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Kelly gives final presser before season-opener vs. Duke

| Friday, September 11, 2020

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly held a press conference Thursday in anticipation of Notre Dame’s season-opener against Duke, now under 48 hours away. One consequence of the current style of media press conferences is that reporters do not get the same chances they are accustomed to when it comes to asking follow-up questions.

As such, this meeting allowed them to gain some clarity on Notre Dame’s depth chart which was released at the time of Kelly’s Monday presser. He began by addressing the linebacker situation, commenting less on senior linebacker Jordan Genmark-Heath transferring and more on the statuses of junior Jack Lamb and sophomore Osita Ekwonu.

Lamb in particular was expected to be higher on the Buck linebacker depth chart but missed out on the two-deep as the staff gave nod to junior Shayne Simon and sophomore Marist Liufau.

“We still really have a lot of confidence in Jack, but he’s been slowed by his injury which was career-threatening,” Kelly said. “During camp he had a little bit of a setback with that hip; he has worked through that. So, he’s been behind, quite frankly, in a very, very competitive situation. … We expect that Jack is going to contribute immediately for us on special teams and continue to work. … Jack is a guy that is rounding back into playing shape, but it’s gonna take some time.”

Ekwonu is of note because Kelly announced previously that he and sophomore slot receiver Kendall Abdur-Rahman would be moved to the running back position, although in reality Ekwonu remains primarily among the linebackers.

“Osita was gonna be a niche player for us on offense … a short yardage back, a goal line back,” Kelly said. “So, he never really left the linebacking corps, so he’s been cross-trained at the position and would continue to spend most of his time with the linebackers. … He is still with the linebackers and continues to work exclusively now with the linebackers, and we’ve given him enough work at running back in camp that the couple of plays we needed him for he is tuned in for, so if we need to get into that package he’s ready to go.”

Also, in terms of the depth chart, Kelly discussed how it was looking three days after first being shared with the media.

“There’s no real, major changes on the depth chart,” he said. “There’s competitive battles at a number of positions that will continue to be throughout this long season, but I don’t know that there’s any surprises; maybe for some, but not for me.”

From a broader perspective, Kelly talked about how he is feeling going into the season opener and how unique a situation it is when factoring COVID-19 into play.

“I don’t know that you can exclude COVID from this preparation, it’s unlike any preparation that I’ve ever had,” he said. “So, if we were living in a vacuum, my concerns would be, like they have been for 30 years: How’s your team gonna respond when it’s now game day? How do they handle the going from practice to competitive mindset?

“Look this team had no spring practice. We’ve gotten in 22 of our 25 practices … So there are so many other factors when you throw COVID in here that are different than any other opener that I’ve ever experienced.”

One of the repercussions of COVID-19 is the arrangement of the coaching staff during the game. Kelly broke down where his coaches will be posted during the matchup.

“We have gone through that over the last two Saturdays with communication, with headsets and setting up our coaches in a position where they can, in fact, safely work,” he said. “… [Offensive coordinator] Tommy Rees will be in the box with [tight ends] coach John McNulty; [running backs coach] Lance [Taylor] will be on the field working with Tommy in terms of getting the plays in and out of the game; [wide receivers coach] Del [Alexander] will be essentially working on personnel coming in and out of the game, and [offensive line] coach [Jeff] Quinn will be on the field.

“Defensively, [defensive coordinator] Clark Lea will be in the box, certainly; he will be up there with [safeties coach] Terry Joseph; on the field [cornerbacks coach] Mike Mickens and [defensive line coach] Mike Elston; [special teams coordinator] Brian Polian on the field as well. So that’s pretty much the breakdown.”

Kelly was also asked about graduate student defensive end Daelin Hayes, one of Notre Dame’s five captains this season. He complimented the pass rusher on the way in which he responded to a season-ending injury the previous season.

“I think that last year the injury really game him a new perspective on playing this game and what he needed to do to elevate his game,” Kelly said. “I think he saw the success of [defensive ends] Julian [Okwara] and Kahlid [Kareem] who were great models and set a great standard, and I think it gave him a great perspective when he got injured as to the level that he wanted to see himself playing at. You never want someone to get injured to learn some of those things, but I think it did in fact, when he was able to take a step back, give him a great perspective of where he wanted to go, and I think that he started to find his voice before a lot of the turmoil we saw unfolding with the Floyd incident and many others in our country.”

Annie Smierciak | The Observer
Irish graduate student defensive end Daelin Hayes sings the alma mater with teammates after Notre Dame’s 66-14 win over New Mexico on Sept. 14., 2019. Hayes suffered a season-ending injury two game later and was thus able to return for his fifth year.

Kelly was alluding to the prominent leadership role Hayes took on before and after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Hayes led the team in a march on Juneteenth and gave a speech on how Notre Dame can do more in the South Bend community. His head coach attested to the various way in which he has earned the respect of the team and thus his captaincy.

“Last year he spoke on mental health in an exclusive interview that he did for the University, which was articulate and introspective … about student-athletes and the pressures that they have on a day-to-day basis, and I think that that allowed him to find his voice a little bit off the field,” Kelly said. “So, it’s been great to watch his maturity, and I think those two things in particular have set him to action where he is today. … You gotta do it at both ends. If you’re really good off the field but not on the field you’re going to get some votes, but he’s done it both on the field and off the field and that’s why he’s garnered so much respect from his peers, and that’s why he’s a captain.”

Kelly was asked about graduate student quarterback Ian Book’s comments on the team’s Tuesday practice and lauded praise on the squad for their effort.

“It was as high energy and … it was as purposeful a practice that I’ve had in my time here at Notre Dame,” he said. “This is a veteran team. They know how to practice in the right way. It was extremely purposeful, it was high energy, it was done with intent. There was an attitude in the way that they went to work, and there’s a difference between working with a purpose and just going out there and thinking that activity is achievement. They didn’t do that. They were looking to set a standard, and they certainly did that.”

However, Kelly emphasized that this was only a practice, but even still said it could bode well for the Irish down the road.

“Now, we didn’t win anything on that day, but we certainly set a standard of what this group can do,” Kelly said, “And if they practice and have a purpose like that consistently, their preparation will be outstanding and they will have success on Saturdays.”

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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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