Being immersed in the midst of the worst of his 27 seasons as a college head coach, it would be easy for Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly to make wholesale changes within his program. He did so last month by firing Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, but from a personnel standpoint, Kelly has decided to stay the course even after losing for the sixth time in nine games last weekend.
“If you look at the six games that we’ve played,” Kelly said, “what needs to change is a little bit better play calling here, maybe a little bit better execution there, and the players just maturing.”
Notre Dame (3-6) will face Army (5-4) Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (NBC) in San Antonio. The game is part of the “Shamrock Series,” which features games played in varying cities and stadiums throughout the country.
To Kelly’s point regarding the “maturing” of his team, the Notre Dame depth chart listed 39 players out of 59 that were either in their first or second season of being on the field.
“All these guys, pretty much, are going to be back,” Kelly said. “And when they are put into similar situations that we have all grown from, and we flipped six very difficult losses into six wins, and are sitting in a better position.”
Of the six defeats this season, Kelly’s team has had an opportunity to win or tie the game in the final minutes of each game. So he is taking a very different perspective than much of Notre Dame’s disenchanted fan base.
“If we were losing 31-0, then changes are made or you’re playing younger players, that’s how you handle those situations,” Kelly explained. “But when you know that your nucleus is maturing and getting better and is going to be the group that you’re playing next year, you’re just working on the finer details during the course of the year and during the course of your preparation.”
Mathematically, Notre Dame could still win its last three games and be eligible for a bowl game. However, this team’s history this season exhibits that isn’t likely, especially with games against 19th-ranked Virginia Tech (7-2) and an ever-improving USC team (the Trojans have won five straight) in Los Angeles.
Kelly said recently that his focus remains on this regular season, but the Irish future will be strengthened because of the work being done now.
“Next year is this year,” Kelly said. “We have so many guys that are going to be learning how to do the things right every single day this year. And they are doing that.
“I love the way our guys compete. We need a little better coaching. We need a little bit better play in certain areas. That’s going to obviously prove to be very, very important for us in the next year and the next coming years. My focus is on the present, but everything that we do is going to benefit us in the future, as well.”
Jones sidelined (sort of)
A mere week after Notre Dame defensive lineman Jarron Jones enjoyed an historic six-sack game in a win over Miami (Fla.), the graduate student defensive lineman didn’t start for the first time in five games and ultimately barely played in the loss to Navy.
Kelly said that his player’s absence was due to the schematics of defending the option game of Navy.
“It really is a whole different animal relative to the option,” Kelly said of Jones facing Navy. “He’s got a job to do, and you know, he can’t be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set because he’s got to play gap and he has a responsibility.
“If they choose to run triple option, even if he’s a force and he’s destroying his guy and he’s getting upfield, they are going to pull the ball and work the ball out on the perimeter.”
Jones only played a dozen snaps and didn’t register a tackle.
“You could take Jarron Jones out of the game,” Kelly said, “even if he is being disruptive. It really neutralizes players like him when you play a team like Navy.”
The Notre Dame defensive secondary has already been thin and inexperienced this season, but it got worse in the loss to Navy.
The Fighting Irish started three true freshmen in the secondary (cornerbacks Julian Love and Donte Vaughn, as well as safety Devin Studstill), but both Love and starting safety Drue Tranquill suffered head injuries in the game against Navy. Kelly said the following day (Sunday) that both players were going through the concussion protocol procedures this week.
O-line play “better”
One of the areas of play that Notre Dame was relying on significantly this season was that of a talented offensive line, yet that has been an inconsistent area of performance. However, Kelly said that the unit was “better” against Navy.
“We changed up a couple of things in terms of directional blocking schemes,” Kelly explained. “We were able to get our left side more involved at the point of attack, which was able to open up some things for us in short yardage, making us much more effective in those third-down situations.”
Notre Dame converted 9 of 14 third downs, including 3 of 4 in the second half. The Irish were also able to convert a fourth down in the opening half.