At the end of the day, they’re just words in response to questions. Some may prove to be prophetic; others will go down as forgotten coach-speak.
But the fact is Brian Kelly met with the media seven times this spring with an eighth due following Saturday’s annual Blue-Gold Game at the LaBar Practice Complex. The media cajoled and pried into his team with big picture/player-related questions throughout the last six-plus weeks.
Here’s a cross-section of Kelly’s comments from his sixth spring at Notre Dame.
A MORE PHYSICAL SPRING
“This is the first time since I've been here where I feel like I can go into practice and I can bang around. I can have an Oklahoma drill. I can have tackling drills. It feels like we've got the depth necessary to go and play football.
“I always felt like I was tiptoeing around this roster in the spring because we're afraid over here or afraid over here. We can go play, really target some of the younger players in certain areas, let them get in there and get after it. We have so many young defensive linemen, we need to see contact. We don't need to see them run the hoop or go over an agile bag.
“When I'm scripting our practice, I'm able to put in nine-on-seven, rodeo drills, three-on-threes…Things like that. I haven't been able to do that (in the past). That makes for an exciting observation relative to the development of the depth of your football team.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: There is no substitute for contact. Yes, it’s risky health-wise. A significant injury in the spring will stunt off-season growth, particularly that of a younger player that needs the off-season strength and conditioning.
But there’s no shortcut to getting physically ready for game competition. Every time the Irish were able to bang this spring, they took a step closer to building a stronger, deeper team for the fall of 2015. Up to this point, the physical setbacks have been limited, too.
“I couldn't tell you for certain, but he's had his best spring since he's been here. He's fully engaged in everything that he's doing. It's the best that I've seen him do the things that we've asked him to do since he's been here. It's like anything else: if you're half in, you kind of see it.
“It would surprise me -- I'm not shocked by anything that 18-to-21-year-olds (do), I've been in this business too long -- but there's no indication that anything he's done would mean he's just doing this as a way to go somewhere else. If I sensed it at all, I'd have pulled the plug on it myself because we'd be wasting our time. I think I have a pretty good sense of people and situations. I'm not going to jeopardize our program, our staff, our livelihood or what we do if someone's not bought in and 100 percent committed.
“We'll give him his space, but I expect him to be here and help us win games in the fall.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: Kelly clearly measured his words when it came to talking about Everett Golson’s status at Notre Dame for the fall. Golson would need to finish his undergraduate degree in May in order to be in line to take his fifth year of eligibility elsewhere.
There’s no doubt that Golson established himself as the best and most prepared quarterback on the roster this spring. There does not appear to be anything that would indicate he won’t be the starter for the Texas game on Sept. 5, although the possibility of Malik Zaire earning situational time or relief duty should Golson struggle remains a strong probability.
All things considered, the spring transpired about as well as one could expect as it relates to keeping Golson in the fold without shutting the door on Zaire. Kelly knows (believes) the Irish are better with two multi-faceted quarterbacks than one.
THE GAP STILL EXISTS
“With Everett (Golson), there's no doubt about where his mind is relative to what he's seeing and what he's thinking. 'Why did you go to that, Everett?' (The answer) makes total sense.
“As it relates to Malik, we're still in that process where it's (wondering) 'What are you thinking?' We had a quick tempo play on and he got out of the quick tempo play, changed the entire formation, and we were wondering, 'What's going on here?’
“Maybe other than Ohio State, I would take our two quarterbacks…I would take our two over Ohio State’s. In terms of depth, I don’t know that anybody has a better situation than we do with the two quarterbacks that we have.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: As is always the case when it comes to the quarterback position and there’s the slightest doubt as to who will take control of the reins, factions take sides and pull for one over the other.
For those looking for Golson to be thrown to the scrap heap with his 23 starts, nearly 6,000 yards passing and 41 career touchdowns, news of Zaire’s still-developing mastery of the offense is disappointing. For Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, they’re looking for a rock upon which to build at the quarterback position with an infusion of varied talents from the other signalcaller.
Golson simply understands the big-picture much better than Zaire, which means the Irish can go into the 2015 season with a veteran at the position sporting an All-American skill set with an extremely talented understudy who has proven he can rise to the occasion on game day and not only perform well in his first career start, but help lead the team to an upset victory in a bowl game over a perennial SEC powerhouse.
Golson, of course, is not a finished product with 22 turnovers (14 interceptions, eight fumbles lost) in 2014. Zaire needs to gain a better recognition of defenses, which will come with playing time, just as it did for Golson.
In looking to maximize the position in ’15, short of everything clicking for Zaire this spring, the quarterback position is progressing quite nicely, if not as quickly and definitively as some might have hoped.
UPON THESE ROCKS…
“(Defensive tackle) Sheldon (Day) and (offensive tackle) Ronnie (Stanley) came back understanding that at Notre Dame, you're playing for a playoff position. There's no conference championship, so they knew what they were coming back for. They knew we had a good football team and that we need to continue to grow.
“They're two of the big anchors on either side of the ball. I think they carry a lot of that confidence with them because they know what they're capable of and what this football team can do if that continues to grow. That permeates the group. That's why those guys are leaders.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: Stanley was closer to pulling the trigger on bypassing his final two years of eligibility than Day was of skipping his final year in the program, but in both instances, neither was a slam-dunk.
College football teams go from eight victories to 10, 11 or 12 when key decisions such as these are made.
Kelly’s use of the term “two of the big anchors” is spot-on. Day and Stanley are pillars of the defensive and offensive lines respectively. The experience and leadership they will provide this fall is unquantifiable. Both have added their voices to their physical contributions.
The return of both Day and Stanley were the two biggest “recruiting victories” of the winter.
MORE LEADERSHIP, VERSATILITY
“(Jaylon Smith) will be in a position where we can choose to put him in a number of different positions and you'll have to game plan against him. Last year at times, (opposing teams) could take him out of the game. You could take him out of the box, spread it out and throw the ball to the other side or do a quick game the other way. You could take him out of the game in certain respects.
“Because we've cross-trained him, you can't. That's going to be a huge difference. He was always part of what was going on because he's such a great athlete. Now he's going to be central to everything that happens during a game.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: Even as a less experienced player, Smith made a hugely positive impact on the Notre Dame defense the last two years. But as an outside linebacker one year and an inside linebacker the next, Smith spent the first half of his collegiate career learning the college game as much as he did reacting and allowing his immense physical skills to take over.
In some respects, he’ll still have to do that as a multi-faceted linebacker bouncing between the inside and outside. But at least now he has the experience at both spots to fall back on, which means his instincts should come into play.
When Joe Schmidt went down with a season-ending injury in the eighth game of the season last year, Smith had to play traffic cop for the defense over the last five games. With Schmidt and Jarrett Grace both back, Smith can focus more on being a disruptive force for the Irish. His voice matters because he’s an experienced, respected football player, but his versatility and athletic prowess matter more. Brian VanGorder should be able to unleash Smith this fall.
IS IT SAFE(TY)?
“I like our safeties. I like (Max) Redfield and (Elijah) Shumate. Their development is clearly evident. So much different than where we were at this time last year or any time during the season. We don't see the missed assignments; we see two guys that have clearly grasped what we're doing out there. We've kind of settled into two really solid football players back there for us.
“The first thing you notice is they're much more vocal. You can hear them back there. Last year you couldn't even hear them. There's much more communication. There's confidence. They know they can make plays. They know they're capable of playing at a high level. A lot of that is confidence. You make plays when you have confidence. They're feeling very confident in their ability to go back there and be playmakers and communicate effectively. They have a better grasp of the defense, there's no question about that.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: There’s always the chance that this is a coach-speak situation. Notre Dame’s numbers at safety are limited. If Redfield and Shumate are healthy, there’s no doubt that these are the two players the Irish want on the field as the last line of defense.
But they were wanderers for most of last season. They were the focal point of Brian VanGorder’s angst from start to finish. It cost them starts and playing time, and that was when there weren’t very many viable alternatives.
That being said, they’ve played enough now for the defense to be sinking in, and there has never been any doubt about their physical capabilities. Redfield was a legitimate five-star prospect out of high school, and his bounce at the back end of the defense this spring is noticeable. Shumate, from Day One, has been an incredibly physical football player with a thirst for contact.
If Redfield and Shumate truly are locked in mentally, Notre Dame not only has a chance to alter the path of the safeties from a year ago, but turn that part of the defense into a true strength. Kelly’s positive comments about his two starting safeties are some of the most encouraging comments of the spring.
A STAR IN THE MAKING
“C.J. (Prosise) is not a natural football player. He's a natural athlete. He can dunk a basketball; he can run track. He can do so many things effortlessly. (But) football doesn't come to him naturally. I quite frankly thought (cross-training at running back) would be a more difficult transition for him. But it has come a lot easier than I thought.
“He looks like a natural running back. He can see things. He's exceptional at the second-level. He's got better speed than any of our backs and he's almost 218 pounds. He's a big, long back. He's still running routes for us, too, so he knows the passing game.
“Get the ball in his hands and he's got a chance to go. His speed when he has the ball in his arm is pretty clear against even SEC talent…If I were (Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant), I'd feel like I better be careful. He has elite speed at that position.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: The Irish certainly don’t need Folston and/or Bryant losing carries to Prosise because one or both of them are not doing the job. Folston has established himself as Notre Dame’s top back in each of the past two seasons, but it’s taken a few games for him to get going. Bryant needs to be a 1A alternative to Folston, an equal when he’s in the game as opposed to a substitute.
If Prosise clearly is performing better than one or both of those guys, that’s adding in one area and taking away in another. Plus, Prosise’s size and speed from the slot receiver position is too valuable for that to be compromised or diminished.
The key is getting all three functioning at peak efficiency. Bryant has three years of eligibility entering the 2015 season, and Folston/Prosise each have two. These are legitimate, big-time weapons on an offense that has other artillery than can be utilized. Getting them to contribute productively as opposed to at the expense of one another is the tricky part.
“You're going to see a lot of them play. Last year we played a lot of freshmen and you'll see some more guys that didn't play (last) year. They'll play more prominent roles.
“I think cumulatively, when we look back at that class, we're going to say it was an outstanding class across the board from skill players to linemen on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. I think we'll look at that class and where they are in terms of influencing this football team (as early as) this year.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: It’s difficult to pursue a playoff spot without a veteran crew at the forefront. The Irish certainly have that. But you also need an influx of young talent challenging the older guys, and that process began with the Class of 2014 when they were freshmen.
With the exception of tight end Tyler Luatua, the bulk of the contributions last year came on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive linemen Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage, Grant Blankenship, Jay Hayes and Kolin Hill (off the edge), linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, and safety Drue Tranquill all played roles to varying degrees throughout the 2014 season.
That’s usually a sign of a team transitioning, and a dreadful November ensued. But when the smoke clears and you’re back at it in the spring, the slate is wiped clean and now you have some young, promising prospects supplementing the older players in the program.
This year, some of the younger offensive players move up such as offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Alex Bars, Luatua at tight end, and possibly wide receivers Justin Brent and Corey Holmes (although the progress of the latter two was measured this spring). Now add in the promise of defensive end Jonathan Bonner with guys like Trumbetti, Morgan and Tranquill likely playing an even more significant role.
These guys are key members of the present and future of Notre Dame football.
“Jerry Tillery keeps popping up. He's an incredibly gifted, physical young man. Sometimes when you get a guy that's that big and has that kind of movement, you worry about his toughness.
“But when we put him in competitive drills, tire war, things of that nature, sumo, he shows up big there, too. He shows a toughness to him. I would say that Jerry has shown himself to be someone we're excited about.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: The 6-foot-6 ½, 300-pounder from Shreveport, La., is a true rarity. Not only do early-entry freshmen seldom make such an immediate impact, but it’s a unique individual who is highly-touted as an offensive tackle, and then looks even better and more promising as a defensive tackle. That’s a rather incredible combination of skills.
Tillery learned how to use his hands like a major-college defensive lineman while still on the high school level. He came into spring camp uniquely positioned to make an impact, particularly with Jarron Jones sidelined with a foot injury. Tillery’s early-spring performance prompted Kelly to gush over and over and over again, and then defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore seconded Kelly’s notion.
According to Gilmore, Tillery has hit somewhat of a wall down the stretch of spring, which is not too surprising considering he’s actually a senior in high school. But Tillery will get a chance to regroup, head back into the weight room, and continue to hone his skills during summer conditioning. His continued development gives the Irish a potentially dynamic one-two punch at nose tackle this fall, and that doesn’t even include the long-term potential that Daniel Cage offers.
BY THE GRACE OF GOD
“(Jarrett Grace) is the kind of guy we want representing our program. He's involved in the community, he's the kind of Notre Dame student-athlete we want to put out in front that represents our program because of the way he handles himself in our community and on campus as a student-athlete.
“He's got great relationships with everybody within the program. As a football player, he's a great leader and a pretty good football player that has really fought back from a terrible injury.
“You always want your best players to be your best leaders, and when it's a guy like Jarrett, he carries such respect from everybody. As coaches, we can go to him and ask him to do a lot of the work for us. He makes our job easy.”
Irish Illustrated Insight: There have been so many advances medically in the game of football that most injuries are “fixable” by the following season. But when Grace went down with a horrific leg injury in October of 2013 – it was broken in four places – perhaps only Grace and Notre Dame’s medical staff realized just how laborious and lengthy his time on the sideline would be. Grace never came close physically to being able to perform on game day in 2014.
Then a few weeks ago, Grace’s health took a significant turn for the better. The “foot strike” capabilities that Brian Kelly frequently referenced finally arrived, and Grace’s vertical jump went from virtually nothing to back to normal. He was sidelined with a concussion early in the spring, but has since bounced back and has put together a solid spring.
The point is not who starts at Mike linebacker and who rotates in at Will with Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt (also coming back from an injury), Nyles Morgan and Grace all competing for a niche. Grace’s return to health and his resumption as a leader of the Notre Dame football team is a huge benefit for a defense that allowed 40 points per game over the final eight of the 2014 season. Grace is one of the rocks upon which to build the 2015 defense.