Matthias Farley

Kelly rolls the dice again with position switches


Brian Kelly has never been afraid to move players. In his four seasons at Notre Dame, Kelly has filled his secondary with former wide receivers, turned a linebacker into a tight end, running backs into wide receivers, and bounced lineman across the line of scrimmage.

After beginning his career at Grand Valley, the Irish head coach learned quickly that his favorite players often played the position of “football player.” That meant finding a way to get his best athletes on the field, even if it meant keeping an open mind as a young player developed.

We saw early Kelly’s commitment to this principle. His first signing class wasn’t filled with position listings, but rather player types: Skill, Big Skill, Power. That meant that Troy Niklas could start his career at outside linebacker, spending part of his freshman season rushing the passer from the interior of the defensive line. It also allowed him to make the switch to tight end, where in two seasons he played well enough to have some believing he’s a potential first round draft pick in this May’s draft.

Sometimes those position switches don’t always work. Kelly tried turning Theo Riddick into the answer at slot receiver. After so-so results, Kelly pulled the plug on the experiment, transitioning Riddick back to running back in the final regular season game of a disappointing 2011 season. But he was rewarded in 2012, as Riddick became the most trusted back on a team that played for the national championship.

After playing a secondary that at times had four converted wide receivers starting at the same time, Kelly is once again rolling the dice on a few key position switches, with hopes of shoring up the back end of the defense. They include a minor move — pushing starting safety (and converted wide receiver) Matthias Farley outside to cornerback. They also include a major move — taking rising sophomore James Onwualu from offense to defense, even after he started four games as a freshman receiver.

Farley’s move comes after a somewhat disappointing season. After filling in admirably when Jamoris Slaughter went down, he struggled to anchor the secondary. Kelly talked candidly about Farley’s play, acknowledging that the shoes he was asked to fill might have been too big.

“He was put into a very difficult situation,” Kelly acknowledged. “We were trying to get him to replace Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith – two pretty good players, and two physical players.

“He’s not that kind of player… That’s not his best trait. He’s really smart. He’s got some tools that, if we play him in the right position, can really help our defense.”

A cerebral and eclectic student-athlete, Farley came to Notre Dame a raw prospect, new to football and projected as a wide receiver. After spending his first season in the program playing scout team receiver, Farley impressed during spring and fall camp at safety, playing well enough to beat out fifth year safety Dan McCarthy to take snaps against Navy. 

Given limited responsibilities, Farley’s athleticism and instincts quickly stood out. But tasked with running the secondary, Farley faced his first true adversity on the field.

“It was a big jump from playing your first year in 2012 to having all that on your plate in 2013,” Farley admitted last week after practice. “You had to know where everyone was supposed to line up. You had to know how everything fits, how you fit in it. Getting the calls to everybody. It was definitely a lot, going through some struggles, the ups and downs, and coming out better for it.”

Better might be at cornerback now. As offenses do more and more to spread the field, the Irish defense will adapt with sub-packages better suited to play a diverse set of opponents. Putting Farley in a quadrant of the field, or playing him “outside in” as Kelly alluded to when discussing the position switch, should allow him to play more instinctual football.

The biggest surprise of spring was the move of James Onwualu to safety. While he only made two catches during his freshman season, Onwualu was an immediate contributor for the Irish, filling Daniel Smith’s role as a physical receiver blocking down field.

Onwualu also made his presence felt on special teams, a key contributor on coverage teams. That presence is likely where the idea to play defense came from, following a similar script to the ones Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth parlayed into starting jobs.

“He’s got great contact skills,” Kelly said of Onwualu. “He’s a ferocious competitor and I wanted to take a look at him because he is such a physical player and he’s got an incredible volume to him in terms of his ability to play every play. So this was a time to take a look at him at safety.”

That Onwualu ends up on the defensive side of the ball shouldn’t be that surprising. Talking with Mike Scanlon, Onwualu’s high school coach at Cretin-Derham Hall, he thought the 6-foot-1, 215-pounder’s best position could be a hybrid safety, physically capable of running with receivers, but stout enough to make an impact in the box.

In the past, Kelly has talked about position switches to help get a player on the field. For Onwualu, going from a position where he contributed as a true freshman to a somewhat stacked safety position is a bit of a gamble, but one that the staff must feel confident about.

After watching last season, it shouldn’t be hard to feel good about the future of Eilar Hardy. Collinsworth likely will be another trusted cog as well. Throw in the healthy return of Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate rebounding after an injury plagued sophomore season and Max Redfield being groomed as a starter, and talented options don’t appear to be scarce. How Onwualu fits into this group will be fascinating to watch.

With question marks at a lot of positions as the front seven rebuilds and schematics are adjusted, these position changes are coming at the right time, with spring dedicated to learning not necessarily refining. For the defense to play up to his potential, both these position changes need to be more than mere depth chart support.

If history has shown anything, Kelly has moved contributors to roles that only enhance what they’re doing on the field. If Kelly can hit on the position switches of Farley and Onwualu, it’ll mean good things for the Irish defense.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.