Kelly preps Irish for Maryland

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If last week’s press conference was of the vanilla variety, Brian Kelly gave us plenty to talk about this week, discussing key injuries, personnel decisions, alternate uniforms and a bunch of other stuff. If the headline news was Braxston Cave being lost for the season with foot surgery, the juicy subplots were the loss of Theo Riddick for at least a week, the question marks surrounding Ethan Johnson, Manti Te’o and Aaron Lynch, and the opportunity that Mike Golic and Robby Toma now face.

In other words, this was not your run of the mill Tuesday.

The guys over in the digital department did their best to give us the greatest hits of Kelly’s Tuesday presser, and as usual, I’ll give you some thoughts afterwards.

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It feels like Harrison Smith has been at Notre Dame forever. Or maybe that’s just what it feels like for fifth-year seniors, who hit the field early and have the kind of up-and-down career Smith has had for the Irish, taking some hard knocks while battling through adversity to become the lone captain of the Irish.

After playing what Kelly called Smith’s best game of the year, he talked about the road his senior captain has taken.

“What I love about Harrison Smith is that young man got beat up before we got here,” Kelly said. “When I got here, I heard some things about Harrison Smith, and he can’t do this and he can’t do that, and all he’s done since I’ve been here is do, do, do. Whatever we’ve asked him to do, on the field, off the field, he’s been there. He’s been a great teammate. He’s been a great leader and captain, and he’s been a darned good football player. He was invited to the senior Bowl, and they don’t just hand those things out because you’re a good guy. So he’s done all those things, and the way he’s done them since I’ve arrived here measure him up to the great captains that I’ve had.”

I think people forget just how detested Smith was, especially by a large portion of the online fanbase that tend to get very definitive with their criticism. It’s a real credit to Smith’s resolve, character — and some good work by Kelly, Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco — that he’s going to probably have a productive NFL career.

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I think I’ve read enough in the past few days about uniforms and helmets to make me want to poke my eyes out, but I’m at least happy to see that Kelly’s opinions on green uniforms and special helmets are pretty much exactly what I expected them to be.

“The only people I care about relative to the uniforms are the 105 guys that were in this room when we showed it to them, and they were excited,” Kelly said. All due respect to everybody else that has an opinion, I really don’t care about theirs, I care about what my players think, and our players love it. We’re going to stay with those kinds of things that still fall within our color schemes and our logoing, and kids like that stuff. So if our kids like it, then I can tell you I’m certain that the recruits like it, as well. And that’s really the only people that measure for me relative to who likes them and who doesn’t like them.

“If they didn’t like what we showed them, I would not even touch the topic again. But they’re the ones that generate this. The players come to me, they see what other teams are doing and what other programs have, and they bring it to them, and I shoot it up the flagpole and see if anybody likes it and then go from there.”

I think a lot of the blow back here comes from the fact Notre Dame lost both games they wore “special” uniforms in, imploding in the fourth quarter against Michigan and laying an egg against USC. That said, a lot of this is the product of circumstance, too. Michigan wanted retro uniforms for their first night game. Notre Dame (with I’m sure a nudge from Adidas) obliged. I, for one, thought those uniforms looked awesome… up until the 4th quarter.

As for the USC tweak, those helmets were supposed to be done for the beginning of the season. Add on top of that the third uniform “change” — something I think is actually a good annual tradition, and there you have it. Add it all up, throw in the growing pains by the PA team with Ozzy overload with Crazy Train, and you’re going to get some people up in arms.

We now return to talking about things that actually matter…

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It’s incredible to think what a Notre Dame team of past would’ve looked like without it’s two starting defensive ends and missing it’s starting nose guard for almost half the season. But it goes to show you just how good of a job Kelly and his staff did immediately upgrading the personnel along the defensive line — moves that have kept this team afloat with the play of talented freshman like Lynch and Stephon Tuitt.

“That’s why you take four flights and you wait in the airport for a flight into South Bend that’s been canceled six times,” Kelly said about the importance of landing that dynamic duo. “That’s the work that our guys have put in, because we knew the importance of putting our football program in the position we need to moving forward is developing that depth on the defensive line. That was job one.”

If building the defensive line was job one, Kelly has already outlined job two — putting together a dynamic secondary with the type of athletes that can play against spread offenses.

“Our second phase in recruiting is what we’re in right now and that’s the secondary,” Kelly said. “You look at Wake Forest, for example. That was a deep and talented group of young men, not that we don’t have some nice players; we do, but we’re nowhere near Wake Forest in terms of depth in the back end of our defense. That will be the next point of emphasis in terms of developing our defensive backfield.

“And so that’s the next stage in developing a great defense; you start up front and control the line of scrimmage. Now the next challenge for us is teams aren’t going to run the ball against us. They’re going to see that we need to get the ball out on the perimeter. We need to challenge their secondary, and that’s where we have to continue to build and deepen our football team on the defensive side of the ball.”

Obviously getting a group of players to sign on the dotted line is important. But evaluating that talent and getting the right guys to sign on the line is even more crucial. It’s interesting to see guys like Troy Niklas, Chase Hounshell and Austin Collinsworth come in and immediately jump to the front of the reserves. It’s too early to say that Kelly has mastered the evaluation process, but if we’ve seen anything early, it’s that he has a better idea of who’s going to be able to play in his system — something Charlie Weis couldn’t do defensively because he changed that system so many times.

He’ll need that crystal ball working because in 2012 he’ll need to rebuild his secondary, losing Smith, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, three guys that take a majority of the defensive snaps.