Kelly: No Glorified Byes on Irish Schedule

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly discusses the challenge of a viable weekly foe, replacements for mike linebacker and defensive quarterback Joe Schmidt, the health of his roster -- and Michael Floyd in uniform for Arizona State on Saturday?

The Replacements?

There are two schools of thought, both with merit, regarding the loss of injured linebacker Joe Schmidt from the Notre Dame defense:

-- He was among the top 5-6 players from either side of scrimmage the Irish could least afford to lose, or…
-- Boo-hoo. Now a five-star prospect and potential future superstar has to play.

Reality, as usual, likely lies somewhere in between.

Asked Tuesday if the Irish gain anything in the Nyles Morgan-for-Joe Schmidt trade, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly offered, "I think in certain instances there's some things that you would want to do that you know Joe Schmidt can do, and then there's some uncertainty as to what Nyles can do. Having said that, it opens up a whole new path to some things that we couldn't do with Joe that we're pretty excited that we can do with Nyles.

"There's some things that we know that we can't do with Nyles that Joe could do, but I know Coach (Brian) VanGorder is pretty excited about some of the things that he couldn't do with Joe that he can do with Nyles this week."

What Morgan lacks in experience he might make up for in, to borrow a phrase from former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, "tangible traits."

"I think his physical ability is probably his biggest trait," said Kelly of Morgan. "He's fast, he's athletic, strong. I mean, he has all those traits that allow him to play the position and make up for maybe the lack of recognition that Joe had. Joe was able to put himself in the right position and maybe does not have exactly the same skills, but because he had recognition and understanding could get there as quickly as Nyles can get there, because Nyles has got the physical ability."

In the mix to backup, or perhaps occasionally spell, Morgan in the middle is a host of untested Irish.

"There's not a lot of guys out there that you would say (among) the linebacker corps are really experienced. It's kind of what it is," said Kelly. "It's Jaylon (Smith), it's (James) Onwualu, it's Greer Martini. That's what we've got.

"(Defensive tackle) Sheldon Day is going to have to play a large role. Our safeties are going to have to do a great job. Look, Nyles has been here 12 weeks. He's had 12 weeks of coaching, and Coach VanGorder is extremely confident in Nyles' ability to go in there and play. We think we've got a guy that can go in there. His traits are pretty clear. He's extremely athletic. We'll put him in a position where he can help us win a football game on Saturday."

Redshirt-freshman Michael Deeb is listed as Morgan's technical backup. Deeb has yet to particiapte in a college game. Kelly noted that Tuesday will include a look for senior SLB Ben Councell, redshirt-freshman WLB Doug Randolph, sophomore walk-on WLB Austin Larkin, and perhaps the aforementioned Martini as backup options at the mike.

Be Like Mike?

Notre Dame's slate of opponents this fall has included, among its offensive dignitaries, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, the leading pass-catcher in the history of Florida State football, the nation's top two kick returners from 2013, and the best rushing attack in the nation.

Up next. Michael Floyd! Or according to Kelly, a reasonable facsimile of.

"(Jaelen Strong) is as good as any wide receiver in the country. Big, athletic, fast, reminds me of Michael Floyd. Just big, athletic, strong, hands, goes up and gets the football," he said.

Strong got up to go get the football on a fourth-and-one go-route touchdown of 39 yards vs. the Irish last October, finishing the day with eight receptions for 136 yards.

Through eight games this season, the Sun Devils senior has produced 57 receptions for 821 yards with eight touchdowns, including a stunning 10-catch, 202-yard, three touchdown day in a win over USC.

After facing the likes of Devin Funchess, Rashad Greene, and Ty Montgomery already this season, are Kelly's Irish prepared for the always-invovled Strong?

"We've seen similar players of this caliber; he's a guy that's going to get targeted more, though," said Kelly. "They'll target throws, especially with (quarterback Taylor) Kelly. Kelly has a special affinity of getting the ball to him.

"We certainly have had players of his caliber, but he's a unique blend of speed and size that I don't know that we've quite seen, but clearly we know what we need to do. We saw him last year, too, and he's an outstanding player. (The Irish cornerbacks) are going to have to fight for every possession against him. If they have time to get the ball to him, it's going to be a battle every single time, there's no question. He's that good."

Embrace, or Avoid, the Grind?

As the College Football Playoff Selection Committee has illustrated by its one week body of work, a college football schedule's beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

Or in Kelly's case, its holder.

"I think you've got to look at the fact that (ND has played) all Power Five (conferences) except for Conference USA defending champs and Rice, who is playing pretty good football right now. I think you take that versus other teams that have really had glorified byes in their schedule.

"I think the one thing that you have to understand is the amount of plays that our guys have to play. When you play Navy, you have to play for four quarters. Those are the best and brightest, those are the most committed. They never quit, and you have to play those guys for four quarters. I don't care who you are. You have to play your guys for four quarters. That eats up a lot of plays.

"For example, Ben Koyack has played the most snaps of anybody on our team. I think he's played 636 snaps. If you compare that to some other opponents that are ranked ahead of us, they're playing somewhere near 450 snaps. So our guys are playing a very rugged schedule. They're playing a lot of snaps. That makes a big difference when you've got to play that many snaps each and every year, and that's the kind of schedule we play.

Regardless of what the win-loss schedule is, at the start of the season, when you put our schedule together, you're going to have to play four quarters, and you're going to put a lot on your kids, and that's kind of how I look at our schedule."

Others will conversely see a team that has yet to beat a foe currently ranked among the nation's Top 25, though opportunity to that end exists Saturday in the desert.

"Look, in 2012 I think we started the season with the No. 1 schedule in the country. I think we started that way this year, too. That's all we can do," said Kelly of the reality that the vast majority of schedules break better/worse than expected. "We go into this putting together the toughest schedule in the country, right? Nobody else does it that way. They put on teams that are clearly glorified byes. We don't operate that way. That to me is strength of schedule in terms of the way we put it together.

"If it's not evaluated that way, there's nothing I can do about it. We're just going to play the schedule that we have and we put together. Look, we don't play a Conference Championship game, but we know that the schedule that we have to put together over 12 weeks has to stand up to that strength, and so that's how we do our business. I don't know anyway else to do it, and then let the chips fall where they may."

No. 1 ranked Mississippi State plays FCS foe UT-Martin Saturday. None of the Bulldogs four non-conference games featured a team from the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Notre Dame, Pac-12, SEC).

Each SEC school in contention for a playoff spot (Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, MSU) plays an FCS foe in November, as does on-the-cusp LSU. But unlike the undefeated Bulldogs, the Tigers stepped out of conference to face Wisconsin; Alabama took on West Virginia; Auburn traveled to Kansas-State; and Ole Miss scheduled perennial tough out Boise State to open its season.

Fellow contenders Arizona State, Baylor, Florida State, Kansas State, Michigan State, Nebraska (winning in the final minute over McNeese State), and Oregon each played an FCS foe in September.

Like Notre Dame, Ohio State, did not.


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