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Brian Kelly previews Georgia after New Mexico win

| Monday, September 16, 2019

No. 7 Notre Dame’s head coach Brian Kelly fielded questions regarding his team’s play against New Mexico and the upcoming matchup against Georgia in Athens during a teleconference Sunday. In terms of the New Mexico game, Kelly was proud of the inexperienced players who contributed to the win.

“There’s a lot of young players that are wanting their opportunity,” he said. “And we’ve sold them, ‘You’re going to get your chance here, and when we call your number you’ve gotta step up and make a play,’ and we saw a lot of young guys doing it, and some older guys. [Senior wide receiver] Chase Claypool had an incredible day. [Senior wide receiver] Javon McKinley, he’s been with us a while, had a great day.

“So, we know that we’ve got some guys that can make plays, and now, after this game, it allows us now to kinda put the pieces together as to how we want this offense to continue to move forward, knowing that we’ve got guys that have the confidence to go out there and make plays.”

Still, Kelly believes that there are corrections that need to be made with a top-10 matchup days away.

“Well, we can’t give up big play runs, obviously. We’ve gotta be better there, certainly. [We have to] play the ball in the air better,” Kelly said of what his team can improve upon. “But we did a lot of good things, you know, eight [tackles for loss], three takeaways. But we can’t give up the big play runs. And then, offensively, more efficient on third down. Those are probably the two big takeaways right now.

He emphasized the necessity of solid run defense with the Georgia game looming.

“There were two runs [by New Mexico] that we just didn’t like the overall team defensive support. It just wasn’t one guy, you know, we gave up two big runs. Against Louisville it was just poor execution and some option things and zone reads,” Kelly said. “We cleaned that up, I think our guys did a much better job of executing the plan. I think what we were disappointed with was just some poor defensive structure where the ball got outside the defense.”

Kelly said the team would need to be careful not to repeat these mistakes with Georgia.

“That can’t happen against anybody,” he said. “It can’t happen against Georgia because, obviously, those plays are going for touchdowns. So, that’s attention to detail stuff and you know you can’t have it against anybody. So, I think our guys will learn from it and know that each and every play against a team like Georgia, if you’re not on it, all 11 players playing together, playing great run defense, a guy like [junior running back D’Andre] Swift’s gonna take it to the endzone.”

While Kelly is concerned about how his team will fare against the Bulldogs, he was pleased with the way his team stepped up against New Mexico, specifically the play of senior wide receiver Javon McKinley.

“He’s a really good blocker, he made a couple of really good blocks. He’s physical, one of the stronger guys that we have. In terms of what [director of football performance Matt] Balis would talk about in the weight room, he’s at the top of all the categories,” Kelly said. “So you got a physical presence, a guy that can go up and get the football.

“So, he brings all of those intangibles: big, physical presence out there that can come down and block a safety. So, he’s earned his opportunity to get significant playing time. So, he helps in the running game, he helps in, obviously, the one-on-one matchups, and he’ll be a significant part of what we do moving forward.”

Another way McKinley helps is in taking a load off of graduate student wide receiver Chris Finke, who has seen increased responsibilities with injuries to junior tight end Cole Kmet and junior wide receiver Michael Young.

“We’ve moved him around a little bit. He’s had to play some X receiver a little bit. He’s had to be a mentor for a lot of young players,” Kelly said. “He’s had to get out on the perimeter and do some different things and block.

“So, a little bit more pressure on him, but … we’ve got Javon McKinley who’s emerged where we can put Chase [Claypool] out there. [Finke] certainly loves having Chase next to him cause he picks up a lot of the dirty work for him. So what really has helped is the emergence of Javon McKinley because now you can flip Chase back out there and it gives us great flexibility now with the group of receivers.”

In terms of the injuries to Young and Kmet, as well as to sophomore running back Jahmir Smith, Kelly is optimistic about their timetables for return.

“The only one that won’t be ready to play is Michael Young. He’ll be a week behind. We’re hopeful that [Kmet and Smith] would be ready to play,” he said. “We’ll get more information on Cole tomorrow, but we’re very encouraged that we’re going to see the things that we need to see for him to be cleared to play.

“Jahmir was walking around today. We’ll get him moving, running on Monday, so we’re moving in the right direction there, we’re hopeful there. So, Michael would be the only one, he’s about a week away. He will be involved in all of our activities this week but we won’t clear him until the following week.”

In any case, the focus now shifts to No. 3 Georgia, and Kelly said his team is antsy to face the Bulldogs on their turf.

“They’re excited. … They’re excited about the challenge that’s in front of them, and I don’t think they can underestimate the fact that this is a game that they’ve been excited [for],” Kelly said. “It’s been on the schedule and one that they’ve been waiting for, so they’re ready to go.”

While their anticipation is through the roof, Kelly says the Irish realize the severity of the task at hand.

“They knew that they had to take care of business against New Mexico and that they had to play better from when they played against Louisville. I think they did that. They showed the kind of improvement necessary in week 1 to week 2 with a bye week there,” he said. “But, make no mistake about it, they understand the caliber of play that is gonna be needed against Georgia.”

However, Kelly says that his guys came to Notre Dame in the first place because they love this kind of opportunity.

“It’s a lot of the reason why they want to come to Notre Dame, it’s like being on Broadway. It’s a Broadway show,” Kelly said. “You’re on stage every game you play. It’s on national TV, they know all of their games are broadcast on NBC or CBS or ESPN or ABC. So they know they’re in that spotlight and they choose to come to Notre Dame because they want that. They relish that opportunity. … So, they don’t see it as pressure, they see it as a privilege, and they really enjoy it.”

Kelly said that the kind of environment surrounding this game is what makes it so great.

“When you have Georgia, the No. 3-ranked team in the country, it’s national television, it’s [College] Gameday, all the eyes are on you, that’s why you play these games,” he said. “So the guys are pretty excited about it.”

Notre Dame will kickoff against Georgia on Saturday at 8 p.m.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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