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Kelly addresses position groups, COVID-19 protocols

| Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Notre Dame football head coach Brian Kelly held a press conference Tuesday afternoon following practice. He fielded questions from the media, most of which pertained to the various position groups and players who were standing out amidst their packs. He began talking about sophomore running back Kyren Williams.

“Kyren is just maturing and physically getting to the point where I think he’s transformed his entire body,” Kelly said. “He came in last year as a freshman and there’s a big transition, especially at the running back position, where you’re required to do so much more than in high school. He was the best player on his team, he was the best player maybe every night that he played, and then he gets to Notre Dame and there’s a lot of really good players. So I think the hard work, his commitment in the offseason, has put himself in a position now where he’s what we thought he would be.”

He commented on Williams’ versatility both in the pass-catching and run games. From there he talked about the quarterback room and how the group was looking with newly minted offensive coordinator Tommy Rees at the helm after serving solely as quarterbacks coach the last three seasons.

“I think we’ve got a great culture in there, obviously having Tom [Rees] in there with those guys makes for a very good situation because he played here, played under me, creates a great continuity with that group there,” Kelly said. “And then you’ve got a veteran quarterback coming back in Ian Book who’s a great leader. So you couldn’t ask for all the intangibles to be a better situation for us going into this season with all the distractions that are out there as well with our current situation with the virus.”

He honed in on sophomore Brendon Clark and freshman Drew Pyne regarding what the backup signal-callers bring to the table for the Irish.

“Brendon’s got incredible talent,” Kelly said. “He’s got a strong arm, he’s got strength, escape ability, and it’s just the consistency and performance … In practice two or three, I thought he was not up to where he was earlier, but the last two practices, four and five, we’ve seen the guy that we felt that we recruited in terms of consistency and performance. Drew Pyne, he is so smart as a football player … just has a great concept of the position. He just has a command about him.”

Kelly also talked about graduate student quarterback Ian Book and how entering his third year as a starter puts him in a position to elevate his game.

“You’re trying to work on some of the things that can separate him as being one of the best in college football,” he said. “So tight window throws, one-on-one indefensible throws where only one guy can get to it. So you’re really focusing in on some specific things, not the totality of the offense. He’s got a great grasp of it … Now we can really have some fun here and focus on some of the nuances of the position that separate you and make you one of the best players in college football.”

Kelly also discussed the two group of pass-catchers, receivers and tight ends, that crowd the ranks. First, he addressed the loss of leading receiver and second-round NFL Draft pick Chase Claypool from last year’s team and the effect it will have on this group.

“When we lost [Miles] Boykin it was like, ‘alright, who’s going to step up?’ When we lost [Will] Fuller, ‘who’s going to step up?’ Every year we have guys that can step up and make plays for us, and this will be different,” he said. “We know [junior] Kevin Austin’s out for a little bit, but I think [graduate student Javon] McKinley’s gonna make plays for us; Ben Skowronek, a fifth-year transfer, is gonna come in and make plays for us; [senior] Avery Davis is a veteran who’s going to make plays for us. So I think there’s a lot of guys that will step up.”

Moving on to the tight end group, Kelly had praise for the position that has become a trademark of Notre Dame football, even when losing another second-round pick in Cole Kmet from last season.

“You lose a great tight end and it seems like we’ve got [junior] Tommy Tremble and [senior] Brock Wright, [freshmen Michael] Mayer and [Kevin] Bauman, [junior] George Tackas,” he said. “… One guy may be the big playmaker again, but we think we’ve got a lot of depth at the position that can definitely step up and make plays for us.”

Kelly also mentioned the competition between the two groups as they try to get as many of their personnel out on the field.

“Trying to decide what’s our best personnel grouping … we could certainly make the case that we’re better suited with two tight ends on the field than we are with another slot [receiver]. So, we’re still evaluating that,” he said. “We’re not just going to be a one-tight end offense, let’s say that right now … You will see three tight ends, and not just in goal-line. You’re going to see the utilization of three tight ends as a basic package in terms of what we do because that’s our personnel grouping. Those are the guys that can help us win … We’re going to take advantage of the personnel and we’ve got five tight ends that can play for us.”

Along with Pyne, the Irish bring in a highly-touted recruiting class, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Kelly was asked about the impact this offensive recruiting haul could have in their first season in South Bend, but tried to temper expectations.

“There’re certainly guys that impact the game a little bit more right away,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that [we have had] a freshman in Tyree that can come in and carry the football, that doesn’t happen quite a bit. [Freshman wide receiver Jordan] Johnson has made some plays for us; that doesn’t happen a lot. The tight ends, obviously, Mayer and Bauman in particular, those two guys. So I just think … they’re extremely skilled, they all have a chance, but … comparing it and saying it’s the best, I really don’t know. I know they’re all really good players and have a good chance to compete for us as freshmen.”

As for the defense, Kelly mentioned the fact that the linebacker position is loaded with young talent and defensive coordinator Clark Lea has “got his hands full” trying to find a way to get them all on the field. The pass-rushing group is also promising, with graduate students Ade Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes leading the pack while junior Ovie Oghoufo and sophomore Isaiah Foskey have also impressed in the reserves.

The area that seemed to be the most up in the air was the safety group as the Irish currently only have five players listed at the position. However, Kelly wasn’t fazed by that reality.

“Is five safeties enough? The five right safeties are enough,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, if you’ve watched our defense, we like to play a three-safety rotation at times and we do a lot of things out of that. But, certainly, [sixth-year cornerback] Shaun Crawford gives us flexibility; he can play corner, he can play safety. We’ve got [sophomore] Kyle Hamilton who’s one of the best guys in the country playing that position. It’s a position where we feel really good that we’ve got some guys there that have the ability to impact the game, as they have int the past.”

Kelly was also complimentary of senior Houston Griffith and mentioned graduate student and Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor as another key contributor, and he spoke of sophomore Litchfield Ajavon as someone having a solid fall camp.

Kelly mentioned that the defense is having to reacclimate to the realities of football as their technique has regressed without several spring practices following a coronavirus-induced cancellation.

“As you can imagine, the one thing that you can’t work on is the thing that we need to work on, and that’s tackling,” he said. “We hadn’t tackled since December; we kind of knew it. There wasn’t anybody that didn’t go into that first tackling scrimmage and think that we were going to be flawless in that. You can’t duplicate tackling if you don’t have that skill down and work on it, and we’re a group that is used to tackling quite a bit and we hadn’t tackled since December. So, we know that that’s gotta be something that is a priority for us, and it will be as we continue to move forward.”

With further regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly praised his players for the way they have conducted themselves in following protocols to prevent the spread of the disease.

“They’re very smart and they know that they don’t want to be in quarantine, they don’t want to be in isolation,” he said. “… We’re testing every week, we tested again today. The guys know that they’re getting tested, they know that they have to continue to wear masks and practice the social distancing and stay away from large gatherings. They just can’t do that this year, it’s just not part of what their routine can be. If they want to play football this year, they’ve got to maintain that discipline, and they get that. Hopefully, they continue to show the discipline they have up to this point.”

Following the University’s announcement Wednesday to suspend in-person classes and go to an online curriculum, it was announced that athletes could still congregate for University sponsored activities such as football practices. Kelly commented on what he feels they need to continue doing to maintain their success as a team to this point.

“They’ve got to have the right attitude,” he said. “Look, if you don’t have the right attitude in this environment that we’re in, it’s going to put you in a bad state of mind … You gotta fight through some tough things, tough days, making decisions that you’re not used to. And I’m so proud of our guys that they can do it at this time in their life. I know how difficult it is. We’re all products of our past experiences and our habits and they have to break some habits that, at their age, they’re not keen on doing, but they have. And so, I think I’m just so proud that they have managed to show those traits … and have kept the levelheadedness in this very difficult time.”

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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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