Monday Morning Briefing

Irish head coach Brian Kelly wraps up the victory over Michigan State with commentary on the continued evolution of quarterback Tommy Rees, the emergence of Aaron Lynch, and the ongoing search for a punt returner.

Rees' requisite turnover

Tommy Rees has guided the Irish to five wins in six starts and produced prodigious passing numbers in two relief efforts. But through 15 competitive halves under center, the sophomore has thrown an alarming 12 interceptions and lost three fumbles.

The sample size of 15 halves (less than eight games) is far too small to judge a quarterback. His turnover rate – one per (competitive) half played – is alarming nonetheless.

"One of them (the interception), was just (the need to) stay a little bit more within the game plan. One of those things where a young guy just needs more reps," said Kelly following film review on Sunday. "That to me is not a concern. We'll continue to get better. The other one, he's just got to have a clock in his head on the sack-fumble. Other than that, maybe a forced ball to Mike Floyd once in a while," Kelly noted of Rees' other errors this season. "So overall, all things that I feel like I can work with and that we can work to develop him."

Kelly also admitted his statuesque sophomore could improve outside the pocket.

"He can't just live in the pocket. We've got to be able to get him on the perimeter a little bit. He's got to be able to extend some plays outside the pocket," Kelly offered. "Those are the areas that I think he needs more confidence…He had an opportunity on a key third down where he hit Tyler Eifert and he wasn't able to come up with the ball. Those are the kind of plays he's got to make and gain some more confidence outside the pocket."

Three of Rees' five interceptions this season have occurred as he rolled to his right (one vs. South Florida and both vs. Michigan). Last season, Rees threw interceptions rolling right against Tulsa (two of the three including the final pass of the day) and vs. Army as well. (6 of Rees' 13 career picks were on a roll/scramble to his right).

Youth was served

Six quarterback hurries…Six.

To that, freshman Aaron Lynch added his first career sack and subsequent forced fumble. If not for a day of playmaking excellence from cornerback Robert Blanton, Lynch would have been the game's MVP despite a part-time role and just one week after being withheld from action vs. Michigan.

Plenty of work remains, but Lynch's efforts were nonetheless lauded by his head coach.

"I think right now he shows himself very well as a guy that can just get after the quarterback. He's relentless and very, very physical," Kelly said Sunday. "He doesn't beat you necessarily with speed off the edge; he beats you with power. He's just a relentless player."

Lynch will remain in his backup role behind two of the team's best players – Seniors Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore (he is Johnson's technical backup at LDE). And considering his role in the nickel defense, it appears Lynch's work volume has hit a plateau as well.

"He can only play about a half-dozen snaps because he's got to tap out, too," Kelly said. "But as you said, it gives us great depth at that position. They threw the ball over 50 times. We were still able in our four-man rush to get a pass-rush within there."

The half-dozen snaps Kelly noted have little to do with the 18-year-old's stamina.

"When you go in there as a nickel pass-rusher, you're expending so much energy in rushing the quarterback that you really do have to tap out in those situations," Kelly offered. "So he can't be on the field long periods of time when we're using him as a guy to get after the quarterback in specific (situations). So in this game, the way we were utilizing him, yeah, getting us six really quality plays is great because that means Ethan and Kap and (Stephon) are getting the rest, as well."

Kelly was likewise complimentary of his starting right defensive end and nickel package defensive tackle, Lewis-Moore.

"He plays much more physical," said Kelly of Lewis-Moore in comparison to 2010. "His ability to maintain a high level of play has increased dramatically from last year. He was somebody that struggled with putting together a full series. And now he's able to give us really high-level play for a number of plays. His performance has been really good this year. He's stronger, he's more physical. He's a 300-pound guy. He's harder to move around, especially in the run game."

Definitive Weakness

Over Notre Dame's last 13 contests, Irish punt returners have fielded and returned 18 punts (more than 30 others ended with an Irish fair catch). Among those 18 returns, Notre Dame finished with minus five yards and three lost fumbles. Robert Blanton also blocked a punt which he returned for a six-yard score.

(Editor's Note: If you're a regular reader, you know I research myriad stats, 365 days a year: I'm going to take a pass on this one, and simply assume it's the worst 13-game stretch in the history of mankind.)

The phrase you're searching for is "impossibly bad."

Kelly was more diplomatic: "Again, obviously we're disappointed that we put the ball on the ground again in punt returns," he said of a late-game muff and lost fumble by John Goodman. "We'll have to talk about that later today when we have our meetings on special teams personnel.

"We feel like John has great hands," Kelly continued. "He obviously turned the ball over late. We'll have to evaluate it. It's not certainly where we want to be. It's not like we have a number of guys we can go to either. We felt like Theo (Riddick) and Goody were our two best. We may have to look at other players at this point. I really haven't decided that."

The muff resulted in Goodman's second lost fumble in his last eight outings (but also only the second of his career). He averaged 1.4 yards on 13 official return efforts (a long of 10 yards) last season while offering 24 fair catches.

The Riddick/Goodman tandem have totaled five yards on seven returns through three games this fall, losing two fumbles and extending eight fair catches.

"I think when we evaluated our punt returners, he was as shorthanded as anybody we had; he was last year, too," said Kelly of Goodman. "Hopefully it's just one of those things where we had a turnover at a tough time in the game and that's it. But, like I said earlier, we'll continue to evaluate him because he was the best guy we had at the time."

Asked specifically about slot receiver Robby Toma as an option, Kelly responded, "Yes, he's in the mix, no question." Top Stories