Pregame six pack: Hurricanes roll into Chicago

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Notre Dame – Miami. It may not be the blood feud it was 20 years ago, but the match-up certainly lights up the marquee. And with a stage as unique as Soldier Field and in a city like Chicago, there’s plenty of luster left in a game that might not mean what it once did, but still is a headline grabber.

“We understand the history of this ball game,” Manti Te’o said this week. “But we also understand the importance of being ourselves and not buying in to the whole hype of a rivalry game.”

As we prepare for No. 9 Notre Dame to take on a young and feisty Miami team that’s 4-1, let’s run through six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Shamrock Series kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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1. Despite the whispers, the quarterback job is still Everett Golson’s.

Rumors spread like wildfire across the internet that Brian Kelly, already known for his hair trigger at the quarterback position, was ready to make another big change. Yet when Kelly addressed the media this afternoon, he reaffirmed the news that Everett Golson was still his starting quarterback.

“It’s the same guy who’s been the starter the last four weeks,” Kelly said with a smile. “I thought I made that pretty clear. But Everett will start in Week Five, and I expect him to start in Week Six and Seven and Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen.”

And with that, another (ND) national crisis was averted. The news that Kelly is sticking with Golson is far from shocking, and is a consistent tune for a head coach willing to roll with the punches as he develops his young quarterback.

“He is getting better. There is so much development that’s taking place that’s not on Saturdays,” Kelly said. “It’s coming. We’re not a finished product yet, and I’ve got a guy in Tommy Rees who can come in and help us while we go through this process of learning. I’m comfortable with it. I guess that’s all I can really say, but yes, Everett will start.”

A few evenings after watching two politicians carefully craft statements, Kelly’s comments on Golson come off as more declarative than the two men fighting to be the free world’s leader, but there’s still a sprinkle of ex-politico in Kelly’s statements.

Over the bye week, junior Tommy Rees took a large portion of first team reps at practice. And when asked about the state of the locker room in regards to who the team’s quarterback should be, Kelly carefully picked his words.

“I’m aware of our team and I have the pulse of our football team as it relates to who would be the quarterback,” Kelly said. “I’d feel very comfortable saying that our football team will respond to whatever decision I make. I think I’ve got the trust of our football team that they know that I’m going to do whatever is in the best interest of our football team, to win right now.”

For now, that means Golson will get the chance to go against Miami’s mediocre defense.

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2. It’s time for Notre Dame’s running game to kick into gear.

The Irish offense hasn’t moved the ball as well on the ground as many expected. Slogging their way to just 3.8 yards per carry and a meager 140 yards a game, Kelly discussed the challenges that have come around with changing up schemes.

“It hasn’t been talked a lot about, but we were a heavy gap-pull team last year, and we are much more of an inside-outside zone team this year,” Kelly said. “The reads are very much different for the running back… The idiosyncrasies of it all are really big. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it takes more patience and we really focused on that more this week.”

Running back Theo Riddick embodies the run game struggles, leading the team in carries with 63, but averaging only 3.8 yards a tote. While the offensive line certainly hasn’t played up to the level it expects, Riddick has left plenty of yardage on the field with his propensity to cut back against the grain too quickly, unwilling to wait for the outside run to develop.

But after a week off, the Irish might encounter the best slump-buster Chicago has to offer: The Hurricanes defense. Entering Saturday night with the nation’s 115th ranked run defense, Miami will be without starting defensive tackle Olsen Pierre.

And after missing the season’s first two games due to suspension and struggling to find a rhythm against Michigan, expect Cierre Wood to get every chance to seize the starting job on Saturday night. Even struggling, the Irish senior has gone for 5.6 yards a touch, a number that should go up on Saturday.

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3. Even if he wasn’t a wrecking ball on the defensive line, Louis Nix is a guy you want in the middle of anything.

Let’s not let Louis Nix‘s tremendous personality get in the way of the work he does on the field. The junior defensive tackle, at 6-foot-3 and far-more-than-his-listed-326-pounds, is a tremendous key to the Irish’s pass rush against prolific thrower and dangerous runner Stephen Morris. He’s played active, relentless football this season, and his three tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks give the Irish a legitimate disruptor at the line of scrimmage that also has the ability to chase down the quarterback.

But leave all that behind, and Nix is still a guy you want to build your team around. If only because you get to listen to wonderful nuggets like these. JJ Stankevitz of CSNChicago.com has plenty more.

As Notre Dame’s defense has spurred its 4-0 start, Louis Nix has begun to earn national praise for his work on the interior of the Irish defensive line.

But not everyone is praising his work as a defensive tackle, although that’s because Nix’s little brother, Kenneth, has his older brother’s position mixed up.

“I don’t know where they got quarterback from,” Nix laughed. “My little brother had a presentation for class and he told them I was the quarterback.”

But Nix wasn’t going to leave it at that.

“You know, right about now, I would love to play quarterback,” he continued, in complete deadpan mode. “I think I’d be real good at it, you know, put me in the wildcat. I don’t even want to play running back, though, I want to be a wildcat QB.

“I look like one, huh?” the 326-pound Nix added between bites of a Hershey’s bar.

Nix said all the right things about his evolution as a player, crediting added maturity for his success in South Bend, a place not many in Florida thought made sense for one of Jacksonville’s elite football talents. But he also let his personality shine through, raising more than a few reporters’ eyebrows when addressing his biggest weakness: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

“If they don’t have it, I get cranky. I don’t want to eat Honey Bunches of Oats. Really? I need something sweet.”

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4. Brian Kelly isn’t shying away from the idea that Manti Te’o is a Heisman candidate. But for as good as he’s been between the lines, he’s been even more impressive off the field.

Linebacker Manti Te’o has already found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And as he continues to fill up the stat sheet as a sideline to sideline tackler and a turnover forcing machine, Brian Kelly has no problem pushing Te’o’s candidacy for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award.

“I’ve said this from day one,” Kelly said. “What is the definition of a Heisman Trophy candidate? If you go with he has to be a quarterback or an offensive player, well, I don’t think he plays on offense. But if you’re looking for one of the best, if not the best college football players that impacts your program‑‑ look, if you said it was the MVP, does it have to be an offensive player MVP?  Sure.  He’s got to have some offensive numbers or statistics. But you’re also judged by how you impact your team and what you do on the defensive side of the ball.”

But more importantly, Te’o’s ability to play excellent football at a time of severe duress is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed from a student athlete. More important, he’s shown his teammates — college kids that play a rough and tumble game — that it’s okay to show vulnerability during a time of need, as he’s opened himself up to his teammates and community during this difficult time.

Te’o spent over 40 minutes with the assembled media this week, an unprecedented amount of time for a single player, let alone the Irish head coach. He was emotional, honest, humble, candid, and strong. He was the perfect example of what any athlete should strive to be.

If you’ve got the time, it’s the best performance Te’o has ever had representing Notre Dame, on or off the field.

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5. Notre Dame’s roster management is beginning to take shape.

The biggest personnel news to come out of South Bend was the decision to redshirt running back Amir Carlisle for the season. The sophomore running back, who transferred from USC to Notre Dame during the offseason, had received an NCAA waiver exemption to play this season. But after breaking his ankle in the days leading to spring practice, Carlisle was slow to return to health, and he’ll sit out the year, with three full seasons of eligibility remaining.

“We’re going to redshirt Amir. He will not play this year,” Kelly said. “He’s made close to the kind of recovery that we were hoping when we saw some really good things from him. We don’t want to waste him now.”

The news comes the same week as the Irish announced sophomore defensive end Chase Hounshell will also sit out the rest of the season, with season-ending shoulder surgery allowing Hounshell to save a year of eligibility and still have three seasons left. That extra year of eligibility will come in handy with a guy like Stephon Tuitt looking like he might not need four years of college football.

Just like in Hounshell’s case, the decision to hold Carlisle out, a dynamic player that I expected to fight his way into the two-deep at running back, helps for the long term growth of this football team.

“He’s really close and to try to fit him in in week five or six and use up another year for a half season wasn’t prudent in my mind,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to shut him down, put him on scout team, let him be a great guy over there and let our defense prepare, and then have him back for three seasons of competition.”

After watching Charlie Weis butcher the use of redshirts, Kelly’s understanding of the strategic elements should be a welcome sight for Notre Dame fans. Keeping Carlisle protects Notre Dame in case Cierre Wood wants to test the NFL waters. Keeping an extra year of Hounshell gives the Irish some protection on the front line in life after Tuitt.

As we head to the middle of the season, Kelly’s also looking at other young players that might also be able to save a highly valued year of eligibility.

“We’re getting close to that. We’re not there yet,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a make a decision up to game six and you can’t play in more than three games. So we’ve got a couple of guys on the bubble for the next couple of weeks where we’ll have to make some decisions.”

It might have been painful, but injuries to guys like Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth help slow down the eligibility clock of guys that are racing through their collegiate career. And while we’ve seen youngsters like Romeo Okwara and Ronnie Stanley, perhaps there’s a method to Kelly’s madness and a plan to extend the careers of some young Irish players, while also getting them valuable on-the-field experience.

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6. It might not be Catholics vs. Convicts, but Notre Dame vs. Miami still means an awful lot.

There isn’t a player on the Irish roster that’s old enough to remember the bitter rivalry between Notre Dame and Miami. After Jimmy Johnson‘s 58-7 beating of Notre Dame all but ended the Gerry Faust era, the rivalry turned into the Hatfields and McCoys in 1987, with the Irish splitting the series 2-2 over the next four years, including one of the greatest victories Notre Dame has ever had in its 31-30 win over the ‘Canes in 1988.

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While it took 20 years to renew the rivalry, it still matters, as director Billy Corben, filmmaker behind the terrific ESPN documentary “The U” notes.

“Literally, national championships were on the line,” Corben reminisced with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Every call mattered. Every play mattered. In 1988 in particular. Of course you had the tunnel fight that year as well. Similar things started to happen with a lot of teams from that era like the University of Florida wanted to stop playing Miami.

“I liked that there was a genuine lack of respect for each other. I appreciated that because in those days it was the WWF, the fake wrestling. So this was real. These were real kids and they really wanted to literally take each other’s heads off.

“It was just a real visceral and profound quality to the rivalry that got you really, really pumped. You’d feel your pulse and your pulse would go up. You were genuinely excited about the whole thing. Who was going to win? How were we going to get robbed?  And we’re going to kick their a** before, after and during the game.”

Those sentiments are certainly echoed by many Irish fans that I’ve had the pleasure of talking to this week. And after the Irish embarrassed Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl — a game that saw Hurricanes players take refuge next to heaters are hide behind face warmers in the brisk El Paso weather — the team’s might not be the national contenders they once were, but there’s still an edge to this game.

“The teams aren’t quite at that level, so the excitement isn’t quite at that level anymore,” Corben said. “That being said, I hope we destroy them.”

Spoken like a true Miami fan.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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