Notre Dame's rush defense has allowed just one carry in excess of 10 yards over its last 8 quarters. The same group yielded 21 such carries over the first three contests. As expected, a collection of defensive personnel provided the chief talking points in today's press conference.
Native SonPittsburgh-bred Darrin Walls had an eventful outing in last year's matchup wit the Panthers, breaking up two passes but allowing a 51-yard catch and a 36-yard go-route touchdown vs. explosive playmaker Jonathan Baldwin.
Walls, who was home in Pittsburgh and not with the Irish football team during the 4 overtime, South Bend loss to the Panthers in 2008, will likely get his last chance at revenge vs. Baldwin and his home town team this weekend.
"He's been outstanding; he's been our best cover corner," Kelly noted when asked specifically about Walls' play as a senior. "He's played through injury; he's probably been our most professional and locked in player and I say ‘professional' from a day-to-day standpoint he's been very purposeful in what he does.
"He's someone we can point to in our senior class and say ‘That's mental and physical toughness.' He's displayed that each and every week."
Kelly noted that Walls' matchup with Baldwin would be key Saturday.
"Clearly we have a great deal of respect for Jonathan Baldwin," Kelly began. "Darrin Walls is a pretty good football player. Whether it's *Moss vs. Revis – I don't know if I'd put it at that degree – you've got two really good players out there that want to win.
"Within our scheme he's going to have to defend him one-on-one sometimes and we feel good about that matchup as well."
(Editor's Note: *Ummmm…no)
One man tip-drillJunior cornerback Robert Blanton has created three interceptions over the last three contests; tipping balls to teammates Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, and himself, respectively.
"He's a guy that plays the ball well," Kelly said. "In particular he's come in Nickel…He's playing a lot more this year and he's made the best of his opportunities."
After a standout freshman season in 2008, Blanton had ample opportunities to make plays last season but often fell short. Asked last week if the recent change in his play was a simple rediscovery of the confidence and aggressiveness he showed as a precocious freshman, the formerly gregarious Blanton offered, "Yes sir."
Apparently the (assumed) imposed media ban on the resurgent Blanton remains intact nearly 13 months later.
Equals insideWhile sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o has garnered well-deserved headlines over the last three weeks, his classmate and fellow inside ‘backer Carlo Calabrese has become a fan favorite following a strong debut vs. Purdue and a career-best effort Saturday night in Boston. Has Calabrese benefitted from the attention offenses now must pay Manti?
"I don't know that it's (Te'o)," Kelly offered. "I think it's more that Carlo is developing into a solid linebacker and a consistent player for us. He's tackling well in space; he's much better in his coverage fits, that was a concern…He's playing more consistent on a play-to-play basis."
While similar and consistent production on the field is the goal, Kelly noted that the inside tandem share commonalities off the field as well.
"You get to know the personalities of your players in time," Kelly began. "Games bring out a personality; practice…having dinner with them. (Te'o and Calabrese) are actually very similar. Both of those guys would rather crack a joke than tell a serious story.
"They generally are very easy to be around; they're not high-strung. So I think they're similar from the head coach's perspective when I interact with them. I can have fun with both of them."
Kelly added that neither had the ability to improve the play of those around him, though both are progressing in that direction. "Manti's play is starting to influence (others) in the way he goes to work every day, but I don't believe Manti had the ability to bring up the ranks (until recently). He's starting to do that.
"I think Carlo developed his confidence, and that's why we've seen him emerge."
The top dogA common theme in Kelly's meetings with the media is the staff's affinity for the play of senior nose guard Ian Williams. Did Kelly know what he had in the formerly inconsistent Williams from the outset?
"Two things: one was work volume. His ability to have a sustained effort - a high level - was not very good," Kelly offered of Williams' 2009 performance. "We graded it out somewhere in the 30-play range last year, then his play would taper off (due to) physical conditioning, strength…nutrition, taking care of his body.
"Now he's up in that 50-play range. He can now compete at a high level for a longer period of time. He's always had the intuitive, kinesthetic awareness," Kelly continued. "He can get off blocks. So what we really focused on is the work volume."
Williams leads the defensive linemen with 20 tackles including two for loss with a sack, interception and two passes defended through five games. Incidentally, he's graded as IrishEyes' top lineman (tied with Ethan Johnson in Week One) in each of the five early season contests.
And once again: the Cat and the DogBackup outside linebacker Prince Shembo (primarily a ‘CAT') recorded two sacks Saturday. Fellow outside backup Steve Filer saw more snaps and peaked with a key QB pressure coming off the edge. A changing of the guard outside or just more items choose from on defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's player menu?
"They're improving," Kelly said specifically of the duo but also in reference to the other OLBs. "They're allowing us to move personnel in and out of the game and feel really confident that they can be productive for us."
Kelly didn't limit the development to his younger competitors.
"They're developing each week," he said of seniors Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. "Brian's probably developed as much as any of our linebackers, maybe save for Carlo Calabrese. All of these guys are developing before our eyes."
Note: Part II and Kelly's comments on select offensive players will be published shortly.