Nov. 24, 2015

Game Week Central

Brian Kelly

COACH KELLY: Good afternoon. Certainly a weekend that our players are excited to be part of. One that in November, when you’re having an opportunity to have a big game, one that means something, that one that’s important — but when it means something and has such a great meaning in terms of, you know, an opportunity to give your football team an opportunity to be part of something that hasn’t happened here before, that’s exciting. I know our players are excited about the challenge of playing Stanford on the road. And a very good football team.

They’re in a position to accomplish the mission that they went on and that was to have an opportunity to be part of one of the four teams selected for the playoffs.

They know that they don’t control that. But they know that they control the way they prepare and the way they play on Saturday.

So playing a well-coached football team. David Shaw, obviously, is one of the best football coaches in America. He’ll do a great job preparing his football team in all three phases.

Certainly they have veterans, but their quarterback, Kevin Hogan, is a guy that’s won a lot of football games for them. We know him. Tough. A guy who can rise to the occasion, make plays when necessary.

But this year it seems to be about Christian McCaffery and rightfully so. He’s a game-wrecker. He’s a guy that can influence the game in special teams, catching the ball out of the backfield. Certainly running the football.

Special, special player and deserving of all the accolades he’s gotten. So we’ve got our hands full there. Tall, athletic receiving crew. Again, we’ve got our hands full. We know it.

And then defensively, you know, again a group that is well-coached, physical up front. And it’s what you expect. Like Martinez leads their team. He’s the quarterback there on defense, and we have a great deal of respect for him in Kevin Anderson who has been there, it seems, a number of years. Really good scheme. Really good defensively.

And again it’s going to be a great challenge for our football team, and we’re looking forward to it this coming weekend. So with that, we’ll open up to questions.

Q. Update on CJ?

COACH KELLY: CJ is right now in a walking boot. He’s day to day, and we’ll see where that takes us through the week.

Q. You talked all season about avoiding the noise. You won’t have to avoid it anymore. That’s one thing. Do you think if you win on Saturday you’re a playoff team?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, we do. But again, we don’t control that. There’s a committee that makes those decisions. All we can do is control the way we perform and the way we prepare.

And they know that. Our guys clearly understand what they have to do in their preparation and then their performance on Saturday. And that’s it. The rest is up to a committee, and we knew that coming into the season. So we’ll take care of what we can take care of.

Q. What do you think your best argument is for being a playoff team?

COACH KELLY: Again, I think the strength of our schedule throughout the year. Top 25 wins. Again, I think when you look at, from the start of the year to the end of the year, the kind of teams we’ve played, certainly Stanford is going to be a great test for us.

I think if you look at the teams across the board, we’ve played, from the start, in September, all the way through November, we’ve played a very good schedule.

It hasn’t been front loaded. It hasn’t been back loaded. We’ve had to play good football all year.

Q. Playing devil’s advocate, some might say the weaknesses of all the teams, there’s only two teams in the group to be considered that don’t have top 30 defenses. What would you say to that?

COACH KELLY: Well, I would say that if you look at Pittsburgh, if you look at Boston College, Wake Forest, those are pretty good defenses.

I think each and every week we’re going to play — a Stanford defense that again is — all the defenses that we’ve played from my perspective have had solid defenses across the board. We just finished playing the number one defense in the country.

Q. I meant your defense is not a top 30 defense compared —

COACH KELLY: Well, again, I think if you look at it as the whole unit, offense, defense and special teams, I think it measures up as a team, not as just one side of the ball.

Q. I think you mentioned the defense kind of lacked focus at the end of the game. And it’s happened a couple times. How do you explain a team that’s playing for a spot in the national championships or the playoffs, not having the focus and how do you make sure that doesn’t happen this week against Stanford?

COACH KELLY: I think the one thing, if we have a weakness, when we feel the game is in our hands, we let up a little bit. That’s unfortunate, but it’s a little bit of who we are. And I’d like to have a little bit more of a killer instinct as a football coach — we’d like to see our guys. But I think — I look at our football team and they have so many other great qualities as a football team, that if that’s our weakness where we feel like we’ve got the game in control, we’ll try to work through that one.

Q. And DeShone didn’t have his best game the other day. Do you worry that maybe he’s putting too much pressure on himself, he’s gone from being game manager to you’re depending on him to make plays, is he putting too much pressure on himself to make those plays?

COACH KELLY: No. I mean, I think at first you worry a little bit about him wanting to do too much. And then you kind of talk to him and spend some time with him. And then you realize that some of the things that he’s doing, he’s seeing it for the first time and it’s a learning experience for him.

So I think at first glance you may feel that way, but as you get a chance to spend some time with him, film study and watch the film, you feel a whole lot back watching the film listening to him, talking with him, engaging with him, these are the things that he’ll take and learn from.

Q. Along the same lines with Josh, talking about hitting the freshman wall, he isn’t quite as productive. Do you worry that he’s hitting a wall at all, or is that just teams are focusing more on him?

COACH KELLY: I thought he was productive. We asked him to get some tough yardage on Saturday. The kind of runs that he was making were between the tackles. So they were tough yards trying to close out the game, some four-minute runs. CJ got some of the more explosive runs during the game. I think Josh would have handled him the same way.

But, again, I think if there’s one thing, it’s just hold onto the football down on the goal line more than anything else for Josh. But I don’t think he’s hit the wall as much as we asked him to get some tough yards between the tackles.

Q. Is one of the differences in Stanford this year is that they have more speed to go with their usual power? Do you notice any more speed to them?

COACH KELLY: You know, they’ve had speed on the perimeter, and I just think that they’ve got McCaffery who gives it to them in all phases of the game. I think that’s probably the difference on offense.

Q. Mike Sanford’s name has come up at Syracuse. Wonder if you know if he’s heard from them at all, and do you expect his name to be popping up with more openings expected?

COACH KELLY: Yeah. And I think Mike obviously understands, as are the coaches do, that there’s a time and place for it. I’ve talked to him about it. His focus is here at Notre Dame and he wants to be here at Notre Dame.

And we have a job to do and that is to finish this off. So he’s not affected by the noise. He knows that as a lot of our coaches know their names are going to be thrown around, especially when you’re successful. But he’s 100 percent focused on this football team.

Q. Your defense has been pretty good in terms of stopping long runs since you’ve been here. This year has been at the other end of that spectrum. When a defense struggles to stop runs of 20 yards or more, what’s typically the problem; what do you think is not going right?

COACH KELLY: It’s generally — I’d like to give you an easy answer. But when you give up big plays, you need second-level and third-level support. I think our first-level defense has been really, really good.

Our second-level defense has been solid. And our third level has not been as good. And so when you’re giving up 75-yard runs, it’s generally third-level support. So I think you can kind of understand that from a defensive structure, when you give up plays of that magnitude, you have to address it with specific eye control and discipline, which we’ve lacked at times.

Q. Just in terms of this week, the format of it, how do you want it to play out with school on break, going out early, all that?

COACH KELLY: So Wednesday we’ll practice earlier than we normally practice. And that will give our coaches a head start on Thursday morning’s practice. So we’ll finish up a little bit earlier on Wednesday to give us a chance to watch the film from practice and then prepare for Thursday morning.

We’ll practice Thursday morning, give them about — have them a meal. Give them about four, five hours off before we get on a plane at about 5:00. And try to get into the hotel in San Mateo just south of San Francisco about 8:00, get them some sleep, get up and then we’re going to practice at Serra High School the next day and get a good workout in on Friday and really settle in. And I think that that’s the routine that we’re looking forward to at this point.

Q. In terms of how they use Christian McCaffrey, do they do anything overly creative with him, or is he just an explosive player and runs behind a really good offensive line?

COACH KELLY: They have a very good offensive line. I think that they use him pretty traditionally in the sense that they’re running similar plays. But they’re using him as a receiver coming out of the backfield a lot more than they have, say, for example, some of the other backs they have in the past and he’s explosive. He gets the ball in his hands, turns a four-, five-yard completion into a big play.

And certainly his explosiveness on kickoff return has been a big plus for them as well. So just really good vision. Tougher than you may think. He’s a tough, physical — he can run inside. He can run outside. Just a really good back.

Q. How did KeiVarae come through his surgery? And did he have a leg injury going into the game that just gave out or was that just a completely new injury when it happened?

COACH KELLY: No, he had shin splints. So he was down with shin splints but nothing to the point which would take him off the field. But it was an explosive tackle that he made that caused the fracture.

He had the surgery yesterday. He’s resting at Saint Liam’s and a rod and a couple of screws were put in there. Again, we expect a very clean — talking to Dr. Ratigan, who did the surgery, and expect him back and hopefully he’s six weeks back and moving.

Q. I asked you this on Sunday, but the corner opposite, Cole Luke, this weekend, do you plan on playing all three guys this weekend?

COACH KELLY: Devin Butler started against Stanford last year. So Devin’s got some starting experience and has played a lot. But we’d like to see Nick Watkins. We’d like to see Coleman. We’d like to see all three of them in the game and contribute.

We think all of them can contribute. And not necessarily have to rely on one guy. We think all three of them as a combination might be the best way to go.

Q. Kizer seems like a guy that is pretty comfortable inside and out, effective inside and out. As you move him back to the edge, what do you gain by him with your run defense, especially by him being a defensive end?

COACH KELLY: Well, controlling the edge, certainly. You know against this team which is not a big zone option team, though they’ll run some keep, and Hogan can run the ball if you’re not paying attention to it.

But controlling the edge, keeping the ball inside the defense. He’s certainly somebody that is physically strong enough to hold his ground on the edge of the defense and has been good at it all year.

Q. Dexter Williams we haven’t seen a lot of him. What have you seen kind of behind the scenes of his development and how ready do you think he is to play in a game like this?

COACH KELLY: Well, I think we’ve brought him along slowly. We’ve added more reps to his practice each and every week. We’ll add more again this week. So he’s going to have to play and he’s going to have to contribute this weekend.

And we think he’s ready to contribute and help the football team win this weekend. But it’s been slower than Josh, but it’s been, I think, for a true freshman, I think accelerated in a sense. So I would say that he’s prepared and he’s ready to help this football team this Saturday.

Q. CJ had become such a big part of your passing game. Do you think Josh and Dexter are at the level where they could contribute in the passing game as well?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, I think in terms of what we’re going to ask them to do on Saturday, certainly they’re going to be part of what we do. We’re not going to change anything from that standpoint. They’re going to have to — and they know what to do and how to do it.

And it’s how we operate. We run the same plays with those guys. We don’t change anything. When they’re out there, when the second group takes their reps, we’re running the same plays.

And if they don’t run it right, they hear from me; if they don’t catch it, they hear from me. We just envision them stepping in and running the same plays.

Q. With Torii Hunter’s kind of two-way experiment, is that something that you see expanding now that you’ve lost KeiVarae? Is that something that maybe has run its course?

COACH KELLY: No, no, it’s still part of what we’re doing. It’s still part of our nickel package. We didn’t feel like we were in that need and that position against Boston College. It could be a bigger need this weekend.

But, no, he’s still in taking reps and still working with our defense weekly relative to the nickel position.

Q. And when you look at DeShone’s whole body of work, he’s a top 20 passing efficiency guy. He’s top one of a redshirt freshman or freshman in the country, maybe not as good of numbers in the past couple of weeks, but do you think there’s another level yet out there for him this year in his development, do you think he can reach another level?

COACH KELLY: Oh, absolutely. He’s just scratching the surface. If we want to take a step back and look at it for a moment, you know, clearly the turnovers were plays that he would look at and go: I gotta do a better job here. It’s first and goal. I can’t be trying to fit that play in there. I can’t throw the ball down off — now, the interception down the middle of the field, we whiff up front. He’s got a tight end wide open down the middle of the field and we whiff up front. And he expects to be protected and he’s trying to hit a tight end wide open down the middle of the field but he can’t throw that pass.

As I told him, the discipline to play quarterback is incredible. Because it requires — it requires a mental discipline and it requires a discipline in the scope of that’s when you’ve got to take a sack. And you don’t want to. And that’s the hardest thing. Those are the things that he’s learning.

So he did some things physically that were outstanding. That’s why it’s so exciting that as he goes through some of these things and sees them and realizes it, you know there’s another level for him.

Q. Maybe piling on with the defensive questions asked already. But my stat of the day is that in the last two years, 24 games, you’ve given up 40 touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. When you made the change at defensive coordinator or replace Coach Diaco did you anticipate a defense being more aggressive that could compensate by turning the football over a little bit more?

COACH KELLY: You know, I still think it’s personnel-driven. You’re still looking at who you’re putting on the field. It’s still — we’ve had a number of times where our pressure has certainly done really big things. 10, I think, out of 12 Boston College’s drives were virtually nothing.

So I think Brian has brought the kind of pressure and aggressive defensive play that we’re looking for in a transition. We’re still evolving defensively. We’re still working to build our defense. We’re not there yet, clearly. But, no, it’s been the kind of transition that I expected. And we’re going to get better as we continue to recruit and develop our defense.

Q. Clean up question from last weekend. I know this has nothing to do with the fumbles. But did any of the players talk about the lighting be an issue? Both teams seemed to have difficulty tracking the football at times.

COACH KELLY: No, I didn’t hear our players complain about it at all. It was very bright. There was no question. But I didn’t get any of that from our guys that they couldn’t see it or track the football.

Q. After the Clemson game, when you guys had the four turnovers, came out, scored 41 against a pretty good defense in Navy, what was the response coming from the Clemson game into that Navy game, from the offense?

COACH KELLY: Well, just the cognizant awareness that, you know, you can’t win football games turning it over. Now, in this one we were fortunate enough not to be penalized for that.

But they clearly understand. We met with them last night. They know they can’t turn the football over that many times and expect to beat Stanford. So they’ve got to play their very best. This one’s easy. This one’s pretty easy.

I think we got to this point because this is a very, very good team. This is a great team in a sense that, look, you get five or six turnovers, you start pointing fingers. The guys pull apart.

This group never once, when they had adversity, pulled apart. We have a really, really good football team. Now they have to play well.

The individuals, the I in the team part, these individuals gotta play really, really well. If they do that, they’re going to win. So it’s a different kind of mentality going into this game, that our really good players have to step up and play really well, they can’t drop the ball, fumble the ball. They know that. I don’t have to preach it as much as they know going into this game that they have to take care of the ball and they have to play really well.

Q. Is that a sign that the structural foundation is in place where you don’t really have to change anything outside of just reminding them to take care of the football?

COACH KELLY: I think when you get to this point, they clearly understand that when your team is right and the pieces are right and the leadership is right and the message is consistent, you don’t have to hit them over the head with that. They know what to do.

I need to remind them that in big games the great players rise to the occasion. And so Will Fuller has to play great. Jaylon Smith’s gotta play great. Sheldon Day has got to play great. Ronnie’s got to play great. The great players have to step up. And for us to win they’ll have to play great. If they do, we will. If they don’t, we won’t. It’s that simple.

Q. Coming out of the game, now that you’ve watched the game and everything, how did Amir and Chris grade out, was it as good as their numbers?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, they played very well. Stepped up, made the plays. Blocked. They were complete players for us.

Q. In their two losses, both Northwestern and Oregon were able to run for over 200 yards in those games. How imperative is the rushing game for you guys on Saturday?

COACH KELLY: It’s very important. Running the football against Stanford, any team, in a game like this, you have to be able to control the football. We’ve got to keep their offense off the field. We can’t be three and out and let their offense have a number of possessions. So running the football is extremely important to what we do in the success that we’re going to have.

Q. We’ve talked before about the quick start, especially with road games, trying to get off on the right foot. Considering their numbers are really, really good when they score first, how imperative is that quick start Saturday?

COACH KELLY: You know, I don’t think it’s changed much all year. I mean, that’s why we take the ball. We feel like scoring first is very important as well. So it’s one of our mantras. We talk about it all the time. Start fast. And we know what we need to do. I mean, our guys understand what has to happen in this game and how they need to play.

Q. Where do you see David Shaw’s imprint on this football team?

COACH KELLY: On the offensive side of the ball. He’s very consistent in what he wants defensively. But certainly on the offensive side of the ball, physical ball control offense, but creative within that physical presence. You could do a lot of things. They can be in no back, they can be in four wide receivers. I don’t think you can say David Shaw is this and he only does this.

I think certainly you would start with a physical running game, but he can come out of a physical running game and be what he needs to be. If he’s got to throw it 55 times to beat you because that’s what you give him, he’ll do that. And I think that’s the mark of a good offense and a good coach.

Q. Finally, because we all have TV shows to do on Thanksgiving, what are you thankful for this year?

COACH KELLY: I’m thankful for more than anything else my family and the health of my family. And probably getting a chance to coach the kids that I get to coach here at Notre Dame.

Q. In terms of meeting expectations and answering the bell and the challenges, is this probably the most responsive and successful group you’ve coached?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, I think what I like about them the most is that they’re not a bunch of whiners. They don’t whine. They don’t complain.

It’s kind of like if one guy goes down, they pick the flag up and the next guy starts moving. Guy goes down, they pick the flag up and they keep moving. One of those Revolutionary War scenes where they keep marching forward.

And they just have never complained about anything. They just keep going and they keep moving forward. And that’s kind of the mentality of this group. They don’t get fazed by much and they really appreciate each other. They enjoy being around each other.

Q. Have you seen that same response, I guess, in the last couple of days? You had couple of weeks of relatively injury-free things until this week with KeiVarae. Have you seen the same response you did in weeks two and three when other guys were going down as well?

COACH KELLY: Yeah, it’s been the same response. They feel for the guys that go down, whether it was Malik or whether it was Tranquill or Alex Bars. It’s every guy that goes down. KeiVarae this week. They feel that. It hits them, but they get right back up and they’re ready to go.

Probably yesterday was, I know it’s hard to kind of define and picture, but Monday is our stretch and routine of working out is sometimes pulling teeth to get those guys to move. Yesterday was pretty spirited.

Now, I would contribute it to being a short academic week. Our guys are highly motivated when it’s a short academic week. But you can just tell they bounce back and they move on quickly.

Q. Related to the Stanford rivalry, I think this is the fifth straight year you guys are ranked going into the game. Had some close finishes the last couple of years. But why do you think, outside of these two programs, nationally it’s not really talked about amongst some of the other rivalries around the nation coming up this weekend. Seems to fly under the radar despite all the characteristics and commonalities in the program.

COACH KELLY: It’s a shame because both of them have incredible graduation rates as well. I think it should be talked a lot more about, you know — probably because it doesn’t have some of the names that are — it’s not Bedlam. It’s not those kinds of names that — the Iron Bowl.

We’ve got to make up a name. I think it’s up to you guys to come up with a name for this game so we can get in with the in crowd, and then I think people will pay more attention to it. So it’s pretty much the media’s fault (laughter).

Q. One of DeShone’s strengths seems to be his ability to rebound after a bad play or a bad game. I’m wondering where you see that manifest itself. Is it during the week in practice, or is it how he carries himself after these plays?

COACH KELLY: It’s who he is. It’s in his upbringing, his parents. You know, it’s in who he is as a person.

He’s a very strong person. He knows who he is. He’s comfortable in who he is as a person. So just a strong character kid that can recognize when he makes a mistake and he can move past it. And that’s why he’s destined to be a great player because he can learn from his mistakes and move on.

Q. When you’ve coached young quarterbacks before, is that something you find some of them will have difficulty with, is being able to move on versus a veteran who has had that experience?

COACH KELLY: They have to be comfortable in their own skin. They have to be certainly confident in themselves first and know who they are and can’t be worried about what other people think or perceive them to be. And DeShone knows who he is and is strong about who he is. It’s what the group of quarterbacks are like and you have to recruit that.

Q. And I know he has a lot of veterans around him on the offense, but how important has that been to have your quarterback not need to be picked up by the people around him and just to be able to be steady throughout?

COACH KELLY: Well, it’s very important to have a Nick Martin and a Ronnie Stanley out there — to have those kinds of seniors, it’s really good for him. If he had a bunch of freshmen in front of him, you know, it gets a little lonely out there sometimes at the top.

So to have a veteran presence out there is very important to him.