At noon today, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly took to the podium for the press conference kicking off fall camp. Fall camp for the Fighting Irish football team begins Saturday morning. We're almost there, folks.
The press conference itself aired live on UND.com and a transcript should be posted shortly, along with video. Below we have a summary for you of what Coach Kelly talked about and some of the more interesting points he hit on.
This is the first we've heard from Coach Kelly in this kind of setting since the April 12th post-Blue Gold Game press conference, where he focused on improved attention to detail, having "all the answers up front" on both lines, the art and science of QB play, and the team's learning to enjoy playing together as a team.
On to the summary of today's press conference - our first real, close-up glimpse towards the 2012 season. Just 29 days until the Irish take the field against Navy in Dublin.
Summary and Points of Interest:
Coach Kelly began by emphasizing that the 2012 season is about action, rather than talk, and about taking "one game at a time." The schedule this year is daunting, but this is a team that believes it can beat everyone on it - so long as they take it one game at a time. Success for Kelly means, not surprisingly, winning - on the field and off.
Kelly spoke of an improved, reciprocal comfort level with his team. Going into year three, he said, "there's definitely a connection that we all have, and maybe its because I'm doing a better job, too, as a head coach."
On the quarterbacks: all of them need to improve. Hendrix needs to keep playing, to keep taking reps; he has all the tools, but needs to mature through continued play. Kelly noted that in the summer, he "was around here a lot and saw a focused group of players at that position, a group that was doing a lot of film study on their own." "All those guys have put in the...necessary time to be the quarterback at Notre Dame."
Kelly was asked about experiencing growing pains at the QB position and what kind of tolerance he has for that: "I don't have any patience for that," he said; "you know me - I want it done the right way." Most importantly, he wants to trust the quarterback - to trust him to be able to protect the ball and get them set up for the right play. "We [have to] trust that he's going to make good decisions." While evaluation has to be based on their work in practice, when game time comes, how "you handle the bright lights and fast action" is important.
Practice reps will be divided initially to allow the coaches to properly evaluate Hendrix, Golson, and Kiel. As the season approaches, they will separate reps as the QBs separate themselves from each other. They want to give starter for Navy a lot of reps leading into that game, but evaluation comes first. Kelly doesn't yet have a sense of when they'll announce the starter, though they would "like to, in a week's time, say, ‘alright, there's great separation here; here's the quarterback.'" Right now, though, everything's on the table relative to the QB position - Kelly's willing to play two QBs if needed, but like everyone else, he wants one QB to be "the guy."
The decision of who will be the quarterback will be based on the coaches' evaluation of everything since each QB stepped on campus - it's cumulative. It will also be based on reports from the strength and conditioning coach, on Kelly's interactions with the players, especially this summer, and, ultimately, on "what they do out on the practice field." In order to evaluate performance, they intend to do many more 11-on-11 drills. "We've got to put our QBs in those situations that will get them to the level they need to be." If the week one starter plays well against Navy, Kelly wants him to start the rest of the year.
When asked specifically to grade Everett Golson on his progress learning what it takes to be a college quarterback at Notre Dame, Kelly said he was "pleased. Very pleased with his progress."
On who will start at QB against Navy, Kelly conceded that he's "got an idea, but an idea is all I have. It's not like, ‘it's this guy, and we're set'....We've got to see how this plays out."
On the right side of offensive line: Kelly is happy to have Braxston Cave back at center in part because it allows them to have Mike Golic, who gained valuable experience late last season, at right guard. Nick Martin will take reps at right guard behind Golic. Christian Lombard will likely start at right tackle, but Nick Martin and Tate Nichols will take reps there, as well. "We'll keep moving people around because that next player in has got to have the ability to play in more than one spot," Kelly said.
On the running backs: Kelly said that they "feel very good about the depth at that position," with Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, George Atkinson, and Amir Carlisle. Each RB has their own unique qualities, and Kelly's job is to find ways to get them touches. Versatility is important at the position and to this offense, and it's something the coaches see in the guys that they have. When asked specifically about Amir Carlisle, Kelly described him as an "explosive player" "with a great burst, "somebody that can get big chunk plays" at the position, with a great makeup and intense desire to be "the guy."
On the wide receivers: Michael Floyd's graduation opens up space for the emergence of something close to the 6-man rotation at WR that Kelly previously described as desirable at that position. Players now have an opportunity to step up, to "emerge from the shadows" and "play big for us." Floyd graduating doesn't change the passing game for the offense, but it will adapt to the players they have. They are prepared for the transition. Kelly emphasized that they'll look for yards after catch and getting the ball in the receiver's hands quickly in order to exploit their receivers' speed in place of Floyd's size and physicality.
On the defensive line: Kelly is not looking to give the nose guard position solely to either Louis Nix III or Kona Schwenke. One player likely won't be able to play the whole game, so "we're going to get as many guys in the game" as they need to "to play at the highest level." While the defensive backs stayed on the field all game last season, across the board, the front seven will again be rotating in and out.
When asked about Louis Nix III, Kelly said that too much time had been spent talking about his "rut" in the spring; they love Louis, he's been working hard in the classroom, and is going to have a great season.
On the cornerbacks: Jackson is a clear starter, but Kelly also had positive things to say about Josh Atkinson and Cam McDaniel, who played a lot in the spring game. They have a good grasp of the system and understand what the coaches want them to do. Lo Wood offers valuable in-game experience. All four corners have experience in Kelly's offense, though they haven't played a ton. But, as Kelly said, "that's what college football's about: people graduate." Also at corner are Jalen Brown and freshman Keivarae Russell, who is now the sixth scholarship corner (Russell was formerly at RB).
The priority is getting the new CBs integrated into the defense so that "there's one heartbeat on that side of the ball." Last year, 5 or 6 plays determined the outcome of certain games. They want to build on the foundation they feel like they began to establish last year.
On the dreaded punt return: Kelly acknowledged the awful statistics for ND from last season and commented, "If there was a problem at punt return last year, it was that the head coach didn't put Michael Floyd back there quicker." The punt return is a tough play now in college football, but they want to improve. All relevant players will be evaluated at that position.
On the Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese situation: Kendall Moore, Joe Schmidt, and Jarrett Grace will rotate in at middle linebacker in preparation for Navy to ease the loss of Calabrese, who shared his position with starter Dan Fox in 2011. On the question what kinds of reps Rees will take in practice, Kelly said that they've "got a plan for that. Certainly not every rep that you take is a rep towards Navy, so there will be opportunities for Tommy to stay sharp."
When asked how Kelly decided to punish Rees and Calabrese equally, despite their being punished differently in the courts, Kelly responded, "all cases of discipline are about the individual." He tries to "keep it case to case" because each one needs to be handled a little bit differently. "At the end of the day, I want great citizens. I want all of our guys to be great citizens." Whatever sanctions they face, that's the end of them.
On the incoming freshmen: as is typical, the skill players are further along physically because they don't require the strength numbers of players on the line. All of the freshmen showed up in June ready to take on the full volume of strength and conditioning work. Longo told Kelly that as a group, "they're ready to play." When asked about Ferguson, Neal, and Brown, Kelly joked about relying fully on their star ratings from recruiting services.
When asked what experience is most eye-opening for the freshmen, Kelly said that "the balance is probably going to be the most difficult...The rigor of their schedule is unmatched. They go to class in the summer all day, and then they work out. I would be challenged to think of anybody else that has the kind of schedule that these freshmen have." The tough summer schedule makes the fall a little bit easier for them. The staff monitors them everyday because it can be such a long, difficult season from June until December.
On how his coaching staff handled the availability of Penn State players: Kelly said that they treated it as a recruiting situation, as though the players were committed to Penn State; the Notre Dame staff would only become involved if a player publicly "decommitted" by expressing a desire to transfer. The situation never progressed to the coaching staff having to take the next step with any players.
On the impending installation of artificial turf: Kelly said he needed to "go back on that [claim] a little bit." He now says that he "hope[s] field turf is coming," but that the decision itself is "above my pay grade - I'm not the one who's rolling out the turf." That's Swarbrick's job. Kelly hopes that's where we go, "but that's clearly not my decision."
On player health: the only player out is Austin Collinsworth, who had shoulder surgery in the spring. Collinsworth will likely be back in late October or November. Luke Massa (ACL) is cleared to do a lot of work at receiver and has made great progress. Troy Niklas is 100% cleared to play.
The team will hold some early morning practices leading up to the Navy game to acclimate them to playing early (that game will begin at 9:00 am EST time). Kelly noted that it is beneficial to start the season with Navy, rather than having them in the middle of the season. It gives them time for attention to Navy's offense, then allows them to shift focus for the rest of the season.
As the press conference drew to its end, not having received any questions on them, Kelly asked, "Don't you want to talk about Tyler Eifert? About Manti Te'o?"
On Tyler Eifert: "You know you're moving your program along when your best players are your best workers." Eifert, now at 260 pounds, is "a leader on our football team," and Kelly is extremely excited about him.
On Manti Te'o: (The journalist who asked about him called him "Mawn-ti Te'o." Come on, now.) Kelly praised Te'o and said that "he has unfinished business as it relates to this football team." He's especially impressed that "Manti is holding his peers to the same level that he holds himself," and that he's being vocal about it. "He's that guy now. He's that senior. He's that leader." According to Kelly, Te'o is the team's best leader.
Additional points of interest from yesterday's radio interview on WSBT:
1. Kelly is interested in putting 2, 3, or 4 tight ends on the field at once this season. All the tight ends.
2. The strategy with special teams is to exploit opponents' weaknesses on special teams (Kelly cited the move to take advantage of the flaw in Utah's punt team strategy in 2010). Kelly still seems unwilling to concede that the punt return game was horrendous last season.
3. Players flying under the radar: T. J. Jones, Theo Riddick, and Zeke Motta.
4. Despite the TO margin in 2011, Kelly is not as interested in forcing turnovers on defense as he is in keeping the opponent's points down and protecting the football on offense.
5. Is Louis Nix III going to get any touches on offense? "He politics for it almost everyday. I love Louis's enthusiasm for wanting to carry the football," Kelly said, but Nix needs to focus on being the nose guard. So, sadly, no.