Dec. 6, 2015

Bowl Central

Brian Kelly: Good afternoon. Certainly excited about our match-up in the Fiesta Bowl as a New Year’s Six game. It’s a great accomplishment for our football team, and the opponent in Ohio State, the defending national champs, it’s going to present a great challenge, one that we’re certainly excited about. Our players recognize the challenge that we have but one that they’re certainly excited about.

I won’t tell you that they were jumping up and down when the announcements were made today because they were disappointed that they weren’t one of the four teams, but they also want to play one more game together, and this is that opportunity to play one more game together. They’ve gotten an opportunity to play arguably — you could say one of the top eight teams, any one of those eight teams could be playing for a spot in the playoffs, and this is Ohio State, in our estimation, could be one of the best teams in the country, and we’re feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country.

So should be a great match-up. Ton of respect for Urban and what he’s accomplished obviously in his career. We know the program very well. And again, I think it just makes for a great match-up in the Fiesta Bowl. With that, we’ll open it up to questions.

Q. Now that it’s reality and you’re getting toward the bowl game. How teal stick is it that you will actually get back Jarron Jones, Durham Smythe and KeiVarae and CJ Prosise, as well?

Brian Kelly: I had a long conversation with our medical staff and Rob Hunt today. Jarron Jones is cleared for full practice and participation beginning Thursday, so we will have him involved in practice, and it’ll just be a matter of increasing the volume as we work through our bowl preparation. The good thing about the bowl preparation is it’s not like two-a-days. There are breaks in there, and I think we can increase his volume where he can be playing for us and contributing.

Durham Smythe is in a very, very good position. He’s got full strength. We expect him to be a solid contributor for us, and he is cleared to practice immediately.

CJ will be moving around on Thursday. He’s not fully cleared. He’s out of the cast. He’s moving around. We’ll have to see how he continues to progress. We expect him to be ready, but he’ll be a process of moving him and getting him to the level that we need to get him.

I don’t see KeiVarae being available to us. He’s still obviously a ways away relative to his injury.

Q. With Jarron and Durham, do you think you can get the Jarron and Durham you had in August or kind of have to wait and see?

Brian Kelly: Well, I know Rob Hunt feels like we can get Durham Smythe to where he was in August. His strength levels are above where he was coming into the camp. Jarron is at about 90 percent right now, so it just depends on where we can get his volume. If we can get his volume up, I think at this time of the year, that’s pretty good. I think we can get some really good play out of Jarron.

It’s just strength levels and getting them up, and then matching that with volume in terms of reps.

Q. How do you divide up getting ready for Ohio State versus getting some young guys reps, maybe taking a look at people at other positions and so forth?

Brian Kelly: Well, you know, I think first and foremost, this team wants to win, and so winning will be the most important thing. I think that we’d like to say that experimenting and positions and getting young guys work is really left to the spring. This is about preparing this football team for one last game.

Look, we lost our last game, and nobody wants to end their season on a loss. They want to end it on a win. So the preparation for this game and its focus will be about preparing to win the football game.

Q. When you think of Ohio State football, Urban Meyer football, what comes to mind? As you look at this match-up, what are the things that you have to prioritize in order to win this game?

Brian Kelly: Well, it’s a well-coached, very good athletes on both sides of the ball, physical style of football, running the football I think is the thing that Ezekiel Elliott has obviously shown that, a quarterback that is multitalented in his ability to run it and throw it.

So I think it starts with that physical dimension, physical front. Joey Bosa coming off the edge, a pass rusher. Physical front, physical offensive line, running the football. That’s what kind of stands out as the demeanor of an Ohio State football team, physical, and then just well-coached in all areas, including the special teams.

Q. What do you think the priorities are for you?

Brian Kelly: Well, you know, I think when you’re playing, whether it’s Ohio State or Stanford or USC or any of the really — Clemson, any of the really good football teams we’ve played, I think you have to play a complete game. I think you have to understand that if one area is not strong, you’re going to be compromised, and I think Ohio State will compromise you if you’re not strong in all three phases.

Q. What kind of breakdown are you looking for preparation? I know you’ve got finals week coming in. Is this comparable to last year, and when will you convene?

Brian Kelly: Yeah, we go until the 23rd. Our last practice will be on the 23rd, and then we’ll come back to Phoenix, Scottsdale, on the 27th, and practice through a normal practice week in Phoenix, Scottsdale.

Beginning this Thursday, we’ll start our practice, on-field practice through Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then we’ll be off Sunday, and then we’ll work around our exams and study days right through the 23rd.

Q. Do you have practices? Is it mandatory or is it more just workouts?

Brian Kelly: No, no, we’ll practice when we can practice, absolutely. Everything is mandatory when it comes to our practice situation. We won’t have optional practices. But we’ll work them around our exams and our study days. We’ve been able to work out that schedule.

Q. Is there an importance attached that there hasn’t been a major bowl victory at Notre Dame in 22 years, just the meaning of being able to not only get to the Big Six but actually finish?

Brian Kelly: Heck yeah. Winning this is important. It’s important. Not being there in a while and not playing well in 2012 on a national stage, you know, it’s very important for us to play well and win the game.

Q. Can you just speak of your relationship with Urban Meyer? Obviously you had him here a couple years ago before he became the Buckeyes’ head coach, just what you guys were like together.

Brian Kelly: Well, I obviously have a ton of respect for Urban and what he’s accomplished as a coach. But got a chance to know him when he was at Cincinnati, when I was at Cincinnati. He certainly was accustomed to what the program was like at Cincinnati having been there, and I leaned on him for some advice at the University of Cincinnati and got to know his dad and got to know his family a little bit, so there was a personal connection there.

But we’re just two football coaches that are trying to coach our football teams, so we don’t spend a lot of time talking back and forth.

But got that opportunity when I was at Cincinnati to get to know him, and then obviously from there just have a lot of respect for him and what he’s accomplished.

Q. And how hungry are your guys to just get back out there after the —

Brian Kelly: They want to play again. Like I said, I don’t want to overdo it or overstate it, but in maybe our first couple years when we talked about the bowl game, they were excited. There was cheering. There was none of that. Look, they’re disappointed they’re not in the playoffs. They’re going to a great bowl and one that we’re honored to be part of and excited to be playing Ohio State, and they want to play one more game.

But it’s a different feeling about this team and what they want to accomplish.

Q. Just big picture for the state of the program when you go through a season and now you’re playing a Big Ten team, played Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, when you play a team like Ohio State is there a marker you can have for the overall state of the program to be able to compete with so many different conferences when you do get this opportunity to play a top-tier Big Ten team?

Brian Kelly: No, I think we’ve kind of — that’s who we are. We’ve played the No. 1 team in the country and we’ve played a very good Stanford team, and we’ve beaten three top-25 teams and played a couple others that are really good.

Look, we have a ton of respect for Ohio State and the Big Ten, and we’re always in the Big Ten. We’ve played Michigan, Michigan State, so we know Big Ten football, and we know what it’s like. It’s tough. It’s physical. It’s well-coached. But I don’t think that there’s like, you know, an added kind of résumé builder. It’s Ohio State. They’re the defending national champs. It’s a darned good football team. But I think we know who we are, and we’ve been tested by some very, very good football teams. This will be another stern test by another very good football team.

Q. You mentioned before looking at the grand picture of things that there were a number of teams you thought could have been in that Final Four. I was just curious if you thought that the playoffs could use maybe an expansion to a six or an eight-team format.

Brian Kelly: Eight, definitely eight. (Laughter.)

Q. I mean, obviously given your circumstances, but do you think maybe that would be something that college football should consider in the future, just because it was such a toss-up this year for who was in it?

Brian Kelly: Yeah, I think this conversation continues to unfold. I think it’s a conversation that we’ll continue to have. I think those eight teams that if you look at the first eight, that would be a pretty good playoff. Everybody would be excited about it.

I think you’ve just got to keep moving in this direction. I think you’ve got to keep putting quality football teams in a position where it gets talked about, and you know, hopefully there continues to be an appetite for college football at a deeper level. But I think we’ve got it down pretty good right now with the four teams. It’s very competitive. Certainly when you’re on the outside looking in you want more teams in it. I think the committee has done a great job. I think they take it serious. They look at everything.

But you know, if college football continues on its trend of popularity and teams building the way they are, it’s going to be hard to stay at four.

Q. And then my other question was back to even when Coach Weis was hired here and you were hired here, Urban Meyer was a name that was thrown around a lot. There are still some Notre Dame fans out there who think he could come here some day. I wonder if you take that personally or use this as a moment to shut those fans up?

Brian Kelly: We’re going to wrestle, arm wrestle before the game, and whoever wins gets the Notre Dame job.

No, I mean, I think that’s just great talk for the fans, and Urban is a great coach. Who knows; I’m not going to be here forever. Maybe he’ll get a chance one day to coach at Notre Dame if that’s what he wants.

Q. It may be too soon to talk about this —

Brian Kelly: Is Urban coming here? (Laughter.)

Q. I know the schemes and the formations are different and the launch points for the quarterback, but the way that Ohio State runs their spread with the reads, the inside-out attack and the run game, are there some similarities between the way you might teach discipline, where their eyes need to be, between that and what you’ve got to go into when you face the triple option teams that you’ve faced?

Brian Kelly: Oh, absolutely, yeah, no question that there are some similarities relative to the run-play options. When you have a quarterback that has the ability to run it or throw off of the same scheme, in other words, the five guys up front are blocking it the same way but they could run the ball or throw it, it’s very difficult to defend. Ohio State does a great job with that scheme.

It puts your defense in a very difficult run-pass bind, and they’re as good as anybody in the country at doing that.

That’s why they’re very difficult, and certainly they’re very good up front. They can control the line of scrimmage, which makes it even more difficult, and a quarterback that’s hard to defend. But that run-pass conflict is really where it begins.

Q. And when you play a team like Ohio State that likes to push the tempo and they’ve gotten back to what people thought they were going to be this year, how does that change what you do defensively? You’ve faced some spread teams this year, you’ve faced option teams, you’ve faced a lot of different offenses. How does that affect you guys, your preparation defensively, when you are facing a team that likes to push the tempo like that?

Brian Kelly: You know, I think we’re pretty comfortable with it because we can push the tempo, and I think our defense is feeling very comfortable because we can be very similar to some of the things that Ohio State does offensively. I think our defense has gotten to the point where we’re at a level of competence in handling the more up-tempo kind of offensive structure.

That’s not quite a concern. It’ll be — and I don’t — it’ll be less complicated than that in a sense. It’ll be more with controlling the line of scrimmage and tackling a really good back like Ezekiel Elliott and a really good quarterback like J.T. on the perimeter. That’s really what it’ll come down to more than anything else.

Q. Last year when you guys bounced back and forth between option or spread teams and pro-style teams, you went from more nickel one game, more base in the other. This year you’ve been able to stay in your base defense a lot longer. Is that something that helps you?

Brian Kelly: It helps you to stay in that personnel grouping, and you know, that’s James and Greer and their ability to play in space. That’s helped us quite a bit more than anything else. And then we’ve been a little bit thin at the defensive back position, especially with the safety position, so it’s forced us to stay a little bit more basic back there.

But I think it’s more about who’s in space and James and Greer have been able to handle that.

Q. Is James going to be —

Brian Kelly: Yeah, James will be back, yep.

Q. DeShone Kizer obviously came in, was kind of thrown into the fire early on in the season. We’ve seen his development weekly on Saturdays. He has an opportunity now where there isn’t a game a week away. What are your goals or expectations throughout these bowl practices as far as his development goes?

Brian Kelly: Yeah, good question. I think what we’ll try to do is go back and look at some of the things that clearly are areas of need, and we’ll probably start in the red zone, get to work on some things that we need to really get defined and some areas of improvement, spend a little bit more time down there, working on some specific things that we want to get better at. And then probably just go back and work fundamentals and be really solid in the fundamentals in all areas. I think that’s really what this time is about before you really drill deep into your game planning is to go back, work your fundamentals, and then specifically kind of tune up on some deficiencies.

We’ve got to expose him to a little bit more red zone work and then get to work on Ohio State.

Q. Devin got the majority of snaps against Stanford at quarterback. Is that still kind of a by-committee thing in practice that you’re looking at daily or is it something where Devin is the guy at this point?

Brian Kelly: Well, I think we like Devin and what he did in the Stanford game. It wasn’t a very good pass interference call made against him. The league admitted that they should not have made that call, so we thought that he competed very well in that game. He did suffer a head injury, and Nick Watkins came in. We thought he competed well. We like Nick Coleman and what his upside brings. We want to continue to work the three of those guys, but Devin has shown — other than the one time where he didn’t come up and force the ball and didn’t have the tackle, he missed the tackle in the red zone, we thought he played well in a big game, which bodes very well for us.

So I’d lean towards him right now, but I think we want to continue to keep those other two kids that we have high hopes for very active, as well.

Q. Is Devin cleared for practice Thursday, by the way?

Brian Kelly: In talking to Rob, we believe that they’ll both be cleared, yes.

Q. And then also, now we have —

Brian Kelly: We have Corey Robinson, as well.

Q. Just kind of big picture, you’ve had 25 games with VanGorder as the defensive coordinator. Is your defense where you thought it would be two years ago?

Brian Kelly: Well, I think we always judge it by the whole. We’re a better football team than we were 25 games ago, and that’s the most important thing. So my question — the question would be answered in that as a whole, as a football team, we’re a better football team than we were 25 games ago.

Q. You recruit in Ohio a lot, successfully on top of that. Could you give us a sense of what it’s like to go into Ohio and go head to head with Ohio State for a kid and whether this game has a lot of significance, a little bit of significance or maybe none at all in terms of the guys you’re chasing?

Brian Kelly: Well, we think, and I know from experience that in the Midwest there are some great recruiting areas. Ohio is one of those great areas that we like to have a presence in, and we target certain areas. We’re not quite as good in Columbus recruiting. But there are some geographical areas that we’ve had some success in.

You always have to deal with Ohio State, and so it’s inevitable that we’re going to run into Ohio State in those areas. But we think that we have some distinctions that carry some strength in those areas.

But I don’t think it’s just Ohio. I think it’s Wisconsin and Michigan, and I think it’s Midwestern states in particular that we have a chance to get a kid based upon our distinctions. I don’t think it’s necessarily just Ohio. If a kid grew up as a — he loved Ohio State, and he lives in Michigan, it’s hard to get him, too. He’s got to have an understanding of Notre Dame and the distinctions of Notre Dame.

Q. In terms of the coaching dynamics here, you have assistants on that staff, former assistants on that staff. Just from a practical standpoint, is that something you have to account for in game planning, preparation, that they know your system?

Brian Kelly: You know, I think we’ll probably have to consider it and look at maybe what we communicate on the line of scrimmage and be cognizant of it. You know, I think it’s something that we’ll consider certainly on the offensive side of the ball with former coaches that are there. So I definitely think it’s something we’ll look at.

But I don’t think I’m too concerned about it, but it’s something that we’ll definitely consider.

Q. In the sense of your system changing enough, the carryover of Stanford here —

Brian Kelly: Yeah, there’s — I think there’s a couple of maybe protections that sound the same that maybe you can change a little bit. There wouldn’t be wholesale changes, and it’s so difficult. Coaches are — the last thing coaches want to do is run in the offense and go, hey, I know that this means this, and it really doesn’t help you on game day. I think people make more out of it than it really is.

Q. In terms of the NFL advisory committee for underclassmen, have you —

Brian Kelly: We have. We’ve submitted that. We’ve submitted it for five players.

Q. And the five are? Will Fuller would have to be one?

Brian Kelly: Yeah, Will, CJ Prosise, Jaylon. We had to put in Ronnie because he has another year left, and one other, KeiVarae Russell. Those are the five.

Q. Have you had conversations with them about that, where they’re leaning or given your feedback on what you think they should do?

Brian Kelly: I’ve talked to KeiVarae, I’ve talked to Will, I’ve talked to Ronnie, and who am I missing? I have not talked to Jaylon yet. I’ve given him my feedback, and we’ll see where that goes. I hope they all come back. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, but we’ll see.

Q. How are you going to keep the players fresh throughout this whole 30 days before the Fiesta Bowl because I know a lot of players get tired and they get tired of seeing the same people every day. How do you keep them ready to go for that game on January 1st?

Brian Kelly: Well, it’s not really a difficult schedule. You know, it’s broken up pretty good over the 30 days. We do different things to keep it lively. They’re out of school for the most part, so they’ve got some downtime, and there’s pretty good energy during this period of time.

Q. Just talk about Ohio State, what you see from them. They have a great running back and great wide receivers and almost everything is working on on the offense. What do you have to do with the scout team to get that ready for your players?

Brian Kelly: Well, I think, again, as I mentioned earlier, we’ve played a number of really good football teams this year, including the No. 1 team in the country. You know, our scout teams have done a great job all year. We’re going to lean on them again one more time to provide us with the kind of look necessary to prepare our defense. But no, we know the challenge that Ohio State brings, and we’re going to have to do a great job of preparing our defense.

Q. I was wondering, what has this team, this Notre Dame team, taught you about perseverance? I was watching your Showtime specials every week throughout the season and stuff. You talked about the disappointment of that last loss and stuff. But where does this team rank with you in terms of special?

Brian Kelly: Well, it’s a good point. I mean, in 25 years you have different teams, and sometimes you forget about the personalities and the different makeups of this team.

I think what makes this team stand out to me is that nothing really has fazed them. They continue to move forward regardless of the circumstances, and I mean even during a game. Regardless of what injuries occur during the year, they play the same way, whether they’re up or down, and I think it’s a great lesson in life in the sense that they deal with what’s in front of them, they handle their business, and they keep moving forward, and I just think it’s a great example of how this game teaches great lessons, and this group taught me a great lesson of how to just stay in the moment and keep working through it. Even though it may be difficult, they just keep moving forward.

Q. The other thing, you touched on this earlier, but I wanted to ask you, is there such a thing as a program crossing over a threshold to where, like you’ve pointed out, you guys aren’t playing for it all and there’s disappointment in that as opposed to the excitement, obviously you’re playing Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, but I don’t know if you had that in 2012, but is there a feeling that as a program y’all are back on that level where the expectations are realistic? Do you understand what I’m saying?

Brian Kelly: Yeah, I do, and in answering the question that was asked about the game itself, we need to play well, and we need to win the game to validate where we are as a football program.

I think that we’ve shown that this year, but we’re going to get one more challenge against what could be the best team in the country. I mean, who’s to say they’re not? I know the committee decided who the four were, but you could take one of eight teams and make the case for them.

We’ve got one more challenge on our hands, and that’s to play well against Ohio State.

Q. Do you get any sense at all you may be still kind of — among your fan base, how excited it is to play Ohio State?

Brian Kelly: Well, I think that we’re kind of used to playing the best. We schedule the best. We look forward to playing the best. We want to be associated with the best. So I think our fan base embraces scheduling and getting matched against the best.

If I was to take the pulse of our fan base, they’re excited about playing Ohio State because it’s the best. It’s the defending national champs. I know that’s how our team wants to play the best and be measured against the best, and that’s how we schedule.

I’m pretty certain that if there was a poll out there, that’s how they’d feel.

Q. How much did you actually watch Ohio State this year?

Brian Kelly: I had not seen much other than clips here or there because they weren’t on any — generally as coaches during the year, they’re in the film exchange. So Ohio State wasn’t in the film exchange, so for me to do any voting on them, I’ve got to watch a little bit of ESPN and see them, and I watched a little bit of the Michigan game where they looked very formidable.