Notre Dame’s season isn’t over. A young Irish team certainly hasn’t cleaned out their lockers, or given up on playing meaningful games past last Saturday night’s disappointment.
That may not be a popular stance for Irish fans grumbling about Brian Kelly‘s first 1-2 start since 2011, and the third of his time in South Bend. But the Irish head coach has preached the long view to his young team, with just the first quarter of the season complete and plenty more ahead.
“Three games into the season, nobody wants to be where we are, but we are 1-2. I’m a 1-2 coach. We’ve got to work to get better,” Kelly said. “There’s four quarters in the season, and the first quarter, we did not get off to a good start. But there is plenty of time for us to come out of this in a very, very positive way. That’s what we talked about over the last day or so.”
So the Irish move forward with plenty to work on before Duke comes to town this weekend. And Kelly will continue to work as his staff pushes the fundamentals to a young and inexperienced group of defenders, putting faith in the personnel on the field as they take the lumps that come with playing rookies at key positions like safety, corner, nickel and Will linebacker.
“If you believe that all the things that you can do as a coach and all the things that you’re doing from preparation are being covered, then there’s not much more you can do other than believing in your players, working to get better each and every week, and sticking by them so that they improve and get better as the year progresses,” Kelly said.
“I believe the group’s going to get better each and every week. Some of the mistakes that were made out there are fundamental errors that are correctible errors. That’s why I believe we’re going to continue to get better in that area.”
Kelly talked about Cole Luke and the tough Saturday he had. And as you might have guessed, he’s not ready to give up on his senior cornerback—even if he had a tough night against Michigan State.
“Cole is a good player. He’s the smartest defensive player we have,” Kelly said. “He’s got to play with a sense of urgency. He’s got to catch that football. He’s got to make that tackle. He’s got to stay above the cut and be in good position to break on number one. He’s got to do all those things, and he’s capable of doing them, and he knows that.
“He’s just got to go make some plays. We’ve got to rely on him because he’s a three-year starter for us out there, and he’s got to be able to play better for us, and I’m confident he will.”
Notre Dame’s tackling has been suspect. Kelly and his defensive staff understand that. But don’t expect the Irish head coach to meddle with Brian VanGorder’s unit or take over the teaching. The Irish staff is confident in the plan and teaching they have in place, and Kelly talked about what they’ve done to try and correct the problem, with the Irish head coach breaking down the specifics of the fundamental issue.
“Our problem is we don’t go from speed to power,” Kelly explained. “We go from speed to speed. And we miss tackles, and that’s not how we teach it. So we’ve got to communicate it better. We’ve got to break it down.”
Breaking it down means looking at every missed tackle, something Kelly did this week. And his diagnosis after watching the tape?
“I tracked all of our missed tackles, every single one of them is just poor fundamentally,” Kelly said. “Out of control, not being in control of their body. And if we’re just in a better position, a better football position, if we just put ourselves in front of the ball carrier and get run over and hold on for dear life, they’re only going to get another yard or two.”
Notre Dame’s special teams mishaps were also a big part of the problem on Saturday. So while C.J. Sanders has turned into the Irish’s best return weapon since Kelly has been in South Bend, he’s also got a ton of young kids playing in the third phase. That’s made for some uneven performances, but it’s a group that Kelly thinks will do some very good things before the season is over.
Kelly applauded the blocking on the kickoff return that Sanders ran back for a touchdown, calling the hold that Jalen Elliott was flagged for simply “a kid (who) tried to do a little bit too much away from the main play.” The short kick that hit Miles Boykin was a tough situation, and one that Kelly said will be remedied by Sanders running to the football and screaming, with every player doing a better job of knowing where the football is.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” Kelly acknowledged. “I’m not standing here to condemn my special teams unit. They did some really good things. I think it’s a trending group. They’re doing some really good things. We’ve got to clean up some of those mistakes.”
With struggles on the field frustrating fans and coaches alike, an interesting question was posed to Kelly when he was asked about how he deals with struggling players. After seeing Nick Coleman targeted after losing a few key battles against Texas and Luke getting thrown at against the Spartans, some wonder when Kelly and his staff will draw the line and make a change.
Fans—as they often do—call for the backup. Kelly and his staff—as long as the player is giving his best effort and is the best player for the job—sticks with his best man, letting him work through the struggles.
“I just let him go. He’ll break out of it. As long as he’s giving us everything that we have and we’ve evaluated him as being the best player we have at that position, just keep playing,” Kelly said.
“It will come. You’ve just got to keep playing.”