Priorities clear for Irish in bowl game

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Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick will be in wintery New York today, for a press conference with Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood and his athletic director Julie Hermann. It’ll be another opportunity for us to hear from the Irish head coach, who has a busy week with recruiting, visiting Everett Golson, and preparing his football team for their final game of the 2013 season.

While some Irish fans batted around the idea of staying home this bowl season, the reality of winning at least six games means your coaching staff has unlocked an additional month of work with your football team. And while it’s likely too late to do too much to developmental improve the team that’ll play just a few weeks later, it can serve as a jump-start to spring practice, and a first look at players you expect to contribute in the season ahead.

On Sunday, Kelly talked about the delicate balance he and his staff will take in the ten scheduled practices the Irish will have before the Pinstripe Bowl.

“Well, we want to win the football game first,” Kelly said. “I want to send out our football team and build momentum into 2014 with a win. In particular, our seniors going out with a win, I think that’s very important.  They’ve meant so much to the program.  I think that’s first and foremost, getting a win for our seniors, and the momentum it builds going into 2014.”

The Irish walked into a bowl game with a similar 8-4 record after losing their season finale against Stanford in 2011. Matched up against Florida State in the (then) Champs Sports Bowl, the Irish gave away a lead to the Seminoles, dropping their fifth game of the season, and pushing the Irish into their offseason with a foul taste in their mouths.

Winning a ninth football game isn’t the same as playing in the BCS National Championship game, but the difference between an 8-5 and 9-4 record is sizable.

“It’s not a catapult into an undefeated season by any means,” Kelly conceded. “I don’t want to overstate that.  But it does leave a good feeling going into the offseason when you win that football game.”

Of course, winning the game is important. But with some really intriguing battles set to play out next Spring, Kelly also talked about the opportunities to work with young players that’ll likely step into big roles next season, including freshman quarterback Malik Zaire.

“I was able to work I think in the 11‑on‑11 today, which is our ones and twos working. I was able to get 20 reps of really good work with Malik today,” Kelly said. “The young guys get a lot of work.  Torii Hunter and Malik working together today.  Max Redfield played virtually all of seven‑on‑seven.  Those kind of guys getting out there today.”

With logistics not working out for Everett Golson to join the team this month to practice, the spotlight at quarterback is (temporarily) on Zaire. Andrew Hendrix’s return is far from certain, and Kelly hinted at four scholarship quarterbacks being too many to carry, a painful lesson learned with the departure of Gunner Kiel leaving the Irish shorthanded this year.

For a redshirt season, Zaire certainly made some headlines. He was put on a Twitter ban earlier in the season when he leaked out some information about his bout with mono. That ban likely returned with his commentary following Chuck Martin’s departure, where he voiced his frustrations after the news broke that Martin was heading to Miami.

Yet Zaire was a constant in press conferences, with the young quarterback mentioned almost weekly as a potential player to spark the offense. Kelly finally admitted late in the season that the plan was to redshirt the Ohio native, pushing his eligibility clock into a fifth season.

But these next few weeks are crucial for the Irish future, as both Zaire and Golson can run the football and Kelly’s spread offense, adding some continuity to a positional depth chart that after four seasons will finally have it. That will only be helpful if Zaire can take advantage of this month of work, a bonus one-on-one session with his head coach that wouldn’t have been as possible without Martin’s departure.