NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Notre Dame shifts from one option attack to another this week as Brian Kelly and his Irish put Air Force in the rear view mirror to train their sites on Navy this Saturday. Kelly spent the better part of the first two minutes of his Tuesday press conference by emphasizing the importance of last Saturday's road win over the Falcons.
"Our guys just did a very good job of persevering and finding a way to get through it and finding a win," Kelly said of the 45-10 victory. "It starts with putting more points on the board than option teams, because it was a very good win on the road. We were able to get a lot of players - 60 players played in the game. That's the most that I've had involved in a game since I've been here at Notre Dame."
The key Irish player who was not in Saturday's win was Louis Nix. The nose guard missed the game due to knee tendinitis and he is up in the air to play this week.
"I would say he's questionable at this point," Kelly said after noting that Nix worked out on Monday. "Depending on how he moves and what he can do. We're not prepared to play anybody that can't get in there and practice and do the things necessary to prepare for the (Navy) triple option."
Kelly said a week ago that facing the option was not Nix's "cup of tea" and the nose guard did not even travel with the Irish last weekend. But what if the opponent this week was Stanford and not Navy?
"That's a good question," said Kelly. "I don't have an answer for you other than I think you can't go into playing the option team with hesitation or doubt. But, when you're playing Stanford and you're firing off the ball and it's just a matter of beating the guy over you, there's less hesitation."
"There's a little more hesitation in there when you are playing an option team," he continued. "We can't have that from our inside guy."
Outside linebacker Ishaq Williams suffered a knee injury in last week's win and Kelly says he will not play against Navy. Guard Chris Watt (knee) and Sheldon Day (ankle) also both left last week's game with injuries.
"Watt looked good today," said Kelly. "We're going to move him around. So, I would say if we're using words like the NFL teams do, I would say he's probable."
Day reaggravated the ankle he injured back on Sept. 14 in the win over Purdue.
"We've got an MRI on that ankle," Kelly said. "We wanted to rule out any further high ankle damage to the ligaments and it was a bone bruise, so it was totally different. We feel pretty good about that. He'll practice today."
Defensive lineman Chase Hounshell, who underwent shoulder surgery last spring, has started practicing in pads recently, but Kelly says he will not see any game action this year. Safety Elijah Shumate has missed the last two games with a hamstring injury. He has been back at practice, but Kelly is not sure if he will be able to play this week.
Compliments for Kona
Even before Nix was out due to injury last week, Kona Schwenke was showing himself to be an invaluable member of the defensive line. The loss of Tony Springmann for the season and Sheldon Day missing the better part of three games has meant a much bigger role than even Schwenke could have foreseen at the start of the season.
"He was in my office early in the year (asking) hey, where do I stand," Kelly recalled. "Am I going to get an opportunity this year? And we felt like he would. He had a great preseason camp and he's been really important to us this year. His play has been for us the best it's been since he's been here."
Kelly says he is also receiving "a lot" of positive reports from NFL teams on the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Schwenke.
Smith Keeps Doing More
Freshman drop linebacker Jaylon Smith's 39 tackles are currently the fifth-most by an Irish defender. Three tackles this weekend would move him past the injured Jarrett Grace into fourth place. Kelly says nothing, including the way he played the option last weekend, has surprised him about Smith.
"When you're a 3-4 linebacker playing drop you force the football," said Kelly. "That's what you do. You immediately attack and force the football. He was not in that role. He was slow-playing the quarterback - the pitch. And the patience that showed to buy time for the Mike (linebacker) to get over a block or the safety to come from the backside hash, you just don't teach that. It's just instincts that he had that he could slow-play the option."
Kelly says Smith has easily been the freshman who has made the most impact this season.
Elmer on the Line
Another true freshman that has played beyond his years so far this season is Steve Elmer. The 6-foot-6, 317-pound lineman had played in five games prior to last Saturday, and then he made his first career start against the Falcons after back surgery forced Christian Lombard out for the rest of the season.
"I'd say the plus is that he's a very smart kid," Kelly said of Elmer's first start. "He's not going to have a lot of missed assignments. (He is) a very conscientious kid. The other plus is he's long. I mean, he's a long athletic kid. He can make up for some deficiencies in terms of some of his techniques because of his athleticism."
Not surprisingly, strength is the biggest area of improvement Kelly thinks Elmer has. The head coach says the freshman also needs to play with more consistent technique.
Russell Getting Better
After a rocky start to the season, sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell continues to make strides at a position he has only played for a little more than the last calendar year.
"He's become much more of a student of the game," said Kelly. "(He is now) not just an athlete playing the cornerback position. I think he came into this year two as an athlete playing corner. I think by midseason he has now developed himself into a cornerback. He understands the position."
"He understands the split of the receiver and how it might affect the route. He understands his sequencing within coverages. I think what you've seen is somebody growing into playing corner."
Kelly praised cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks for the job he has done developing Russell. He says Russell's overall positive attitude has also helped him make the move and continue to grow into the position.
Room for Robinson to Grow?
Freshman receiver Corey Robinson obviously has "tall" in his genes. Robinson stands just a bit under 6-foot-5, while his famous dad, David Robinson, is 7-foot-1. So, is there a chance the younger Robinson could grow out of being a wide receiver if he continues to grow?
"I think he can sustain a couple more inches," Kelly said of the San Antonio native. "It's still about hand/eye coordination, his catching radius (and) his ability to go up and catch the football. Even if he's not a 4.4, 4.5 (speed) guy, you can see what he can do if the ball is put in a good location. I think he can absorb a few more inches."
Kelly joked that if Robinson ever pushes the 6-foot-11 range he might have Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey talking to him about Robinson's services.