Sept. 29, 2015
THE MODERATOR: All right, everybody. It’s an 8:22 kick on Saturday night. Obviously, that’s on ABC. We’ll be back here on Sunday for a coaches conference call to review the game. With that, we’ll start with Coach.
COACH KELLY: Good afternoon. We’re preparing for a great opponent in Clemson. Should be a great environment. Our guys are excited about the challenge playing down at Clemson. Very difficult place to play. But certainly one that they’ve been looking forward to certainly all season.
I think, when we talk about Clemson, certainly, a quarterback that is multi-dimensional in Deshaun Watson, athletic, can throw it. Really surrounded with some play makers — Dodd at the wide receiver position, running back Gallman.
I think it’s an up tempo offense, but certainly, clearly want to control the offensive line of scrimmage. Very creative offensively.
Then I think we know that they’re very gifted defensively. Again, lost some great players last year but just seemed to reload on defense. Really impressed with Shaq Lawson. The entire front four is athletic. You can see that Boulware, the linebacker, 10, is a lot like our Joe Schmidt, very smart. You can see he’s the leader on their side of the ball. Then an outstanding secondary. Both corners are great cover corners. Size at the safety position. Kearse and certainly Green have got great size and range.
So very gifted, talented, both sides of the ball. Special teams, they’ve had big plays on special teams. Should be a great environment. Great atmosphere. You know the kind of football game our guys are excited to be playing in.
We know it’s going to be a great challenge. We’ll prepare for it today, begin our preparation, and get working towards Saturday.
With that, we’ll open up to questions.
Q. Brian, after the game Saturday, you talked about how you have a pretty good feel for this team’s pulse. Four games in, what are you confident this team can do game in and game out, and what do you think this team still has to prove?
COACH KELLY: I know this. It’s a close team. They’ll play hard for each other. There’s no quit in them. They’ll overcome adversity. I think they’ll go on the road, and they’ll battle for four quarters. I think I know that about them.
We’re still playing some young players that are not experienced in certain areas. So that has to continue to grow. But I think I know more about the grit, determination, character.
I think we still have to continue to grow as a football team on the field relative to specific skill positions. Quarterback is certainly still one of them. And we still have to find ourselves more consistent in the back end of our defense.
Q. In the secondary, is part of the problem — last year, obviously, part of the problem was communication. Is that still a problem back there at all?
COACH KELLY: No, I don’t think so. I think, if you look at — we kept UMass scoreless for over 31 minutes, and I think a couple of plays that we didn’t fit right, two back lead draw. Don’t know that our defense has seen two back lead draw since they’ve come to camp. It doesn’t mean we can’t defend it. We should have defended it. That’s unacceptable. I think that’s one thing. Then obviously the gadget play.
Those two big plays right there resulted in about 35 percent of their offense. The other plays, you know we’re competing at a pretty good level.
Q. You saw a gadget play against Virginia too. Do you expect now teams are going to keep doing that until the defense shows they can stop it?
COACH KELLY: You know, I would. I would continue to run them. I certainly think our defensive coaches are well aware of that eventuality, and we’ve had a conversation about it. We’ll have to continue to certainly pick up our keys and be more aware of them.
But it was a well designed play that we’ll have to be aware of moving forward.
Q. Several weeks ago, you said that you never coached a player like Jaylon before. The two part of that is the versatility, he can do so much. Do you think he’s as impactful as Manti Te’o was?
COACH KELLY: First of all, I agree with you, my comments were centered on his versatility and his ability to impact all phases of our defense. I think he impacts the point of attack, where you can attack our defense in so many ways.
Manti had a way of influencing the entire defense. He had a — he just had a savvy and a smart presence about him, like a Joe Schmidt, but certainly an athleticism about him as well. Not to the level of Jaylon. So I think they impacted differently.
I think Jaylon impacts more physically than Manti did, but Manti had a large presence on that defense as well.
Q. Jaylon, talking to you a week or two ago, said like most great players, he’s always trying to improve. Where do you think he can improve the most at this point?
COACH KELLY: I would say that we continue to work in pass coverage and some of the things that we want him to recognize. But I think we’re splitting hairs. He’s generally in really good position in most pass coverages.
The couple things that we want to continue to work on. Obviously, his pass rush too because we obviously need him to help us there as well.
So I think there’s a couple things that certainly he’s going to continue to work on himself, but I think within our defense, we’re pretty happy as to where he is.
Q. Brian, I know that, when you played in the National Championship Game, the big stage was a problem, kind of after the fact. Florida State last year, it seemed like there were lessons learned with that. Can you kind of share maybe what you do as a coach to get a team — what you’ve learned about getting a team ready for such a big stage as this.
COACH KELLY: I think our football team was well prepared for Florida State relative to being on the road and a loud crowd and all the things that go with that. The media presence — I think in pregame we had more media presence and cameras than we did in the National Championship Game, at least it appeared that way.
I thought our kids handled that very well. Didn’t have a lot of communication errors on the field. Just didn’t make a play or two maybe at the end that we needed to.
So I think we’ll continue in that same vein. Most of these kids played in that game. So I think we’ll have a lot of carry-over, and we’ll talk in terms of the same kind of environment, very similar, I believe, that we’ll talk about this week in terms of how we’ll need to prepare.
Q. There was a note in this week’s Game Notes for Notre Dame about plays 50 yards or more, that this is already past what you’ve done any other season here. As far as those explosive plays, do you feel like they’re sustainable given the personnel you have? I mean, when you design the plays, is that kind of what you have in mind? Or is it kind of just, again, the way the personnel is expressing?
COACH KELLY: I think it’s both. I think you’re certainly pushing the ball vertically down the field, but we’re also getting big play runs. Obviously, a 91-yard run by C.J. Prosise obviously adds to that. I think what we’re seeing is the addition to some of those big plays, a running back that has breakaway speed.
Not to take away anything from our backs over the last couple of years. They’re very good backs. But C.J. has another gear that he can kick into. And then the utilization of Will Fuller, certainly, in his ability to get over the top of most defenders.
So I think, first of all, you have to push the ball down the field to want to get those, but you have to have those kinds of players as well.
Q. What would you like Brandon Wimbush’s role to be moving forward? Do you want him just to be ready in case he’s needed? Or is there something with his track speed that lends you to say, hey, maybe we could use him on some occasions?
COACH KELLY: Well, I would have probably answered that question a little bit differently last week by saying we just want to get him in the game and prepare him to be the number two, and he’ll still be the number two. But I think there’s more conversations — at least I’ve had more conversations — with possibly utilizing him in a smaller role in certain situations that we can utilize his skill set because he certainly is — well, we know he’s got arm talent. He certainly has the physical ability.
He certainly doesn’t have the whole playbook down at this point, but I think I’m moving more towards fine tuning some things that could get him in for the games regardless of the situation.
Q. And last thing, any update on Luatua? And which knee for Corey Robinson?
COACH KELLY: Tyler is moving through the protocol. He’ll be on the field today in a non-contact manner. If he does well today, then he’ll move to the next stage, which would be cleared for contact.
Corey Robinson — Mike, maybe you know whether it’s right or left. I’m not certain. He had a cortisone shot. He’ll be full go in practice today.
Q. The drive before the end of the half, 1:27 left, ten plays, 74 yards, what significance do you put on that as it relates to Kizer’s development? And what conversation did you have with him in the aftermath of that?
COACH KELLY: Well, it’s something that we really feel like is an emphasis in our weeklong preparation is having those drives. He’s had two of them already, one, of course, against Virginia that was a game winner, and then this one right before the half.
He’s got really good poise, doesn’t seem to be affected by the moments of it. Has good clock awareness. And in that situation with two time-outs, the first play is always the most important play. So we talk about being positive with the first play and then trying to get ourselves in a position for a field goal. And then from there, obviously, getting it in the end zone.
I think, when you’re talking to DeShone Kizer about those kinds of drives, he has a real good sense of what needs to be accomplished — not turning the football over, making sure that he makes good decisions, not taking a stack. He’s got a lot of those things already, and I think that makes it easier for us to go into those situations and not sit on the ball.
Q. Were you aware of his running ability from the standpoint of having the vision to see where the pass rush is coming from, where the pass is to head to the sideline? He has a good feel for the running aspect of the position. How much of that did you know of him coming out of high school?
COACH KELLY: Well, I was aware of it based on his last couple of games in high school, and he had to lead some late drives to win some games. That was impressive, and we got a chance to see that a little bit. So we knew it was there.
Where I really got a better feel for it was that, when we went into our up tempo offense, he saw the field very well and had a sense for the rush, knew when to escape, get the ball out, and got a better feel for that, especially this camp, that we could go into those kinds of situations and feel pretty comfortable with him.
Q. How did you assess the wide receiver blocking from this past week?
COACH KELLY: Very good. We missed a couple of cracks inside, but there was great effort, and that’s what we ask for more than anything else. We had a couple of missed assignments on some cracks in plays, but the effort was very, very good.
Q. You talk about Malik Zaire’s involvement in the quarterbacks room, and he’s going to travel with you. In terms of Tarean Folston, is he playing a similar role? Where is he now?
COACH KELLY: He’s very good. His surgery date, obviously, was just ten days ago. He’s been with us all week and engaged. He’ll continue to be with us. We’re a little bit hesitant to put him out on the sideline right now where he is. Probably another week away before we can get him traveling with us, but he’s fully engaged, and he’ll be very helpful with our young backs.
Q. Losing six starters in a fairly short amount of time, can you just talk about how that affects your team psychologically?
COACH KELLY: Well, they were close to every one of them. So all of those players had an impact in some fashion, but it didn’t impact the bottom line, and the bottom line was that they were going to come back the next day, and they were going to welcome that next person in to the role that they needed to excel in it.
They lost a friend. They lost a teammate. There were some tears shed because of it. They want to accomplish the mission. That has been a focus of the group was that they really want this mission to be accomplished. So they’re moving on quickly but never forgetting.
So I think that that’s how they’ve been able to handle the loss of some players that they’re very close to and some key players.
Q. When you say they want to accomplish the mission and now you’re plugging in different people, what’s been the biggest hurdle you’ve had to overcome in sort of managing this whole dynamic?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think, if the players were not totally committed to the mission, then it makes it harder for me to get where we want to get, and that is we need to move on, and we need to support the next man in, and we need to trust and believe in that person that they can get the job done.
Because there is that mindset here in the program, it’s made my job easier to move us forward. So I give the credit to our leadership. I give the credit to the players that it’s allowed us to really keep moving forward. Now, the message has been consistent and clear from my end that no excuses, let’s keep moving forward, I trust the next man in that he can do the job, and our players have moved forward accordingly.
Q. And in the last two weeks, in what areas specifically have you seen the most growth from DeShone Kizer?
COACH KELLY: I would probably say just in command presence. He has a presence about him, a command presence that, when he goes out there with the other ten players, you don’t feel like you’re putting a freshman quarterback out there. You don’t sense that or feel that.
So I think that’s all about a presence, and he has that about him. I see that every day he goes out there, he takes control of that offensive unit. It’s not meek. It’s not weak. It’s a presence that he brings when he goes out there, and I think that that’s what he’s brought.
He’s learning along the way. There’s things that he hasn’t seen before. There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well. But I think that it’s his presence that allows the other ten players to have a great deal of confidence that they can go out and be successful.
Q. Brian, Clemson’s sophomore corner Mackensie Alexander has really been avoided by a lot of teams during his time there. What makes him so effective? And do you look to challenge him on Saturday night?
COACH KELLY: Well, I think he’s an outstanding corner. He reminds me a lot of Florida State’s and LSU’s corners, very athletic. Ronald Darby, I think, is vying for rookie of the year honors in the NFL right now. We thought he was an outstanding corner for Florida State.
The nature of college football is such that, when the ball is placed on the hash, you can’t avoid anybody. If the ball is placed in the middle of the field, then there’s a chance that maybe you can avoid somebody. You can’t avoid. You have to go play the game because the ball is played a little bit differently in college football.
So we have to play the game the way it’s lined up for us. So we have a great deal of respect for him, but we think we’ve got some pretty good wide receivers as well.
Q. As far as Tyler Newsome is concerned, on the kickoffs the other day, some of them were going into the end zone. Some were not. Was that a strategic decision where you asked him to kick it shorter, or was that just the factor of —
COACH KELLY: Well, we would like them all to be at the appropriate hang time. We’re getting to the point where we would like the ball inside the 25 yard line. 25 yard line is the max for us at this point where we’ve gotten our kickoff coverage team. We’re 19.6 now in returns. So we’d like it at the appropriate hang time because we believe that we can pin you inside the 20 if we get the appropriate hang time.
So if he can give us the appropriate hang time at the goal line, we’d prefer that, in the right location.
Q. And speaking of hang time, his punting stats have been phenomenal, in fact, the best ever in Notre Dame history so far. When you scouted him, did you think that he would be this good?
COACH KELLY: We knew he had talent. It was raw talent at the time. We knew we had a year to work with him. He has got an incredible work ethic. A lot of the credit should go to him and his work ethic. He’s about as hard a worker as we’ve had, and I mean across all position groups.
If Coach Longo was in here today talking about the hardest workers on the football team in the weight room, he would mention Tyler Newsome.
Q. What is it that makes the Clemson environment such a great environment to play in?
COACH KELLY: I’ve never been there. I don’t know. I would think that it’s a raucous crowd like we have at our stadium. I would think that a good football team makes it raucous. They have a good football team. It’s well coached. All those things being equal, our team will have to play well. If you play well, you tend to quiet crowds down.
Q. A lot of the preseason attention at linebacker was on Jaylon and the return of Joe. But it seems the sam linebacker position with James and Greer have been pretty productive. I think James had maybe one of his best games on Saturday. What has been your overall evaluation on how they fit overall into the scheme?
COACH KELLY: We’d like them to be two-in-one. We’d like Greer to have maybe James’ athletic ability, and then we’d have James to maybe have Greer’s football intelligence.
James is learning every day. It’s a new position. He came in as a wide receiver, and now he’s playing linebacker. He learns every day. He’s such a smart kid. So what we’re seeing from James is a better awareness of his position, how to play fast but not out of control. Many times last year he would play fast but out of control. He would just miss a blitz. He would just miss a tackle. He’s starting to make those plays. So I think what’s coming on here is some of that football knowledge is starting to click in for him.
And I think what we know about Greer is that he puts himself in good position, and he’s worked really hard on his strength, his physicality, and with the knowledge that he has at that position, which is really, chiefly, one of the major pluses that we thought he had when we recruited him. It’s made him a better football player.
Q. Nic Weishar played a lot of snaps, I think the most among the tight ends on Saturday. What in his evolution has led him to maybe emerge a little bit more? Because of the blocking aspect?
COACH KELLY: We were very confident in playing him based upon what we saw in camp. We saw a toughness and a grittiness in camp when he had to play a lot of snaps. There was a time when Alize Jones was out, Durham Smythe was out, not playing much, and Tyler Luatua was out in camp. And there was probably a two-week stretch where Nic Weishar was getting all the reps. He was getting all of them. We were able to get a really great evaluation of him, and I saw a toughness. I saw grit and determination. I saw him being able to do all those jobs.
So when we gave him that opportunity, we felt very confident that he could do the things we needed him to do.
Q. As far as Max at the safety position, what are his stats right now health-wise? Is there a comfort more of leaving him in there more full-time?
COACH KELLY: I think right now Max will be our starter at safety, and I think he’s coming along. He’s getting to where we need him to be. Getting better and better. So it looks like he’ll be the starter at safety this week.
Q. Is there a confidence with his tackling?
COACH KELLY: Much better against UMass.
Q. I was just curious, with Martini and Devin, how do you feel like your sub packages graded out in, I guess, instances that will be called on quite a bit Saturday night
COACH KELLY: Well, in our sub package situation, each player has a different role. Overall, our sub package was excellent because our third down percentages were good. We’re still evolving there. We’re still evolving. So this week, that sub package could be a different look for us, but the key pieces are we’re talking about who of those guys that go on the field, and Martini, is it Butler, who are those guys each and every week? And that’s where we’re still evolving.
There’s going to be an sub package or two each and every week. It’s finding the right rotation of guys.
Q. I guess we spend so much time asking about who’s the nickel and who’s the dime. Is it as important or more important? Where do we line up Sheldon in this package? Is Jaylon a defensive end? Those kinds of things, is that what’s more important to you?
COACH KELLY: It really is, and then it is, all right, what’s their third down scheme? What are they looking to do on third down? And we’re going to kind of match the pieces accordingly.
Q. With Luatua, if he’s not cleared today, can’t practice tomorrow, is it realistic that he would have a major role on Saturday?
COACH KELLY: I would say, if he’s not cleared tomorrow, it’s unrealistic that he would have a role on Saturday.
Q. Chris Brown, when you recruited him out of South Carolina, it’s not a place you go a whole lot, kind of a track guy, developmental, and it took a while to get him to where he is now. Could you just sort of revisit his career here to get to this point and the opportunity he has on Saturday.
COACH KELLY: What we liked about Chris, first of all, was his work ethic. We saw a kid that — two things. One, he really wanted to be at Notre Dame. Single parent mom, loved the home environment. A mom that drove him up here twice to come to Notre Dame. So we thought it was a great fit from there.
And then really thought that he brought that first element of raw speed that we wanted at that position, and then we knew that we were going to have to develop him along the way. He’s just been a great personality, a leader in the program, and he’s developed his skills through hard, hard work. He’s a hard working kid.
To the point now where, if you ask who that leader is of the wide receiver corps, it is Chris Brown. Chris is the leader of that group. So we’ve come full circle here from a freshman that was struggling away from home to a leader of that group.
Q. Has he been patient through that process? Think back to that play at Oklahoma, and what happened probably goes through a lot of people’s minds, well, he could do this every week, and it really hasn’t happened for him until now. And now it seems to be happening quite a bit more.
COACH KELLY: Again, we go back to raw skills being defined. As a route runner and as a pass catcher, he was a bit inconsistent in those areas. He’s become much more consistent in those areas. He’s always been a hard worker. Always stick his nose in there and do the dirty jobs for us in so many areas in terms of blocking and special teams. He still does a lot for us in special teams. So I think it was just refining those skills.
Q. How much does it help two weeks in a row having similar prep defensively? Other than the trigger man, obviously, in Watson and maybe a heavier dose of zone read, you have two similar offenses two weeks in a row. Is that a big help?
COACH KELLY: There’s some similarity. I think the UMass passing game was a bit more involved. Certainly, this quarterback has the ability to run on us. I think Frohnapfel did not have that. Getting back into a traditional plan two weeks in a row is definitely helpful. Our D-line was not as sharp last week coming back after the option, no question about that.
I think they’re looking forward to this week certainly. So all those things are pluses. But we’re going to have to play a better offense in all areas — offensive line, receivers, and then the quarterback obviously is the big threat here. He’s a game wrecker. We’ll have to do a much better job than we did this past weekend.
Q. Brian, you talk a little bit about what you perceive the atmosphere will be this Saturday. Given kind of the reputation for this stadium, will you guys do anything to prepare for noise and communications and things of that nature this week?
COACH KELLY: Oh, yeah, we’ll start today. We’ll be on the grass for about six periods, and we’ll have loud noise pumped in. We’ll be in nonverbal cadence throughout the entire practice. So it will be a loud environment on the practice field, and we’ll be working nonverbal cadence as if it were the loudest environment that we’ve ever played in.
Q. Is there an additional challenge to that given that your quarterback has such a limited kind of body of work at this point? Or does he seem good at that sort of thing?
COACH KELLY: I would be surprised if the moment was too big for him. I’m sure, like everybody else, there will be those butterflies and some nervousness, but I think, once we get into the flow of the game, he’s going to be fine. We’re going to prepare him and make sure that he understands all the things that will happen in that game.
Again, I think that he’s pretty — he’s a realist. He knows he’s going to be loud, and the environment is going to be electric. But he can settle that environment down by playing really well.
Q. Being around your guys the last couple of days, do you notice there’s a difference in terms of the buzz in this game? Do you notice they’re a little more excited than they might normally be?
COACH KELLY: Oh, yeah. You know when your team is, I would say, detailed on the very first meeting. They know who they’re playing, and they know what they need to do and how they need to play if they want to win.
Q. Will you let them get overly emotional before the start of this game? Or do you really want them to try and — what is the line between business-like and kind of letting them have that extra emotional edge in your mind?
COACH KELLY: We kind of temper it during the week in terms of enthusiasm versus emotion. We like enthusiasm. We want our guys to be enthusiastic about what they’re doing and excited. Emotion drains you. So we’re not a big fan of emotion. We try to temper the emotion and really work towards the enthusiasm. I think that that’s been my model and trying to direct our guys towards that.
Q. In similar instances when you’ve played in games of this magnitude, what do you enjoy about them?
COACH KELLY: I would say just the competition. It just brings out the best in everybody. It brings out the best in the players and the coaches. I think that’s — everybody wants to be challenged. Everybody wants to get that opportunity to compete at the highest level, and this will be one of those opportunities.