TODAY AND TOMORROW
Brian Kelly’s 2016 Irish are comprised of just five starters/key rotation members that exhaust eligibility at season’s end. It would thus be natural for a head coach to consider following the lead of a fan base and coach with one eye toward the 2017 campaign.
“I'm doing everything to build the winning identity for this football team for right now and for '17, '18 and '19, because as I talk to the group there is a row of upperclassmen, not many, and then there is a bunch of young guys,” said Kelly. “So everything that I direct at them is being absorbed for right now and in the future.
So I'm in the present and we're coaching the win right now, but everything we do is to return us back to the top, and we want to stop the slide. That means start winning again. So everything we are doing right now is to stop right now losing games and winning games and keep building on that for the future.”
Among those who have held down two-deep roles this season, only Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, James Onwualu, Cole Luke, and Avery Sebastian are not eligible to return to the defense. No Irish offensive player in the listed or real two-deep exhausts his collegiate eligibility at season’s end.
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
With four losses and nearly as many resulting rallying cries already fired from the head coach’s arsenal to date, what buttons will Kelly look to push this week for his 2-4 Irish?
“I think we're making the progress necessary in all the areas that go to winning,” said Kelly. “It starts with attitude. What kind of attitude do you have? I like the attitude of our football team.
“Secondly, how are you preparing? I like our preparation. They clearly understand how to preparing now. Third, you can't have any success without action. You have to go out and do it…you have to understand that you're going to be playing in some close games, and that action is not good enough. You have to have a focused action in some really close games, and that's where the next level is for our football team.”
It was offered to Kelly during the discourse that video footage (provided by the football program) showed Kelly post-game in Raleigh telling his Irish troops they had to dig down deep and find a way to win. On top of that, Kelly had already fired his defensive coordinator, taken blame for some losses and “blamed the players for losses…”
To the last in that string, Kelly took exception: “I don't blame players for losses.”
When his words from the post-game press conference against (Duke) were offered, “you said there was no enthusiasm and it was like pulling teeth,” Kelly stated, “I blamed all of us for that loss. We're all in it together. Let's be clear.”
(Kelly’s comments on Sept. 24 in the wake of a 38-35 loss to Duke: “Listen this is not all on our players, we still have to coach better as well. There's a lot that we have to do. Because we have got some young players that require really good communication and really good coaching, too. So, I'm a 1-3 coach, we're all 1-3 coaches, so we're in the same boat as all of our players. So let's be clear on that.”
At what point might the players, losers of six of their last eight games played, no longer believe in the fight?
“As long as their head coach believes and I believe in them and they know that, then they'll never stop believing,” Kelly said.
I AM WHO I AM/WE ARE WHO WE ARE
While winning is said to cure all, it’s likewise true that losing elicits over and hypersensitive reaction.
The most recent example is the return of the ongoing Brian Kelly Era saga regarding his demeanor on game days.
“I'm just coaching. I've got a great relationship with my players. I'm just coaching. I'm being Brian Kelly,” he said. “If people have a problem with that, then they're not going to be friends or fans of Notre Dame football. I can't help that.
“I don't feel like I'm crossing a line,” he said. “I think I'm being who I am. I'm being direct. I'm handling the situation as it hits me. I guess that's the best I can say. I'm just going to be who I am. If I feel like there is a matter that needs to be attended to, I need to handle it right away.”
A Lesser Game? The topic is tangentially relevant this week as Saturday’s matchup between Stanford and the Irish – both purported playoff contenders in August – is the first since 2009 in which neither team is ranked. With Notre Dame on its annual fall break next week, attendance could dip in the student section as well.
“We really don't think about it in those terms,” Kelly said on the topic of national interest. “I know we're focused on just winning, and I'm sure all those ardent Notre Dame fans, they'll be there, and they will be cheering us on.
“We're appreciative of that fact. But we're really focused on winning a football game and what goes into that and the preparation and what we have to do. We're not really kind of thinking from the outside in about all the fanfare that may not be attached to this particular game.”
A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
One snap in place of an injured DeShone Kizer in Raleigh. None in the New Meadowlands. Three vs. Duke including one ending in a tackle for loss.
None against Michigan State.
Such is the unfortunate lot in his senior life for backup quarterback Malik Zaire. And that’s not about to change despite Zaire’s reigning status as one of Kelly’s “five best players” as noted heading out of August camp.
“It's very difficult…we tried to insert him into a (different) role -- he's a quarterback,” said Kelly of Zaire. “We're not going to change that (and) make him a wide receiver or running back. That's not why he came here. I'm not going to insult him into moving his position. He's a quarterback and a darn good one.
“So once I decided that it was going to be difficult to manage both of them, I had to make the decision not to get the five best guys on the field.”
Said Kelly of his failed attempts to integrate Zaire into the game plan against Duke, “We were trying to figure out how we could get both of 'em on the field and you saw we tried to throw it. But, you know, we were trying to fit something that just wasn't there.”