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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Kelly discusses skill player groups ahead of Duke game

Last Tuesday Notre Dame football head coach Brian Kelly fielded questions from the press via a Zoom call. Then a little less than two weeks away from the upcoming season opener against Duke, he sounded confident after his squad had gotten some live reps inside of Notre Dame Stadium. He was particularly thrilled about seeing his defense in action.

“I thought we had some guys on Saturday that can close, that play with speed,” Kelly said. “There’s a physicality to the group on defense, and certainly tackling is a thing that you need to do on a consistent basis. I think [defensive coordinator] Clark [Lea] has done a really nice job in terms of making sure that we’re in some kind of tackling circuit virtually every day, even if we’re not taking somebody to the ground. But I think we’re in a pretty good position, it’s something that we want to continue to do, certainly. But I like where we are, I like our closing speed, I like the physicality that we showed, especially on Saturday, and we expect to see that come next week.”

The latest results from the teams COVID-19 testing yielded zero positive results from the 196 tests administered to football players the week of Aug. 31. Those results were announced on Saturday and bring Notre Dame football’s negativity rate for COVID-19 cases to 99.1 percent. Even before such successful results, Kelly was confident in his team’s preparation to compete on the field even after spending so much time away from the game.

“I think everybody’s kind of in the same boat in terms of wanting to make sure that you’re balancing between the readiness and the preparation with the current situation that we have out there,” Kelly said. “And so it’s been a balancing act, there’s no doubt. My job is to get our football team ready to play in less than 14 days and we’ll get them ready to play. It’s been different — there’s no doubt that this preseason camp is different than any other one that I’ve had in my 30 years — but we’ll have them ready to play. There won’t be any excuses; we’ll have them ready to play against Duke.”

This confidence sprouts from the fact that Kelly said he believes his team is handling this unfamiliar obstacle that is the pandemic very maturely, even noting that they took the threats as seriously when campus shifted to online learning three weeks ago as they did when they first arrived on campus this summer.

“They took it serious from the first day that they stepped on campus. I think they became much more aware of the things that can, obviously, put them out of practice,” Kelly said. “We all know that you can get the virus, but being at close contact and not being sick and being out — in some instances longer than somebody that could have the virus — is a wake-up call in terms of who you’re around and how you handle yourself on a day-to-day basis. So I think what they’ve learned more than anything else is how to navigate through a pandemic. And if you want to play football, these are the precautions that you need to take on a day-to-day basis. So I think when the students came into campus, I think it just heightened their awareness because they became more vulnerable to being in a either COVID situation or close contact and being part of contact tracing. So it’s a yes and no situation in the sense that they were aware, they became heightened to the potential across campus, what could be the outcome if they weren’t disciplined and really focused.”

Kelly then shifted to football talk and first talked about sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton, who had a breakout freshman season last year, being one of 50 players nationally and one of four FBS freshmen to record four or more interceptions.

“I didn’t know Kyle Hamilton last year at this time. You guys know that,” Kelly joked. “He was a freshman that was emerging, and he certainly made a big splash early on, but he’s physically much more mature. He has a presence about him. He even has exhibited leadership qualities already, in just his second year here. I would say night-and-day would be the best way to describe Kyle Hamilton. Does that necessarily translate that he’s going to be that much better of a football player? I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. But he certainly shows up in the scrimmages, he certainly shows up in seven-on-seven. But I think off the field — physically, he’s stronger — and he has a presence about him in our program, and in particular, showing strong leadership capabilities.”

Sticking to the Irish secondary, Kelly shifted his focus to the cornerback group.

“I really like [cornerbacks coach] Mike [Mickens]. I like the way he teaches,” Kelly said. He’s got a great style that’s unique in the sense that he’s a really good communicator in terms of what he wants from you every snap. And when I mean ‘every snap’ I don’t mean, necessarily, every scrimmage, snap, I mean every rep. Every single practice rep, there is some form of communication as to what he wants from you. There is a lot of dialogue, there’s a lot of teaching, but we’re moving as well. This is not a situation where we’re talking and slowing things down. We’re getting a lot of intensity through repetition, but there’s communication always and I really like that about Mike. And he’s made great progress with a bunch of young players, other than, we know that [graduate student] Nick McCloud has a lot of experience playing it at North Carolina State, but even Nick has benefited greatly from the teaching and technique. [Junior] TaRiq Bracy has benefited greatly from that. Other than that, you’re talking about a lot of young players that are all making progress and they’re all in a competitive situation. And one of them is going to end up seeing some considerable playing time for us. And we knew that that was going to be the case. And [graduate student] Shaun Crawford’s playing a lot of safety for us right now, so one of those freshman corners is going to have to step up and play some considerable time for us.”

Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book drops back to pass during Notre Dame's win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.
Irish graduate student quarterback Ian Book drops back to pass during Notre Dame's win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

One position group that is going through significant turnover this season is the wide receiving corps. Chase Claypool’s alleged successor at the boundary receiver position, junior Kevin Austin Jr. is currently set to return in October at the earliest.

“Once Kevin Austin went down, we wanted to find out what the best fits were for us.” Kelly said. “I think we’ve settled into [senior] Avery [Davis] and [junior Lawrence Keys III] in the slot, if you will, the F-receiver for us. So, I think that’s a pretty consistent look for us and then, you know, [junior Braden Lenzy] out on the perimeter. And then I think we’ve got some flexibility with [graduate student] Javon McKinley, where he can play out at the X or he can go into the boundary. We’ve moved [graduate student Ben Skowronek] into the boundary at the W-receiver position. I think that’s a pretty fluid situation in the sense that — not fluid but, you know, that’s a pretty set situation — and then it’s fluid when it comes to moving some other guys around into positions where we think that they can help us and add to the depth of our football team. But I think those guys have done a really nice job of kind of solidifying their positions.”

Finally Kelly broke down the running back position.

“[Sophomore] Kyren Williams has really emerged, you know, as somebody that we feel right now has gained an advantage as the top back. He’s going to require obviously some assistance at that position from a number of other guys, we’re not going to just feature one back. But Kyren’s done a great job. I really like the way [junior] C’Bo Flemister has come on in the last 10 days. [He] runs hard, runs low to the ground, has shown a really, I think, great learning curve as it relates to protections and pass pro[tection]. [Freshman] Chris Tyree has been electric. He’s been tougher than as advertised. He’s run physical for us as well. [Junior] Jahmir Smith has been out a little bit but he’s back today; we’ll get him more involved,” he said. “[Senior] Jafar Armstrong as well had a pretty good scrimmage on the weekend. We moved [sophomore] Osita Ekwonu to running back, and he’s given us a physical presence at that position as well. He’s a big strong kid that can go in there and really mix it up for us. We moved [sophomore] Kendall Abdur-Rahman there, and he’s been a pleasant surprise for us with his ability to see things, hit the hole with some really good vision and then break some big plays. So, right now we’re working about seven guys at the position, and it’s been a nice surprise for us.”