OFD cuts through the coach-speak as Brian Kelly holds his Tuesday media session leading up to Saturday's game between the Fighting Irish and Panthers of Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame's head
medical administrator football coach took to the podium on Tuesday for his weekly opponent preview press conference. Brian Kelly spent 36 minutes going over a number of topics with the gathered press corps. If you're like me, and a fan of the craft of coaching, there are some real gems within his time at the mic this week. If you're in the TL;DR crowd, skip to the last section because I go full-on man-crush for the Irish head coach. In the meantime, let's wade through some of what Kelly said and how it relates to a few of the discussions around OFD.
Let's get this out of the way first. Most of the time in this press conference was spent talking about the war of attrition his team is fighting right now. Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights as it stands):
- Ben Councell's injury is an ACL. He's done. He'll have surgery in a few days. He'll likely be "limited" in spring ball.
- Austin Collinsworth's MRI came back clean, but he's having some soft tissue issues with his neck, and is questionable for Saturday. If he's unable to go, Eilar Hardy will be 3rd on the safety depth chart with freshman Max Redfield coming in as the 4th option.
- Chris Watt's PCL issue is improving dramatically. Kelly did a good job explaining the situation. Watt was still experiencing a lot of inflammation and soreness from the tear. Between the pain and instability in the knee, he didn't feel he could contribute at the level necessary on Saturday, so he sat. With another week of letting the inflammation subside, and to get used to the feeling of instability, Kelly felt his starting guard would be ready to go this week.
- Chase Hounshell is definitely not returning this year, despite any "emergency" need for depth. They're going to bring him along slowly thru spring.
- And of course, there's the condition of one Louis Nix III. Shockingly, Kelly made no mention of the internet sensation sweeping the nation when discussing his defensive star. I think Kelly, however, does spend a little time on the site, because he was quick to tamp down any perception that Nix's knee tendonitis was simply an excuse to avoid playing the option teams. In fact, I wonder if Kelly went a little too far for Big Lou's taste when he shared that the knee would require a similar surgery to the one Greg Bryant had earlier this year and will be a chronic condition for the big man. Kelly shared that Lou was in significant pain after USC and had a PRP treatment after that game, which puts you out for 2 weeks, and has done a good job mitigating the pain. The best news is that Louis has been working really hard during his time away. He's been in at 7 every morning (apparently Lou's not a morning guy) working hard. He's been hydrating, and his head coach is not worried about his work volume this weekend.
Defense / Offense / ST
Kelly opened the press conference with how happy he was to be getting away from option offenses and it was a consistent theme throughout his time on Tuesday. He's excited at the possibility of finally seeing all 3 of his first team defensive linemen on the field this Saturday, and while no one is 100% this time of year, he's happy to get them back on the field together. Interestingly, after stating "nothing drastic" was being done in shifting to generate defensive line depth, Kelly shared Bruce Heggie
would be cross training with the d-line this week in the event of an emergency situation. Kelly also spent time calling out Jaylon Smith's combination of athletic ability and mental capacity to improve when talking about his defense. That was in interesting contrast to his assessment of Romeo Okwara's need to get out there and play more football. The young sophomore was a guy who wasn't necessarily blessed with a football background and needs to see more action to build that depth of experience.
The Irish head coach also tipped his hand as an OFD reader (come on and register already, Coach) when he talked about "offensive identity." He acknowledged not having a dominant offense; however, he was quick to call out that in week 9, he's now very comfortable with the offense's ability to figure out what the opponent gives them and take advantage. Here's his whole answer:
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 ticket 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.
While many here have called for establishing a more coherent and consistent identity on the offensive side of the ball, the head coach is clearly stating that he's looking for efficiency in taking advantage of an opponent's weakness more so than dictating the flow of play with the ball. Kelly takes time to call out his outstanding RB and TE play from guys like Tarean Folston
, Troy Niklas
, and Ben Koyack
this week. He talked a lot about "3 guys" when discussing the RB situation and said that Amir Carlisle only getting a single snap vs. the Midshipmen being a "circumstance." That rotation seems to be pretty settled, and it will be interesting to see Amir's role moving forward.
From a special teams perspective, our ST nerd Punter Bro
must have been in heaven. Kelly and the coaching staff spent time in the film room this week showing his guys how sustaining blocks even a small bit longer could get a guy like George Atkinson III
or TJ Jones in the end zone. I think the Irish head coach is looking for a very big play out his return game in this final 3 game stretch. I also think he and the staff are greatly simplifying KO coverage for his guys. He admitted that they may have over coached the cover teams to account for a lot of fringe/trick returns. This week represented a back-to-basics approach for the coverage unit.
Some High Quality Coach-Speak
As someone who studies and values quality coaching, Kelly had some real gems this week. At the risk of Kelly detractors calling me a mindless fan boy, I'm going to gush on the Irish head coach for a bit. There was a thread of consistency, and carefully chosen language that ran through this press conference. It started with his opening statement. Kelly wanted to put these last two weeks behind his team and squash any perception that not beating the Naval Academy by 30+ points was some sort of odd failure. He talked about getting away from option offenses and turning the page. He's was excited to continue his team's progression, and get in to November "playing better football."
The coach's message to his defense was clear: set this crazy option crap aside because you were playing gorgeous football vs. USC and you're ready to build from there. By setting the AF and Navy games in a box, the coach is able to take his staff and players back to when the defense saved the team's bacon. Rather than create a crisis of confidence on the defensive side of the ball, Kelly can now point to the return of his All American NG and the return of "traditional" offensive attacks and get his guys ready to play Pitt. This is sound strategy, and should help drown out detractors saying that his defensive staff isn't up to the task.
Kelly's experience and skill of leading men also came up in the last segment of the press conference. The Irish head coach talks about the importance of understanding his team's mental state in week 9 and 10. He knows a bunch of mid-week "rah-rah" isn't going to cut it. These young men want to see the staff being crisp and efficient in how they prepare for their next opponent. They want to see a laser focus on getting better and playing better without any tricks. Respect your players' time and energy, and they'll respect you. Kelly knows that focus is the key in the "grind" part of a schedule. Anyone who's coached young men knows that this is the toughest time of year. Forces of monotony, physical exhaustion, mental fatigue all plague teams as a season wears on. Kelly is keenly aware of these forces and his record indicates he deals with them extremely well. If you coach a team, I'd highly recommend examining Kelly's "let's just get better every week" approach and his skill in guiding his team through the grind of a season. Focus trumps passion during the preparation, but I guarantee the head coach will look to inject some fire into his talks with the team on Saturday.
Those that feel Kelly and his staff are too "small time" to understand Notre Dame and how to win in South Bend best pay attention to the final 1/4 of this press conference. Kelly absorbs a bit of a backhanded compliment when a member of the press corps starts a question talking about his team's 10 game winning streak in games decided by less than a touchdown. Of course, this same person finishes the question by pointing out that his team was favored by considerably more than a touchdown in over half of those games. Asked if playing close games against competition perceived to be lesser bothered Kelly, his answer was freakin' perfect:
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 2 point win, a 3 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.
Anyone who's ever been a competitor knows this is the right answer. You know what happens when you win? You want to win another one. You know what happens when you lose? You can't wait to win the next one. It is all the same. We fans have different expectations and talk about style points, but as a coach or player, all you want to do as a competitor is get better so you can rise to the next challenge. Kelly has his Notre Dame teams focused on improving each and every week, each and every practice, each and every rep. He's made success a function of improvement, and that's what winning cultures are founded upon.
Kelly also articulates the unique nature of his job. I wish I could sum it up or say it better, but Kelly nails it:
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. Our guys weren't sleeping, I didn't have to wake 'em 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.
Say what you want, but that answer right there made me more of a BK fan than last year's trip to the NCG. The dude gets it. Impressive stuff.