18 returning starters, a soft schedule, and top five ranking has Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly ready to get the college football season underway. Here is the transcript from Kelly’s pre-season press conference:
COACH BRIAN KELLY: Sounds like a normal team meeting. How many times do I have to tell you about your parking passes? I mean, it’s a normal day. Good morning, good afternoon. We begin with our press conference talking about team 127, the 127th football team here at the University of Notre Dame. And the significance of that is we think we have a collection of individually talented football players.
But this year is going to be about what kind of team we have and putting that team together. That’s really been the work since our last game is getting this team together and playing as one. I think that most people have looked at this collection of individuals and said, they’ve got a lot of strengths. But we look at it, I look at it as how do we get our players to hold each other to high standards and that’s really what we’ve been working on. We’ve been working on leadership. We’ve seen some leaders emerge.
So a lot of the inside workings have been, for me, putting this team together with a collection of some very talented players and then some inherent strengths. I think I would begin by saying we return a lot of players that have had a real experience, played a lot of games. So if you’re looking at some of the things moving into 2015 where I would immediately bullet point as being positives leading into this season, is that we’ve got a number of guys with a lot of experience.
On the offensive side of the ball, I think we start there, then we look towards play makers. We at the wide receiver position, we’ve got a number of play makers. Guys that can make plays down the field, guys that can make plays in the red zone, and it is our job to make sure that we get those guys opportunities to make plays for us.
I think another strength that we have is our offensive line. I think one of the things that is apparent to us as we look at our football team is that we’re a much more physical group than we were last year. It is, again, an experienced group. Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer, Mike McGlinchey got an opportunity to start against USC and LSU, so we got an opportunity to play against great competition. Those are very, very important pieces in putting together an offensive line.
We think we have some young, talented players that will get a chance to compete, but I think the strength there is experience, size and we now can really say that strength physically that we can match up with anybody.
I think another strength of our offense is our running back situation, and I know many could argue with the depth of it, but we have an established running back in Tarean Folston. He’s experienced. He’s handled the ball in many different circumstances and situations. He’s going to be called on this year to carry a larger load for us as a featured back, but what we like about him is we know what we have there, and he is an established, national caliber running back, and that is a strength for any football team going into the season. We know what he can do coming out of the back field and catch the football. He’s excellent now. He struggled at times, but later in the year he showed himself to be very strong in our protection.
So really having a back that we can count on is a strength. We moved C.J. Prosise there who we think has a home run kind of ability at that position where now he’ll get an opportunity to get a lot of carries at that position as well. Then we’re going to have to see where we go from there. We’ve got some young guys that are talented at the running back position, but I think that’s a strength at that position.
We have a dual threat quarterback, and any time you have a quarterback in Malik Zaire that you feel confident that he could get the ball to your wide receivers as well as balance out the numbers in the running game as somebody that could run the football, it’s a great equalizer in college football today. So having somebody that is committed and established at that position as a dual threat quarterback is definitely a strength within the offense.
I think finally we have some depth at the tight end position. I think we have four tight ends. Five that can help us in certain situations that will allow us multiple formation looks utilizing multiple tight ends. And I think any time that you can get into some formation looks utilizing tight ends that can do more than just one thing.
We have some pass catchers in that group. We have some guys that can play in line. We’ve got some guys that can even work out of the back field in an H back position. So the versatility at that position, I think, we feel really good about that.
So from an offensive standpoint that’s the strengths. Certainly what we have to be able to do is take care of the football. We were careless with the football last year, and that certainly was an area where it came back to hurt us. So taking care of the football, not being careless with the football is absolutely crucial. If we do that, we think we have the chance to be very, very good on offense.
Defensively, quite like on the offensive side of the ball, we have a number of guys who played a lot of football for us. The second year into Coach VanGorder’s nomenclature way of communicating the defensive structure. Certainly everybody is much more comfortable with what they’re doing, what their assignments, what their task is, and we probably have some of the best leaders that we’ve had here at Notre Dame, starting with Joe Schmidt.
Joe Schmidt, his ability to communicate, recall is absolutely off the charts. So having a leader like a Joe Schmidt, certainly a captain last year in Sheldon Day back, and Matthias Farley, another veteran player for us who seems to be always in the right place at the right time, but also a very, very good leader for us.
Jarrett Grace returns, KeiVarae Russell comes back as another outstanding football player, but another very vocal leader who is not afraid to communicate. So, where at times last year we struggled with communication, this year we feel so good about the ability to get the task done defensively because of great communicators in Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley, Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell, just to name a few, and there are others.
But to have that right away coming out of the gate is a definite strength for our defense. Certainly returning KeiVarae with Cole Luke we feel like we have two turners that can compete at the highest level, and I think we all know about Jaylon Smith is one of the most versatile and athletic linebackers in the country. We now feel like he’s in a position where we can get him to do everything, but not complicate it so much that he can’t go play the game and play fast and be the kind of player that he wants to be. So we’re really excited about Jaylon and what he’s been able to do. He’s physically in the best shape. He’s stronger. So getting a chance to really put him in a position to ascend again this year is going to be exciting.
I think Max Redfield, everybody has great off seasons, right? Who doesn’t have a great off season? But Max Redfield and his maturity and the way he’s really come into his own has been really something to see. In just the last few days we’ve had some leadership development, and he’s really taken that step that we were looking for. So having somebody that is an outstanding athlete now bring the other part with him is going to be a great strength for us as well on the back end of our defense.
Depth at the defensive line is always a great thing to have, and we think we have that. I mentioned Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, certainly Romeo Okwara on the outside. Trumbetti, Cage, Hill, all these guys got an opportunity to play significant snaps last year. So to have that kind of depth on the defensive line is very, very important for us, and we think that that itself is going to lend itself to great continuity on the defensive side.
So if I could wrap it all together, what do you like about your football team? I think we have a number of players that have played a lot of snaps. I love the emergence of the leadership on this team. We have plenty of talent. It is now our job and our players’ job to get that collective talent to play as one, to play as a team. Just as everybody else in the country is on the same goal, it’s to get this team to play together and hold themselves to high standards. If they do that it should be a very, very exciting year.
Couple of roster notes. We have some movement on the roster that I’ll update you on. Just a couple of surgical updates, and I don’t want to steal your thunder, Eric, but just to give some updates.
Nicky Baratti, he’s come back nicely. No instability since his surgery, no restrictions.
Connor is now three to five months post op. He’s had a great June and July, and he’s full go for fall camp.
Jonathan Bonner, so we expect him to really be able to make some great strides coming into camp for us after the injury.
Jarrett Grace just continues to regain all of the power, and he’s going to be a guy that makes an impact for us right away against Texas. So good to see him come back.
Jarron Jones is eight months post op, and he’ll be practicing with us feel really good about where he is moving forward.
James Onwualu had a January surgery on his wrist. He’s recovered well from that. He’ll be splinted for practice, but no limitations as you know.
Joe Schmidt is fully recovered from surgery. Nine months post op, he’s had an excellent summer. He’s plus 400 on the bench, so physically, physically very strong.
Drue Tranquill, eight months post op, no restrictions, some of the notes here: He’s attacked rehab like no other player that we’ve had here in quite some time. He’s ready to go.
We also had a couple guys that couldn’t make it back from some injuries. Mike Heuerman, Mike had two hernia surgeries, and those two hernia surgeries really put him back, in particular not really able to fully weight train, exert any force against the ground, and as you know, this is a ground based sport. A lot of it is the ability to pull weight off the ground, and with a second hernia injury, Mike just wasn’t able to physically do some of the things necessary to continue to play. So he was granted a medical hardship.
And Michael Deeb was granted a medical hardship. He had elbow ligament reconstruction with nerve involvement, and that nerve injury caused his retirement from being able to play.
We also have a transfer. Kolin Hill has decided to transfer. He’s going to go back to Texas, and he has been granted his release to pursue schools in Texas. So those are some of the additions and deletions other than the news you already know, which is Greg Bryant. There was a press release on that.
Special teams, I want to finish up with special teams. Last year we led the FCS in blocked kicks, the most we’ve had since 2006. We had a total of five over the previous four years. We had our best punt returning season since 2009, but we’ve got to break in a new punter and new kicker this year, so that requires us to really look at our preseason through a different lens in a sense that I don’t want to use Texas as the first time that we do some things live. Although you’re very hesitant to go live in special teams, we’ll have to do that in camp and really put our special teams under the microscope in preseason camp and really get a good look at our kickers and punters and really put them in a position where they feel comfortable as much as they can going into their first game.
So that’s going to be very important for us in our preseason in making sure that we get both of those guys the kind of work necessary that they feel comfortable going into the opener, because they’re going to be so important to us.
I think we’ve got a dynamic opportunity with some return guys that we’ll take a look at. Will Fuller started to return for us last year. We’re going to continue to look at him. We’ll continue to evaluate our return game. We started to use C.J. Prosise back there too. So there are a number of guys we’ll continue to look at, but we think we’ve got some weapons in that end of the game as well.
So with that, you know, our team knows where they are. They read the clippings. They know that preseason that a lot of teams are getting accolades. They know that they are. They also know it’s not going to help them beat Texas. Certainly it’s going to be a long road, a difficult road to get to where we want to go. It’s better to be ranked than not be ranked. If you’re not ranked, it makes the road a lot more difficult, so we’re happy to be ranked.
But it certainly doesn’t influence anything that we do on a day to day basis. So the most important thing for our guys is, as I mentioned to you at the very outset, holding each other accountable both on and off the field. Getting the task done. Attention to detail. If they do that, we think we’ve got some really, really good football players. With that, we’ll open it up to questions.
Q. Ishaq Williams, can you clarify what his situation is as you begin?
COACH KELLY: Yes, he is still ongoing, his situation with the NCAA. That process is ongoing. So I don’t have anything specific to report other than I know that process is still ongoing, and he will not practice until we get further information. Look, and there are two that are out there, right? It’s KeiVarae and Ishaq. They’re separate and different and distinctly different cases. So KeiVarae will practice, Ishaq will not, because the cases are different and both of them are going through the process right now.
Q. I know that you might be a little bit hamstrung on what you’re allowed to say about Ishaq’s situation, but do you have a timetable for it, and then if there is even if it’s the worst case scenario and he can’t play in games, will he eventually be allowed to practice?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think once we get clarification from the NCAA with a ruling, then it will make that decision very easy, because he’s in his last season of competition. So I know Ishaq in talking to him has the thought and the goal to play in the NFL, and if we can accommodate him after a decision has been made, whether it’s pro or con, if it’s pro, and we hope it is, he plays. If it’s con, we’ll have to evaluate whether it helps him to practice and work out for that next level, and those are decisions that we’ll have to make once we hear something from the NCAA.
Q. Do you have any idea of a timeframe?
COACH KELLY: I don’t. I think I have a general understanding that this is not going to be a long process for us.
Q. When you mentioned Kolin Hill in the transfer, I think there is a natural inclination by some of us to kind of connect dots to other people in his position that have transferred. You as a coach, do you do that? Do you say, wow, I’ve lost some edge pass rushers, this is concerning? How do you frame that or is every situation a little different?
COACH KELLY: One is from Berrien Springs, Michigan, and one is from Texas. Different circumstances. They are totally different. They just happen to play the same position.
Q. As far as your young quarterbacks behind Malik, how quickly do you want to figure out who your number two is, and what are your impressions of Brandon Wimbush and DeShone from what you heard over the summer, and what you were able to see in OTA?
COACH KELLY: Good question. It’s very important for us having not been able to really solidify the number two position in the spring, for us to have that as a priority, if you will, as well as getting your number one the proper reps. The number two has to get a lot of work, so that is very important to us as we script, as we look at the reps.
So I can tell you that that’s a conversation that’s at the forefront of most of the scripting that goes on in the staff offensive meeting room. So in answering your question, it’s very important. So when do we want that to occur? When it naturally occurs through volume of repetition. So there has to be volume placed to that for both DeShone and Brandon.
Now what have I heard, what have I seen? Over the last couple of days I’ve seen a very mature individual in DeShone Kizer as well as in Brandon Wimbush beyond his years. So I think it will come down to the fact that both of them are capable. We’re going to have to find out who can go out there and be a field general and manage our offense, and that’s really what we’re at next starting today.
Q. When you mentioned the recovery report with Jarrett Grace, with Joe Schmidt, suddenly, as opposed to the last year, you suddenly have a lot of options at middle linebacker. How do you see that playing out? Is Jarrett Grace really a candidate to possibly be a starter? Does any of this affect the way that you might use Jaylon Smith?
COACH KELLY: Well, there are enough reps for all of them, I can guarantee you that. I think very rarely do we ever get put into a position where there’s a Mike linebacker, a Sam linebacker, and a Will linebacker. Somebody’s displaced, somebody’s kicked over. There is the ability to play two at one time. Game plans change from week to week. We play two option teams in Georgia Tech and Navy. There are so many variables in that question relative to if you just look at it from one perspective and say, well, how are you going to get all those Mike linebackers out there? That’s a valid point.
But the reality of it is that with the different offenses that we see each and every week, there is enough reps for all those guys to play meaningful minutes and really impact every game we play.
Q. As far as the late arriving freshmen, the guys who came in in June, is there anybody that jumped out at you in June or jumped out at you with your conversations with Paul Longo or the other players who you say, hmm, this is somebody I want to keep my eye on early here in camp to see if they can help us?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think we would naturally go back to where we’re still building the depth, and that is the cornerback position. So Crawford, Coleman in particular, those two guys have shown some things that will allow us to continue to hope that somebody can compete for us as a freshman. Ashton White. Who am I missing at corner? Those are the three, right? The freshmen. So there is the hope there that those guys can come in and give us some quality reps.
There is probably a better chance on defense, because we’re pretty deep on the offensive side of the ball, except I think the one guy that’s really impressed everybody unanimously in terms of being ready to play is probably (Indiscernible) Jones. Physically he’s capable of playing, size, skillset, he has all those tools. If you just look at numbers that jump off the chart, you’d have to say Boykin. Boykin, I don’t know if I’ve seen the kind of numbers that he’s put up close to a 38.5 inch vertical jump, physically strong, 15 times 225, just really impressive, impressive numbers. And I would say that that goes for, as a freshman class, across the board all of them are physically very, very talented.
Q. How often do you guys reassess that to go along with how you’re recruiting that position, obviously, without getting into the specifics here, how often in the last week have you had discussions about how you recruit that position?
COACH KELLY: Our focus will not be look, the Wimbush Kizer situation is establishing the two. Those two guys are not impacting our recruiting. We know what we have there. We’ll continue to recruit for ’16 and ’17. So those two guys really we have a great understanding of what their skillset is, so I don’t think they impact ’16 and ’17 for us. I think we’ve already made that decision that we want to take a ’16, and we want to take a ’17.
Q. Follow up on KeiVarae. Is there any concern that he won’t be ruled eligible?
COACH KELLY: The information that I’ve gotten back from Jack Swarbrick and our athletic administration is that we’ve submitted everything. We feel confident in the information that we have submitted to the NCAA, and we feel very strong about his eligibility. We certainly were guided through this process in terms of what he needed to do. He went out and did that, but it’s now out of our hands. But we feel strong about we feel strongly about checking the boxes and doing the things that we were required to do along the way.
Q. When spring ended there were competition at the quarterback. Now Malik has the position. What have you seen, and how has he changed? Have you seen him develop as a leader? Is he more confident? Does the fact that there is no competition this year, does that make it easier because you can give him so much more time and reps?
COACH KELLY: Well, couple of answers here. One, he has such a thirst for the game and wanting to know so much that we actually have to slow him down a little bit. He was in the elite 11. He wanted to expose himself to more coaches and as much information. He’s somebody that loves the game and wants to be around the game all the time. Sometimes you worry about him in that sense, that he’s got too much information. But I think he’s done a good job of making sure that the important stuff is important. There are a lot of philosophies out there. So in answering your question, I think what it’s done for him is it’s motivating even more to go out there and be the best quarterback that he can be. He has such a he’s so driven and loves to play the game so much that we at times have to pull him back a little bit.
As a leader, he has some natural innate ability to stand in front of the group. What we’re working on is clarity in message. Tendency to get a little emotional in the way he talks, and you guys have interviewed him. He goes off on tangents a little bit, so we have to reel him in a little bit, and he’ll do that a little bit in front of the group, and that’s fine because he’s comfortable in front of the group.
So we like where he is. He’s developing and he’s on track to do the things necessary to be the kind of leader that you need to be at Notre Dame at the quarterback position.
Q. Having a quarterback that seems to be better at the read option, and talk about the offensive line, do you expect it to be one of your better running teams since you’ve been here?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think we definitely have two of the elements that required that are required. One is a veteran experienced offensive line that’s physical at the point of attack and a quarterback that can certainly even out the numbers. So without knowing what happens, we may, first five games, get teams that are putting eight, nine guys on the line of scrimmage, and I’ve got a talented wide receiver core and you’re telling us to throw the football to him. I don’t want to put myself in that position because we’re going to throw the football. This really shows itself to be a group that should be able to control the line of scrimmage running the football.
Q. It’s been a while since Notre Dame had a coach going on its sixth season here.
COACH KELLY: Is there a long story to this?
Q. I was going to ask you, going into this and having the experience, how do you think this helps you? What have you learned at Notre Dame that you think can help you? Maybe something you didn’t know in year two or year three?
COACH KELLY: Without being glib or wisecracking, for all those coaches that were here less than six years, they all wrote books, right? They had many stories to tell. I’m on my sixth year. I could write several books of what I’ve learned, and what I continue to learn every day. So we’ve made incredible progress, in so many areas that are centered around our student athletes, and it’s not just me. It’s the support from Jack and the university to continue to move our program forward. It’s a competitive business out there. With us wanting excellence both in the classroom and on the football field it requires you to look inward every single day as to what you need to do to achieve both of those goals, and that’s maybe where we’re rolling up our sleeves every day is that we’re looking at both of those every single day, not just one. Not just building new facilities and new locker rooms. We’re looking at both. So learned a lot. I think we made great progress in enhancing the experience for our student athlete while keeping the ultimate goal here in mind, and that is excellence in the classroom and on the football field.
Q. You mentioned leadership with Max Redfield, could you give us examples over the last couple days of what you’ve seen from him specifically that makes you feel like maturity wise he’s taken a step?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think different people get to that level for different reasons. Max has gotten to that level through some real life experience, and I think Max has realized how important football is to him. Academics is very important to him. It’s always been important to him. I think he’s seeing how important football is to him as well. That also he has a gift. That gift is he’s a great communicator, if given the chance. We gave him a chance the last couple of days to lead and get in front of his peers, and it was well received.
So sometimes you’ve just got to give somebody that chance. And when he was given that chance, he really took hold. That builds an incredible amount of confidence in somebody that, well, if I can do this in front of my entire team, I can certainly do it for the safety and the two corners in communicating.
So I think some real life experiences where he got his head around, I could be great at this game of football, and then putting him in a situation where he could go out and really lead.
Q. Situations like that where there’s Max or Malik, are you also watching everybody to see how the players are responding?
COACH KELLY: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, we’re looking at body language. Who is sitting up in their chair. Who is focused. But more importantly, we’re looking at the guy next to him because, like right now, Angelo’s not paying attention. Right there. He’s not paying attention to anything. I’d want you to hit him right in the head because I’m saying some great stuff right now and he’s not paying attention. I want him locked in.
So part of it is that peer accountability, and I’m certainly using an analogy here, but that’s what we’re looking for more than anything else is that those guys that are not in those designated, singular leadership roles will hold others. If they’re not doing it the right way, you don’t have to have a C. You don’t even have to be regarded as a potential leader, but you can hold that guy who is not doing it the right way, you can hold him accountable.
Q. On an injury front, Jarron Jones, is he a no restriction guy?
COACH KELLY: He’s a no restriction guy.
Q. So he’ll have a full camp of activity?
COACH KELLY: Now we’re going to be smart. Anybody that has that kind of injury at his size we’re going to be smart with. But he’s a full go guy. But Rob Hunt and I will have conversations. Keith Gilmore, and we’ll be smart with him. We’re not going to grind him outcoming off of that surgery. But if he’s walking in right now, he has no restrictions off of that surgery.
Q. Big picture of you set a distinction between the components on the team and actually having a team and you have to put that together. So it’s probably not a fair question to ask if you feel like this is your best team on August 5th or 6th on a day like today? But do you feel this is the best group of components?
COACH KELLY: This is the deepest group of components. I think every year you’d say well, I’d like to have Michael Floyd or I’d like to have Martin or I’d like to have this guy. But I think a collection of depth within the overall football team, yes. However that doesn’t get it done for you. It’s how this group comes together. How they overcome adversity. How they stay together, hold each other accountable, that will be the mix.
Q. On a leadership issue, do you feel like for the first time in a while your best players are also your best leaders?
COACH KELLY: Well
Q. Not to take anything away from Zack Martin.
COACH KELLY: I was going to say. I think what we have, and I’m not trying to evade the specific question, we’ve developed better leadership. Part of that is on me. I think I’ve done a better job of developing the leadership on this football team, because our guys want to lead. We just need to do a better job of helping them, and I think it’s the best we’ve had.
Q. C.J. learning the new position, what’s he still have to pick up necessarily and what could he have picked up over the summer not working with the ball?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think he worked with the ball; it’s just we weren’t there. He better have. I really think it’s the nuances of the position. He’s got a lot of experience. He knows how to run with the football. We saw him run against LSU with the ball underneath his arm. We’ve run him before. Obviously, we didn’t run him north and south. We ran him east and west.
So becoming more comfortable running north and south and being patient. The biggest thing with running backs is their patience and letting the offensive line work in unison and work up to that next level. I mean, that is the most difficult thing. So patience as a running back, and then what you see, trust it.
So early indications, and this is why we stuck with C.J., was that he saw something and he stayed committed to it. If we put him in there and it was just something different every time, we probably or I probably wouldn’t have had as much public confidence in his ability to do the job. But when he sees something, he takes it, and he’s committed to what he sees.
Now, he’s not right all the time, so to answer your question, I think it’s just more of that what you see, trust it, go with it, and just continue to be patient with what’s happening in front of you.
Q. You mentioned earlier that being able to go to more multiple tight end sets, how important is that when you have a quarterback like Malik who runs the read option as well as he does?
COACH KELLY: Just more versatility. Look, defenses don’t like two tight ends on the field. It messes up their situational substitution pattern. They just don’t like it. You ask any defensive coach in America. They see two tight ends on the field, it cuts their call sheet down. So it’s just more versatility to our offense when you can start to use two and maybe three tight end sets with some open sides to the formations too, because I can split out Durham Smythe and still have maybe two tight ends or three tight ends. I can split out Alize Jones and still have two tight ends or maybe three tight ends.
So it just gives us more versatility. Then on the next play I can be in a power set formation and going. You know, you better not be in nickel. You’ve got to go out and cover Jones or you’ve got to go out and cover Smythe with a linebacker. So versatility is what it gives you.
Q. It’s obvious the ceiling is pretty high, or you think the ceiling is very high for your team this year?
COACH KELLY: Have I said that?
Q. No, but I mean, I think in talking about the team in general, you guys feel good about going into the season.
COACH KELLY: Yeah, but I think I made it clear we’ve got to come together as a team.
Q. Sure, no doubt about it. My question to you, and I know as coaches you’re just worried about having a good practice tomorrow
COACH KELLY: I’m more worried about the buses (laughing).
Q. But do you discourage playoff national title talk among the team? Is that counter productive to what you want to do on a daily basis? Do the coaches dangle that carrot out there for the players?
COACH KELLY: Well, they know what the mission is. Everybody knows the mission, and that is we don’t play fair conference championship. So they’re smart kids. They know what the mission is. They know how difficult it is to complete the mission. And the only way to complete that mission is to stay focused and stay on task and stay incredibly disciplined day to day or they can’t accomplish that.
They know what they want to accomplish, but they also know, because it is driven home every single day, there is no way they get there if they’re thinking in those global terms.
Q. So you don’t necessarily encourage that line of thinking? I mean, you won’t have coaches saying, hey, you need to do this for us to be a playoff level team?
COACH KELLY: Well, we talk in terms of championships, absolutely. For us to be a championship football team there has to be an a tension to detail. For us to be a championship football team you have to hold each other accountable. For us to be a championship football team, we talk in those terms every single day. So however that is couched, that is out there. But do I get up there and talk about being on the cover of “Sports Illustrated”? No. Do I get there and talk about, hey, I want to get to the playoffs? No. They know what the mission is. They know when they come to Notre Dame what the mission is. We talk about how do we get there. That’s where we spend most of our time.
Q. Right after the Music City Bowl I asked you a question about a two quarterback system and then you worked with that in the spring. The situation has changed obviously. Does that kind of ease some of your trepidation of a two quarterback system? I don’t think you’ve ever been really comfortable with that. I mean, with two quarterbacks is the playbook too broad? Does it ease some of your trepidation that you can hone in and focus in with one guy?
COACH KELLY: Well, it’s certainly there is no doubt that it allows you to be more focused on the skills of your quarterback and then how it filters out to everybody on that offense, right? So you really can focus in on what he does. So by having Malik, we know exactly what we want to do and we don’t have to think about we’ve got to do this with the other quarterback. We’ve got to make sure we get this installed because we’ve got this other quarterback can do this. That makes it so much easier to really focus on that one quarterback and what his skillset is for sure.
Q. The motto apparently for you guys is culture over scheme this year, and you kind of touched upon team 127 and team first. Who comes up with those phrases? Why is that phrase important to this team?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think the culture being what I just talked about. It’s not X’s and O’s. It’s not individuals. It’s not anything about singular. It’s team 127. It’s the culture of this program which means you hold each other accountable, there is an attention to detail. The mission is more important than keeping your guys happy. It’s really about that, and that goes to culture and that mindset.
So I want to establish because we knew, like you guys know, we know we’ve got a collection of good players. That’s not going to win. But culture will win. If everybody’s bought into that culture, if everybody’s bought into team because some guys are going to have to give up some carries and some guys are going to have to give up some accolades for this team to get to the playoffs, and that’s why we push that messaging.
Q. Coaches have been in a business, whatever line of coaching, where they tend to say it’s harder to get guys to buy into team than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Is that accurate as far as you can see?
COACH KELLY: I just think that maybe coaches aren’t as demanding about those things. Look, every player comes to us with great accolades. They’re being told they’re the very best that there’s ever been. They’ve got parents that love them. They love them too much. They can’t do anything wrong, right? So it’s incumbent upon us to make sure they’re doing it the right way every single day. It’s a little bit harder for them to tell their peer that they’re not doing it the right way, so that’s a little bit harder. But they want that. I think coaches have to demand it from them.
Q. Malik has a relatively small body of work on game days, albeit an impressive one. What do you see as the areas he most needed to improve over the next month? In terms of his overall improvement, how much can be done in practice, and how much does he need game experience now?
COACH KELLY: Well, technically, he has some work to do. He went out and spent some time with Trent Dilfer. Trent and I have been able to communicate a great deal on some of the things that he’s doing in stride frequency. He gets the ball lost behind him a little bit. It’s overstrides a little bit. So if you want to get technical on things, he has some technical things he’s got to clean up a little bit. Just technical things about being really clear on how we’re doing things.
As I mentioned, and I think Eric asked the question about Malik or maybe not, he has a lot of thoughts going on. And sometimes a little bit too much going on. We really sometimes have to just get him focused on this simple phrase. Do it this way all the time. There is no other way to do it. Don’t vary from this, and he’s getting better at that. Not because he doesn’t want to do it, he just has so much going on sometimes we just have to get him focused on just want you to do it this way, no other way, every single time. He has a little bit of some things that we work on technically and then just staying on track, and he’s making that progress.
Q. You were able to be aggressive with him running the ball in the bowl game, but you had another quarterback that was seasoned. Are you going to be able to do that all the time this year with no experience behind him?
COACH KELLY: I think so, yeah. I think the game will dictate certainly those situations. But he’ll be involved in our running game. I don’t want to put a number on it, but certainly one of our strengths is his ability to run the football. Big, strong, physical kid, so I’m very confident that he’ll be able to neutralize the things that we’re looking for that defenses tend to do to negate a running game. He’ll put them in a very difficult position.
Q. Does your depth at running back at all make you consider what you do with Prosise in the return game in terms of maybe not wanting to put him back there as much?
COACH KELLY: No, we’ll protect him a little bit more in special teams other than the return game. He was on a lot of running teams. But we’ll have to be careful with him on some of our running teams and special teams.
Q. Lastly, what are your impressions of the last time you what kind of player was KeiVarae Russell the last time you saw him here? I’m not sure how much of him you’ve seen this summer, but any impressions on him?
COACH KELLY: He was an emerging player for us, an emerging player, gaining confidence every single day, to the point where he was somebody that I think was playing his best football at the end of the year and had a great spring for us.
So, again, from what Coach Longo has turned over to us, high expectations for him to come in and continue to build on that.
Q. You mentioned the intangibles, going to make a lot of difference whether that good talent turns into a championship. And you mentioned, it’s going to be important for these guys to hold each other to a higher standard. It seems like anytime the summer is quiet, that’s usually what’s going on. It’s three and a half months, but was the summer what you hoped it would be?
COACH KELLY: It was. It was. It was one where our guys, I probably would have liked them to do a little better in the classroom, but overall they made good decisions. They were active in the community. They were attentive to all of the workouts. But I thought it was a very good summer from that decision making standpoint other than maybe a couple of guys in the classroom.
But, yes, I would definitely say from that standpoint good decisions were made.
Q. You mentioned the returning veterans and the leaders and the freshmen that were coming in. Anybody so far in your couple years into training camp and solid meals and weight room, all of a sudden somebody can emerge, a sophomore, junior walks by and you go, wow? Couple of names maybe that have given you that excitement?
COACH KELLY: I think one guy that’s transformed himself really in just a very short period of time is Tristen Hoge. Physically, I didn’t think he was able to compete at the highest level when he came in as a mid year enrolle and rightly so. He should be in high school. But he is over 300 pounds, physically so much stronger. We’re going to have to find some second team reps for him somewhere to see where he matches up with Bivin and McGovern, and see where he is, because he’s physically impressive what he’s done in a very short period of time. I’d say that’s one guy on offense in particular.
Nic Weishar’s made very good progress physically on the offensive side of the ball. When he walks by now he doesn’t look like a basketball player in terms of he filled out. He just looked like this tall guy to me, now he’s physically filled out nicely.
I’d say, from a defensive standpoint, Nick Watkins is probably the guy that’s impressed me the most from the summer. He really looks good physically. I think those are guys that are freshmen, sophomore, red shirt, whatever you call them guys that have really made that jump physically where now you look at him and go oh okay, they’re ready now to go in there and let’s really see what they’ve got.
Q. From a locker room and chemistry standpoint, what has KeiVarae brought? He’s obviously a loud voice and a guy that’s set the tone wherever he goes. What do you think his addition will mean for the defensive room in general?
COACH KELLY: He has a presence. He communicates loudly. I love that. And it’s very positive, extremely positive. He’s not a guy that’s running around screaming at somebody. When he says something, there is a positive note to it, a very positive note to it. That is well received. Now he’s loud, extremely loud. And with that loudness sometimes you would think, well, it’s going to be on the other end of that loud scheme of things. It’s not. It’s extremely positive. He brings a positive energy and really is that positive energy guy that you really need.
Cole is hard working. We need him to be more vocal, Cole Luke. He’s getting there. But KeiVarae right now gives us that energy guy that we need back there.
Q. Just to clarify in terms of (No microphone) as far as you know, is everything going back to last August, I know there were talks of vacating and this and that.
COACH KELLY: I don’t know. I’m not certain if that ends it or if there is another level that covers the entire team. I’m not certain I have not been involved in anything about the eligibility of those two players.
Q. Going back to last year, I know a lot of us like to probably make too much good or bad about a way a team finishes in a bowl game and how that carries over to the next season. But with what you were able to do against LSU the way the regular season ended, how do you feel that can have the carry over effect that sometimes they make it out to be?
COACH KELLY: Oh, it definitely helps. Certainly winning your last game helps everything from a psyche, morale, all those things. Now it’s all about what they do moving forward. That game was over, and it was what they did moving forward. It was the decisions they made, and this is what I told them, it’s the decisions you make after this game will determine whether this game meant anything. If you guys come back after this game and don’t give us all that you have and all of these areas, that game doesn’t mean anything. But it gives you that platform of, look, we can do this if you do these things. And by and large, they have.
Q. Same things might have gone wrong for Greg Bryant this summer?
COACH KELLY: Look, there’s look, every year that I’ve been a football coach we have to counsel our players, every year, whether it’s Greg Bryant or it’s the best players on our team. They have to make good decisions and sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t make him a bad kid. It just means that he needs to continue to grow and continue to learn, and hopefully he’ll take this situation that he’s dealing with and learn from it. But I don’t know that I could speak to what he did wrong specifically other than he needs to continue to make good decisions.
Q. Does he plan on working through this and joining you guys again for next season?
COACH KELLY: We’re still talking. We’re still talking. I’d like to have Greg back if Greg’s committed to getting his degree at Notre Dame. He’s got to be committed. He’s got to be committed. If he’s committed to getting his degree at Notre Dame, committed to utilizing the resources that we have here, I’d love to have Greg Bryant back.
Q. With Greg out of the lineup, does that solidify that C.J. will work exclusively at running back, or has he moved back and forth during the spring?
COACH KELLY: No, he’ll stay there. He’ll stay at the running back position.
Q. You have two other freshmen coming in, competing at the running back position. Is there any thought about maybe giving some audition, whether it’s Amir Carlisle who had played there before or Justin Brent played there as a high school senior, is there anybody else you would be maybe looking at for that position?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, we’re going to move Justin Brent there and give us something. There is a deep pool of talent at the wide receiver position right now. I don’t know. It’s going to be hard to get him a lot of reps at wide receiver. But we’re going to take a look at him at running back, see if he can give us something there. He’s big and strong and physical. Essentially what I told him is if he takes the ball and runs downhill north and south, doesn’t bounce it outside, because I’m sure I’ve got two freshmen who are going to want to bounce it outside every time they touch it. If he takes it and he goes downhill and he plays physical, I’ll find some carries for him and I’ll get him on every special team. If he wants to do that, then I think I can get him some playing time. If not, I think it’s going to be hard for him to get on the field because we have such great depth at the wide receiver position. Will it work? I don’t know. But he is a very gifted athlete. He’s big, he’s strong, so we’ll give it a shot and see if it does anything for us.
Q. Was that decision prompted because of Greg’s ineligibility?
COACH KELLY: Oh, sure, it was definitely prompted because of the lack of depth at the position.
Q. You had a season with Michael Floyd where he caught a hundred passes, and then the next year, nobody caught more than 50, but it was an extremely well rounded core. And Will Fuller broke out with a tremendous sophomore season, nobody else caught more than 40, though you had good balance after. Are you looking for Will to maybe elevate his game to where he is that consistent 80, 90, maybe even a 100 catch guy? Or are you looking more for other receivers to emerge in a maybe better balanced attack to put pressure on defenses?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think Will’s numbers will still be high because of his versatility. As you know, he’s a deep ball threat player but can also catch the short, quick slant and the screen game. So when you talk about volume of catches, they have to have versatility at that position. So any time you accumulate that many catches, you have to have versatility at that position.
Conversely, Corey Robinson is a down the field player, not a great screen guy. Not somebody that is naturally working in and out on screen game. So I think you’re going to see volume there still, but I think you’re going to see Chris Brown, Torii Hunter, Amir Carlisle. I think you’re going to see a lot of catches around them as well. But I don’t know that you’ll see any drop off in a Will Fuller in terms of catches because he has such great versatility in terms of what he can do.
Q. We’ve talked about Jaylon Smith and the versatility that he can provide maybe at linebacker, both on the edge or on the inside there. Is Sheldon Day somebody who can provide something like that too along the defensive line? We all looked at he was given credit for one sack last year, even though he had plenty of quarterback pressures. Could he be somebody that can be effective maybe on the edge as well?
COACH KELLY: I think in our defensive structure he will not always be lining up as a three technique, so he’ll be moved around to maximize his ability certainly. We think he’s a better pass rusher outside than he is inside, so we’ll move him around and give him the chance to impact games. But it will be call determined based upon what the front situation is. But, again, going back to your question, he’s not somebody we want to just lock down inside. We want to be able to move him around.
Q. You’ve addressed this question many times before about the left tackle. Because you have a left handed quarterback, was there any thought at all of moving Ronnie Stanley to the right side, or is it really irrelevant in this style of offense you’re running?
COACH KELLY: We had a conversation about it, but the kind of things that we’re going to do, I think if we were strictly going to be a dropback team, we gave it some thought. But we’re going to be doing a lot of things with Malik with our play action game and boots and pocket, that it doesn’t put the onus on the right tackle because of what we’re going to be doing in the passing game, moving the launch point.
Q. You had talked early that the offensive line was one of the groups that you initially talked about being a group that you had a lot of confidence going into the season. With a group like that it sort of settled with the exception of left guard you kind of knew who was going to be where. Is there anything you do differently in camp to build around that group or is it just you go along the way you normally do and that group kind of steps up and does its thing?
COACH KELLY: Well, we’re still well, first of all, I would say that some of the big differences are it starts with Nick Martin. It’s a different guy from last year. Fully healed, healthy, over 300 pounds. He was 286 coming into camp last year. Really wasn’t able to squat. Just a different football player. So it will be fun to watch him go out and compete. It’s the left guard position that we need to continue to see and work because that’s Nelson and Bars. Then solidifying the back up position with Mustipher. And then finally what is going to happen at right tackle. Who is going to emerge as that next guy? Hunter Bivin’s been working at the left tackle position. What is going to happen at right tackle? So a lot of the action that I’ve just mentioned is in that next group, other than the left guard. So let that first group gain continuity, experience together, calls together, and then really try to solidify that second unit.
Q. Last year at this time you kind of went into the season as you headed into Rice, your second string defensive line was a lot of young guys that never played, Matuska was a red shirt freshmen, you had a lot of red shirt freshmen. Those guys are now older and they’ve been in the weight room a year. What kind of flexibility, confidence, whatever the case may be, does that give you in your defensive line knowing you have so many more even Isaac Rochell was a sophomore last year.
COACH KELLY: I know.
Q. What’s that do for you guys now that you have that much more experience?
COACH KELLY: I sleep better. I know that. Thinking about all those freshmen that we had to play. Then the guys that we had to lineup at USC, it just gives me a nightmare. Then I come back and think of where we are right now, it’s just a different unit. Being able to play a lot of them. They know what to expect and they know what we want from them, really I know it’s less than a year, but it feels like two years removed from where we were last year at this time.
Q. C.J. had played a lot of special teams last year. I think led the team in special teams tackles. You had Tarean Folston on some of the coverage teams, Daniel, Carlisle. Does the incoming freshmen class you’ve talked about there is strength, but there are a lot of skill guys. Nick Watkins is a year older. Does that group give you some flexibility to maybe get some of your guys that are going to be touching the ball a little bit more on offense a chance to get off of those and still feel like you’re putting a high quality group out there?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, I just looked at our kickoff team and spent some time on the personnel. We’re going to put five seniors on that kickoff team. So even though for a true freshman to get on, other than (Indiscernible), for a true freshman to get on that team, he’s really going to have to do something extraordinary for us, and we’re going to go live in our special teams. So he’ll get a chance.
But Avery Sebastian was an outstanding special teams player at Cal. Nick Ossello who is with us was an all conference ACC player in Lacrosse. There is a big, physical kid that we can plug in right away who is a mature, mature kid. We’re going to use Nick Watkins, Devin Butler, Matthias Farley, Drue Tranquill, those guys right away, Nyles Morgan. I think we’re going to have a mature group, some veteran guys on there that are going to really enhance that group without having to throw a bunch of true freshmen out there and running them down the field. I think we can play veteran players that played last year and are ready to really impact.