, but he's a special player.
Q: I don't know if there's any way to quantify this. Is there a certain amount of things or plays you can call because you have a guy back there capable of reaching that level, doing those things a certain player requires?
BK: Are you referring to a particular position?
Q: Talking about Cierre.
BK: What has allowed us to not worry about the running back rotation is that they don't have to be taken out vis-à-vis a play call. In other words, Oh, my goodness, this is a high tendency blitz down and distance and Cierre is in there. That was on my mind last year. If we're in a high tendency D and D, I need to get him out of the game. If we're in a short-yardage situation, Cierre can't be in there. You know what I mean? That doesn't occur anymore. It allows those guys to roll in and out of the game and allows us to call the game and not have to worry about who's the back that's in at that time.
Q: Could you talk a little bit on the development of Tommy Rees, what he has meant for your team to get to where it is today.
BK: Yeah, I would say more than anything else, he understands the offense very well. He understands what we're asking. That takes time. That takes repetition. That takes starting games. He's been in some big games and some very difficult environments. He's developing that scar tissue that you need to play quarterback with me as well, and that is he's constantly being challenged to be better. He's taken very well to that. I think all of our players have a great trust in him. I think more than anything else his development has been by playing and getting out there and having some success.
Q: Has his play then been important to getting your team to where it is right now?
BK: Yeah, I think that's part of the reason why, even though he probably didn't have his best game against Pittsburgh, there were many people asking why we didn't go back to Dayne (Crist). I think Dayne is extremely capable of running our offense, being successful, but we wanted consistency and continuity, and we felt Tommy was going to give us that.
Q: You talked earlier about Air Force's multi-dimensional offense. Having played Army, Navy, Air Force, is Air Force miss-cast as an option team? They're thought of a zone-blocking team in Troy's eyes.
BK: That might be true in Troy's eyes. If you fall asleep for one second on his offensive scheme, that being the triple option and veer option, you're going to be in big trouble. So I think what he does very, very well offensively is he forces you defensively to be ready for triple option, and when you are so committed to triple option, he's running the zone play at you.His ability to morph back into either one of those, if the defense is overplaying one scheme or the other.
Q: How much option do you think they run percentage-wise?
BK: Well, you have to look at how the defense is playing. If the defense is all out set for triple option, he's not going to run much of it. He's going to run zone, lead, he's going to run the football. If you're running a middle-of-the-field alley player who is set for option, you're not going to see much of it. They're going to throw the football and run the zone.
That's really where he has a great scheme here is that he sets what he does based upon what the defense shows.
Q: How much of a different dimension does Tim Jefferson add to the offense?
BK: It's just a nightmare. He throws the ball so well that, again, you're put into so many conflicts in dealing with this offensive structure, and it starts with Jefferson's ability to throw the football.