Kelly talks Zaire, RB reps and improved defense


Tuesday means a Brian Kelly press conference.

So here are a few snippets from his weekly exchange with the media, as Kelly talks about the play he got out of junior quarterback Malik Zaire, how the running back position will shake out with Tarean Folston lost for the season and Brian VanGorder‘s improved defense.

Irish offense preparing for former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta


Past and present Notre Dame football will unite on Saturday, with the Irish traveling to Charlottesville to take on Virginia. And while the juicy storylines aren’t exactly jumping off the page in one of Notre Dame’s six ACC matchups this season, the chance for the Irish offense to go against former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is one that has Notre Dame fans more than a little interested.

Brought to Notre Dame by Charlie Weis, Tenuta served as the Irish defensive coordinator for two seasons. The move was interesting for many reasons. And if we’re being honest, it was a disaster for just as many.

Tenuta was Notre Dame’s first big-money, free agent coaching acquisition. After giving Weis all he could handle as Georgia Tech’s defensive coordinator, the former Irish head coach decided to bring Tenuta to South Bend, with hopes that the veteran coordinator would infuse some of his aggressiveness into his football program.

Tenuta did that, blitzing on more than half of the defense’s snaps. But too often those blitzes never got home, and the Irish finished 2009 giving up an insane amount of big plays, finishing 103rd in the country by giving up 6.2 yards per play. Throw in Tenuta’s gruff disposition and some well-documented chemistry issues on the coaching staff, and Weis’ third shot at finding the right defensive coordinator ended up being one of many reasons he was fired.

All this background is given to you because one rather obvious statement makes Notre Dame fans feel a little bit less than comfortable: Tenuta and current Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have a lot in common. And Brian Kelly acknowledged that on Tuesday.

“I think they both probably drink from the same well,” Kelly said. “I think Brian and Jon would definitely both tell you they’d much rather be exotic and bring pressures if they could. Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations, but I would say they’re very similar from that respect.”

When it’s going well, an attacking defensive coordinator helps a team dictate terms. They demand perfection, unwilling to give up a five-yard out route, let alone a 50-yard bomb. Weis saw that from Tenuta, and understandably wanted that in his program. And Kelly knew that’s how VanGorder coached defense, and after Bob Diaco left to take over the UConn program, Kelly decided he wanted to crank up the pressure schemes.

The big difference between Weis and Kelly’s decisions? Kelly had recruited the personnel that made that scheme possible? Weis? Not so much, yo-yo’ing between Rick Minter, Corwin Brown and Tenuta, all while struggling to recruit on the defensive side of the ball.

Kelly talked about how important personnel is when determining defensive schemes.

“It’s so much about personnel that allows you to do the things you want to do defensively,” Kelly explained. “Sometimes you’re limited by certain situations.”

We saw those limitations firsthand last year. After looking like world-beaters throughout September and parts of October, Notre Dame’s personnel just didn’t have the ability to deploy VanGorder’s aggressive schemes, with a disastrous stretch yielding nearly 40 points a game to opponents to close the season.

Get one look at the game tape from last weekend in the Rose Bowl, it appeared that Tenuta’s defense struggled getting to UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen as well, a talented defense feeling the effects of multiple losses to the NFL. And even sending blitzers early and often, the Cavaliers were unable to disrupt the Bruins’ quick-throwing scheme. That’s something that Irish fans saw all too often when Tenuta was calling the Notre Dame defense, and likely adds some fire to a matchup that already looks awfully uneven on paper.

Of course, Malik Zaire is starting just his third game at Notre Dame. And while the Irish offensive line did a nice job protecting him against Texas, the Longhorns managed nine tackles-for-loss. So you can forgive Kelly and his offensive staff if they aren’t out to right the wrongs of the Weis era.

As is always the case, deposed coaches are whipping boys and scapegoats, and Tenuta’s scowling face is too often associated with the defensive ineptitude of the Weis era. But Virginia’s defensive coordinator has been around college football for the better part of 35 years, coaching at his alma mater after a career that’s seen him do lofty things at stops like Marshal Ohio State and Georgia Tech.

So while Irish fans are hoping Notre Dame scores points by the bushel and makes big plays against the risk-taking schemes of their former defensive coordinator, Kelly and the Irish staff know they’ve got a big week of preparation, with Virginia’s defense more than capable of getting after the quarterback and turning over the football.

“They’ve got an answer for everything that you’re doing offensively. They like to mix things up, play some man, some zone, single pressures,” Kelly said. [They’re] a defense that can cause you some problems with some very, very good coaching, very sound fundamentally and can really get after you with a lot of different schemes and a lot of different looks.”



Injuries mean opportunities for young talent

Kris Boyd, Josh Adams


Notre Dame lost Tarean Folston on his third carry of the season, with the junior running back tearing his ACL within the first 10 minutes of the season. The injury hurts the Irish depth chart, taking a frontline player from a position group that already was thin on numbers and experience.

Folston’s injury is the second one of Notre Dame’s building blocks to go down. The Irish already lost Jarron Jones in preseason camp, the starting defensive tackle rolled up in a pile and done for the year, erasing a large piece of experience (and talent) in the trenches.

But injuries happen. And while Irish fans thinking back on last season’s injury-plagued demise are likely looking over their shoulder, Brian Kelly‘s team soldiers on.

So a program that’s long held the tenet “Next Man In” will call on the credo one more time, with the sixth-year head coach ready to show that injuries also create opportunities.

After all, before there was KeiVarae Russell, there was serious worries about how the Irish would replace cornerback Lo Wood. Russell would’ve likely never played on the defensive side of the ball had it not been for an Achilles injury to Wood, paired with the preseason departure of Tee Shepard.

Don’t forget Joe Schmidt. Notre Dame’s captain and underdog story might just be another special teams ace if not for the injury to Jarrett Grace and depth issues plaguing Bob Diaco’s 2013 unit.

A football coach likely knows the best way to make God laugh—tell him your (preseason) plans. So while the on-paper team we saw coming together this offseason is already off course, the Irish coaching staff was likely expecting the unexpected. That’s why Kelly and his assistant coaches are spending today preaching a new lesson to the bottom-half of a very talented roster.

“We have some young guys that we think are still capable of playing for us that are down on the depth chart a little bit. They kind of have that look like, well, I may never get out of this position that I’m in,” Kelly said after the game on Saturday.

“I told our coaches, it’s important that you go to these guys on Monday and let them know, they are probably going to get an opportunity to play this year. And to continue to work with them and continue to build their confidence that when we call on you, be ready, because we think we have some depth that may have to play for us and they are quality players.”

Those plans likely include activating Dexter Williams, a running back that in an ideal situation may have saved a year of eligibility. They include a tag-team at defensive tackle with sophomore Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery, and likely snaps from guys further down the depth chart, especially with Georgia Tech right around the corner.

Notre Dame’s work on the recruiting trail, and Kelly’s six-year efforts to rework the Irish roster are taking hold. And that will allow a talented freshman class that looked ready to wait its turn push for every opportunity it can get.

“Any top-notch football program has to be able to call on some of these freshmen players that have the mental and physical—and I underline the mental, as well as the physical ability—to come in and compete right away, because it creates competition within your program that rises all ships,” Kelly said. “And that means the upperclassmen, as well.”

We’ve seen that in the secondary, where junior cornerback Devin Butler fought his way into the lineup as the unlikely outside cornerback in nickel situations. We’ve also likely seen DeShone Kizer take a step forward, noticing the talent of freshman Brandon Wimbush. That applies to all positions across the board.

Josh Adams has made my two veteran running backs better, because of his level of play, and that’s across the board. Equanimeous St. Brown has made Will Fuller better,” Kelly said.

“So when you get a freshman class like that that can come in and compete and play at that level, those kids see it. Those veteran kids see it, and it really drives them to be better players. And I think it’s a very, very important factor.”

Right now, you talent like Nick Coleman is making his impact on special teams. Same with Te’von Coney. But that’ll change in the coming weeks, as the Irish are forced to call on their depth as the schedule stiffens until the Irish play USC in mid-October before taking a well-earned week off.

“We like the guys we’ve got. That’s football,” Kelly said, when asked about how he moves forward without his starting running back. “We’re certainly disappointed for Tarean. He’s worked so hard to get where he is. But that’s the nature—there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why you try to develop the depth in your program.”