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Kelly discusses depth at running back, Watkins

| Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly discussed the health of his running backs as well as many of the changes that have seen the No. 21 Irish rebound from a 4-8 season to start 2017 4-1 in his Sunday teleconference following his team’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH).

Health at running back looked like it may have been a concern for the Irish after juniors Josh Adams and sophomore Tony Jones Jr. both went down against the RedHawks (2-3, 1-0 MAC), while junior Dexter Williams did not play. However, Kelly said he simply chose to be cautious with his backs due to his team’s comfortable lead and has no serious concerns as the Irish prepare for North Carolina on Saturday.

Irish senior cornerback Nick Watkins looks to cut off Spartans junior tight end Matt Sokol during Notre Dame’s 38-18 win over Michigan State on Sept. 23 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Irish senior cornerback Nick Watkins looks to cut off Spartans junior tight end Matt Sokol during Notre Dame’s 38-18 win over Michigan State on Sept. 23 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.

“Tony Jones had the helmet-to-helmet contact, but didn’t even have to go through the concussion protocol,” Kelly said. “He was seen in the medical tent. They did an eye scan with him and he was cleared to go back into competition. He felt great today; his ankle looks much better.

“Dexter Williams should be cleared for activity on Tuesday and Josh has a mild ankle sprain. He could have went back in the game. We chose to keep him out. The running backs should be much better than they were last week in terms of availability across the board. The rest are, you know, your typical bumps and bruises, but again, nothing that would keep anybody out.”


Among the myriad of changes Kelly brought about after 2016’s 4-8 season was an increased focus on “self-scouting,” players focusing more on their own film and learning how an opponent might approach a matchup with them. Kelly said senior offensive analyst Jeff Quinn has greatly helped the team by running a thorough self-scouting program.

“Jeff Quinn handles that for us,” Kelly said. “It’s been something that we wanted. [Director of scouting] Bill [Rees] handles the evaluation of personnel. So he breaks down all the personnel of the teams that we’re playing and he does a great job with that.

“But Jeff handles the self-scouting. He does an incredible job of really diving deep into all of our formations and plays and right and left and tendencies. It’s just been a thorough report that’s allowed us to really be very intentional in terms of play calls and setting things up. It’s helped us quite a bit this year so far.”


Defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system has allowed senior Drue Tranquill to shine in 2017, after a position change from safety to Elko’s “rover,” role, seen as a linebacker-safety hybrid. Kelly said the move closer to the line of scrimmage has allowed Tranquill to impact the game in more ways than he could have as a pure safety.

“You can’t be involved in that many statistical categories at the safety position,” Kelly said. “You can be at the rover position. Closer to the line of scrimmage allows you to be much more involved in the entire game, whether it be a blitz or tackles for loss or pass coverages. There’s just so many different areas that allow him to impact the game. So I think the answer is in that he’s involved in so many statistical categories.

“Where he goes from here, well he’s a leader on our football team. I think the next step’s just continued leading, and quite frankly, he’s still developing even at that rover position. It’s a new position for him. So just more knowledge of the position each and every week.”

Locker room

Another change Kelly brought about to improve for 2017 was in the layout of the locker room, where Kelly opted to mix position groups instead of grouping them together. Kelly said that change brought about an increased sense of unity on the team.

“There was no question it was intentional to move the locker room around,” Kelly said. “We went away from grouping position groups in the locker room. We have players that are from different position groups next to each other. We wanted a more cohesive locker room in the sense that we wanted linebackers with offensive linemen, and we wanted defensive tackles with wide receivers.

“So creating the atmosphere of a cohesive group and team, you know, starts in the locker room and then it works its way into how [director of football performance Matt] Balis each day changes the workout groups. They get excited about somebody different each day. That’s just, you know, those are the underpinnings of how you develop the camaraderie and guys caring about, you know, pulling for each side and we’re starting to see that obviously as this football team comes together.”


While most of the Irish players saw individual success in the blowout victory over the RedHawks, senior cornerback Nick Watkins had some struggles, as Miami (OH) wide receiver James Gardner caught touchdown passes of 34 and 14 yards against his coverage on his way to five catches and 115 yards on the day. Kelly said he would have expected Watkins to make a play on the ball on the first touchdown catch, but said he believes that was the only play where Watkins did not defend as he would have hoped against the larger receiver.

“I think there was one play we would have liked,” Kelly said. “The first touchdown pass, he was in off-coverage. We would have preferred that he have played over the top of the route and made a play on the ball. The second touchdown pass, he was in man coverage and there was a bit of play in both side of the ball there and it was just in a position where he couldn’t get to it.

“Those were the two plays in particular, and we felt like on the first one, the proper technique and off coverage for him would have been to stay on the left field shoulder and make a play on the ball. The second one, that was just a difficult play. He played it the right way with the right technique and it was just a ball that was thrown in a location that he couldn’t have got to. I think a little bit of both there, a little bit better technique on the first one. The other one, that’s just the world of being a corner, where teams like to throw the back shoulder. They’re difficult to defend.”

The Irish will face North Carolina (1-4, 0-3 ACC) this Saturday at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

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