Brian Kelly

Tuesdays with BK: Bring on the Spartans

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Before Brian Kelly turned his focus to No. 10 Michigan State, the head coach succinctly wrapped up the Irish’s fairly unimpressive 20-17 victory over Purdue.

“Collectively as a team, we did not play our best football,” Kelly said. “There’s a higher standard for the way we should play offensively, defensively. But again, I will tell you that any time you beat a Big Ten opponent, you’re pleased with the outcome. I told our team this: Winning is not easy, and we found a way to win the football game. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

You can watch the entirety of the press conference below, but here are a few things that stuck out to me.

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Each opponent brings along its own specific challenge. With Michigan State, it’s pretty clear that after two seasons, Kelly knows what to expect.

“I think the team that can control the football, minimize the turnovers, is going to be the team that has the best chance to win,” Kelly said. “So if Michigan State can exert their will on both fronts, the offensive line and defensive line, I think we probably know how that game is going to go. We felt like we have to be able to exert our same kind of presence on both sides of the ball and then do all of the other things that require you to win.

“I think that we know playing at Michigan State and playing them last year, it’s going to come down to a couple of plays and it probably will this year, as well. I think our focus has strictly been on each and every play to make a difference in the game, as evidenced in 2010.”

Both teams are trotting out fairly raw quarterbacks. After two weeks, it appears Everett Golson has the upperhand on Andrew Maxwell, who threw three interceptions against Boise State before righting the ship in the Spartan’s easy victory over Central Michigan. Kelly gave his assessment of Golson’s play after two weeks.

“I think he’s a work‑in‑progress. He’s somebody that’s had two starts,” Kelly said. “He was on scout team at this time last year. He continues to get better. We expect him to start and finish the game. We don’t go into the week with any thoughts other than he’s going to start it and he’s going to finish for us.”

To that point, Kelly spoke more pointedly about removing Golson from the field when the Irish were in their two-minute offense late in the game. After a second half of largely ineffective offense and a playclock that seemed to be getting away from the young quarterback, Kelly talked about the process of playing quarterback, not just the physical act — which Golson has done quite well.

“Some of it is housekeeping if you will,” Kelly said. “Getting the play, getting it communicated, all of those things, which he is learning. And he’s seeing it for the first time. He’s look at it and he’s going, ‘wow, it took me seven seconds to actually get up there, maybe I need to speed up — I call it housekeeping. Getting the play, verbalizing it, getting everybody set, making sure everybody is set.

“I’d rather be doing that than worry about whether my quarterback has the ability to play the position.”

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After having many people worry about a young and unseasoned Irish secondary, the Irish went and held the Purdue passing game below 200 yards, a nice afternoon against two veteran signal callers. When asked what he expected to see out of his defense after a shaky opening performance against Navy, Kelly sounded confident that he knew what he had in cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

“I wasn’t panicked,” Kelly said after reviewing the team’s performance against Navy. “We were in some option defenses that stressed us and put some guys in positions that normally they wouldn’t be in. We felt very comfortable going into the Purdue week that we were going to play the kind of pass defense necessary. Bennett came up with a couple interceptions. KeiVarae played solid football. We got good play from Elijah Shumate, who broke up a third down conversion opportunity. Matthias Farley had to play a ton of football when Jamoris went down. All in all, we were pleased with their development, but we were confident that as we continue to progress, and they are going to get better and they are not there yet, but we feel like they are the right guys for us and they are going to get the job done.”
Kelly also praised the work safety Zeke Motta did, running the back end of a defense filled with incredibly raw players after Slaughter went out.

“Zeke Motta was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Not only does he have to get himself in the right place, but you have to get three other guys lined up, as well.”

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Kelly talked about getting a better performance out of his offensive line. While Mike Golic Jr. seems to be taking the brunt of the criticism for his play against All-American Kawann Short, the entire line needed to do a better job against a physical front, and Kelly admitted that the staff needed to put the players in a better position to succeed.

“We were not in a great position to run the football most of the time. I think in retrospect we could have done a better job as a staff and finding ways to just lock some runs in there and get after it,” Kelly said. “But clearly we are going to have to play better up front against Michigan State. Our guys are capable. We still feel like we have a very, very good group. We did get beat on some individual moves but again, we think that as a group, and I know coach Harry Hiestand believes that, that this group together can get the job done at a high level for us.”

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On a personnel news, it appears the Irish got nothing but good news on the injury front. While wide receiver Davaris Daniels was in a protective boot over the weekend helping his ankle heal, the Irish should be all hands on deck this Saturday night, and will also welcome Danny Spond back to the fold, perfect timing as the Irish preparing to play a lot of defense where both Spond and Ben Councell will be utilized playing the ‘Dog’ linebacker.

“I think the big addition would be Danny Spond. He’s been cleared to practice today, which should clear up that drop position for us a lot better,” Kelly said. “We can go back to our original plan of Councell and Spond at the drop position. And that would be the hope moving forward that we are able to stabilize that dropped position with Danny.”

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Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.