That looked familiarWith just under 14 minutes remaining in Saturday's second quarter, little-used junior tailback Jonas Gray bounced off a scrum at the line of scrimmage, sprinted toward the near side of the field and down the left sideline for a 36-yard gain to the Utah 8-yard line.
It was the longest run of Gray's career, but just the second longest at the Stadium over the last seven months: Gray performed nearly an identical act – though this time to the far side of the field – on a 38-yard touchdown run in which he appeared halted at the line before sprinting around the edge during April's Blue Gold Game.
Gray set up that run with a tough 7-yard burst up the gut two snaps prior.
"I think we want to continue to get him more and more work," Kelly said of Gray who made his first appearance after suffering a knee injury vs. Stanford in Week Four. "Cierre (Wood) obviously got the bulk of the work, felt comfortable out there carrying the football a lot. Given the conditions, we stayed with the guy we felt like was slogging it out there pretty good.
"But, yeah, Jonas has become more of a, ‘Hey, get him in' whereas he was an afterthought in a sense (previously). Now he's really at the forefront of, ‘Let's get him in and get him some work.'
Gray's emergence, albeit a tad late, speaks to the depth Kelly believed he possessed, but failed to utilize on a regular basis, at the running back position.
Not yet…probably not at all: Highly regarded, untested and oft-reference freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix will continue to take third-team reps this week but is not likely to be available should injuries befall both Rees and backup Nate Montana.
Walk-on Brian Castello, who took his first college snap as part of the game's final two kneel-downs on Saturday remains the emergency third QB heading into Saturday.
"He's closer. He'll continue to get more work this week," Kelly said of Hendrix. "I think it's safe to say that as we move forward, he's getting a better knowledge of the offense.
"I think I would reserve the right to make that decision at game time or during the game in finding out what the situation is," Kelly noted of Hendrix possible insertion at any point this season."
Not better, just differentTwo games, 17 total tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 sack. Not a bad effort from Brian Smith in his most recent two-game stint as a starting inside linebacker. Smith kicked inside after backing up the DROP outside linebacker position for the bulk of his senior season in an effort to replace injured sophomore ‘back Carlo Calabrese in the all-important role next to star sophomore Manti Te'o.
As the backup Drop ‘backer, Smith had totaled just 23 total tackles through eight games and a paltry two stops in two games prior to his move inside.
The Irish staff pegged Smith as "the prototype" outside linebacker prior to and at the conclusion of Spring Practice. Has Kelly since changed his view on Smith's slotting?
"No, no. I wouldn't say that. I think he's done a nice job in asking him to come inside...He's played with a great deal of emotion and spirit," Kelly said. "Carlo (Calabrese) is going to play a lot this week, too, with Brian.
"I would not go back and say we should have put him inside in lieu of the position we had him at. But he did fill in and do a really nice job."
Kelly added that Smith will remain as part of the inside linebacker rotation this week rather than in an outside role.
Super SubsIn a surprising twist, the Irish defense, especially in the bottom-line statistic of points allowed, has drastically improved over the last two contests despite the losses of two players in the heart of the proceedings: nose guard Ian Williams and the aforementioned inside ‘backer Calabrese.
But the step forward hasn't been a result of the head coach's ‘Next Man In' philosophy as much as its favorable offshoot: ‘Next Men In.'
"I think there are four guys that have done a nice job," Kelly said when asked specifically about the improved play of Sean Cwynar who took over for Williams inside. "Sean has been, by and large, the guy that has done a nice job inside. But we've kicked our front (4-3 rather than 3-4), played a lot more stack, got into a lot more four down, which gets Prince Shembo on the field, Hafis Williams and Kona Schwenke on the field.
"Really, it starts with Sean, but it has been four or five guys that have stepped in also and done a very good job there."
The freshman DE Schwenke has a fumble recovery, two tackles, and two QB pressures since joining the "active" roster in Game Nine vs. Tulsa. His classmate Shembo was the team's top backup Saturday vs. Utah; Shembo recorded five tackles, a sack, and QB hurry in relief of concussed CAT linebacker Darius Fleming.
Cywnar and Williams – both juniors with two seasons of eligibility remaining following the conclusion of the season – have helped hold down the interior while limiting the team's last two foes to one total offensive touchdown (the first such occurrence at the program early October 2002).
According to Kelly, the newbies have received ample help from their lesser publicized veteran teammates.
"Ethan (Johnson) is 290 pounds. He's a tough guy to move around," Kelly said of the so-far, so-good late-season effort by a defense previously known for its November swoons.
"Our training table, our weight training, all the things, our guys taking care of themselves, that's the most important thing in November, that you want to be physically stronger. We feel pretty good there."
Kelly noted that Schwenke, listed at 245 in the media guide, is up to 263 pounds as of Monday.
To be bluntThough the Irish will play just three November games (rather than five in 2008 and four in 2009), they're nonetheless already a step ahead of their predecessors with one dominant defensive performance.
What's been difference for Kelly, whose Cincinnati defense of 2009 also began to fold when the winds turned cold?
"Personnel is better, first of all," Kelly said of his 2010 Irish defense compared to last year's 2009 crew in the Queen City.
"At Cincinnati, the best way we could win games was on the offensive side of the ball. So we put our defense at times in a tough spot because it was the best way for us to manage the game and win the game.
"So our personnel is a little bit better because it's a little bit older. We played a lot of young guys at Cincinnati. We had freshmen and young guys. Not that we got a bunch of veterans here. But we've gotten better here because those guys have developed, whereas at Cincinnati we were really thin and had a lot of young players."
With Shembo, Schwenke, Cwynar and Williams all returning for multiple seasons, as well as 10 of the remaining 14 defensive regulars also slated to return next season, the presence of veteran depth, plus an infusion of young talented competitors, should allow defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to field among the deepest, developed defenses at the program of the past decade.