Today marked the end of a long, but relatively uneventful off season and the start of the 2014 campaign for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. At noon EST, Head Football Coach Brian Kelly addressed the media and fielded questions to describe his thoughts on the summer season and where the program is heading into the Fall. Kelly, wearing a sport coat and Oxford shirt, looked relaxed and trim, with closely-cropped hair.
Kelly came across as optimistic and eager. The new June OTA opportunities and Coach Paul Longo’s continuing efforts in the weight room have the team in position to get after things quicker than in seasons past. The players reportedly are “crisper” and Kelly said that “we’ve handled the practice structure very similar (to year’s past) but we’re ready to move quickly and get into a higher level of competition with 1’s and 1’s and 2’s and 2’s if we need to. We’re starting as if we had no OTA, but we are prepared to really accelerate the process.”
Regarding the new staff, Kelly said they are all in and that “all the scripting is done.” All that remains between now and Rice is to get the players in on Sunday and head down to Culver Academy, where Coach Kelly “really likes the geography.” Culver offers two fields, one of which is FieldTurf. I note that neither Coach Kelly nor the media addressed cancer or blood pathogens in today’s press conference.
Coach Kelly also likes the proximity of Culver Academy to Notre Dame and the medical and laundry facilities that Culver provides, so that nothing needs to be brought in or waited on. While Shiloh was a “great opportunity,” Culver is “even better.” With just two hours for practice, Culver Academy offers much to the team in the remaining twenty-two hours of the day.
Coach Kelly was clearly excited about the talent he has coming into 2014’s “incredibly difficult” schedule. All players are in good academic standing and he is very pleased with where Jarrett Grace and Ben Counsell are in their returns from injury. Noting Counsell’s “violent hands,” Kelly thinks that he and Grace are “big” on the field. Incoming freshman Daniel Cage and Pete Mokwuah are three hundred pounders whose “volume is ahead of any freshmen that we’ve had.” The only question is what their football ability is. Coach Kelly said that “it’s time” for Ishaq Williams.
The offensive line is a definite strength. “Getting Christian Lombard back healthy has been huge. He’s healthy and strong and moving well.” With four returning starters on the O-line, the Irish are in a “good place.” With two quarterbacks who play off the same script, Kelly is eager for that to “trickle down” throughout the offense — a scenario that has not been there in seasons past. This should allow the offense to score more points, a need Kelly recognized, and to play faster. Golson is now learning the “why’s” of the playbook, while Malik Zaire is able to play “winning football.” Kelly wants him playing “championship football.”
The tight end position is solid and Kelly extolled both Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua. Smythe in particular is a tough kid who battled Jaylon Smith in a “tire war” that showed a lot about his competitiveness and fire. Koyak “looks great” and is good to go.
At receiver, the Little Admiral had a great summer and Will Fuller will be used more. Tory Hunter looked impressive. DaVaris Daniels “has put on strength and muscle. He’s more mature. I saw some leadership. We want to see that every day. We’re seeing some really good signs of that, but taking it to the championship level means doing that every day.”
Addressing new DC Brian VanGorder’s approach and the defense, Coach Kelly noted that with VanGorder, and the importance of scheme versus fundamental soundness, BVG “brings a unique talent for utilizing the individual talents of the singular players. This is where he and I are on the same page, and always have been.” Both coaches look to put the right player in place. Cody Riggs “is a leader and we’ve got him into shape.” Riggs will bring his SEC speed and experience to the corner and nickle positions.
Player losses include Niles Sykes and Tony Springmann. Springmann is done with football, having returned from a knee injury but done in by a back issue. As to Sykes, Kelly said that “it just wasn’t the right fit. He’s in a situation that he feels is a great situation. He’s a great kid. Nothing he did that put him in a bad situation (with Coach Kelly or the University). We wish him the best.”
Kelly also addressed where the program is heading and where it needs to be. Bottom line? Coach Kelly wants ND to be “part of the national conversation.” With 128 teams competing for four playoff spots per season, Kelly wants the Irish to have a “serious shot” at one every year. From his words, look, and demeanor, he clearly believes that he has the tools and the talent to take that shot in 2014.