Q&A: Defense

Irish head coach Brian Kelly touches on improvement from his struggling pair of cornerbacks, the play of Louis Nix, bringing more pressure, and the need for better tackling across the board.

Q.  You appear to be putting quite a bit more pressure or attempting to put more pressure on the quarterback with linebackers, as opposed to last year.  When you do that, what does that do to your secondary?  What are the responsibilities of your corners, in particular, when you're putting more pressure up front and leaving them more exposed on the back end?

"Well, I would say that if you track where we are, we're probably getting back to finding more about the personnel that we have on the field and what we can and can't do, more than percentage-wise.  You know, the personnel groupings we have on the field will dictate where we go defensively and as I said the first couple of weeks, we are still trying to find what those groupings are to maximize their potential.

"I wouldn't necessarily draw any conclusions as to whether we are going to bring more pressure or not; it's still we are trying to evolve.  The simple answer is, obviously if you bring more pressure, you're giving up some zones.  So you either have to play some three-under, three-deep, which vacates some zones and you'd better get there, or you have to play simply some more man coverage; and within that man coverage there's a lot more technique that goes in, because it's not simply you line up wide.  It's bunched formations; it's picks; it's fighting through all those complexities of playing man-to-man coverage.

"So the easy answer is, probably what you already know; that when you bring pressure, you're either giving up some zones and zone pressure or you've got to play man-to-man.  I guess what I was saying is that I still think we are not where we want to be defensively in terms of what that structure is going to be yet."

Q.  I'm sure every coach would like their team to be or their defense to be a better tackling defense, and there's been a lot of running backs, receivers, that have spun out of potential tackles by your defense.  Are you finding just in general, not just you, but across the board, that there's less contract in practice?  That's the nature of the game today; is that impacting the way you guys and most defenses are tackling?

"No, we really have not changed.  That's one of our absolute core principles that we start our practices with the tackling circuit.  We have every year that I've been a head coach.  We'll continue to do that.

"I think performance, and your ability to stay on the field, has a lot to do with your ability to tackle.  So we will not budge on that element.  We are not going to tack it up to, oh, you know, we can't-- we can't tackle as much anymore because of NCAA rules.  I think that's a bunch of bologna.  We have no tackle better."

Q.  I'm not asking whether you're changing your technique.  I'm just saying, is it more difficult to be a good-tackling team if you don't have as much contact in practice?

"No, and I think the question's fair, and I think I'm answering it.  No, I believe you still can demand good tackling from your players.  And if you don't tackle well, you can't be a great defense."

Q.  Sheldon Day, his status for this week?

"He has an ankle sprain, as many of you know.  He's made really good progress.  He's going to stay in a walking boot today, and we'll take it off tomorrow.  Pretty encouraging that he'll be able to practice tomorrow, and then we'll see how he goes from day-to-day."

Q.  Switching to a guy on the other side of the ball, how has Bennett Jackson changed or not changed that he has a C on his chest this year?

"I don't know, I think sometimes when you're put into that position, it has a tendency, and I've tried to let him grow into the position.  It has a tendency to put a little bit more pressure on you.  You don't want to let anybody down.  You want to live up to the incredible history and tradition of being a captain here at Notre Dame.

"You know, I think he was pretty hard on himself.  It was nice to see him have some success on Saturday and I hope that that continues to build, but you know, as a person, who he is, the kind of kid he is and how he's respected by his teammates hasn't changed.  I think maybe there was a little bit of, you know, pressure that he put on himself that maybe we could kind of help him with moving forward, and I think a little success this weekend helped him."

Q.  Just a personnel question, you mentioned you're finding guys, different roles.  Collinsworth, what have you seen from him in coverage, as a guy that you can send to bring pressure; what have you learned about him the last three weeks?

" I think the word that I would use the most is trustworthy; words like consistency.  He's not going to wow you with a physical presence; but yet those two words are so important at that position that he's really settled us down in that sense.

"He's really smart, communicates well, and as you can see by the number of reps that he's picked up over the last, you know, game and a half, you could probably know what my answer was going to be relative to Austin Collinsworth.  It's been, you know, trustworthy and consistency."

Q.  And I wanted to ask, the first two games, you gave up a number of yards to quarterbacks breaking containment or going through the middle, and last week you were able to shut that down a little bit more.  As a coach, defensive coordinator, everything, do you prefer playing just straight, drop-back type quarterbacks or do you find it much more challenging to face the dual?

"There's a lot more to the dual quarterback obviously; his ability to make something happen obviously on the run is a lot more difficult, and it changes some of your calls considerably.  You know, with his ability to run the football, you have to protect your defensive linemen, too.  You can't let them just be by themselves.  So it definitely adds a dimension to the offense."

Q.  Defensively, Michigan State, you talked about their linebackers and their secondary, but Calhoun has emerged as a big-play guy for them.  Is he the kind of player that somewhat you have to game plan around?

"Well, you'd better know where he is.  Obviously he's had a couple fumble recoveries.  He's tall, he's long, extremely athletic.  You've got a guy like Marcus Rush who seems to have been there forever who is a tenacious, physical player.  It's just a really good football team across the front. You know, they lost some veterans up front, but it looks like they have, you know, just reloaded up front with the same kind of guys."

Q.  In terms of your defense, you said you're still trying to find pieces, and you talked about Bennett and the pressure that he faced coming off the Michigan game.  Is it tough for a guy like Bennett as the captain who is on defense, to kind of get into his buddies and get into the players and when he's coming off a bad game like Michigan; is it easier this week now coming off some success after Purdue?

"Well, theoretically, I think it could be.  I think it's a body of work.  I think it's the respect that you earn over a period of time.  I think-- I don't think there's anybody on our defense that, you know, if Bennett said something to them, regardless of how he played, that they would look at him and say, well, hold on, who are you to talk; or you wouldn't get to where you are today.

"You know, I think obviously it's more likely that somebody is going to speak up after a game like that, but I think where we are defensively is that all of our guys are really paying attention to their own business right now.  I think that's where we are."

Q: Louis Nix, how frustrated is he with the double teams that he's facing game-in and game-out?

" Well, look, he's at a position that is going to get double teamed and Louis knows that he's not, you know, he's not a defensive end.  He's in a position where he's getting double teamed. But he's played really good football and he's done everything we've asked him to do.  He continues to battle and fight and play really good rush defense, where we held a Big Ten opponent to I think one rushing touchdown.  I think that's the best mark since 1965 here at Notre Dame, so he's doing a lot of good things.

"See how I threw that out this there?  You guys didn't even blink at that 1965 thing.  Did you guys have that?  Did you have it?  Okay.  Just so-- want to make sure you guys are paying attention and not falling asleep."

Q.  A year ago, I think you guys had a lot of success containing mobile quarterbacks.  What was the recipe and what does this defense need to do to get that same type of success?

"Well, I felt last week we did a great job against a very athletic Rob Henry; threw the ball away a number of times, we kept him in the pocket.  I think we need to continue on that vein this week.  Cook is somebody that's elusive; he's a big kid that can run the football.

"Look, when it gets down to playing quarterbacks that can make plays, it also comes down to the ability to stay in coverage, too.  Because if they are elusive, they are going to make some of these big guys miss.  We've got to do a great job with secondary contain, which we have and we will, and we've got to do a good job of staying on body and coverage."

Q.  One guy specifically, looked like the past couple of weeks I noticed Ishaq Williams has been playing middle linebacker and the nickel.  Does his athleticism help new trying to keep a guy locked in?

"Yeah, we do that, we mess around with that a little bit.  That's one of our schemes, one of our packages, that he can be in a position for secondary contain, to go to your point, relative to athletic quarterbacks.  So it's definitely within our package."

Q.  When you jump up to play the No.1 defense in the country, do you want your players mind-set to change?  Does it change your mind-set as a game planner?  Does it change the offensive play callers mind-set?

"Well, you're dealing-- certainly when you're talking about the No.1 defense, there's a reason for it.  It's personnel driven and certainly there's scheme.  So you have to be aware of both. And so this week, we make sure that our kids are prepared for their schemes that they are going to see against Michigan State, and understand their personnel.  Now, after that, it's up to us to execute what we do.  We are not going to go into the game and hope; we have to execute.

"So after we have handled this week's preparation on what they are doing from a-- scheme-wise and then their personnel and how we need to play, it's going to ultimately, week-in and week-out, it's going to come down to how we execute.

"You know, question was asked earlier; it's going to be how we tackle.  It's going to be how we protect.  It's, Daniels is going to have to make big plays.  Our backs are going to have to run and our lines are going to have to identify the schemes.

"Yeah, you'd better recognize Michigan State's personnel and their schemes, but you're going to have to execute to beat this team."

Q.  Defensively, Keivarae Russell, how would you evaluate him through three games this year, and how do you help a guy kind of push along his confidence I guess, or regain his confidence?

"I don't think he's lost his confidence.  I thought he graded out better this past weekend.  Matter of fact, I know he did.  He graded out better, much better this week, than he did against Michigan. He's a young player that is still growing; a kid that played running back and wide receiver in high school that we moved over last year to corner, and is still developing at that position.  But I thought he took a step up from week two to week three.  He's a very conscientious kid, and wants to do well.

"And if you have those two things; if you have that, and the athletic ability, we're going to continue to work with you."

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories