Nov. 16, 2016
University of Notre Dame Football Media Conference
Head Coach Brian Kelly
HEAD COACH KELLY: Virginia Tech has a very good football team. Justin Fuente, head football coach and Bud Foster, the defensive coordinator, put together a very good year, some really good wins; North Carolina I really thought probably as complete a game as they played all year. Turned the ball over a few times, but a really good football team. Defensively it’s what you expect from Bud Foster’s team, they keep the pressure on you.
Experience in the back end of their defense I think is the key to their defense, returning starters across the board can play man, can mix it up, play some zone coverages. They’ve lost some guys up front, but Eron and Edmunds, extremely productive tackles. What you see with Virginia Tech is negative plays. And most offenses get into long yardage and Virginia Tech is one of the best in the country on third down.
So consequently for us offensively is staying down in distance situations that keep us out of third and long, that’s where they’ve been very, very effective.
Offensively, I think if you talk about Evans you talk about a quarterback that is a dual threat quarterback, that can run the football, big, physical, a lot like Kizer in that sense, and can throw it, as well. They have three good receivers, I think their numbers are almost six thousand yards between the three of them.
I think Ford, Phillips, Hodges, Ford’s the guy that they look to when they need to get the football. But I think tempo will be a key. They don’t play quite as fast as Syracuse, but they can play tempo. I mean they can move fast if they want to. And it’s a team that wants to be balanced in terms of running the football and throwing it.
Excellent kicker, about 80, 90 percent, kicks it out of the back of the end zone and Stroman is really good at punt returns. The kicking game will be challenged, as well, on Saturday.
So really good football team. And again one that we expected that at this time of the year that we were going to get a great challenge from Virginia Tech, last home game for our guys. I think Mike mentioned 162 seniors that we have. Each year it seems like we have that many. But we’ve only got a few guys that are playing in their last game in terms of eligibility. So again from that standpoint, that will have minimal effect. This is really about sending those guys out that have played and completed their eligibility with the win.
With that, we’ll open it up for questions.
Q. Arguably the last two games might be the two toughest teams you’re facing. Do you look at that, do you believe that as a chance to show maybe you are a better team than the record?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yeah, I mean I think that’s always one thing that you take out of playing two quality opponents. But I think more importantly is that you want all of the things that you worked so hard on all year to come together in these last two games, and that is, for us, finishing games, playing the game for us with a mental and physical toughness that at times was not at its best. It’s now coming together.
And I think that regardless of how we’re perceived, I think the most important thing is to play the way we’re capable of playing. That’s what I’m looking at more than anything else. And that is putting all these components together, learning how to win close games, not giving up the cheap plays that we’ve given up occasionally during the year to keep teams in games. And playing smart football. Getting off the field on third downs, staying on the field, red zone, those things. I’m looking for that. If we do that, I think people can make their own opinions about what kind of team we have.
Q. You mentioned on Sunday the fact about going for the option. What is the challenge of doing something you’re not used to?
HEAD COACH KELLY: For two weeks we didn’t play any of our coverages that we rep all camp and essentially run for the first nine weeks of the season. So getting back to that.
Same thing with the fronts. Those aren’t fronts that are traditional fronts that we would normally run. For two weeks you’re running a system that only gets that work for option. And so it’s an outlier from your play book. It’s a separate play book in itself.
So relative to the work that it gets it’s simply for those two weeks, and then sporadically to try to install it you’re spending a little time on that in preseason camp, but the lion’s share of your work is somewhere else in your play book.
Q. How do you change that?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, you know, your first inclination is you want to go longer in your practice. But at this time in the season that’s — we’ve been on the road two weeks in a row, got back late. That’s something that can’t happen.
So you have to be very smart. And the way you integrate your practice schedule with probably getting your defense a little bit more work with your offensive. And that’s how I’ll go about doing it. Try to get speed on speed, all offensive against our defense, a little bit more than we normally would.
And try to use as much of that as a stepping-stone towards — to acclimate them back into the football that they’re used to. I think that’s the way to do it.
Q. It’s been a long time since you’ve been bowl eligible. Last year three teams when five and seven record. Would you interested in going with five and seven record?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I haven’t given it much thought, to be honest with you. I think those scenarios I would address at the end of the year.
Q. When Lou Holtz was here, they always talked about senior day, how difficult it was for his seniors for the team to block and tackle, and the tears they were shedding on that day. I know you said most of the seniors have eligibility after this year. But what have you found in your previous six senior days? Have you had to manage the motions of your upperclassmen?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Earlier I had to. It’s less and less because we don’t have as many seniors that have used up their eligibility. I’m crying right now because I don’t have Will Fuller. He didn’t have a senior day. Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley, Kavari Russell, is that enough? Those guys, you know, they’re all juniors, and they really didn’t have a true senior day. And then there’s a number of guys that have eligibility remaining.
So it’s kind of changed a little bit. Where my first couple of years you knew who those guys were. Now it’s a lot grayer as to who is a senior and who’s not a senior.
So it’s changed a little bit in that respect.
Q. What about the guys you know are out of eligibility, do you find their demeanor on this day to be a little bit different?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I do a little bit. But it’s never been too emotional. I think it’s been just about right. I think that there’s been a good balance of really excited about a new chapter in their life. But a bit, after the game, certainly reminiscing and a bit emotional.
And I’ve always talked to them about there should be great enthusiasm and that the emotion should kind of show itself back to the game.
Q. Speaking of guys that didn’t have a senior day, I don’t know that we brought up Steve Elmer’s name this year. Basically a three-year starter at right guard.
HEAD COACH KELLY: Right.
Q. Not to get you to say what the three guys that have played that position don’t have, but what did you lose this year by not having Steve Elmer in your — as your starting right guard?
HEAD COACH KELLY: An investment of time and investment in circumstances of game-like experience. All the things that you correct on Sunday had to be recorrected starting day one.
So we lost a lot of that experience that had been gained with Steve. And remember, we played Steve as a young player. So there was a lot of equity placed in a young player making some mistakes and learning and having to teach through that. And we had to kind of go through that process again.
Q. Greer Martini has proven time and again against option teams, he’s always ready for that call. Is there anything that he has done in progressing against those triple option teams that can take him to the next level as you get back to some more conventional offensive?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yeah, he’s in a difference place mentally, a lot more confident as a football player, exhibiting — I don’t know if I brought this up with this group here, but if you look at the Texas game and you watch the film of the Texas game and you watch the film of the Navy game this past week, he was bending back ball carriers. He was at the line of scrimmage getting in position where his physicality was clear. And the Texas game, that wasn’t the case. And that’s a mindset. That’s a mental mindset that he has brought to his game.
So he’s just clearly in a different place. And that comes with confidence, that comes with where he is in our system and he’s playing really good football.
Q. Sam Mustipher limped off late in the game Saturday. Is he available for this week?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yeah, nothing major like the high ankle sprain that he kind of dealt with for three or four weeks. He’s in pretty good shape.
Q. Any update on Torii Hunter and Daniel Cage?
HEAD COACH KELLY: We’ll get Torii back out there. He’ll be a day-to-day situation.
Daniel Cage, you know, again, I don’t want to just keep throwing cliches at you, but when you go through a concussion, it’s how he feels on a day-to-day basis. He’ll now determine where we go.
So each day he’ll check with Dr. Leiszler, and then we’ll determine based on how he feels where we take him. The next step for him is exercise and moving him through that and then from there into the practice setting.
So as I mentioned with his meeting with Dr. Cutcher, everything is now him feeling good, and then when he feels good we’ll get him moving.
Q. When we used to interview Jeron early in his career, he was pretty open about that there’s times his mom had to get on him about his class work and stuff. And his football and everything else. How and when did he kind of turn the corner of that stuff?
HEAD COACH KELLY: When they awarded him his degree (laughter.)
Q. I know when he came in there were recruiting analysts that felt like he would be better or that he could be an all American offensive line, and you guys kept him on defense, and invested there. What did you see that made you want to make that investment? And do you feel like he’s got an NFL future?
HEAD COACH KELLY: You know, I think — when you talk about offensive linemen and defensive linemen, you know, there’s a makeup there that we look for, right or wrong. And it’s just — it’s just a makeup that I look for as it relates, and Harry certainly it involved in that as well, he wasn’t here at the time we recruited him. But there’s a personality and makeup that we’re looking for. And we thought his makeup best suited for him to be on the defensive line.
As it relates to the NFL, I definitely think he has the opportunity and will have the chance to play in the NFL. Any player that has the kind of athletic ability that he has, and size, that is required to be single blocked can make his presence felt. Is he a guy that’s probably going to be on the field in three downs? No. But his size and his first step quickness and his length is certainly, for me, I’m going to allow him to have a chance to play in the NFL.
Q. You know, Cage will be a senior next year and I know that you can’t talk about recruits. But with you becoming more of a three down team that you’ve said that you were going to be moving forward, how do you feel like the nose guard position is shaping up with Jeron leaving and with Daniel getting to the end of his career, as well?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yeah, we feel pretty good. I think we’ve got some guys that are becoming much or seasoned. Pete Mokwuah, Brandon Tiassum, those guys in particular have done a nice job, have come along to the point where we believed that their time is really close. And again, I think you’ll see a sense of three down, but we’ll be in four down, too, that give us the flexibility to play, both in three down and four down. But those guys in particular I think we feel like their future is ahead of them.
Q. You mentioned a small number of guys with expiring eligibility, and it almost seems like that’s kind of where you’re going to be for a while. Your developing players are going to jump to the NFL, and the guys that are maybe stuck behind younger guys are going to go grad transfer somewhere else?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yes.
Q. In that light do you coach younger guys different? Do you take a philosophy of we’re not going to have the elite players for four years, so maybe Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool will have to get on the field faster?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yeah, I think I’ve kind of alluded to that a little bit, is the need to play these kids, and that’s who they are, they’re kids. But we’re going to be a young team. We’re not going to be Alabama, we’re not going to have a punch of older players playing for us, and we’re not going to be some of the teams that are allowing them to mature at that level. We’re going to have to play some of the younger players, and that’s going to be the case here moving forward. So I have no problem with that.
Kids are coming here to get their degree and play Championship football, and they have great confidence they can do that at an early age.
You mentioned a couple of guys that certainly can compete with anybody out there, at what level and what their role is, as long as they can accept their role as a freshman we’ll keep playing them.
Q. Offensively you really haven’t had any slow starts. I think six games you started the first drive, a couple more the second drive. We haven’t really talked about that over the years. Do you adhere to a script for the game?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yes, we script out 20 plays, providing they stay within the down and distance headings. In other words, if they get off into third downs, we have third down plays. Or if they’re not an opener, if it goes to first and 15 or first and 20.
Q. How hard is it to go back to that throughout the game? Do you often go back to it, and is it something that we wouldn’t really understand, we can’t go back —
HEAD COACH KELLY: No, we like repeating plays, successful plays.
No, I think that you can go back to those quite a bit. And they become certainly relevant. Some get scratched off the sheet during the game for different reasons, might be personnel, might be a different front or coverage. But I would say, in answering your question, that those plays usually stay very relevant throughout the game.
Q. Steve Elmer, maybe you don’t have a right guard, has the message that you can go to Notre Dame and graduate in three and a half years and get a job at Washington, D.C., has that resonated with the group since he’s left?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, I think that they know about it. They know that they have options when they come to Notre Dame that the NFL for most of those kids is a No. 1 option. But there are a number of kids that know there is the door open for them to do whatever it is that they’re passionate about, whether it’s the public sector, the private sector, Wall Street. And I think that is a great trade for us to continue to talk about in the recruiting process.
Q. And maybe recruits but not only their parents, too?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, certainly, right. I mean if you just talk to the kids, all they’re thinking about is what NFL stadium they want to play in. If you talk to the parents it’s a little bit of both.
Q. Maybe the biggest compliment to Scott Daly is that his name has not been brought up his four or five years here?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I think maybe that is the best compliment, when you do not talk about your long snapper for four years, that’s a pretty remarkable thing to be that efficient, to be that consistent over four years is pretty amazing, what he’s been able to accomplish here.
It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get as much of the talk, but it is one of those positions that if you don’t hear about him he’s doing a pretty good job.
Q. The growth that he’s had, just his ability to kind of self motivate, how has that allowed him to stay consistent?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, I think more than anything else it’s helped him become a better long snapper because size does matter a little bit in a sense that even though he’s not required to be a blocker, he’s got to get big, so to speak.
And he’s been able to put on strength. He’s been able to be a guy that you can’t overpower by rushing through the opposite A gaps. And it’s definitely helped him. But it’s going to help him moving on, if he chooses to go and do this in the NFL. And it’s also helped our football team.
Q. Have you had a long snapper turn pro in your coaching?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I have, yeah. I had one in Cincinnati, who had a pretty successful year this the NFL.
Q. Does he have some of the same traits?
HEAD COACH KELLY: He has, he has all the physical traits necessary for him to play at the next level and I think — certainly what they look for is somebody that can also do some coverage, has some coverage ability. And I think Scott is a good enough athlete that he can get down there and cover.
Q. One of the guys that does have eligibility is James, what has he meant to this program coming in as a wide receiver?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Again, another model of consistency in terms of you can count on him week in and week out. There’s a guy that not many people talk about as to — and I don’t even know if he wants to play in the NFL. But I would put him on my team because he’d be a valuable special teams player. He’s a guy that can do a lot of jobs for you. And I’ll bet if somebody is interested in him on their roster he’s got a great chance because of his ability to do so many jobs in special teams. He’s just been so valuable to us this year as a leader, too. He’s been a very, very strong leader.
Q. The wide receiver to linebacker, I know, that’s not a transition that a lot of people make, how does that special to his football IQ?
HEAD COACH KELLY: It was not an easy transition for him. Because James was — it wasn’t that football was everything, you know, coming up for him. He was learning football, as well. And the transition wasn’t easy for him. But he became a student of the game. Spent a lot of time in the film room and really I think he made himself into the player that he is.
Q. With so many guys who have not exhausted their eligibility, do you think you have a sense which guys that can come back, want to come back, and will come back?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yeah, I do.
Q. At what point do you have those conversations with those guys?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I don’t have them directly. I have other people have those indirect conversations. I think I save those for after the season. But I have enough people that are part of the staff that can have those conversations. So I get a pretty good sense of who those people are.
Q. Do they share that information? Is that something that you have to wait for the university to share or do you feel like you could let us know who?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Mike McGlinchey shared that with you, is that what you’re referring to?
Q. With all of us?
HEAD COACH KELLY: No, the other guys will sit down and I’ll have to have one-on-one conversations with them before I talk publically about who those players might be.
Q. To what extent does the bowl game option motivate you guys right now, talking about a bowl game?
HEAD COACH KELLY: They definitely want to keep playing. They definitely want to keep playing. We’ve talked about the importance of each game, and certainly these next two weeks being very, very important.
But, look, we understand more importantly that we want to play the game and how we play the game is more important about really anything else because we’re playing it — for right now we’re playing for next year. And I think we’re starting to figure out how to play.
Some people might say, well, you know, it wasn’t Alabama that you played, it was Army. But that really doesn’t matter to me. It’s really in how we played the game that I look at. And we played that game differently than any other game that we played all year.
We played with an edge in that game that we hadn’t played with all year. And if we continue to play with that kind of edge we can be a really good team.
And so I’m more interested, and I think I’ve had this question posed in a couple different ways, I’m more interested, going to a ballgame is important, how we’re perceived is important, I’m more interested in playing the game the right way. And if we do that, that’s job one for me.
Q. With Evans and his mobility, what kind of problems does that pose for you in terms of being able to not only pressure him but defend him?
HEAD COACH KELLY: You know, we’ve seen a lot of quarterbacks this year that had that kind of dual ability. So our plan, defensively, is there will be times where we’ll have to keep an eye on him within our defensive structure. And then in others you have pass rushing responsibilities. And he’ll be one of the hats that we’re going to have to obviously have on him.
So it’s college football today where you have that can be that can be a dual threat, and we’re pretty familiar with that kind of offense.
Q. I know you’re not big on time of possession as a staff, but Georgia Tech was able to use that to keep the ball out of Virginia Tech’s hands. Is ball control something that you look to use request with a team like this?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Yeah, I’m more about efficiency and scoring points. If you’re ineffective punting the football, not scoring points, turning it over, you know, to me, if you have the ball six or seven minutes but have nothing to show for it, that’s where time of possession means nothing for me. It has to be met with efficiency, and efficiency is putting points on the board.
The best way to do it would be long drives and scoring points. But I think both have to happen. And I would take the four or five drives we had against Navy, that equaled seven points, and keeping them off the field would be just fine to me.
Q. How rare is it to see a kid like Evans blossom the way he has the first year at this level?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I don’t think it’s — I’ve seen it before. If there’s a real fit, and Justin Fuente knew what he was looking for, and he’s run this offense and he’s got a pretty good pedigree of working with quarterbacks. And obviously he knew that this kid would fit in his scheme of things. Aaron Rogers coming out of junior college, came on the scene pretty quickly. There’s a number of guys.
You really need to know the can be position and what you’re looking for. You can’t just take a flier on a junior college kid. This was really a head coach who’s tuned into the can be position and knew what he was looking for.
If you have all those things work being for you, I think you can do that.
Q. How do you describe the state of the contents of your young defensive backs right now, I think they’ve had a couple of good weeks these last two weeks here. And it seems unusual I guess that they would be able to have such a noticeable showing against these teams?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I think that they gained a great deal of confidence probably off of the Miami game where they were able to defend a lot of balls down the field, gain some more confidence obviously by just simply getting on the field more.
They were a confident bunch when they came in. And they needed that confidence reaffirmed by making some plays. And they’ve all been able to make plays. So regardless of whether it was an option team or not, they’ve been able to make plays one-on-one, whether it be in the run game or the pass game, and that’s put them in a pretty good spot right now. They are who they are. They may not make all the plays but what you see is what you get from those guys. They’re a pretty confident group. They’ll go out and compete. They’ll make some plays.
Q. Following up on the bowl question, it’s always important for the brand in recruiting and the state of the program, but does is it even more of a pressing issue this year when you have so many young guys that are starting to play well. It’s like we don’t want to put those guys on a shelf for a couple of months when they’re really rolling at this point again in the season?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Look, as I said, if I had to give you the priorities, it’s more important how we play. I want to win, too. But if you look at what our options are, we’re going to practice for about 12 days, you know, and then that’s it. And then we’re going to play one game. So they’re not going to be inactive very long, one way or the other.
So I’d like to practice. I want to go to a bowl game. I want to win our last two games. But I’m not losing sleep over it. What I’m concerned about the most is how we play. And that’s the most important thing because those are the most important elements on what we’ve had to go through this year. And I want to make sure that how we play is going to be reflective of where we finish and how we build that for next year.
Q. There’s a lot of questions about your young guys. I want to know if there are some specific examples you could give maybe mistakes that they’re not making that they were making kind of at the beginning of the year that they’re not now. Just the progression of the young guys through the season?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, I wouldn’t put it on the young guys, that they made a lot of mistakes. I would say that they were coaching mistakes. There were veteran mistakes. There were enough mistakes to go around. I think if we look at some of the younger players in particular, I would probably just say — just being confident and being decisive. Once that became more confident and decisive, they started to play with a different demeanor. And I think that that’s for the young guys. And when I say young guys I mean the first time players. For other players, just more of an attention to detail. Cleaning up mistakes. And then I think just having a better sense of who our football team was, from a coaching standpoint. All those three things are the factors in terms of where we are today.
Q. As far as the first time players go, was there a game maybe as a collective that you noticed that they flipped a switch or is it kind of everyone is different and you noticed them all maybe one by one or something?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, first of all, the defense has the most young players, right? There’s a lot of in experience on offensive. But the most young players in terms of freshmen, they’re on defense. And I would say that when we just let them all play against Syracuse and maybe get their nose bloodied a little bit, but just go out and play, and then come back and I think since then have just gotten better each and every week, I think that was probably the turning point. Just say, just go play. We’ll take our lumps. And then that has continued to accelerate to the point where I think — 15th in the country in pass defense at this point. So that’s the defensive side. I think the offensive side of the ball, they just had to get into more scenarios and situations and experience to be more consistent. If you take away the hurricane game, you know, we really had one below standard offensive performance and that was Stanford. So by and large, that’s just been experiencing situations on the offensive side of the ball.
Q. Kind of for your seniors, how trying has this season been for them, and how much would it mean for you to be able to send them out with a win in their last home game?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, we certainly want to do that. They’ve been resilient. I think that that’s how I would put it. They have not cracked at all. They’ve been positive. They have been — they’ve worked harder than I would say any group that I’ve had, but as hard as any senior group that I’ve had in keeping this football team together, working hard every day. So you want their last home game to be a win. And everybody is going to work to that end, there’s no question about it. And they are, too. And they’ll do everything that they can, as will everybody in this room that is part of this football team. So I’m not concerned about that. Everybody will be fighting their tails off for these seniors, because they’re respected.
Q. What does it say about your senior leadership, specifically the captains, in being able to hold this team together through some difficulties?
HEAD COACH KELLY: They did a good job. But they did it by example. The hardest workers during our toughest times were Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu in particular, those two guys. Not that Torii wasn’t, and not that Mike was not. Those guys got another year of eligibility. But those two guys in particular, Rochell and Onwualu were unbelievable. And it was, I think, crucial when we made a change defensively, played all those freshmen, we needed guys to lead by example. We didn’t need a guy yelling and screaming. And those two guys live by example.
Q. You mentioned Isaac right there, overall, what has he meant to this program for the last four years?
HEAD COACH KELLY: Well, he’s been a model of consistency. You could count on him every day. You could count on him doing the right things off the field, in a class many radio. He’s never on a list. I could give you about ten things that you could count on him in terms of being in the community. All the things that you would want from a Notre Dame football player. On the field he has steadily gotten better each and every year. And that I’m most proud of, that he has taken the coaching and the personal pride to want to be a better football player each and every year, to the point now where he’s a really good football player. Never begged out on assignment. Never turned down the opportunity to take on the tough jobs, whether he’s an inside guys or outside guy, unselfish. Yeah, he’s been everything that we were hoping for.
Q. You mentioned Torii having another year. Do you expect him back next year?
HEAD COACH KELLY: I don’t know that for certain. We all know he’s been drafted in baseball. Look, I think that if all of our guys have great options and they’re smart guys, they’ll sit down and weigh their options and will make a decision and get it out to everybody once we know.
Q. And then you mentioned Fuller and Jaylon not having their senior day because they’re juniors, have you thought it would be their last game?
HEAD COACH KELLY: No, I haven’t, but that would be another possibility, as well. When you have really good football players that have the opportunity to go to the NFL, that’s going to be a reality here at Notre Dame. And I’d love for everybody to stay and use their four years of eligibility, and have their degree and do all that. But the reality of it is that those situations are going to keep coming up.