PUSHING THE RIGHT BUTTONS
Undefeated, ranked higher than the opponent, playing at home – and underdogs nonetheless.
That was Notre Dame’s lot in life at this time last week against Georgia Tech. Thanks to a convincing victory over the purportedly unstoppable Yellow Jackets triple-option offense, the role of underdog is unlikely to repeat, at least not until season’s end. (Per ESPN’s Football Power Index, Notre Dame is the fourth most likely team to win the rest of its games trailing only Ohio State, Ole Miss, and Baylor.)
“Knowing your guys and what really motivates them more than anything else,” said Kelly of his decision (behind closed doors) to touch on the too-often-utilized ‘disrespect’ theme last week. “I think what really motivates them is that they got a lot of pride, and they really care about each other and they care about wanting to put their best out there.
“It’s important to them that they go out and play very, very well. Which means they have a lot of pride in how they are looked at and how they are perceived, both on and off the field, and I think that's what's different.”
Conversely, Kelly’s Irish will take the field Saturday as prohibitive favorites – 27.5 points at present – over the 0-2 but so-far game Minutemen from Massachusetts.
Overconfidence and complacency serve as the challenges du jour.
“You rely on your leaders to make certain that they hold everybody accountable to the way they prepare, and ultimately the way they play.” said Kelly. “So if we really have the kind of locker room and chemistry that I think we have, then we should play very well, and if we play very well, we're capable of beating anybody in the country. If we don't, then we can lose to anybody.”
Notre Dame lost to heavy underdog Northwestern last season, 43-40 in overtime as 17-point favorites. It was the biggest upset of the Kelly era with only a 2008 loss to Syracuse (favored by 19.5 points) and the infamous 1995 opening loss to Northwestern, 17-15 as 27-point favorites, as bigger point spread surprises over the last three decades.
“You put it heavily on your players to prepare the right way. And especially your seniors and your leaders to make certain that everybody across the board is doing the little things the right way,” Kelly added.
CALL TO DUTY
The loss of safety/dime linebacker Drue Tranquill will send a ripple effect through Notre Dame’s various defensive packages. Tranquill is the second strong safety lost by the Irish through three games with fifth-year senior transfer Avery Sebastian sidelined by a broken foot.
Starter Elijah Shumate remains upright and the senior is expected to be joined by his back end running mate this week at practice, junior free safety Max Redfield.
“We believe Max will be able to start for us again,” said Kelly. “Again, a lot of that (not playing against Georgia Tech) was predicated on his ability to tackle with his (broken) hand. He feels really good and confident that he can do that. We believe that that's going to be the case.
“We'll test him a little bit this week,” Kelly added. “We'll make sure that he tackles. But all indications are that he's going to be able to play at the level that he played with at Texas. And he did at the end of last year. So if he does, we're a pretty good football team with him back there.”
The loss of Tranquill has nonetheless necessitated tryouts from those previously out of the mix.
“I think we are still kind of evolving there,” said Kelly of his second- and third-string safeties. “(Senior) Nick Baratti is going to have to play more of a role, and (freshman) Mykelti Williams – we'll bring up to our defensive team and get him some reps and some work, as well.
“And then there are still some other thoughts as to some other players that we'll work into some different roles.”
As for Tranquill’s unique role as a roving dime linebacker?
“We are still kind of discussing that,” Kelly said. “Some of that is going to be what we show on Saturday (to) be the first time you see it.”
Kelly added that Baratti – shelved for all of 2013 and most of 2014 due to shoulder surgeries – has made progress of late.
“It has been a slow, long process with two shoulder injuries, but he's done well on special teams for us and had some key tackles for us on Saturday,” said Kelly. “We're feeling like he's gaining some more confidence each day and his ability to go out there and compete.
“But…major surgery on both shoulders…there was some doubt as to whether he could comeback. So we still have to be prepared that at that position, we have to have some depth there. So that's why Mykelti is going to get some work, too.”
WAITING IN THE WINGS
Will Fuller, Isaac Rochell, and CJ Prosise: inarguably three of Notre Dame’s Top 10 players.
Add to those names 2014 revelation at cornerback Cole Luke, 2012 defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, and current starting quarterback DeShone Kizer, and Kelly’s Irish are a walking, talking advertisement for his oft-uttered “Next Man In” philosophy.
All of the above received their first career starts because a player ahead of them on the depth chart was injured or suspended.
Who from the current backup ranks could perform similarly if called upon?
“I think there are a number of guys,” Kelly began. “Torii Hunter has got three catches. I think he's as good as any receiver we've got. It's hard to get him in the game.
“I think Alex Bars is an outstanding offensive lineman. Just got to get him in the game. (Rush Ends) Doug Randolph. Andrew Trumbetti didn't play one snap (against Georgia Tech). I could go and give you 10 guys that are still waiting for that opportunity to break out and there are still a number of those guys that I think will get that opportunity.
Reminded that Fuller was a backup (to DaVaris Daniels) heading into last season, Kelly offered, “There are times, like I think Equanimeous (St. Brown) is a guy that can go in there (but) Will Fuller is one of the best, if not the best receiver, at his position in the country. How do you take him off the field to put EQ in there? I mean, I'd need my head examined.
“But EQ is an outstanding football player and I could match him up with so many players in the country. If I had to play with him, people would say, wow, that's a really, really good football player.
“So in some instances, you can't force feed it. In others, you have to. At the tight end position (Aliz’e Jones) we have to. We have to get in there and go. So I think it just depends on the position.”