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Kelly talks Virginia, player development

| Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Notre Dame football head coach Brian Kelly addressed the media Monday to recap the team’s 35-20 win over No. 23 Virginia, and to preview its upcoming game against Bowling Green. He started off by discussing the key aspects of the win.

“After watching the film, I was really pleased with the offensive line and the way we were able to exert ourselves in terms of physicality, both with certainly the running backs, but the tight ends as well. That’s going to bode well for us,” Kelly said. “I think a great indicator is that after the first two games, our rush defense is really dramatically improved, and then obviously finding a run game against a quality opponent in Virginia. Those two things have to continue to be areas of improvement for us as we move forward. So that really stood out to me as an important factor in the second half of that football game. Certainly the turnovers, as well.”

He then previewed the matchup with Bowling Green (1-3).

“As we move forward to Bowling Green, this is a week for our football team to really look at themselves and say, ‘Do I want to be great, or is this as good as it gets?’” he said. “Bowling Green, I have a great deal of respect for [head coach] Scot Loeffler and taking over this program. I know how hard it is at the MAC level when you’re coming in to put in your culture and develop your philosophy offensively, defensively and special teams. He’ll do it. He’s been in college football for many years and been very successful. … Obviously [I] have a great personal relationship with [defensive coordinator] Brian VanGorder. [I] respect him as a football coach and as a person. You can see that he’s getting those guys lined up, getting them to play fundamental football first and foremost. It’s just a matter of recruiting and time and getting those guys to the level where they can compete in the MAC.”

Kelly then shifted to praising the defense for its performance. A key contributor in the Virginia (4-1) win was senior defensive end Julian Okwara, who recorded three of Notre Dame’s (3-1) eight sacks on the day. Kelly praised him for the developments he’s made not just as a player, but as a person, in order to become a captain.

“Oh, at this time last year, if you mentioned captain, I would’ve maybe publicly snickered at you. He just did not have any of those traits developed, and he’s developed them because he’s wanted to put himself in that position,” he said. “I couldn’t be [prouder] of him. He’s respected not only by his play, but he is demanding of his teammates as it relates to accountability. He’ll be the first one to step up in a meeting and tell somebody that they’re not living up to the standard. That really caught our eye and our attention this past spring. And then him having his own swat team and holding his team accountable, that transformation has been as impressive for one person to move himself into a leadership position that I’ve seen in my time here.”

Alison Thornton | The Observer
Irish senior defensive end Julian Okwara rushes to the ball carrier during Notre Dame’s 35-20 win over Virginia on Sept. 28.

Kelly also discussed the play of junior linebacker Drew White and how he stepped up to fill a necessary position for the Irish.

“I can’t say that [his production] would be a surprise as much as we needed that kind of production from the middle linebacker position. Somebody was going to have to give it to us. We recruited him out of the St. Thomas Aquinas High School believing that he had the ability to play here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “Injuries kind of put him back a little bit, but he’s worked hard to put himself in this position. I would be hesitant to use the word surprised — much more pleased for him that he has kind of found his niche in the program, and in particular really pleased that he has played at a level that has allowed our defense to really get better and better over the last few weeks.”

Lastly, Kelly praised junior nose tackle Kurt Hinish for how he brings a spark to the defensive line.

“From a football technical standpoint, he is really technically sound, but he brings a personality to the position,” he said. “He’s animated. He’s got great energy that is seen all the time, both as he comes off the field, on the sideline. He is one of those guys that is always keeping his team energized. So it’s not your traditional big nose guard that kind of just sits there and eats up space. He just brings a really great personality to the position that he plays technically very well.”

Kelly then addressed senior quarterback Ian Book’s recent play.

“I think in some areas he’s made really good progress. I think there is room for improvement in others, but I could probably say that about a lot of players. Again — and I think we all know this — the spotlight is on the quarterback, so the scrutiny on him is 10 times what it is on other positions,” Kelly said. “He knows that. But if you’re asking me where is Ian in this process, I will go back to what I said last week: he just finished his 13th, going on his 14th game. We want to continue to see steady progress in him seeing the field, making good decisions as it relates to protections, our RPOs, and we’re not seeing it go the other way. But we want to continue to see that natural process of managing our offense, but also he’s got the ability to be explosive. I think that’s the next step for him.”

Kelly also talked about some of the improvements he would’ve liked to have seen at this point in the season.

“I would’ve liked to maybe make a couple more plays and put the whole game — the Georgia game on [Book’s] back, and then I would say, yeah, we’re exactly where we want to be. But we’re in a pretty good position, top 10 in the country. So, you know, yeah, could we be a little bit better? Sure. I think we all could be. I could be coaching a little bit better. So I’m certainly not displeased with Ian Book, that’s for sure,” he said.

Regardless of Book’s struggles, the Irish prevailed over the Cavaliers on Saturday. The win marked Notre Dame’s 900th win in school history and the 13th straight at home. Kelly talked about how his teams have managed to string together so many victories.

“Execute better than the team we’re playing. It starts with you — don’t get lucky. You’ve got to win those games. We’ve had some close games that we have had to find a way to win. Virginia game, we had to come back the at half; Pittsburgh game comes to mention; and then there are some games we’ve played extremely well,” Kelly said. “I think we have a great routine. We love playing in front of our fans — our students in particular are there. And it’s been a mantra of ours in our off-season to protect our house. We feel as though it’s part of what we do in our workouts in the summer. We rally around that, we workout in the stadium, we run the stairs. It’s something that’s very, very important to us. So we’ve been fortunate, and it’s obviously been a really positive thing to play at home.”

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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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