Kelly Q&A: December 20

Irish head coach Brian Kelly discusses young players that have impressed, his quarterback competition, and updates injuries heading into a short break for Christmas before the team reconvenes in Nashville for its matchup with LSU.

Brian Kelly

Happy holidays! How’s everybody doing? Happy, everybody? Nah? Bah humbug to you too, what a group.

We just finished really our second phase of our preparation, which is game plan installation and really working towards getting our football team sharp in terms of some 11-on-11 work. We’ll get into full LSU work on Sunday and Monday and then into game week. Our first phase was beginning in December with conditioning and weight training, some fundamentals and techniques. Our second phase was really getting our football team back into some tackling and some scrimmaging, which we were able to do that as well, as well as getting a peak at LSU. And then finally, we’re kind of moving through that phase and getting into full game preparation for LSU.

Pleased with the progress. Starting with looking at Dec. 22nd and working up to Dec. 30th, the weight training, conditioning, pleased with that. Pleased with the technique (work) that we’ve been able to really focus on some players in particular. And then the scrimmaging has been lively and very effective for our football team, tackling, guys being tackled. Our quarterbacks have been live. It’s just been good action for our football team, not only to get them sharp but to keep them in some areas that we needed to get better in. That’s kind of an overview of what we’ve been doing over the past three, three-and-a-half weeks as we roll into the next couple of days.

Today we were in meetings and walk-throughs. Tomorrow, Sunday and Monday will be heavy practices now that exams are over. And then the kids will be off. Monday they’re dismissed after practice and they will meet us at the bowl site on the 26th and we will have our week preparation beginning on the 26th at the bowl site. That’s kind of a recap and an overview of what our schedule looks like.

Question: What's the health status of Sheldon Day and Cody Riggs?

Kelly: Good. Sheldon practiced in full gear and took reps in all of our team. We’re a better football team when he’s in there. Cody Riggs as well.

Question: You said on Monday that Sheldon is not 100 percent. I’m sure he’s not quite there. How close is he?

Kelly: Here’s what I would say. His injury is 100 percent or we wouldn’t put him back out there. He is cleared medically. Now, getting from that 90 percent to 100 percent is football related activities. Fatigue, volume, that is getting up. We would never put a guy out there that is physically not healed. To clarify my remarks, what is that percentage? It’s always about getting that fatigue element. The quad is not at the strength it needs to be and taking reps gets him stronger and stronger.

Question: And no doubt about Riggs?

Kelly: No doubt there. Both those guys will be in the starting lineup.

Question: What have you seen from the quarterbacks? Does one stand out?

Kelly: I think the observations for me would be extremely coach-able, really working hard on the areas that need improvement. Very engaged in the process of moving their game forward. Knowing that there are areas that needed to be addressed. And we’ve created those situations in the meeting room and in practice. As I mentioned, the quarterbacks were live. That would probably give you a glimpse of the things that I was looking for from both quarterbacks. With Everett (Golson), there are things that he needed to see live.

And then from Malik (Zaire), you needed to see the picture fast and live just because you haven’t had as many snaps. Both of them have made very good progress in what we’re installing, but more importantly their techniques have improved to the level that you would want over these practices that you get. These were very important ones and we’re better at that position because of it.

Question: Leonard Fournette, how do you deal with him and the LSU run game?

Kelly: Well, it’s not just him. It’s a great offensive line. They rushed for over 300 yards in three of their games in the SEC this past season. I think it’s a formidable task. It’s one where we’re gonna be challenged. There’s a lot for us to get better at, what our last performance was. And we will. We will be much better than what we showed against USC. And we’ll have to do a better job of keeping our defense off the field too. So our offense has a lot to say about what goes on there as well. I think it’s a total team effort where we’ll have to corral, slow down, whatever ways … “stop” is probably not one word I’m gonna use. But slow down a great offensive running game.

Question: What have you gotten out of Nyles Morgan in this bowl prep?

Kelly:: Continued confidence and learning. Plays fast. I think the one thing that I love about Nyles is that he is so thick-skinned. He is a bull. He just keeps coming at you and wants to learn every day. It doesn’t matter if he made 53 mistakes the week before. He comes back with such an incredible want and desire to want to learn more the next day. I just love the way he comes to work every day. I know coach (Brian) VanGorder feels the same way. He’s gonna be a special player.

There’s a lot of learning, a lot of teaching at a very difficult position at the middle linebacker position where he’s had to go in under fire as a true freshman. Luke Kuechly couldn’t do it. Manti Te’o couldn’t do it. Some great players that couldn’t do it at the level we needed it to be done given all the pieces that were gone around him. But if you strip that away and you look at the kid, he’s a special kid and he’s gonna be a special player for us.

Question: Any other injuries?

Kelly: Christian Lombard is dealing with a little bit of a lower back that’s cranky on him right now. We’ve had to be careful with him. He’s had that disc problem most of the year. We’ll be careful with him. We’re hopeful that we can get him to play, but (Mike) McGlinchey has been taking reps there. That’s clearly where we’re a little concerned, but Christian has fought through it all year. That’s really it. We’re hopeful there, but no other injuries.

Question: Happy with the offensive line in bowl prep?

Kelly: You’re looking at McGlinchey and his development. Love what I see there. I love Ronnie (Stanley). Ronnie has really taken more of a leadership kind of role, stepping up yesterday. I liked his fire yesterday in practice. Really emerging. Nick (Martin) continues to work at his position and his craft. (Steve) Elmer clearly.

Then the freshman Alex Bars, he’s one of the best I’ve seen in 25 years. He’s that good. Those guys ought to be nervous about who’s job he’s gonna take. He’s that good of a player. If there’s one offensive player that I could point to, Alex Bars is clearly the guy that stands out on offense.

Question: To clarify, have you decided on a starting quarterback?

Kelly: No. No. They’re still competing. They’re still working at their craft. Probably the most definitive statement that I made on it probably still stands and that is they’ll both play. As we get closer, we’re starting to hone in on some of the things that we want to do with both of them. I’ve got an eye towards what I want to do with Malik and what specifically I want to do with Everett as it fits the game plan. As it gets closer as we get down there, we’ll probably start to hone in on who the starter is and how that plays out.

Question: Anything Greg Bryant can show you to cut into Tarean Folston’s carries?

Kelly: Practice is hard at the running back position to cut into somebody’s carries. It’s almost you gotta do it in the game. He’s worked really hard. He’s gonna be a contributor. He’ll play against LSU and contribute. But Tarean’s body of work has probably been more consistent. But I really love Greg. He’s just a freshman, it’s just his first year of competition. He’s got a bright future and a lot of football ahead of him.

Question: What he did against USC holds more sway than what he can do during a bowl practice?

Kelly: I think what it does more than anything is give him more confidence knowing that I can be a really big contributor here. We felt that was the case. As we move forward it will be those two guys when Cam (McDaniel) graduates and then a freshman or two. (Bryant) will be looked on to carry a lot of the load for us.

Question: Who else has popped for you among the younger players during bowl practices?

Kelly: From an offensive standpoint, Quenton Nelson is going to be a really good player for us on the offensive line. I think from a defensive standpoint we’re gonna really like (Jonathan) Bonner, Jhonny Williams, those guys are gonna really contribute for us. Those guys stand out in practice. You see them, they’re visible, they make plays for you. And then are just so many guys that are getting better that are young. You’re seeing players emerge and getting better every single day. There are so many young players out there that they’re all making some progress.

Question: Is the plan to still work Isaac Rochell on the inside?

Kelly: He’s gonna have to be prepared to play some inside for sure. We got him working in there right now. He’s gotta continue to work with his hands, it’s a little bit different inside than on the edge. But we feel like it’s important that we’re able to handle some big guys up inside and those two guys probably give us our best chance.

Question: Any thought to moving Jaylon Smith back outside next year with Nyles and Greer Martini coming on?

Kelly: No, he’s gonna be an inside player. What we have to be able to do quite frankly is teams started to be able to get him out of the box. When you’re the will linebacker you can displace a receiver and get Jaylon out of the box. USC did a very good job of displacing him and getting him out of the mix. It probably moves toward the other way, how do you get Jaylon in the box and keep him in there as one of your best players? Those are decisions that we’ll have to make, coach VanGorder and I will sit down and talk about those kinds of things. Nyles has the flexibility to play all three positions. He’s athletic enough, he can run, he could play sam, he could play mike, he could play will.

The guy that I didn’t mention that is finally moving and running almost at the level that we were hoping back in October is Jarrett Grace. He’s a guy that changes … when he’s out there he’s got some Joe Schmidt in him. You can see the change in practice when a guy like Jarrett Grace is out there, his energy, his leadership. Obviously we’re not gonna play him because we’re gonna preserve the medical aspect of it, but here’s another guy that can help our football team. There will be some good problems there that we’ll kind of have to work through in the off-season.

Question: He’s taking contact?

Kelly: Yes. Absolutely.

Question: First time all year?

Kelly: Yep. He’s very pleased that he was able to relearn the foot strike. We have a machine called the Ultra G in our training room, which is essentially zero gravity treadmill. The zero gravity treadmill has allowed him every day to reteach that foot strike. It’s really made great progress. And he’s put in the time. He’s got great strength. We just couldn’t get that foot strike back. Just the re-teaching of it, it’s great to see.

Question: Just how much better are you with Sheldon?

Kelly: We have a little bit more size in there. Daniel Cage is gonna have to play much better than he did and with exams over, I can see the whites of his eyes. I can see his pupils and his eyes were in the back of his head two weeks ago, he was a little overwhelmed with everything. I think he’ll play better for us. Obviously (Jarron) Jones would help us in there immeasurably, but certainly we’re a much better defense with Cody at the corner and having Sheldon in there. That helps us so much more. But clearly LSU is a better run offense than USC was.

Question: With Max Redfield, where is he on that scale of recovery?

Kelly: He was in full contact yesterday.

Question: Talk about your corners versus their receivers as it relates to your defense.

Kelly: Clearly, we’re gonna have to out-number them at times in the box and our corners are gonna have to hold up in some man-to-man situations. There’s no question that’s part of the game and LSU is very familiar with what happens in trying to defend their run game. So we’re gonna have to pick our spots. We’re gonna have to give (our corners) help and then there are gonna be times when they’re left on their own and they have to make some plays. Those are key matchups for us.

Question: Did playing good receivers help prepare Cole Luke for this game?

Kelly: Cole has to play better obviously than he did against USC. He abandoned a lot of his technique, lost some confidence. Really working hard on getting his technique back. If he plays with good technique and plays the kind of ball that he’s played during the season, then he’s matched up with some similar receivers during the year and he’s done quite well. We’re confident that as long as he’s on top of things from a technique standpoint that he’ll be fine.

Question: With freshmen coming in and no receivers graduating, what do you need to see from Corey Holmes and Justin Brent?

Kelly: Holmes is a very gifted player, but that freshman kind of sense of urgency, playing fast, playing with all those things that you need at the next level, that next step. Immensely talented young man and he’s a great kid. But he’s a lot like Will (Fuller) and Chris (Brown) were as freshmen. Just the sense of urgency. He’s gonna be a really good player. It’s just the maturation process that comes with being here and being in a competitive situation.

Brent’s an interesting kid. Obviously he’s in my dog house, obviously. So he’s gotta get out of that first. He’s an interesting player because he’s improved. He plays physical, he’s a big kid, he’s an extremely talented player. I think what’s holding him back is he’s a guy that’s got a lot of competition in front of him, No. 1. And No. 2, he gets distracted easily.

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