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Kelly talks Duke, position groups in Monday press conference

| Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Notre Dame football head coach Brian Kelly took questions from the press and discussed the upcoming season opener against Duke University via Zoom on Monday. Kelly touched on the Blue Devils’ defense, how COVID-19 has affected this season and his thoughts on this year’s team. 

“This is my 30th year having opening game week press conferences, my 11th at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “The excitement is certainly still there. The anticipation of playing an opener is still one that gets you certainly excited. There are some differences certainly about this opener, and the challenges of getting to this point, but we are here and certainly excited about the opportunity to play this Saturday at Notre Dame stadium against a really, really well-coached and sound fundamentally football team in Duke, led by Coach Cutcliffe, who I have a great deal of respect for as a person, as a man and certainly as an established head football coach. “

During his opening remarks, Kelly highly praised Duke’s defense. Specifically, Kelly pointed out the team’s defensive backfield and their corners. Moreover, the Blue Devils’ pass-rushing combination also received positive remarks from the Notre Dame head coach. Kelly also acknowledged how the bar was set high given Duke’s preparation.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Junior running back C’Bo Flemister celebrates after finding pay dirt in a September 28 game against Virginia last year.

“We’re gonna play a team that, first and foremost, we know that they’ve handled this pandemic extremely well, because they’re so similar in terms of the kind of players they have at Duke,” Kelly said. “Disciplined, organized, committed with a purpose to being great student-athletes. We understand that and so our preparation needed to be at that level as well.”

Kelly then discussed Duke’s offense, remarking on the depth and skill of the players. 

“I think they possess some great depth with Jackson and Durant in particular,” Kelly said. “These are really good backs with escape ability, the ability to make big plays. I think the guy that concerns us certainly is Philyaw-Johnson and his speed on the perimeter. In the slot, Gray is outstanding and one of the leading receivers.”

Duke aside, the Irish have been preparing for their commencement as members of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) both on and off the field. Kelly acknowledged that the formation and the identity of the 2020 football team is different given the events of the past year. 

“I think you always want to have a sense of who you are heading into the opener,” Kelly said. “I think we’re evolving later than we have in years past because of the distractions, but I think I’ve got a pretty good sense and feel for who we are. Strong leadership.”

Additionally, Kelly also expressed confidence in his players –– both returning and new. 

“This is going to be a long year, one that’s going to involve a lot of players actively involved in what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “I think we’re going to see a group that has a lot of experience coming back, but you’re going to see some young players be part of this as well.”

Kelly also expressed contentment about the burgeoning athleticism, speed and physicality of the defensive and offensive lines. However, Kelly made sure to maintain the stance that the games still have to be played. 

“When you look at the basic tenets of your football team –– the ability to run the football, to have a veteran quarterback back, certainly from a defensive structure, one where your system is in place –– you feel like you have the ability to stop the run, and then on the perimeter, I think we’re better than we were last year in a sense that we have the safety and the corner position has evolved,” Kelly said. “So, coming into the season, when your special team now is returning, you feel really good about where you are, but you got to go play the games.”

In terms of the defensive line, Kelly made a point of exhibiting a rotation of players –– especially when it comes to the linebacker position.

“I think you’re going to see, certainly at the Buck position, you’re going to see multiple players playing at that position,” Kelly said. “I think Drew has established himself at the Mike, but Bo Bauer has had his best camp, bar none. You’re going to see him on the field and we feel very comfortable putting him there. I think there were times last year where Bo we felt like there were some holes in his game. I think he’s tightened up to the point where we feel like Bo has to go out there and play the whole game, we feel really good about where Bo is –– very, very good football player. The depth of the linebacker position, we feel really, really good. We’ve got two guys on the scout team right now that I’ll tell you what, are really, really good football players in Jack Kiser and JD Bertrand. We have a hard time blocking those guys. That’s a really good problem to have when we have that kind of depth on our football team at the linebacker position.”

Kelly also mentioned Kyren Williams as the lead back to start the season and the skill of four other running backs: Chris Tyree, Jahmir Smith, Jafar Armstrong and C’Bo Flemister. 

“Chris Tyree has got great vision, patience and sees the hole extremely well,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve all known that Jahmir has that ability to play with physicality. We like the ability of Jafar Armstrong with his size, to come in there and be physical. C’Bo Flemister has really had a nice camp for us. He’s low to the ground, keeps his legs moving, very difficult to get down. Another really good football player for us that has done really good things. So, when you talk about Jahmir and you talk about Tyree and C’Bo and Jafar, that’s five backs. I don’t know that I’ve ever been blessed to have that kind of depth at the position.”

Kelly also touched on the need for versatility at the strong safety position –– one in which Shaun Crawford recently earned. Moreover, the head coach mentioned how the team was better with Crawford playing that position. 

“The safety position, and I think we have a really good model to look at, is about instincts, it’s about toughness, it’s about versatility and we just need to look back to last year with Alohi Gilman,” Kelly said. “The size of Alohi Gilman and the size of Shaun Crawford, you could still play that position at a high level if you’ve got great instincts, if you’ve got toughness, if you’ve ball skills and Shaun’s got all those things. He’s been extremely productive for us at that position, he won that position over.”

As he did last Tuesday in a similar press conference, Kelly also discussed sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton. Having completed a breakout freshman season, Kelly seeks to expand Hamilton’s role on the team. 

“I think he’s accepted more responsibility both on and off the field, as well as at his position,” Kelly said. “In our sub-packages, Kyle Hamilton is not going to be just a center fielder. It’s safe to say that in year two, you can start to do many more things. You’ll see him do things that we asked Alohi Gilman to do for us last year. If you felt like Alohi was put in positions that accounted for versatility, you can expect that’s what you’ll see from Kyle Hamilton.”

Besides the faith that Kelly has in the physical fitness and aptitude of his team, he also expressed confidence in the physical health of the Irish amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Once again, our preparation has been about our discipline off the field. As we go into our mental Monday meeting, we have no players that are in quarantine and we have no players that are in isolation –– so, we have a full roster,” Kelly said. “We tested again today. We had over 215 negative tests again with an antigen test. We’ll test again Wednesday and Friday. I feel really good about the discipline of our football team, and as I said, we’re excited about playing some football on Saturday.”

Kelly also assured that the team is following all safety and health protocols. 

“In meetings, we are socially distanced and we wear masks, so there won’t be any contact tracing occurring during any of our meetings,” Kelly said. “Contact tracing for us is probably not going to happen in any of our meetings. Twice, we were addressed in that being a potential situation, but because of our six-feet separation in terms of our social distancing and wearing masks, we were disqualified from having to go through that. I applaud our coaches for their discipline and our players for that.”

In addition to expressing the desire of the team to win a national championship, Kelly also noted that the Irish seek the ACC Championship now that they are officially in the conference. 

“It’s never been a goal, but it’s an established goal now to win a championship and an ACC Championship,” Kelly said. “Our mission is to win a national championship and graduate all of our players. To be able to talk in terms of winning a championship and now an ACC championship and, if you win that, you keep your mission alive for a national championship.”

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