Practicing with a PurposeIn our first meeting with Brian Kelly last December, he noted that the three months prior to spring ball would have as much, if not more of an impact on the season ahead than would the 15 upcoming official practices leading up to the Blue Gold Game on April 24.
And while the winter months appear to have been productive in South Bend, Kelly was quick to point out the team is nowhere near its destination.
"(Spring) is about getting that next opportunity to evaluate our football team," Kelly began as he addressed the media. "As you know, we pushed back spring practice quite late…and that purpose was specifically to spend more time evaluating our football players. What we believe were some of their deficiencies (they've been addressed).
"We've certainly got a better feel for our personnel and making sure of that as we go into the spring (was crucial) – we don't have five years to put this together, we have to do it right away.
"Spring ball for us is not about getting to know each other. This is a very important month for us as we set into motion the 2010 season. We need to get to work right away and today will be that first step in learning a little bit more about our football team."
Kelly later identified his two-fold goal for the spring session.
"At the end of the day if you ask me what I want to get out of spring ball, I'd say that if I can clearly understand our football team as it relates to their work volume – their ability to do their job(s) for four quarters – their ability to compete for the entire practice, and the competitiveness of our football team. If I know how we compete with each other and among ourselves, I'll have a pretty good idea of where we stand going into 2010.
"Those are the two things I'll be looking for: Our work volume. How we can compete in a high level – and I think we know how that translates, or didn't translate (in the past)– that's closing games out. Winning games in the fourth quarter.
"And how we compete, how we handle ourselves together in a competitive fashion."
You Won't Make This Club if You're in the TubKelly noted early that he and his staff don't have, and won't prescribe to, the traditional depth chart (much to the chagrin of four Irish-related websites, I'm sure).
Instead, players will constantly compete. And by the time the final spring practice is upon them, each will know where he stands relative to his competition
"I'm not a big believer in a depth chart. We won't be posting depth charts.
"We like to get all of our players in a competitive situation. But) we'll certainly be evaluating our players." Kelly also dropped a subtle hint regarding the difference between an injured student-athlete, and one that might not have the mental fortitude to fight through inevitable aches and pains.
"You'll also notice that we don't have many players that are not involved in our practice. We have a very clear way of defining how our players compete: they're either out of practice, where they're not in any form of practice gear (and) they're not involved.
"(Or) we have two status positions (for cleared to practice players):
- "‘Protected' means that both sides of the ball understand that they need to be involved in what we're doing on a day-to-day basis. They need to be in scrimmages and in all segments, but they need to be shadowed and protected. There's no way that you can develop football players by keeping them out of practice opportunities.
- "'Restrictive' would be players that have had specific injuries and we want to keep them out of compromising positions. But again, they'll be involved in all the practices but its incumbent upon the position coach, the head training, the strength & conditioning coach, as well as myself, to monitor their activities.
Kelly noted junior-to-be Kyle Rudolph will be in "‘Restrictive' mode" throughout the spring due to off-season shoulder surgery.
"Those two things will be stark (differences) right away," Kelly explained.
"There is no depth chart; we're going to compete with all of our players," he reiterated. "We'll begin to get units involved as we move through the spring and you'll see an immersion of virtually every player in our spring practice format, because its that important that they're involved in the skill development."
All Moves Should Be Marked Clearly in PencilLou Holtz fans should be collectively smiling at this tidbit:
The first question posed to Kelly dealt with the team's three announced position switches (Theo Riddick from RB to Slot Receiver; Steve Paskorz from FB to ILB; and Lane Clelland from OT to DE), and if we've seen the last of such tinkering.
"(We're) constantly evaluating our football players," Kelly noted quickly. "Every single day.
"I set the (next day's) practice schedule every day after practice. I don't have five or six or seven scripts (for practice). We're constantly evaluating after practice, making sure we have the pieces in place."
If You're Cold, Put on Long Sleeves…Though the next incoming head coach that explains how much "easier" or "lighter" his practices are designed to be when compared to his predecessor's will be the first, Kelly nonetheless made his expectations clear for his new troops.
Be ready to fight for a role on the field.
"We want to return to our roots," Kelly noted of a common theme he's shared with the squad. "And our roots are the Fighting Irish. I think building that model requires some toughness" (and thus, they'll brave South Bend's fickle elements when possible).
"Certainly if we don't believe we can get a profitable practice (due to the weather conditions) we'll go indoors, but we've run outside already at 5 am in the snow, so we'd like to stay outside as much as we can."
Restoring the toughness and the fight in the Irish is more about winning for Kelly than it is playing with an imagined swagger or collective chip on the team's shoulder.
And getting to that point is a process that begins with a first step.
"They have to read the whole book, but we're not starting at the end, first," Kelly answered when asked what he expects from his squad in the early days of spring ball.
"We have to start with the premise: How do we practice with each other? (For instance) Are we going to cut (block)? We don't cut in the spring. We stay up.
"I don't want guys on the ground. We respect our teammates. I don't like talk. I'm not a guy that wants to listen to anybody talk a lot of BS.
"I don't like seeing fights in practice. Football's a competitive game, but if I have to stop the practice because I have two knuckleheads fighting, you're not getting through the book for me.
"It starts with understanding pace, and then we work to the end where they have to get the whole thing."
Well I was a dominant force at Madden '92 in collegeKelly was asked about reports that he's added video game technology as a learning tool for his players.
"We're trying to maximize our time with the players. The 8-hour rule forces you to be creative in the time you spend with your quarterbacks in particular," Kelly observed of the NCAA's practice and meeting time restrictions. "We have a video game that allows our players to see the playbook in action.
"We're just trying to build a little more (familiarity). It's not the end-all, it's just a slight piece of puzzle. If we had more time we might not use it, but it's helped us in giving our quarterbacks a little bit more of a view of our offense."
The Coach on the FieldClearly, Kelly's offense is predicated on the play of his quarterback. In fact, the new head man noted that his signal-caller, not the center, is in charge of audibling to the appropriate line call, protection schemes, and the like.
In short, the Irish QB will be an onfield extension of his head coach.
"There has to be comfort level where he and the offense are comfortable with each other and that obviously is going to take some time," Kelly admitted.
"For me, it's hard to really determine who that guy is until I see the pace and ease that they move into this offense.
"It's about a fit. Some guys fit better and easier in the system while for other guys it takes a little more work. That doesn't mean if Dayne (Crist) struggles for the first couple of days that it's not meant for him, but I have to see them all out there first before I can really give you a good assessment of how they fit within the offense."
"We give them (QBs) some very basic parameters to start with, and if they stick with those very basic parameters, we can move them quickly through the process."
As for his early impressions of still-recovering Crist?
"You see an engaging young man. Bright-eyed. Enthusiastic. He has all of those intangibles that people would immediately gravitate toward," Kelly began before adding the requisite "but,"
"But it takes more than that to be a championship quarterback. You have to be able to produce on the field. To get your players around you to make plays. So he has a lot of work to do. It's going to be a competitive situation for Dayne and that's why its incumbent upon him to be heavily involved in everything we do in the spring because it's a proving ground for him as well."
Note: Part II of our review of Kelly's first spring session press conference will follow shortly.