A week ago, Brian Kelly put on his wink-and-a-smile attitude and projected an air of confidence as his team prepared to travel north to Ann Arbor. With a trip south to West Lafayette looming this Saturday and the sting of ND's first regular season loss since November 2011, Coach Kelly was decidedly less lighthearted in his weekly media gathering on Tuesday.
He started off the session with one of the great coaching axioms of all time: you always want to get back on the field after a loss. It was clear from the start, Kelly wanted to focus on Purdue and the challenge that lie ahead for his Fighting Irish squad, but he couldn't escape the lingering questions about what happened vs. Michigan. At one point, Kelly even admonished the gathered reporters that they should hold the session on Monday when he's still focused on the previous game.
As annoyed as Kelly might have been, it seems perfectly natural that a difficult loss vs. a
rival notable team such as Michigan is going to generate a more interest than a team that only managed one offensive TD vs. Indiana State. Kelly is clearly on message that he wants his team ready to face Purdue. He repeated several times the importance of this in-state game vs. a Big Ten opponent. He tried to remind everyone that Purdue gives ND their best effort, but it was clear from this media session that the focus and concern is on ND, not its opponent this week. As entertaining as the Purd-zzzz jokes can be (and they really are), Kelly is having to work on getting the attention pointed forward and to the preparation for this week's game under the lights vs. Purdue.
I try to mostly convey what is answered and summarize for you, but I'd encourage you to watch, and watch specifically for Kelly's attitude regarding his QB. There are times where it seems Kelly is on the witness stand for Tommy Rees. He's quick to point to route running mistakes and other things that he feels are more subtle and difficult to pick up on than his QB's mistakes and limitations. He's also adamant in his belief that if teams continue to stack the box vs. his offense that Tommy Rees will make them pay. Interestingly, it came up that Malik Zaire is still not cleared for competition - only cardiovascular conditioning and throwing. Whether or not Kelly truly believes in Tommy Rees or is simply talking up the best option he's got is something we'll never know, but there's a consistency in Kelly's advocacy for his starting QB.
The video is posted below. Here are a few highlights from the Q&A session:
Regarding the offense
When asked if the 74% passing ration was a result of game situations or game-plan, Kelly was quick to point out Michigan put 8 in the box 80% of the time. Moreover, when the Irish got behind, he felt they had to throw. Kelly wants "balance, like anyone else in America," but goes on to say, "Balance is this panacea everyone looks for, but you need to win football games."
Kelly explained his belief that to run a faster tempo, you need a QB who's a threat to run, and "Tommy is not a running quarterback." Kelly's version of tempo with Rees at the helm is to get them to the line of scrimmage quickly so Tommy has the necessary time to get in to the right play.
Asked about Troy Niklas and his play, Kelly reinforced that Herclues has the opportunity to be "one of those great tight ends at Notre Dame." He can dominate at the line in the run game and be a vertical asset. He can catch the ball at 5-7 yards with an LB on him and get 10-12 (or 66). Kelly noted that success at that position is what begets more success, saying the program has done a good job developing TE talent and showcasing it in the offensive structure.
Regarding the RB's, again it seemed like BK had a finger on the pulse of some of the sentiment around GA3, and was testifying on his behalf. He spoke of some good instinctive runs for George. He also talked about Amir being very good after contact, something he and the staff emphasize. Amir, however, "has work to do in the passing game," and needs to prove his durability. If we had an OFD spot on the call, I'd ask if that work in the passing game was route running or protection? Someday, my friends, someday!
Nick Martin graded out very well in Kelly's assessment. Other than one illegal snap in a very challenging atmosphere, he played a very clean game. "Great snapping and handled himself well," was Kelly's summary of the younger Martin's performance.
Ronnie Stanley is improving and still learning the game. Kelly saw a few missed assignments and the sack allowed, but went on to say that he's seeing Stanley get better and better every week.
Regarding the defense
The benefits of playing Jaylon early are fantastic. He gets a lot of early experience, and with our schedule, he's out competing with good teams early on, but you're going to have to live with the mistakes though. Occasionally, playing a guy that young can put you in some "compromising positions, but he can really make some plays too."
In evaluating the D-Line play, Kelly called Louis Nix III a "beast." They couldn't block him, and he played as well as he has at ND. "They had no answers for him inside." Kelly was also quick to praise Sheldon Day next, saying, "play-after-play, fit-after-fit, Sheldon Day played outstanding." Notably, Kelly left a gap in there before discussing Stephon Tuitt's game. He said Tuitt played "well" and had a great interception. He was quick to point out that he is starting to be able to play more and more. He stopped short of specifically calling Tuitt out, but it was a very interesting dynamic in his answer. He also said Rochelle and Jones will need to see more snaps to keep guys fresh.
Asked if we had people in the right places and if we'd see major changes to the depth chart, Kelly quickly dismissed the notion, saying, "What you see is what you got."
Kelly was very up front in his discussion of the secondary's struggles. He felt that the issues were a crisis of confidence, not one of skill or ability. He pointed out that KeiVarae Russell is a young guy on a big stage and he felt KVR would use it as a learning experience. Bennett Jackson has a captain's "responsibility to bounce back after not playing his best." Kelly's biggest concern is that they press forward and compete with confidence and not let this turn into 2 down games.
In one question, it was pointed out that it had been a while since a loss, and Kelly was asked what he watched for. Kelly was quick to respond that he tries to get a read on "Why do you lose?" He pointed out dinner doesn't taste as good, meetings are a lot harder, and practices are more spirited (yes, we know all about that, coach). He points out that it comes down to details and his team needs to be "smarter and more disciplined," and that's what he'll be looking for this week.
One reporter started to go down the "did we lose or they win" road. He went so far as to say that, "Michigan played well, but w/o the mistakes you win the game." Kelly answered with the difference between getting beat and losing. He's ok with the result when a team takes it from them, and said Michigan played well, but also said ND made a lot of mistakes. His focus is clearly on getting his team to play and execute better. He was very quick to take accountability when he said it, "comes down to execution when we need to. There's 118,000 in the stands and you have to get 18 to 22 year olds to execute at their best. That's my job, and it didn't happen." I'd call this the anti-deal-with-it moment for BK.
Kelly was also out there lobbying for Purdue as a good opponent, despite the 20+ point spread. Watch his answer for when someone asks if his team might let down after Purdue's struggles last weekend. He's clear that after a loss, his team will be focused.
Clearly, BK is trying to keep his team focused for Purdue and is staying on message with "taking care of the little things" in the right ways to get back to winning. His talking points were pretty clear and consistently communicated in his 40'ish minutes with the press this week. Here's to hoping it leads to a better outcome this Saturday.