On Monday, Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly held court at his weekly press conference as the team begins preparations for Saturday night’s road game against the Virginia Tech Hokies. While we look ahead and look forward to the game in Blacksburg, there are still a lot of questions to clear up from Saturday’s loss to Cincinnati.
GOING TO BLACKSBURG
Notre Dame is no stranger to Blacksburg now after a convincing win in 2018. This will be the 4th time these two teams have played since 2016 with the Irish holding a 2-1 advantage at the moment. To be honest — I would have never guessed after that first game in 2016 that Kelly and Justin Fuentes would meet three more times.
“Going down to Blacksburg, it’s obviously a difficult place to play. We’ll need to prepare our football team for that, and that environment is very difficult to play in. We’ll address that with our team today and then build on that during the week. So, certainly a very good football team, one that has a great win over North Carolina. I think if you look at some of the pieces here, it would start with Burmeister the quarterback, really an outstanding athletic quarterback that runs very well. Transferred in from Oregon, so we know about his playmaking ability. Robinson is a dual threat in the kicking game. He is outstanding. He returned a punt for a touchdown. Really good special teams player as well as an outstanding receiver. Been very impressed with the running backs, in particular Blackshear. I think he’s a transfer from Rutgers, another really good player. Physical upfront, they want to really control the line of scrimmage. This is a bigger offensive line, Big 10 like in terms of its size and physicality. Then you look on the defensive side of the ball, play really hard. They really have a similar scheme to last year. You still see a little bit of Bud Foster in what they do and it’s an aggressive group. I really like what they do on the back end. I think Waller is an outstanding corner. They’ve got really good safety play. Dax Hollifield at the linebacker position. It is a really good football team and tough to beat at home. So, we’ll have a challenge. We certainly had one in 2018 when we went down there and we’ll certainly have another one on Saturday night.”
LET’S TALK QUARTERBACKS
It really is THE biggest subject this week given the play over the last five games, and the last one being a loss. There were plenty of questions for Kelly, and while he gave numerous answers, he still never gave the name of this week’s starter.
“We’ll talk to the guys today when they come over, but it’s not any different from what I kind of mentioned to everybody here. We’re going to have one guy and we’re going to let him know that the reps are for him to be the starter, and focus on one guy. We just haven’t gotten a chance to talk to that individual yet. We know exactly who it is.”
“Who graded out well, who played well. Nobody was perfect, as we know, at the quarterback position. There were some mistakes made by all three. But I think at the end of the day, who gives you the best chance to win. This is still about winning football games. We feel like we’ve got a team that can win the rest of their games and we want to be able to put the quarterback out there that we believe gives us the chance to do that.”
“I think I probably won’t announce it. I’ll probably just talk to the kids, we’ll rep it and you guys will do fine investigative work and probably figure out who it is.”
“I think I’m more interested in what we do more than I’m trying to hide something from Virginia Tech. Look, they’ve seen all three play. They’re pretty smart. They can figure it out. This is really not about trying to gain a competitive advantage more so I just want to focus on talking to our kids today and getting them moving and start the process.”
Regardless of who is starting, the question of “what can they do at the line?” is still very much up in the air.
“There is a base I would say that allows them to flip protections. The center doesn’t call out the front, the quarterback does, relative identifying the mike. That sets our schemes. Sometimes you’re like, Well, why didn’t you block the backside backer? Well, the quarterback might not have identified the right man in the box, so the center does not point that out. The quarterback does. We’ve had some issues there. Look, this is not here to have a press conference on all of our issues. We’re a pretty good football team. We did not play up to our capabilities against a good Cincinnati team and we lost. We’re going to get those things fixed and cleaned up. But having said that, the quarterback does have responsibility in the run game and he does have responsibility in the pass game. We help them as well. You’ve seen that, on third down in particular, if there’s some exotic looks.”
“We’re getting so much rotation from this second level, so when the second level comes down, the center really can’t find that rotation as easily as the quarterback can. When the insertion happens, those backers change. Just think of them as birds. Those birds change and then you have to re-identify who the Mike is so we go on the right track. We get so much of it, especially last year when we were in 12 and 13 personnel. We had a number of times when we weren’t going to the right guys. We were better and we made up for it, but we wanted to make sure that that wasn’t going to be an issue. It’s just so difficult sometimes to identify. You play a lot of these now, defenses like ours, where the backer is sitting back for RPOs, you got to identify him. He’s in a hit position, but he’s sitting for an RPO, it’s made it so much more difficult to identify the Mike and that’s why it’s falling back on the shoulders of a quarterback.”
The offensive line was on somewhat equal measure in terms of questions. Obviously, that should be expected given the performance to date and the depth chart ravaged with injuries.
Left tackle has been the one most affected with injuries, and Notre Dame has been down to its fourth original option.
“Each one of them [Michael Carmody, Tosh Baker, and Joe Alt] has characteristics that allow them to compete at Notre Dame at the left tackle position. None of them are finished products. You have great length with Baker, you probably have a little bit more athleticism with Carmody, and then maybe a little bit of both with Alt, but he’s young. So, each one of them brings a little bit to the table, but none of them are finished products yet. Injuries have dictated what’s going on there, but youth is behind that as well. We could probably have a conversation about upside and who’s going to be where in the future, but we like all three of them, it just that it’s still a work in progress.”
At guard, Brian Kelly is now using a 3 man rotation for the two spots.
“I think you’re going to see three playing there [Correll, Madden, Kristofic]. You’ll see Kristofic in there as well. He played right and he’s capable of playing left and I think you’ll see that continue to grow with a three man rotation at the guard position.”
Jeff Quinn has been the subject of many criticisms this year because of the line play overall, but Kelly defended his assistant coach on Monday.
“I think any criticism like that is totally unfair. Look, everybody has a job to do, everybody takes this extremely serious, it’s their livelihood, and all of my coaches, whether a position group is not performing up to their level, they are examining everything about that. We put in 77 hours last week, so there’s no stone unturned and everybody’s doing everything they can to get the best out of their unit. As I told our guys, we are responsible for putting the best guys on the field and getting the most out of them. So, if we’ve got to be smarter and we’ve got to be able to put them in better positions, then so be it. That’s what we have to do. A lot of this is about making sure that we put our players in the best position to succeed and that we care about our players and we continue to develop them.”
Will the bye week after the trip to Blacksburg help the offensive line out?
“I don’t know who’s gonna walk through the door. We’ve been working on techniques since the spring. Sooner or later, there’s got to be that realization that we have to adapt to the group that we have. There’s a lot of pieces here. If you really dig down deep, it’s more than just offensive line. The ball has got to come out sooner, the routes have to be run to get open, protection happens, not just with the five but with running backs, so there’s a litany of different things here. Can we block better up front? Absolutely. There’s no doubt. But when you say that it focuses squarely just on those five guys, where it’s not just those five guys. It’s the totality of that and making sure that all of that works well and that’s definitely work that needs to happen when you get a couple extra days, but we got to get them all together.”
We might end up seeing true freshman Joe Alt be the starter at left tackle this week, and Kelly likes that he’s healthy (among other things).
“I wish he’d become it tomorrow. I think it’s his demeanor, if I had to point to one thing. Now, he has size. He has a skill set. He looks like a tackle. He acts like a tackle. He has all those things. But I just love the way he does his job. He’s unflappable when he goes out there. We play him at tight end, change your jersey, put another number on, it doesn’t affect him. He goes in and does his job. Is he perfect? Absolutely not. But having said that, there’s a physicality to him that he brings that we really like that we feel like we need at that position. We’ve got another guy at left tackle and he’s healthy.”
You can watch the entire presser below as Brian Kelly goes more in depth about the receivers, injuries, transition from the Cincinnati loss, and more.