Back on the horseSenior running back Jonas Gray shook the "fumbler" label he had attained as a freshman and sophomore under former head coach Charlie Weis. Gray lost the football on four of his first 63 career touches. He avoided that mistake last season under Kelly, but suffered his most damaging error, fumbling at the 3-yard line in Saturday's sloppy defeat: a 96-yard fumble return touchdown ensued.
As starter Cierre Wood's only veteran backup, the Irish don't have the luxury of benching a player who has now fumbled in five of 86 career touches. (Gray carried twice more for 19 yards vs. USF.)
"He's got to go back out there; he's got to play for us," Kelly said of Gray. "He's physically able to do it; mentally he's got to be able to do it. We're not sitting him down. He's got to play for us against Michigan, and he's got to play for us all year."
Kelly's conversation with Gray was one of positive reinforcement for the senior, but inexperienced competitor.
"How do you want to be remembered?" Kelly said of his initial statement to Gray. "As that guy that fumbled on the one-yard line, or as that guy in your senior year that bounced back from some adversity and had an incredible season? You know what, I think he's going to have a very good season."
Insider's PerspectiveIrisheyes.com offered game balls to three offensive performers (Michael Floyd, Cierre Wood, and Tommy Rees). It noted similar contributions for a quartet of defensive linemen (Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar and Louis Nix) and a cornerback (Robert Blanton). We noted that star Manti Te'o, though not spectacular, still ranked among the team's top opening game performers.
But the only opinion that matters chimed in on the same topic Tuesday afternoon.
"I think from a defensive standpoint we were pleased with our defensive line in how they played," said Kelly. "Communication-wise we were outstanding in the back end. So the communication was really, really good.
"You know, I think Carlo (Calabrese) and Foxy (Dan Fox) played well, both of them," he continued. "That splitting of reps was almost right down the middle. They gave us really good play, both of 'em.
"We feel like couple third down situations where one situation we squeezed the slant down so far that ball outflanked us on a third down and long. Another time we didn't get down in the curl. We're nitpicking a little bit. Manti (Te'o) was all over the field. I could probably give you 10 or 15 guys, but I think it started with our defensive line."
The defense's leader Diaco was asked specifically about his new contributors for 2011.
"We were pleased. They all made mistakes on every single play," Diaco readily admitted of his rookies. "Pick the player: out of his gap, or the edge isn't set quite like it needs to be set and the ball presented and we almost had the tackle, with Ishaq (Williams). And I could go right down the line from Troy (Niklas) to Aaron (Lynch), Stephon (Tuitt), Ishaq.
"We were really pleased and their roles will continue to increase. They got the first game out of the way and they responded well."
Nose guard Louis Nix isn't a true freshman like those Diaco noted above, but after sitting out the 2010 season, Saturday was the sophomore's first action nonetheless.
"You don't see him as a first time player but that's exactly what he is," Diaco noted after referring to Nix's effort as "great."
"He was formidable in there. He gave great effort; he was physical with his hands. His stamina looked good," said Diaco noting that Nix played approximately half the game in tandem with senior Sean Cwynar.
One loaf too manyOne Diaco lament involved the absence of a defensive turnover. The Irish held South Florida to just 254 yards, the lowest of the Kelly era, but for the third time (each resulting in defeat), the defense did not force a turnover from the opposing offense.
"We had an opportunity," Diaco offered. "The ball batted (by Zeke Motta) and it pin-wheeled in the air," he said of a second quarter incomplete pass that could well have been intercepted by the Irish. "Another player (Harrison Smith) dove in and we have four guys loafing on that one particular play. Had they been giving effort, like they needed to be, and they gave great effort on all day, but on that one play, you could spot it. And it was a young player."
(A quick review of the game tape shows freshman Stephon Tuitt and 5th-year senior Gary Gray late to arrive, though Gray's potential play would have been spectacular. Carlo Calabrese arrived "too early" as the batted ball sailed over his head in the opposite direction.)
"And as we move forward, understand why we were two steps away and if your play was a little different, how you would have been right there," Diaco noted as a key teaching point of opportunity lost.
"Then you remind him: what happened after this play (field goal)> What was the final score (23-20)?"