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Kelly discusses Senior Day, final stretch of season

| Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly addressed the media Monday to recap the team’s dominant 52-20 win over Navy and preview their upcoming senior day matchup with Boston College. He began by giving his analysis of the Boston College program this season.

“Boston College will be our seventh team that had the week off to prepare, and certainly they will be ready to come here and play their very best. They always do. They’re always very difficult games,” Kelly said. “The bottom line here is this is one of the top scoring offenses in the country. Mike Bajakian is doing a great job. I know Mike. He is an outstanding offensive coordinator. Very good offensive line. Defensively, they have lost a lot of guys in back end of their defense. This is traditionally a defense that turns over a lot of NFL players, so they’ve got some younger players back there that are going to be good.”

Kelly specifically mentioned running backs junior A.J. Dillon and sophomore David Bailey, who are first and second for the Eagles (5-5, 3-4 ACC) in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns, respectively.

“It’s a team that, interestingly enough, has really evolved into a very difficult team to defend offensively with both the two running backs in Dillon and Bailey,” Kelly said. “Just outstanding backs. One is 240 pounds, 250 pounds, depends on what scale you look at. But both of them are just outstanding. Dillon has got the burst to get to the edge, the physicality that you’re going to need more than one guy to bring him down.”

Kelly remembers Dillon in particular as a one-time Notre Dame recruiting target.

“He was a really good player, somebody that we had offered and would’ve liked to have come to Notre Dame. But I think there were other reasons maybe that he didn’t want to come here,” Kelly said. “I don’t know what they were. We never really had an opportunity. Felt like BC was the best fit for him, and it’s obviously worked out quite well for him.”

In terms of the Irish (8-2), Kelly addressed the injuries that have been plaguing the team, specifically sophomore linebacker Shayne Simon.

“He’s going to have surgery tomorrow. It’s what we had feared. It’s a fairly significant injury, one that he’ll be able to fully recover from, but it’ll be a lengthy process. Dr. Ratigan will do that surgery tomorrow. It involves the tendon, the patella tendon,” he said. “Outside of that, I would probably be getting a little bit outside of my comfort level in terms of other things that need to come together there. But something that they’re very confident that he’ll be able to recover and be back next year.”

Aside from Simon, sophomore interior defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola suffered an ankle sprain against the Midshipmen (7-2), but is day-to-day. On the other side of the trenches, Kelly commented on how graduate student offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland is persevering through several surgeries because of his dedication to the team.

“Yeah, he’s had quite a few [surgeries], and extensive [injuries]. I think a lot of it is just his love for playing the game, first of all. He loves to play, and he loves being with his teammates,” Kelly said. “There is a connection there that has kept him persevering through all the injuries. I think others would’ve probably moved on. I think what has separated him from some other players that I’ve had that have had multiple setbacks is his personality. You guys have gotten a chance to see a little bit of that this year. The players have such a tight relationship with him that he did not want to give that up. So it’s nice to see him finish off in his last year here with some playing time and have some success. So that’s really what I think is his legacy, just overcoming a number of injuries and now really getting a chance in his last year to contribute to success.”

On a lighter note, Kelly discussed the positive play of wide receivers senior Chase Claypool and sophomore Braden Lenzy against Navy. Lenzy’s performance, which included a 70-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Ian Book, was particularly eye-opening because the former had seen little action due to fatigue issues.

“We felt like with everything that was going on with him, we just wanted to protect him a little bit. Worked out pretty good. He looked pretty fast to me,” Kelly said.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Redshirt junior quarterback Ian Book takes a snap during Notre Dame’s 21-20 win over Virginia Tech on Nov. 2.

Lenzy has dealt with injuries in his career, but Kelly said Lenzy and the other young receivers are learning what it takes in terms of preparation to play football at this level.

“I just think the workload at [the wide receiver] position is such that it requires a whole different day-to-day kind of preparation. I think that transition is occurring with him and [sophomores] Joe Wilkins and Lawrence Keys. Those guys are transitioning into that, and so there is going to be some days where they have to be protected, whether it’s soft tissue or whether it’s just the load of academics and football, where we have to make coach’s decisions based upon their readiness,” he said. “We do that by seeing how they’re practicing, how they’re handling the load from week to week. So I just think it’s a natural progression that they’re going through. They’ll be bigger, they’ll be stronger, they’ll be all the things necessary for them to be much more consistent as we enter into next season.”

As the Irish gear up for two more games in November, Kelly addressed questions regarding his performance in years past during the last month of the regular season and offered what he thought are the causes of their recent late-season success.

“Better coaching, better leadership, just doing a better job of leading our football team,” he said. “You know, to really sit here and kind of think about the tougher months, November, it’s hard to put a finger on it. There are different things that occur in November, whether it might have been injuries, might have been — I don’t know. There are coaching decisions that you make. … I feel really good [about] where our program is, our culture, our coaches, our players, and feel like the things we’re doing right now are benefitting our players so they can go out and play fast and free.”

However, Kelly said it is a balancing act of not slacking off too much as the season winds down and losing any momentum that has built up.

“We’re not going as many periods as we were in September and October and November. I think what [the team] wanted was they wanted to maintain the intensity of practices. I think that’s clearly the most important thing. It doesn’t necessarily mean the duration. You’re balancing intensity with duration,” Kelly said. “I think the comments to me, the captains, more than anything else, is make sure we keep the intensity up in practice. Contact needs to stay up. Don’t pull off from that perspective. But I still have to manage duration, workload, things of that nature.”

Kelly praised his team for the way they have attacked their practices to maintain their performance throughout the season.

“I think that’s a commitment year-round to conditioning, weight training, mental and physical. This team has mental toughness. You can define mental toughness in any way you want, but I think it’s in the way they play. They’re doing their job. They’re holding each other accountable and doing that in the weight room as well,” he said. “There are no guys in there cutting corners. They’re doing their job in the weight room, in the training room. That training room was packed this morning. I mean packed. And you do that with a commitment towards getting yourself ready to be the best you can be on Saturday. When you’re doing that on a Monday, that’s mental toughness. That’s accountability in November that you need.”

One of the reasons the Irish seem to be peaking this late in the season is the play of Book, who became the first quarterback in Notre Dame history to throw five touchdowns passes in three games in a season during the win over Navy. Kelly commented on Book’s emergence since the controversy surrounding his status as a starter after a 45-14 loss to Michigan.

“We’ve made some adjustments in practice that I think have helped Ian. We’re not scripting as much in terms of just calling it off the script and running it from a particular area in the field. We’re on the sidelines and we’re running plays much more like a scrimmage. So, Ian is getting plays from the sideline and getting it in much more of a game-like fashion instead of just standing there and getting it off a script and almost it being formulated for him. … Because it seemed to me that we look great in practice because he already had the answers to the test. … I think that’s really helped him decipher what’s going on and what he’s seeing out there,” Kelly said. “We felt like we needed to do a better job coaching, quite frankly. [He is] too good of a player, and he wasn’t playing to the level that he’s capable of playing, and so we needed to take a good, hard look at how we were coaching him. It’s benefited him, and he’s playing the way he should be playing.”

This weekend is the senior day home finale for the Irish. Kelly reflected on this senior class and how they’ve grown after stumbling through the 4-8 season in 2016.

“Certainly there were some residual benefits. They didn’t seem to be benefits at the time, but they learned quite a bit from that season in terms of, I think, the preparation and the locker room and all the things that are necessary to continue to build on your culture,” Kelly said. “Some of those guys are leaders today that have been able to make sure that no one takes our process for granted, and that you continue to work on it every day. So that experience definitely benefited those guys in their senior year.”

Kelly described how the final home game and the final stretch of the season for the seniors affects him emotionally.

“I get emotional just leading them, so I don’t know that it comes down to one day. You get emotional watching these guys succeed and struggle. It’s just not the one day. I think if it comes down to one day, then I don’t know what you’re doing the other days of the year,” Kelly said. “We have three more games. It’ll be [really emotional] where they’re not playing in Notre Dame Stadium again. … What will be much more emotional is the last game that they play.”

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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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