Jan. 30, 2017
COACH KELLY: After each year, you have the opportunity to evaluate your season and certainly get a chance to do a full evaluation of all things within your program. I started that after the USC game, certainly with the first bit of evaluation, was getting a chance to talk to all of our players; getting a chance to talk to each one of them individually, then our staff, and then, moving forward on 2017.
Certainly 2017, we made quite a few changes. I think it’s important to certainly look at where you are, where you were and for me, I know I’m going to always be reminded about last year, and I clearly understand that. But I’m living in the present and building for the future.
Having said that, there always are going to be changes when you look hard and look at yourself and look at where your program needs to be, and we fell short of all those goals.
So consequently, there are a number of things that I felt that we needed to change. Change always starts with the top. You know, last year, certainly we didn’t live up to those expectations and that falls on me first and foremost. And we needed to make some significant changes. Significant not just in terms of personnel but on how we do things on a day-to-day basis and it starts with me.
But as it relates to today’s press conference, we have a lot of new hires, so we kind of want to get to that. The leadership positions, I think are the ones that really kind of take shape on the overall look of this staff. On the defensive side of the ball, Mike Elko, one of only two defensive coordinators in the nation last year to have a unit in the top 40 in total defense in the last five years at Wake and BG. There were three teams that took the ball away as many times, 20-plus times: It was Clemson, Alabama and Wake Forest.
I was looking for something that would take the football away; somebody that has had great success in doing so, as well as a continued success as a coordinator and Mike Elko’s name just kept coming up at the top of the list.
So I had set my sights on hiring Mike. Got great support from our athletic director, Jack Swarbrick. And our president, President Jenkins, and we went out to that end, and we were able to get Mike Elko to join us here at Notre Dame. So very, very excited about Mike here.
On the offensive side of the ball, I was looking for, first and foremost, a play-caller. As I mentioned to you, one of the first things that I did is that I sat down and did exit interviews with 96 players, current players, as well as players that were leaving. And I wanted to get their feedback on things that went on during the season, good and bad.
One of the things that was pretty consistent across the board was that when I spent time on defense, our defensive personnel and players in particular really enjoyed having me part of that day-to-day schedule. One that I’m not normally; most of the time I’m on the offensive side of the ball.
So it really sent a message to me that I needed to be more involved in both sides, offensive, defensive and special teams. The only way to do that is to have somebody calling plays. If you’re calling plays, you have to spend so much time on one side of the ball and so after making the decision that I would not have the influence on a day-to-day basis, it was simply easy for me to know what I was looking for offensively and that was a play caller.
And as I looked around the country, I was able to compile a very short list of guys that called plays through my eyes. In other words, the way I like our offense to look. And the guy that kept coming to the top of the list was Chip Long.
Not only did he call offenses in a similar fashion, but I loved the way he called the game. He was able to use the running game late in games. Didn’t rely heavily on a passing game when he was forced to make up ground late in games. Utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move towards with the great depth that we have at that position.
So as I was able to move through the process of identifying, Chip just kept coming up on the list. Then I spent some time with him and it was pretty clear that I had found my guy as our next offensive coordinator. So very excited to have Chip as our offensive coordinator. He’ll work with the tight ends. Gives him an opportunity to be involved both in the running game and the passing game, and did a terrific job last year at Memphis.
And comes from a great line of working with some really prolific offenses at Arizona State and Louisville. And again, I think what’s most important here is that I’ve got a very, very great feel for him as a play-caller, and that’s the most important thing.
The other leadership position was the strength and conditioning position. One where our players spend a great deal of time, and where a lot of the important elements of building blocks take place for your football team. The mental toughness; the finish; things that obviously at times in the fourth quarter, didn’t show itself.
Paul Longo had been a long-time member of my staff, and he just was not able to continue to follow through in that role. He is currently under a long-term disability right now, and he cannot fulfill the duties of this position.
So I am obviously in a position now, when you look at putting together the next most important piece, that strength and conditioning component becomes really central to our development. And I think when you look at coordinators, everybody think, well, that’s where all your time and effort; we spend a lot of time on the offensive and defensive coordinator.
But I think we spent equally as much time on interviewing candidates for the strength and conditioning position, and we came up with Matt Balis as our director of football performance; and feel as though he’s already made a very big impact on our football team.
You know, again, developing that environment that is so crucial to all the elements that are needed: Strength, toughness, the ability to handle stress and mental fatigue moving forward. And again, Matt Balis comes to us from a great recommendation from Bob Diaco, who I’m obviously very close to; who was the head coach — the former head coach at UCONN. Matt was his head strength and conditioning coach at UCONN. Prior to that he was at Mississippi State; he was at Virginia; he was as Houston. He’s got a great background. He’s originally from the Chicagoland area. Dream come true for him to come here to Notre Dame, and you can see the passion that he has on a day-to-day basis for being here at Notre Dame is felt every single morning with our football team.
So in terms of the leadership positions, Mike Elko on defense, Chip Long as the offensive coordinator and Matt Balis, those three positions, you know, obviously crucial positions.
I think we did our due diligence. Got great support from Jack Swarbrick allowing us to go out and find the very best. We didn’t settle in any one of these three positions for anything but the best candidates in the country. I think that says a lot about who we have here in our administration and allowing us to go out and find the very best.
They are supported on each side of the ball defensively with position coach support that I think really round out our staff. Defensively, are Clark Lea, previously had worked with Mike Elko. Knows him well. Knows the system in which we’ll be employing defensively. Great experience. Again, worked with him at Bowling Green but also at Syracuse, UCLA. He’ll be coaching the linebackers. Eleven-year career. He’s been able to mentor a lot of all-conference players.
Already done a really fine job in the recruiting efforts. Has built great relationships early on that have come to fruition for us in recruiting. So really pleased to add Clark to our linebackers position.
On the offensive side of the ball, we’ve added to a number of candidates on that side of the ball, too. DelVaughn Alexander was the best fit for us. He had been at Arizona State. He did a great job at Wisconsin for Bret Bielema, and before that at Oregon State and UNLV. Had been five years at Arizona State.
You know, what I loved about DelVaughn is his organization skills and his ability to teach the wide receivers, as well as a veteran coach who has built great relationships with his players.
So we’ve got a veteran wide receiver coach, well-established in his profession and in his interview was extremely detailed and organized in laying out what his role will be in developing our fairly young wide receiving core.
So having dealt with the wide receivers and somebody that has got great experience recruiting throughout the country and the Midwest and on the West Coast.
In terms of special teams, that was a position that I thought was important to immediately address and upgrade. We were able to hit a home run here with Brian Polian. Many of you know Brian from his time here. But obviously as a head coach, he brings such a great perspective on the overall workings on a day-to-day basis in developing players. He’ll be charged with developing our entire special teams, and we think that we’re going to be able to provide an incredible opportunity for all those that are going to be playing under his guidance.
As a head coach, he understands the importance of our player development, as well as putting our kids in a great position to succeed. He’s got great background. As you know, last four years, he was the head coach at Nevada; before that, he coordinated special teams at Stanford, Texas A&M; obviously he was here at Notre Dame, and he’s got 23 years of experience in coaching.
So to have somebody with his experience, with his knowledge, with his background coaching our special teams and focusing primarily on that, without another position to pull his focus away. Again, I think it just upgrade and allows us to really think about excelling and gaining an advantage in that area. He’s also an outstanding recruiter. He’s able to recruit from coast to coast. And again, we’ll feel his effects, I believe, right away, in the recruiting and we hope to see that show itself here in the next 24 to 48 hours.
We brought back somebody that is familiar with a lot of you and somebody that I have a great deal of respect for and that is Tommy Rees. He’s going to be working with the quarterbacks. Some of you may know him as Tom Rees. You can call him whatever you like. I think he would answer to either Tom or Tommy. But what I like call him is our quarterbacks coach.
For you guys that are counting, we have nine coaches. So he is officially in a graduate assistant’s role, but he is fully empowered to coach them. He will have the room. He will coach those quarterbacks on a day-to-day basis, and I have great confidence in his ability to do so. Not many guys that have walked out on that field with the score tied and with the game on the line, and with the pressure on and have turned it around to victories for Notre Dame.
He’s got grit, he’s got resilience, and he’s got all the traits that you want in one of your coaches that has played the position here at Notre Dame that he can bring out of our quarterbacks. There’s nobody better to be able to teach that position than somebody who has done it here at Notre Dame, and he’ll be able to mentor our quarterback group in a manner and fashion that nobody else in the country can.
Really excited about having Tommy here to be able to do that on a day-to-day basis for us. I think when you look at some of the other positions across the board, Dave Ballou is another strength and conditioning coach that we’ve hired. Gives us another really talented strength and conditioning coach on our team.
We’ve put together a team of five down there that include two that are part of our staff from before in Jake Flint and David Grimes, and we’re in the process of adding one more. So we’ll have a team of five down there that I think will be as good as any strength team in the country. I’ll put them up against anybody.
Jeff Quinn will come back into a senior analyst role, and we’ll use his expertise and knowledge on the offensive side of the ball as a former head coach and a former coordinator. Will just give us more experience and another set of eyes in helping us from an offensive standpoint.
So Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long, Brian Polian, Tommy Rees and DelVaughn Alexander from an offensive and defensive staff perspective. In the weight room, Matt and Dave. You’re talking about eight new hires. We’ll have one more. We’ll hire an offensive graduate assistant, as well, a couple more analysts, and we’ll take the HR sign off my door and we’ll work towards spending a lot of time here with our football team, which we already have, now that we have finished up the 2017 recruiting.
Mike Elston returns as our recruiting coordinator, and now he moves to the defensive line. Autry Denson stays with our running backs; Harry Hiestand on the offensive line and Todd Lyght, defensive backs, and that kind of rounds out the entire group at this point.
Jeff Burris will be an analyst on the defensive side of the ball. Bryce Tracy will be an analyst for us on the offensive side of the ball. If I missed anybody, I’m sure it will get corrected here in the next 20 minutes or so.
With that, let’s open it up with questions.
Q. Pertaining to Brian Polian, when you first got here, you brought Chuck Martin, who had previous head coaching experience. Curious what you found that a former head coach on your staff has given you in terms of advice and knowledge, compared to perhaps someone that has not been a head coach before?
COACH KELLY: I think the conversations are a little bit different sometimes, I think just in recruiting, sometimes we talk about things that maybe hasn’t necessarily crossed the desk of an assistant coach. Maybe fit over position skill; you know, far-reaching effects more so than maybe immediate.
I think more times, it’s about things that happen at 35,000 feet maybe than right at the immediate. That’s kind of the conversations that you get more times when you have a head coach that have to deal with more of a program kind of concept and perspective than specific to the position group.
Q. Do you find that to be valuable to have that?
COACH KELLY: Absolutely. Because I think again, a lot of your conversations sometimes are one-sided when it comes to dealing with a particular position group or side of the ball. It’s great to have things, or it’s great to have people that you can throw things off of that have that perspective.
Q. With Chip Long, is he going to be calling your offense or his offense or a little bit of both?
COACH KELLY: Mm-hmm. What we don’t want to do is to create a whole new offense for our guys to have to learn. So any new learning will come from Chip.
Having said that, Chip is going to brings some things no that I want; that we’ve already brought in that we did not have. So you’re going to see some things that we didn’t have as part of our offense that I was looking for and those will be included. So those will be some new things.
But at the end of the day, we’re not going to change the entire offense and teach a new system to this group, but you’re going to see some things that you’ve never seen from this offense before, because it did not exist. And part of hiring Chip is that I wanted these elements that are in the offense that he’s become accustomed to, I wanted them added into this offense.
There will be some things that we change in terms of verbiage to make it cleaner, more streamlined, and easier to call so we can move a little bit faster. Quite frankly, we got a little wordy within what we were doing. We will find ways to clean up the verbiage and nomenclature and some of that may end up being what Chip brought with him to allow us to go faster in certain situations.
But at the end of the day, we’re not going to teach a new system to all these guys that we kind of lived through some of their growth pains with. So if that answers your question; that’s kind of the direction that we’ll be going.
Q. Flipping to the defense, you mentioned some of the end results that you wanted to get, including takeaways. But when you were looking at defensive coordinators, was three-down versus four-down, was scheme a big deal?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, I mean, we — there’s not a lot of guys that are teaching three-down, two-gap methods, right.
So I knew that that wasn’t probably going to be where we went but I knew that what we needed to do was — we’re not going to get four guys to put their hand in the ground for three downs and have that kind of presence each and every down. We just don’t get that kind of defensive line.
We get a guy that’s more of a hybrid. And so we needed to have the ability to play a defense that shaped it around the kids that we can recruit here to Notre Dame. And so that was the premise. But I was going to look for somebody that could work both at a three-down and a four-down fashion, but he had to understand who we were going to be able to recruit to Notre Dame, as well.
Q. Just globally, how much has all these changes — you want to change the message, but do you sometimes just need to change the messenger, too, to get guys out of their comfort zone a little bit, get them to grow as players?
COACH KELLY: It’s a good question. I mean, I think I could probably spend a lot of our time answering that question. It’s probably a little bit deeper of a question.
I think that the best way that I would answer the question in terms of changing continuity, because that’s really what this is about; how much of it is change versus continuity. I think where we were as a program, we needed some change. Change in personnel: Change in personnel — I mean, not players, I mean staff, and then messaging. And so both of those are happening at the same time.
So on a day-to-day basis, the message needed to change a little bit, yes.
Q. When you met with your players, what did they tell you about the changes they wanted the strength and conditioning; did you do research in terms of who you wanted to bring in, what changes did you feel like really had to happen in the weight room?
COACH KELLY: I think a couple of things. I won’t get into too much detail other than they really, really liked Coach Longo, but it was clear that he couldn’t function in the manner he could in the first few years. He couldn’t get down in the trenches with them. He couldn’t get in there and get after it the way he had the first few years.
And then, we made too many accommodations for their schedule, and used it in a manner that didn’t allow them the opportunity to come over here and really let off steam, if you will. You know, they go over on that side of campus and they have got to use a lot of energy. They want to come over here and get after it and we were making accommodations for all their schedules, instead of staying, listen, forget about it. This is what time you need to be here; get over here and get after it.
We looked at it, carefully and we were. We were making too many accommodations for their academic schedules and we needed to say, look, we’re going to go early in the morning, we won’t go past 6:00 A.M. beginning next year, but we needed to go early in the morning and get all of our weight training done before classes, so we weren’t making all of these accommodations late.
Q. With Ballou coming in, IMG Academy, there are a couple elements to that. One is NCAA legislation. Can you speak about getting into the clear on that, and also the potential to do part of your spring practice down there; where do you stand on that?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, we needed to get some clarification on the hiring before we moved on Dave, which we believe we’ve got the clarification on the new legislation.
We have since, because of the new legislation, we decided not to go to IMG for our spring training. I just feel like with that rule now officially on the books, it doesn’t make any sense for us to do something that they have now legislated out. I don’t want to be that team, you know, that jumps in there just before they change the legislation.
Q. The difference between that and then hiring Ballou is the vote has not officially occurred?
COACH KELLY: No, they gave a retroactive date to the legislation that anybody hired at a date was fine to be hired under those circumstances.
Q. The NCAA will be voting on adding the tenth assistant coach in April. When you hired Tommy, was it with the understanding that he would be that tenth coach?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, that is the direction as I stand here right now; that I would like to take that.
Q. Have you earmarked the recruiting territories for the staff? Brian Polian was certainly known for his West Coast recruiting. Have you figured out as to where everyone is going to be stationed?
COACH KELLY: We are going to — we have not, to answer your question. We all kind of pitched in in the last few weeks to cover each other, but we will, after recruiting is over here in the next couple weeks, we’re going to sit down and reformat the areas.
So they have not officially been re-detailed out. But we are going to do that over the next week or so.
Q. Will Mike Elko be coaching specifically safety?
COACH KELLY: Safeties.
Q. And with Brian Polian, is he just exclusively special teams? Because when he was here, he also sometimes did work with inside linebacker, sometimes safety. Does he have any on-field roles because of his experience as a head coach?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, Brian will lean more towards the offensive side of the ball than he would the defensive side of the ball. If there are needs, Brian would help me more in an offensive capacity than a defensive capacity.
Q. You talked about streamlining the verbiage and things like that with Coach Long in an attempt to go faster. I think they average — between Arizona State and Memphis, about 140 more snaps per year than you guys. Is that something you look to make more of a part of who you are, or is it an adjustment when you talk about being able to push the tempo?
COACH KELLY: No, it’s part of what we want to do. Within our offensive system, we want to run more plays. We can’t do it right now because of over a period of time, we’ve layered just too much verbiage in the system to go as fast as we want across the board. We can with a little bit of our offense, but not with enough of it.
So there needs to be some retooling within the offensive nomenclature to be able to go to the level we want to.
Q. And is part of that kind of simplifying the verbiage, does that take pressure off the quarterback because there seems to be more of, like you said during the decision last year, let’s just go run the play?
COACH KELLY: It does. It does. You know, when you’re in a little bit more of an exact offensive structure in terms of progressions, there’s a lot more for the quarterback there. When you’re going fast, there’s singular reads, the ball comes out faster, and consequently, it takes a little bit off the quarterback.
Q. And then the last thing from me is, when you look at making this change with coach long, you said you went out and you knew what you were looking for. Is this sort of a going back sort of look or a moving forward kind of look or a little bit of a combination? Because when you look at when were calling plays at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, you were averaging about 100 catches a year between the backs and tight ends; last three years about 57. His numbers are very similar. Is that the direction you were kind of looking to get back to what really worked for you when you were the primary play-caller?
COACH KELLY: This will have a look — look, I wanted the offense to look a specific way. Chip gives me, clearly, something that I saw that will resemble what I see through this offense. And it’s going to be the inclusion of the backs and the tight ends in the passing game.
Q. This might be tough to answer, because I assume you believe the tenth assistant coach rule is going to pass —
COACH KELLY: I do.
Q. Brian Polian — even if this rule wasn’t going to pass, were you looking to augment special teams so much that you would have brought him in to be that coordinator without responsibilities?
COACH KELLY: Yes, I was. If it forced me into a situation where Chip had to coach the quarterbacks, then Chip was going to coach the quarterbacks. But it was a decision that I made. It was the first decision that I made coming out of the gates, if you will, that I wanted to get Brian on and I wanted special teams to be addressed immediately.
Q. Greg Hudson became a big part of the coaching staff the final two months last year. What are his plans? Did he interview?
COACH KELLY: Yeah, he did, and you know, Greg still I think would like to have a role. We’re still kind of in the process of looking at the possibility. Obviously he is somebody that we think very, very highly of. But as you know, we’re running out of — we’re running out of slots.
But he’s a guy that would do anything for us and his love for Notre Dame is something that we obviously are very cognizant of.
Q. What did you and Jack discuss about your own job following the USC came?
COACH KELLY: We didn’t. We didn’t discuss my job, as much as we discussed a blueprint for what we needed to do to be successful. That was the discussion. It was: All right, what do we need to do? What are the decisions that need to be made? What are the tough decisions that need to be made to ensure the success.
The great thing about Notre Dame is you’re not defined by what happened in the past; it’s about what you do in the future. And we all know that we did not live up to the expectations. We’re here — our mission is a mission of excellence. It’s to win championships and to graduate our players. We fell short of that.
But we didn’t sit around talking about what we didn’t do. We spent all of our time thinking about what we needed to do to be successful, and that’s when you know you have great leaders. And didn’t waste time on discussions that were not tangible or specific to how do we get better.
Q. And given the chance to reflect on last season, what was the most difficult part?
COACH KELLY: I knew — listen, as I said, I know I’m going to be reminded about the past. I’ve focused so much of my time on the present, but if I answer this question one last time, which I will, I think that there are in my mind, as I reflect at it, there are no bad football teams. There’s just poorly-led football teams. And I think I led this team poorly. And I think that’s probably what I learned more than anything else.
Q. So how will you not lead it poorly?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think there’s a number of things. We could spend hours on that; that you’ll see moving forward.
Q. So I guess that answers the question: What would you do differently?
COACH KELLY: Yes, that would be.
Q. Mike Elko, in a nutshell, how did he hold the Clemsons and Louisvilles and Florida States and Notre Dame, as well, below their yardage and scoring averages with basically two- and three-star talent?
COACH KELLY: Where do I start? He’s very smart. He attacks protections as well as anybody out there. He, I think — when I got a chance to watch him dissect — you know, I brought him in and had him really teach his defense as a teaching progression.
I think what stood out to me was his ability to kind of dissect an offense, its strengths and weaknesses how he went and attacked them from their weaknesses to their strengths. Take away their strengths and attack their weaknesses. Extremely thorough in understanding those things.
And then, eliminating the big plays. Taking away big plays and attacking your strengths and weaknesses. So the first thing that stands out is just a really smart football coach from the defensive perspective.
Q. We frequently heard from the defensive players regarding the previous defensive coordinator about the complexity of learning it in and applying it. Where is Mike Elko with regard to that?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think there’s two ways of looking at it, right. One is, smart and intellectually as sophisticated, right. Brian VanGorder, you can line him up with the most intellectually sophisticated football coaches that I’ve ever met, but they have to be translated.
Mike Elko does a lot of things that are hard to decipher, but easily taught. And his experiences in college and coaching and teaching and communicating; and he does an incredibly efficient job at communicating what he’s teaching. And we’re teachers. He’s a really good teacher at the end of the day.
Q. Do you feel this is a make-or-break season for you as a Notre Dame football coach?
COACH KELLY: I would tell you that every year that I’ve stood before you, that it’s a make-or-break year. I don’t think I’ve of gone into a year going, hey, I can take this year off. Not going to worry about it.
Every year. Now, I know there’s more scrutiny on this year because of last year’s poor performance, but I am focused on the present. And I know that there’s going to be a ton of talk about that, and I get that. That comes with this.
But I think every year that I’ve gone into this position that it’s about excellence. It’s about championships. And if you fall short of that, it’s the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. I mean, that’s what happened. And so, I get that.
But my focus is on the present and on this football team and that’s will drive me every single day.
Q. I don’t know if in your three decades you’ve ever gone into a season, like the one — coming off a season that you had obviously. So is it a different feeling for you being under that scrutiny because you’ve never really been under it in this specific circumstance?
COACH KELLY: No. No, I think it’s energizing. When you know that you didn’t do the job that you expect — that your expectations have set for you, you’re more energized, right. You’re more focused.
So from that perspective, no. That’s what envelops me on a day-to-day basis. Not worrying about what the perception is. It’s more about: Can’t wait to get this team on the field.
— ND —