Lunch Break

What to do when the morning's weekly schedule goes awry? Buckle down and create some lunch-time reading material, of course.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program (the Eye in the Sky film review) to bring you a healthy dose of lunchtime reading material.

What happens when your downstairs, office television DVR fails to record the Notre Dame game? If you're a fan and the Irish win – you complain (for a long time); if they lose – you're thankful; if you're job is to breakdown the game, regardless – you await a tape delivery later in the day and write something else.

(Maybe a lunchtime snack such as the copy compiled below will become a regular feature. The best ideas are borne through trial and error.)

It's bad when the question needs to be asked

Kelly was asked Sunday about the trials of his punt team. Both of them. The Irish were historically poor as a punt return unit in 2010 while 2011 has yielded the following return results: A lost fumble, fair catch, downed at midfield, fair catch, a muffed punt/fumble (possession regained), fair catch, downed at the Irish 1-yard line…2 yard-return; fair catch plus 10-yard penalty, minus five yards, fair catch, 13-yard return (seriously!).

"(John) Goodman fields the ball very well," Kelly said of the 2010 return man who reclaimed his job vs. Michigan after Theo Riddick's struggles in the opener. "A couple scenarios occurred out there that show a little bit of inexperience in fielding the ball. He's just got to get north and south."

One of those scenarios included a fair catch with no defender in the remote vicinity.

"We had a safe punt, and that generally means in most circumstances when you're in a safe punt that you're fair catching the ball because we don't have a punt return team on the field. We leave our defense on the field," Kelly said of the curious decision to fair catch.

"Having said that, there was so much separation, he's got to use some judgment and field that ball and get us some more yardage. You know, obviously when you have to put another guy in there in game two, a little bit of inexperience. But I think he's going to get better and better."

Goodman returned 13 punts last season for a total of 17 yards, including a 13-yard return at Michigan State. He offered 23 other fair catches, fumbling once vs. Tulsa.

As for junior punter Ben Turk, Kelly remains steadfast ("he's our best guy") that the inconsistent junior is the team's best punter.

"He's got to get us out of a jam. He doesn't have to kick them 50 yards, but we can't have short fields in the punt game," Kelly admitted. "So he just simply has to be more consistent. He hasn't been consistent this year."

Turk's 24-yard fourth quarter shank resulted in a Michigan six-play, 40-yard touchdown drive by the Wolverines. He bounced back with a 51-yard boot late but the coverage team failed, allowing a 21-yard return. Michigan capitalized thereafter as well, scoring in six plays from their own 42-yard line.

One year after boasting a nationally superior punt coverage group, Notre Dame ranks ahead of just four schools in return yardage through two games. The Irish are 119th out of 120 FBS schools in net punting.

Rees can rest easy

Sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees has established a disturbing trend: whether in a starter's role (five games) or in extended relief (two), he tends to turn over the football.

Rees has thrown 10 interceptions and lost two fumbles as a starter (throwing for 13 scores). At 4-0 every ancillary statistic remains irrelevant, at 4-1: questions are necessary regarding a quarterback's unfortunate propensity for miscues.

"I think the last drive shows his ability to lead the football team," Kelly said of his gritty triggerman. "He made one poor decision on the first down situation where he threw an interception into cover three. The other one was a mistake by one of the receivers, his first interception.

"If you look at what Tommy did out there, almost throwing for 70 percent completion, getting us into a lot of good run checks, playing against a team that shows all kinds of different pressure packages, that's a very good situation at the end of the day."

Kelly said of Rees maddening, untouched fourth quarter red zone fumble: "The ball (came) out of his hands on a great run check to a pass check. We have a one on one matchup in a short yardage scenario; how do you go over those kinds of scenarios? I just don't know. It just comes out of his hands. That wasn't a lack of poise or execution. It's one of those things that you feel like the sky's falling when things like that happen."

Youth to be served?

The 2011 senior class has earned 21 victories vs. 19 defeats in their time at the school. Of the team's starting 22 scrimmage players, 11 are true or 5th-year seniors including seven defenders.

With two games and nothing to show for it in the win column, has Kelly considered an early influx of youth for 2011?

"If we feel like they've got the opportunity to help us win, we would definitely play them," Kelly said when asked about young players replacing veteran starters. "We're not left with a ton of options at certain critical positions.

"Yeah, if I felt like I had three or four young players that have a chance to be dynamic at certain positions and could help our football team, I would definitely play them."

Freshmen scrimmage debuts to date include linebackers Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas; defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt and tight end Ben Koyack (vs. Michigan). Kicker Kyle Brindza and running backs George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel (vs. South Florida) each have played on the specialty units.

Redshirt-freshmen include nose guard Louis Nix (regularly vs. USF; starter vs. UM), tight end Alex Welch (injured after USF debut); offensive tackle Christian Lombard (USF), and linebacker Kendall Moore (both games on special teams).

Not exactly a Boise State special

How?

That's the question most fans asked in the wake of Michigan's improbable journey of 80 yards in two plays and 21 seconds to steal victory from the Irish Saturday night.

How did such an obvious coverage mistake occur? After bristling at the initial question suggesting a coverage error, Kelly explained the breakdown in technical terms.

"They ran a double post wheel; we squeezed hard on the curl; the wheel out flanked our defense," he said. "There are a couple of key coaching points on how you play that route. It's a very common route. It's not like it's something we haven't seen before. So we'll address that with those guys that were responsible for it."

Chiefly responsible were Gary Gray (who left his assigned deep fourth of the field to cover the (completely useless) curl in front of him, and to a lesser extent, safety Zeke Motta, who took a poor angle during the pass as receiver Jeremy Gallon's uncovered catch and subsequent cut-back across the field yielded a back-breaking 64-yard gain to the Irish 16-yard line.

Gray Day

It's difficult for die-hard Irish followers to understand the rough start – more pointedly, the poor outing vs. Michigan – experienced by 5th-year senior cornerback Gary Gray.

An NFL prospect (he received a fourth-round grade from NFL scouts as a potential entry last winter), Gray committed the aforementioned coverage error, was beaten in man coverage on a 77-yard catch-and-run that finished inside the Irish 5-yard line, and allowed three touchdown receptions. Of those five errors, four occurred in a 17-minute span from late in the third quarter to the game's final, decisive snap.

Is Gray playing through an injury as widely speculated?

"No, we wouldn't put Gary out there if we didn't feel like he was physically able to compete," Kelly said. "I think all players at some time are going to have a bang or a bruise or one of those things. Gary was healthy to play. We would not put a player out in a position if he wasn't capable of competing for us."

(My take, in football coaching parlance: Gray is "hurt" not "injured.")

Did the head coach consider pulling his struggling starter as events snowballed from bad to worse?

"Looking at Gary right now, he's a senior. If you're pulling him off the field, you're pretty much making a decision that we're going with a younger guy," Kelly offered.

"We're not at that point with Gary; we're two games into the season. He's got a lot of pride and he's a guy that has shown that he can bounce back from a tough day. The cornerback position is such that you're put out on an island; sometimes it doesn't go your way. But I'm very confident Gary is going to bounce back next week."

Chances are good Gray will do so; he ranked third on the Irisheyes.com Top 10 player list at the conclusion of 2010 and was beaten just once for a score.

Regarding the team's repeated coverage errors in the fourth quarter, Kelly noted, "You want to be better in coverage, there's no question. (But) I promise you there's not three All Americans that we have on the bench."

Walking wounded

Senior nose guard Sean Cwynar missed Saturday's contest with a broken hand – he was able to play through the injury in the season opener but according to Kelly, did not have the grip strength necessary to compete Saturday night.

Also injured Saturday were backup tight end Mike Ragone and special teams cover man/linebacker, Danny Spond.

"Ragone will get an MRI (Sunday) on his knee," Kelly said. "Danny Spond has a hamstring (injury, we all have hamstrings). Not sure, we'll MRI that (Sunday), as well, and we'll have a little bit more information.

"As you know, we got shorthanded with the tight end position with Alex Welch (foot infection) being out, as well. We're hopeful to get him. And Jake Golic (broken arm), we were down three tight ends at one time going into the third quarter there. Hopefully we'll get a couple of those guys back."

Note: The Eye in the Sky (offense, defense, special teams film reviews) will be published prior to Brian Kelly's Tuesday afternoon press conference.


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