The sun rose today in South Bend, the sky remains above us, and despite owning a defense that surrendered 50 points on opening night, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is buoyed about the future of his leaky defense.
Amid myriad queries at today’s weekly press conference regarding defensive failures and quarterback (not plural) successes were more pressing coaching matters such as the health of his top receiver, the emergence of his newest playmaker, the improvement of another, and reasons for optimism that the oh-so-close Irish will finish the drill next time a contest is decided late.
It wasn’t technically his first impression – after all, Equanimeous St. Brown last October blocked a punt that led to a touchdown vs. home state school and Irish archrival USC – but the mellifluously dubbed pass catcher nonetheless announced his presence as Notre Dame’s newest playmaking weapon with authority Sunday in Austin.
Two touchdowns, a third grab that moved the chains on third down, and a team-high five receptions totaling 75 yards encapsulates St. Brown’s opening sophomore season salvo.
But apparently he has a ways to go.
“I thought what he did for us is make the catches that we asked the "W" (aligned to the boundary) receiver to make,” said Kelly, downplaying St. Brown’s emergence as go-to threat. “He's a guy that is going to be in a position to make some plays for us when called upon. I thought he made the catches necessary.
“I think there is still come some work in his game, obviously we want him to be an effective run blocker as well. He's got to continue to work that that area as well. He's a part of what we do offensively. It's not going to revolve around him, but I think he gained some great confidence in his first game and it's what we recruited him for, a long, athletic kid that can make plays for us at that ‘W’ position.
Also making plays Sunday was St. Brown’s classmate Josh Adams. That’s nothing new for the most productive freshman runner in program history, but the manner in which he aided his team’s cause was.
“There's two areas,” said Kelly of Adams’ off-season improvements. “A real good understanding of our pass protections, which takes time and knowledge, which we didn't have a ton of time with him on it last year, and we worked a lot in the spring in particular with him catching the football out of backfield.”
Adams notched three catches for 46 yards with each moving the chains including twice on third down. Adams led all Irish playmakers with six first downs on the evening.
COFFEE IS FOR CLOSERS
A fast start offensively? Check. A 17-point comeback to take the lead late? Check. A clock-killing drive in regulation to finish the drill and the host Longhorns?
Therein lies the rub.
“It’s really about finishing, and finishing was not something that we did well on Sunday,” said Kelly of the key next step his squad must take. “We competed. We played hard. We put ourselves in a position. We made some plays, but if you really look at it in a microcosm, offensively we had a chance to finish out well or put us in a good position on the last couple of drives, and we came up with nothing.
“And defensively we couldn't come up with a stop. And special teams we weren't able to flip the field like we thought we could. This game is about all three phases and all three phases had a chance to impact the game late.”
Though Kelly’s defense of his defenseless defense rang hollow for most in attendance, the reality of his message that all three facets of the team failed at some point and thus contributed to defeat could not be denied.
“The message to the team yesterday was about closing and finishing, and hard-fought games on the road against quality opposition you gotta finish,” he said. “That's what we did not do in this game, we didn't finish and that will be a ‘watch word’ for this group as we move forward.”
The lack of finishing power remains the prevailing theme of the last three Irish football seasons as Kelly and his varied squads failed to do so in each of their four most important games played over the last 21 contest – all on the road: at Florida State (2014), at Clemson and at Stanford (2015) and Sunday night.
Often overlooked in the fan- (and staff, and subjective media) fueled fury over what appeared to be a textbook case of targeting a defenseless receiver was the subsequent absence of said pass catcher.
When Torii Hunter, Jr. was concussed midway through the third quarter the Irish lost his services for the contest. A reality that stung late when quarterback DeShone Kizer needed to pick up a third down conversion to score a touchdown rather than a field goal in the game’s second overtime.
Kizer’s pass to backup Kevin Stepherson sailed high and the Irish settled for 3 rather than 7. Texas won on its next possession.
“He's in our protocol…he will get into an exercise regimen today. That will be the next step, and we'll see where we go from there,” said Kelly who noted Hunter would be able to play if cleared at any point prior to game time due to his knowledge of the scheme and overall plan.
“He's important, but we've got other guys that will step in and be able to provide the kind of production necessary,” Kelly added. “Certainly we would love to have Torii available. If he's not, then ‘Next Man In.’
“We will get (that player) ready this week.”
Backup slot receiver Corey Holmes joins Hunter’s technical backup Stepherson as chief candidates. The two would likely share the X receiver duties if the senior captain is not deemed capable of competing. Joining them in the practice mix this week is true freshman Javon McKinley.
Not part of the plan at the X position is aforementioned breakout W pass-catcher Equanimeous St. Brown.
“I prefer not to move E.Q. I think he's established himself in a position that I would like continuity and consistency there,” said Kelly. “It's a position that I think more than anything else requires somebody to really build a relationship and a rapport with the quarterback, and if you start to move him around now, it begins to erode some of the things that we have built on over the last few weeks.