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Kelly discusses returning leadership, challenging road schedule ahead of team trip to Culver Academies

| Saturday, August 3, 2019

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly spoke to the media Friday at the first press conference of the training period, highlighting the progress of the team throughout the preseason and some objectives of the program going forward.

Kelly opened by providing an update on the freshman class, citing director of football performance Matt Balis’ evaluation of the underclassmen as being able to meet expectations and compete at camp.

“Some of them have the physical tools. … It’s the mental ability to go in there and do it as well,” Kelly said.

While Notre Dame fans should expect some young faces to work their way into the lineup, Kelly indicated some familiar faces have made significant progress this offseason.

After tearing his ACL prior to his freshman season, followed by tearing his achilles at the beginning of his sophomore season, graduate student cornerback Shaun Crawford struggled to find his rhythm his junior season before ultimately suffering another ACL tear in the days leading up to last season’s opener against Michigan. Now back for his fifth season on a medical hardship, Crawford is giving Kelly’s staff plenty to look forward to this year.

“Again, [he] had a great summer and [was] cleared to do everything for us and will be poised to make an impact for us,” Kelly said.

Along with Crawford, Kelly spoke highly of the veteran corps he has returning on both sides of the ball.

“[Senior wide receiver] Chase Claypool is going to be a guy that I think is going to make a huge impact on our football team,” Kelly said of the returning potential on offense. “[Junior tight ends] Cole Kmet, Brock Wright — I think there’s a number of guys who are poised to really have an impactful season.”

Claypool — the second leading receiver on last year’s squad, behind current Baltimore Raven Miles Boykin — recently had ankle surgery, but Kelly said he is optimistic about him making a full recovery in time for the season opener against Louisville.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish junior receiver Chase Claypool tries to break through a tackle following a catch during Notre Dame’s 42-13 win over Florida State on Nov. 10 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Another position on the offensive side of the ball that has made key progressions, Kelly said, is quarterback.

“You know, he didn’t start the year as our starting quarterback, so there’s just a difference,” Kelly said of senior starting quarterback Ian Book. “He walks around the building a little different, great confidence in him. But he knows the technical things he needs to work on. … What I see is just a young man who’s really confident in himself and holding others accountable.“

Meanwhile, sophomore Phil Jurkovec has refined his skills and is prepared to jump into his second year with some experience under his belt.

“We knew the talent level that was there. First year, there’s high expectations,” Kelly said. “There’s a lot going on. He lost a little bit of his confidence at times. He’s going to be fine. … We’re looking forward to watching him in camp, and he’s going to get plenty of opportunities to continue to grow.”

The departure of center Sam Mustipher to the NFL has left a void as the anchor of the offensive line. Despite the significant absence that will be felt, Kelly was confident the program has a number of options eager to step up and fill this role.

“[Sophomore] Jarrett Patterson really emerged as someone we feel great about at that position. He did a terrific job,” Kelly said. “ … We talked about [graduate student Trevor] Ruhland, and we weren’t sure about him. He had a great summer, and now we feel like, boy, it’s a bonus to have him. [Junior Colin] Grunhard is healthy. We have a lot of confidence in him. And now add [junior] Josh Lugg, who had some really good success in the spring there — we feel like that’s a position of strength now for us.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Kelly’s staff is optimistic about the versatility of senior cornerback Troy Pride.

“We feel like his assets for us clearly are experience. … That short corner position requires somebody with a lot of experience, because you’re going to get the most action,” Kelly said. “So it just goes to say it just makes sense to get a guy like Troy Pride, who’s had the most experience in there, but we want to keep our options open. We need to develop more than just Troy Pride at that position because we’re going to be doing some different things at that corner position.”

As the Irish prepare to head to Culver, Indiana, for preseason training, Kelly said fans can expect to hear the captain announcements made sometime in the first week at Culver Academies.

Initially, Kelly had indicated the senior class was lacking depth in leadership options. However, he credited this offseason with highlighting an unexpected number of leaders and potential captains.

“Sometimes you don’t know how the summer goes … and we put them in that position to really evaluate what kind of leader you are. If we notice that you have strong skills, we’re not going to push you to the side,” Kelly said.

While the primary focus of the preseason may include the home opener on the road against Louisville, Kelly said the team is giving special attention to the grueling road schedule ahead of them.

“We have to be road warriors. We have to have that mindset of going on the road to Michigan. We’ve got to go to, certainly, Athens and play at Georgia. We’ve got to go to Stanford, which we haven’t won at Stanford,” he said. “So there are a number of challenges. We’ve never played at Duke. We’ve got to go down there and play them.”

For Kelly, this series of challenges is symbolic of the expectations the program has set for itself.

“That’s why they come to Notre Dame, because they really relish those challenges,” Kelly said. “ … I think most of the teams I’ve coached here believe that they can win a National Championship. They’ve tasted a little bit.”

While the players have already come close to glory, Kelly’s ready to seal the deal.

“Never get satisfied,” he said. “We got a taste of what it’s like to be in the playoffs. I want to win the darn thing.”

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