Nov. 22, 2011

COACH KELLY: Afternoon. Entering the last game of the season; seems like it’s gone by quickly. Our players are certainly excited about the progress that they’ve made.

Now, we get an opportunity to play an outstanding football team in Stanford. Great excitement because it’s our last regular season game. Great excitement because we’ll be playing a great football team.

It’s going to be one of those matchups that you look forward to as a college football player. You’ve got two nationally ranked teams, arguably the best quarterback in the country, and a team that in Stanford that was in the hunt for a national championship. Still obviously a team that has been in the national rankings all year.

So all of those things combined for our football team make for an exciting week of preparation, something that we have grown as football team in how we prepare. I think if you look the our season, the only thing that we need to continue to work on is or execution on Saturdays.

Again, exciting week for us. Playing Stanford, nationally ranked team at the end of the season, and it’s relevant. You know, you want games that are relevant in November. That’s a mark of building your program towards getting obviously the recognition. To be on national television says a lot about Stanford, but I think it says a lot about Notre Dame football as well.

With that, I’ll open it up to questions.

Q. Do you have final update on what’s going on with Jonas (Gray)?

COACH KELLY: Yes. His MRI came back, and was what we thought it would be: it was a torn ACL. There was some other collateral damage in there that’s going to have to be taken care of as well, and so we’re in the process of setting up that surgery.

Q. Is there any estimate on what kind of rehab that would be for him? I know he’s not going to be here for you, but…

COACH KELLY: Yeah, that’s a six month process. That, again, you know, is a pretty standard timetable.

Again, we’ll get to work on it as soon as we can.

Q. How about Theo (Riddick)? How is his health doing?

COACH KELLY: He felt better. Obviously wasn’t able to go on Saturday. He’s at a position where it requires explosive movement. He just didn’t have that explosiveness. He felt pretty good. He felt like this week he should be able to contribute.

So we’ll run him around again today and give him an opportunity to really assess where he is after today’s practice.

Generally, if there’s not a lot of soreness and we see that burst, then we figure him into what we’re going to do on Saturday.

I think today will be an important day for him.

Q. Does the assessment today weigh into your thoughts about whether or not to use him as a running back?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, I think we’ll look at that today and see. We certainly are going to have to count on George (Atkinson III) and Cam (McDaniel). They’re going to have to play for us. They’re going to have to play Saturday against Stanford. There’s no question.

But Theo offers us some versatility if we think it’s necessary. Before we can even get there, we’ll have to see what he looks like today.

Q. And how is Stephon (Tuitt) coming along?

COACH KELLY: He’s still ill. He’s still not feeling well. We’ll continue to monitor him and his progress. Probably get a better feel for him later in the week.

Q. Is it a virus? Flu?

COACH KELLY: I don’t know the specifics of it other than to tell you that we’ve had a number of guys that have come down with it. You know, he seems to be affected by it to a point where he’s missed a game.

Q. Is there anyone besides him struggling with it today?

COACH KELLY: Anthony Rabasa has come down with it as well. So we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we get a hold on this.

Q. Finally from me, last year you mentioned around Stanford time, I believe, paraphrasing, you like the way they had built their program. What in particular did you like about their model for building that program?

COACH KELLY: The mental toughness and physicality of their football team. Those two things stood out when you watched them play.

I think they are an extension of their head coach and his personality, and then just their physical development. They were a physical, good looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably.

And I think now I think that was 15 games ago, somewhere in that range. Maybe more. Maybe it was 20 games ago. Yeah, I think it was 20 games ago. I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time.

Q. Given the prolific nature of Stanford’s offense, does that change the offensive approach you take going into this game?

COACH KELLY: I think you get into each came with a plan, but you also have to then adapt to the circumstances in the game.

So I think I’ve coached every game in a manner that we prepare the same way; we’re going to do what we do; and then be able to adapt to the circumstances in the game.

So in answering your question, we would like to dictate flow of the game, but we’re prepared to do what is necessary during the flow of the game.

Q. It’s not easy to dictate the flow against them. They have very few three and outs; they score over 30 points a game. So in terms of dictating the flow, can you elaborate on what you mean? What kind of flow are you looking for against them?

COACH KELLY: Play really good defense. I think it starts with keeping the points down, which we’ve done a very good job of all year.

If we keep the points down on Stanford, we know they’re going to get the yardage and run the football. They’re an outstanding football team and they’re well coached.

But keep the points down and give us an opportunity offensively to run our offense and not get into a state where we have to play catchup.

Anybody that’s got to play a lot catchup against them is in for a tough day.

Q. Several times against B.C. you had to line up two freshmen right in the middle of your defense there with Troy (Niklas) and Aaron (Lynch). And you had to do it a lot because of your kind of winnowed down depth on defense. Talk about their performance and just the performance of this freshman class overall. Have they exceeded your expectations?

COACH KELLY: I don’t know that you ever count on a freshman to give you the consistency that an Aaron Lynch has given us; the consistency that Troy Niklas has given us in a number of different roles. Then before Stephon (Tuitt) getting sick, obviously he was in some really big games for us.

Yeah, I would say that it’s really beyond what I would have expected, because you don’t go into a season expecting freshman to impact you the way they did. They certainly have.

Q. Considering how well they played that, that maybe takes away a little trepidation as you line them up against this big, physical Stanford offensive line?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, no, we feel like across the board we match up physically a lot better. They’re an outstanding offensive line. I think they’ve got two NFL caliber offensive linemen. So it’s going to be a challenge whether they’re a freshman or a senior. We’ll have our hands full.

Q. The way they run their offense is not necessarily what you see a lot. How much of a challenge is it for an Aaron Lynch, a Louis Nix, Stephon (Tuitt), those guys who haven’t seen the way they operate?

COACH KELLY: I think it starts with at this point they’re very familiar with what we do defensively. I would be more anxious, if you will, if this was their first start. But they’ve played a lot of our defense. They know our defense. We’re going to play our defense.

Obviously there will be some adjustments when there is an extra tackle in the game and they’re unbalanced. But certainly at this point in the season, all of those freshman really know our defense well, and now it’s just a matter of them doing their job.

Q. Cierre (Wood) steps back in the starting role. Don’t feel like he was ever really demoted. What kind of dynamic was that for him where he was the starter, wasn’t, but he was still getting…

COACH KELLY: Yeah, we really didn’t see a drop off at all. He was still Cierre Wood. There was a good balance there. Obviously losing somebody that scored 12 or 14 touchdowns in Jonas Gray was a blow to us.

But we still have a 1,000 yard rusher in Cierre Wood, and that’s a good thing to have to going into your last game.

Q. With (Andre) Luck, is there any real way to confuse him or give him something he hasn’t seen at this point in the season?

COACH KELLY: No, I don’t know that he’s going to get confused by anything. I think it’s a matter of us doing a really good job in play action and knowing when he’s going to throw it.

Putting him in those positions when he has to throw the football is the most important thing.

First and second down obviously are very crucial to us.

Q. You mentioned prior to last year’s Sun Bowl that it was time for Tommy (Rees) to go beyond just managing the game. And he played very well in that game against Miami. Now, 12th game. Is this a game especially without his starting center, without one of the star running backs, questions on Theo (Riddick) where a greater onus is placed on him to go maybe just beyond managing the game?

COACH KELLY: Well, there is no question that the quarterback has to make plays for us. He’ll have to do that again for us to win.

If he’s not central in what we’re doing and getting the ball out and making sure we get into the right plays, we won’t win the football game.

So I don’t think anything has changed really from last week to this week, other than some other guys are going to have to step up in that area.

Tommy Rees is still going to have to lead our football team regardless.

Q. I know there’s a lot questions always about Andrew Hendrix’s role. How about Tommy (Rees) as a runner? Do you ever foresee him getting the green light to run a little bit more?

COACH KELLY: We would like to give him the green light. I don’t know how to answer that question.

Tommy is going to give you whatever he’s got. He’s a competitive kid. You know how I feel about him. But Tommy also knows his strengths and weaknesses. He’s got a lot of strengths, and he knows what his weaknesses are.

Q. With George (Atkinson III) and Cam (McDaniel) now in the backfield, how do you see their roles?

COACH KELLY: They have to play a significant role, both of ’em. They’ve been with us all year. They’ve got a pretty solid base in knowledge of our offense. They should be able to help us win.

Q. Does Cierre’s role maybe take more on of Jonas being the power back there?

COACH KELLY: Well, he’s got to do it all. He’s not Jonas Gray. He doesn’t run the same way. He’s a different runner.

But we had to use him late in the game against B.C. in that kind of role, and he stuck his nose in there and played physical.

So, yeah, he’s got a more expanded role, no question, with Jonas being down.

Q. In Sun Bowl last year, you used Theo (Riddick) in the wildcat. What went into your decision not to incorporate that as part of the offense this year?

COACH KELLY: I thought a couple things: First, we wanted to make sure that there was for Theo opportunities to touch the ball in our regular offense. We thought we could get to that.

The wildcat offense, you know, I think everybody has seen it. It’s really a less of a significant role in offenses. Nobody’s going around the country now touting their wildcat package. Everybody’s kind of caught up to it.

I think probably a little bit of my feeling is that defenses have caught up to the wildcat. I’ve never really liked to be in a single wing kind of operation where the quarterback can’t throw it.

Theo wasn’t a guy that was going to be able to throw the football, so I thought we could get the kind of touches necessary in our traditional offense.

Q. Looking at Jamoris Slaughter and some of big hits he’s had this year, what differentiates a guy, makes a guy a bigger hitter than others, especially in this case where he’s less than 200 pounds?

COACH KELLY: Part of it is being put in a position to do so. As you know, a couple of his big hits came off of pressures. I think that has something to do with it.

Then I think some players just have that predisposition to arrive at the ball carrier and really strike ’em.

Since I’ve gotten here, he’s always carried that demeanor with him. He’s a guy that really wants to put his pads on you. I think positionally put him in a position to do it, and I just think some guys are predisposed to having that kind of demeanor.

Q. You’ve used an alignment with your defensive line here recently where you have linemen in a two point stance. What do you hope to gain by that?

COACH KELLY: Just try to build some confusion on the offensive line relative to some of our pressure packages.

You know, it’s hard to identify who’s who when they’re moving around and you’re calling out who is the Mike and where are we going to slide hoping that we catch them having a tough time.

And I say them, including the runningback. As you know, we were able to free up Manti (Te’o) on a couple of occasions.

So just a bit of deception there.

Q. If I remember correctly from watching the game with Stanford last year, they dropped guys back a lot. Eight guys into coverage sometimes. When Tommy (Rees) doesn’t have the ability to run like some other guys, how can he counter that outside of obvious running the football? Is there different things he can do vertically when they’re playing that kind of game?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, your observations are right on. As you know, B.C. dropped nine; rushed two and dropped nine. So it’s pretty clear as to how you’re going to defend Tommy in those third down situations.

It’s incumbent upon us as coaches and Tommy as the quarterback to answer those questions. Because as you know, his strength is the ball comes out of his hand very quickly. It’s very difficult to bring pressure on him because he just gets it out so quickly.

Nobody really wants to match up one on one with Michael Floyd. We know that. Defenses know that. It’s incumbent upon us as coaches and now Tommy to work against how teams are defending us and; that is dropping eight and dropping and nine.

Q. Is there any fundamental principle you can teach a quarterback without giving too much away in that those situations that you try to do schematically?

COACH KELLY: No, I think a lot them are schematically and trying to break the field down into individual matchups.

You got a lot of guys dropping out there. Got to try to clear the landscape for the quarterback and give him some individual reads.

Because if he tries to look that whole mass out there, it’s pretty confusing. So it’s our job as coaches to try to identify some individual matchups that we can create that he can get the ball to.

The other thing is obviously to stay out of the third long situations.

Q. You talked a lot about his development this year. Now people are adjusting to him because they know him and he’s got a body of work. How big of a next development is him conquering the adjustment (indiscernible)?

COACH KELLY: I think you’re right on. I think that’s where we’re at right now. All the other stuff is just chat and opinions. Everybody is entitled to all their opinions.

Really his development now is, okay, how are they defending Tommy Rees? Tommy’s got to take that next step now, and that is eight and nine man drops; how are you going to find a way to keep the chains moving.

Q. You had Harrison (Smith) go out as the sole captain last weekend. Talk about the significance of that.

COACH KELLY: Well, I thought in the last home game it was important that we single out who really was that captain for us final on a day to day basis. It was Harrison Smith.

You go through a lot in the season, and he was that lone leader every single day. We had other leaders without the captain on their shirt, so to speak.

But that was I think my way of telling him and the team that that’s who your captain is.

Q. Also, you went through a quarter of your schedule now with ACC teams. What’s your impression of that conference after that stretch?

COACH KELLY: You take a collection of the teams that we played Wake Forest, I thought their skill was a high level of still I have skill.

I think you look at Maryland and you probably feel the same way.

Then you get to B.C. and just tough and physical. I thought they played very well and were a physical team.

So a combination of skill and toughness in the ACC. And quite honestly, there are other teams in that league that probably bring even more to the table: Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Virginia. Very good football conference.

Q. Do you kind of expect teams to get you to drop eight and nine until you and Tommy (Rees) can figure it out? Have you been in this situation before where a defines has kind of got a book on you and you got to figure out a counter to it?

COACH KELLY: Well, it’s not the reason why it was a low scoring affair, dropping eight and dropping nine.

It was or inability to cash in on a third and two. It was our drop of a wide open receiver down the sideline. Those are, to me, the bigger picture items.

This is a part of that. And getting better at the quarterback position and the recognition of how to defeat drop eight and drop nine is kind of where we are right now.

So I would just reiterate that’s the next step that Tommy has to take, because he’s not going to take off. As much as I would like to give him the green light or give him a green light or whatever that means, that’s just not going to happen. So he’s got to find other ways to defeat feet it.

Q. I don’t think there is a compliment that Andrew Luck hasn’t already been given. But as a quarterback guy yourself, what separates him from just being a great quarterback and being a quarterback that people seem to identify as one of the greatest college quarterbacks that has come along in however long you want to put it?

COACH KELLY: Poise under pressure more than anything else. Some of the throws that he made against us last year. We brought an all out blitz inside the 15-yard line, and we had a free blitzer and he just kept back pedalling and hit a tight end on a choice route in the end zone.

That’s poise under pressure. He has the ability to make the throws when he’s under duress as well. And to have that, you’ve got to have the skill, but also the utmost confidence in your ability. He has all this intrinsic things necessary to be a great quarterback.

Q. I’m sure he’s a huge part of reason why they’re so good in the red zone. In addition to great quarterback play, what else do they do so well inside the 20 that they’re converting at 98%?

COACH KELLY: They run the football. That’s what they do. If you look at all those touchdowns and break ’em down, they’re running the football down there with great, great efficiency. They do a great job of moving personnel in and out of the game.

There are so many parallels to playing an option team. If your eye discipline is not good against those tight ends, they will run behind you every time on play action pass.

So it’s a combination of running and play action pass in the red zone that make ’em outstanding as a football team.

Q. You mentioned you playing a relevant game in November. This is a big opportunity for your program. What do you think can be proven or accomplished? What do you have a chance to show against an opponent like this?

COACH KELLY: Well, it’s still about preparing the right way and then performing on Saturdays. I’ve said this a number of times. I like the way we’ve prepared. We haven’t performed on Saturdays the way we need to consistently. We’re showing that at times.

This is just another one of those it’s not a referendum on our season, but it’s another step towards where we want to be in consistency in November. We have done very well in November, and we want to continue to build on that in this game against Stanford.

Q. Mike Floyd obviously wanted to come back and help this team win, but he also said he wanted to be the best receiver in the country. How is he better than last year? I don’t know if it’s too early to talk about his draft status, but have you heard anything?

COACH KELLY: I think where he’s better as a wide receiver is in the complete game of blocking and the complete game of he’s a much better route runner. He understands the little nuances that are involved in being a great wide receiver. I think maybe that development probably stands out to the NFL scouts more this year because they see that complete game.

We have heard that obviously he’s in that first round consideration right now, but I think we all know that that is subject to so many things right now.

But we feel like he’s the best receiver in the country. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder if it gets to that. But that’s his development. It’s in the complete game; it’s the way he practices.

All those things are going to help him moving forward.

Q. He hasn’t been a game day captain this year. I know you like to wait until the end of the week. Any chance in the final regular season game he will be?

COACH KELLY: No. He will not be a game day captain. You know, with his status he’s on probation, and we do not elect any game day captains that are on probation.

Q. Throughout the season you’ve talked a lot about getting the opponents best shot because they’re playing Notre Dame. Do you kind of use that in reverse this week, get a chance to play spoiler?

COACH KELLY: I don’t know that I see ourselves as a spoiler, to be quite honest with you. We have a great deal of respect for Stanford, and they’ve earned everything. They’re a darn good football team.

We see this as just another opportunity to play our last regular season game. I know our guys are excited. It’s a relevant game in November and it’s an national television. That gets 18 to 21 year olds’ attention more than being a spoiler so to speak.

Q. And how does practicing in a week with Thanksgiving, how does that change things? Do you notice players thinking about family more than normal, that kind of stuff?

COACH KELLY: No, not really. I think it’s been pretty good. Last year we had a good week of practice. We get ’em in here early on Thursday having a morning practice and let ’em get out. Most of ’em will go with their coaches and their families will host ’em.

Couple guys in Chicago may shoot home and see some family and some back. We’ll have a team meeting at 8:00 that evening.

No, you know our guys, no school on Wednesday, so they’re excited about that. No school on Wednesday, obviously Thursday and Friday for ’em.

Q. Along those lines, what is Thanksgiving like in the Kelly house? It’s such a busy week for you. Can you take any time?

COACH KELLY: Oh, it’s chaos. It’s family and friends over. You get a few hours to spend time with your kids. But I think we all know for me it’s more about the football.

No, you get a chance to spend a little time with your family on Thanksgiving. That’s great. Relatives come in from other towns.

But you’re still so wrapped up into the week of preparation. We would have just come off the practice field. I think what we take from it more than anything else in our household is I get a little time with our family.

Q. For the guys that don’t get home, what would you do?

COACH KELLY: Most of them will be paired up with our assistant coaches. We do a pretty good job of making sure everybody is taken care of. Nobody is going to be hanging out in the dorm. They’ll all have a place to go Thursday.

Q. Last year when you played Stanford their defense was able to control the line of scrimmage. Your unit has come a long way since then, and that hasn’t been a problem this year. Just talk about how the matchup is different this year with your guys up front.

COACH KELLY: I think I alluded to it earlier. I think we physically have developed our football team to a point where we can match up in terms of that physical play.

What I really liked about Stanford last year was physically they controlled the line of scrimmage and their development of their players, and that obviously has been crucial to our success moving forward.

I mentioned earlier, I think I looked at the numbers and I think we’re 15 5 since we played them last year in the last 20 games we’ve played.

And that’s a step in the right direction of moving towards being more physical as a football team. That’s what stood out to me. I think I we are better prepared to handle that. We’ll see how that goes.

They also have somebody called Andrew Luck that goes along with that physicalness. We’ll have to combat that element as well.

Q. Last year you had some success early on keeping him out of rhythm a little bit and forcing him to make some tougher throws. Is it just the same thing on the other side? Just controlling the line of scrimmage and put pressure on him without having to bring a lot cover zero blitzes?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, it’s all about matchups. So when they put an extra tackle or tight end on the field, you’re still matching up your base personnel and their ability to fit the runs as well as cover.

So the game is gonna be about those matchups, but more importantly about our ability to slow down their running game.

If they can run the football with effectiveness, Andrew Luck will tear you apart.