His off-the-cuff answer: Manti Te'o."
Not many would argue. But what Kelly knows, what defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Bob Diaco knows; and what Te'o, his competitors and Irish fans will soon learn – Notre Dame's defensive horses will need a bit of recovery time in the sideline stable this fall.
"It's really not the way that everybody wants it to be," Diaco said of the competition next to Te'o. "We don't conduct our business that way. If you watched our team play – we have to play so many guys on defense (that) that everybody's going to play. They have to play."
The "they" in question in this instance is a pair of redshirted players with little or no experience to date. Junior Anthony McDonald was a key special teams competitor last season in his first game action, finishing second in total ST tackles. But McDonald saw nary a meaningful minute from scrimmage, while sophomore Carlo Calabrese remained on the scout team for his freshman season.
The pair has emerged as challengers for a "starting" spot next to the MIKE linebacker and team horse, Te'o.
"We like Mac to play more physical. We'd like Calabrese to play with more finesse," Kelly offered to the media while acknowledging the dilemma therein.
"Carlo, if you've met him, is a strong, physical kid and he wants to knock that guard out every time. The problem is, that tight end runs down the middle of the field he has to be covered by you once in awhile," Kelly said.
"Mac, on the other hand, can cover that tight end down the middle of the field all day long. Once in awhile that guard knocks him back five yards.
"It's a combination of both of those. We want Mac to be more physical at the point of attack and maintain his really good pass coverage skills and we want Carlo to be really physical at the point of attack but he has to be able to relate to No. 2 (responsibility) on the curl route."
Irish fans anxiously awaiting a clear delineation between the starters and perceived backups in the team's linebacker corps might want to find a comfortable chair.
Life on the EdgeOutside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks eschews the similar situation regarding his position's competitors: Two spots for four veterans, three of which have played significant minutes over the last two seasons.
Like Diaco, Cooks isn't concerned with the player whose name is called by P.A. announcer Mike Collins minutes before kickoff. It's maintaining expectations over the next four-plus hours that concerns him.
"I think Coach Kelly has a great philosophy when he talks about ‘Next Man In,'" Cooks said. "Our whole thought process is if we've got a guy that's capable of playing 80 snaps per game and doing all 80 snaps at 100 percent, and doing it the right way, then we're going to play that guy.
"If we've got two guys that are pretty equal, but one guy – whether it's a mental thing or an athletic thing – wears down after 50 plays, and the other guy's capable of going in and handling the rest then we'll do that as well. Our kids don't get caught up in being (with the first or second unit) because of the philosophy that coach Kelly has."
Cooks has three former starters in his group: seniors Brian Smith and Kerry Neal and junior Darius Fleming, as well as Fleming's classmate, Steve Filer, competing for reps. Each will play, with Fleming holding the upper hand as the ‘CAT' linebacker and Filer and Smith embroiled in the battle-of-camp for the ‘DOG' role.
Regardless of the designations, neatly defined roles of responsibility between the two outside ‘backer positions do not exist – or at least will not be made public to those outside the program.
"If you look at our scheme, they're really mirrored positions," Cooks offered. "One week, we like for a guy to be smart, because there's a lot of things he's going to be asked to do. He's going to be asked to rush the passer; he's going to be asked to drop in coverage; to be able to put his hand down on the ground in certain situations; to be able to man up, in certain situations (against) a flexed wide receiver…
"So the biggest thing is having the athleticism to get all those jobs done…he's got go be able to run; he's got to be a smart player; he's got to be able to (help) get the defense aligned and adjusted per call."
Spread Stopper?College football trends are cyclical. And coaches certainly subscribe to the theory that "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
The spread hit the college football world in earnest in the past decade. Coaches and defensive coordinators have answered with a reversion back to the 3-4 defense – one that often includes a hybrid S/LB as one of the "4" athletes at the second level.
The Irish will employ both the spread and the 3-4 alignment this season. On Tuesday, Kelly was asked why the 3-4 is effective vs. the standard spread offense.
"It negates the weak side running game. We like to be in a 3 x 1 set for a lot of our snaps. When you're facing the 3-4 defense, there's no running game to the short field (hash mark closest to the sideline). There's no passing game because you have two weak (boundary side) defenders in there," he explained.
"So your (offensive) focus shifts to trying to attack the field (open area of the field toward the far sideline) which, of course, the defense knows. So the movement of the front (defensive line) players is that direction.
"Your rotation, your cloud coverages; all of your combination coverages…come to the field (side). So it negates some things that I like to do."
Kelly was asked about the preponderance of 3-4 defenses of late, and offered a readily understandable (and relatable) explanation.
"I really think you could probably list 4-5 reasons why people have gone to the 3-4 defense," he admitted. "I would say it takes the middle linebacker out of ‘contrary reads.' In other words, play-action in his face and the tight end runs vertical: what do you (as the middle linebacker) do? Do you run-gap fill or do you re-route the tight end? So (the 3-4) has really taken a lot of pressure off the MIKE linebacker.
(To simplify, the middle linebacker in the 4-3 had to worry about the run in front of him and the pass behind him. That's minimized with a 3-4 alignment.)
Michigan, Stanford and Navy will each use varieties of a 3-man front in 2010 while Michigan State will have a 3-4 look among its multiple defensive packages.
Nuts and BoltsWhile non-coaches understandably fall in love with a linebacker's athleticism, the men in charge are just as concerned with the myriad traits necessary to succeed at such a demanding position
For Diaco and Cooks, the introduction of 3-4 technique is ongoing.
"Obviously they were taught techniques for a different scheme the last couple of years," Cooks said. "But the defensive style we want to play involves different components: using your hands, different key progressions, different route progressions…
"Once the call comes in – we're in that process right now – we're giving these guys the calls and we're showing them a multitude of formations and showing them the proper stance; proper route progression; proper techniques to defeat certain blocks."
Juniors Fleming and Filer enter year No. 3, scheme No. 3, and defensive play-caller No. 3 of their college careers. Seniors Neal and Smith have nearly come full circle, though the 3-4 defense in which the pair competed in 2007 differs greatly from Diaco's scheme.
"It's not easy," Diaco said of preparing his inside ‘backers for action. "You have to spend a lot of time thinking about practice and thinking about each specific player to give them the things that they need (to be successful). Everybody's style is different, but we try not to give them too much. We try to go to practice and give the player one thing to improve on in that particular practice."
As for the battle for game reps next to the talented Te'o, Diaco will continue to search for the best combination.
"We just have to get them to continue to grow their assets; really focus and work on their liabilities, so that they're really functional players for the different things that will happen."
The finer points will be drilled by Diaco, a former All-Big 10 inside ‘backer who can also impart his intimate knowledge of the craft as the two underclassmen grow into players.
But as Kelly pointed out Tuesday, the Notre Dame program doesn't have the luxury of looking toward the future. The defense, the linebackers, and McDonald and Calabrese must be ready to play and win beginning September 4.
Can the Irish find the right combination or setting for success? As Kelly concluded Tuesday:
"I think that's what I get paid for."