NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly began his press conference on Tuesday by addressing this week’s opponent South Florida, and gave his obligatory, yet genuine, respects to USF’s head coach.
“It starts, when you talk about South Florida, with their head coach,” said Kelly. “Skip Holtz has done a very, very good job in a very short period of time. What people need to understand is that he has great experience as a head coach. (His teams are) always playing up to their competition. I think a lot of publications have picked South Florida to be a BCS team.”
Kelly had USF’s number the last time he coached against them. In 2009, when Kelly was at Cincinnati, his Bearcats beat the Bulls and their quarterback B.J. Daniels, 34-17.
"As it relates to players, you start with B.J. Daniels at quarterback, who I’ve gotten a chance to know when I was in the Big East,” noted Kelly. “We had to try and defend B.J. Daniels, and it’s a challenge to say the least.
“They’ve been very stout defensively. There’s enough talent on their team for them to beat anybody on their schedule, and we’re certainly aware of that.”
The Bulls are strong on both the offensive and defensive lines. The offensive line is very established having a combined 62 starts up front. The defensive line has 26 collective starts, and features standout junior tackle Cory Grissom, whom Kelly highlighted by name.
“I’m always interested in the trenches because I think we all know if you're watching a ball game, if you can’t stop the run, or you're really having difficulty, it goes a long way in deciding the outcome,” said the coach. “Those are always matchups that I’m looking at early on. If you get a sense and feel that you can run the football early in the game, I think it dictates how you manage the rest of the game.”
While considering the offensive line, Kelly discussed his decision to bring back fifth-year senior Andrew Nuss, despite the fact the lineman hasn’t started one game during his first four years.
“Great guy in the locker room. He’s somebody that is well respected by everybody, the coaches in particular,” said Kelly. “He’s got great leadership qualities. So, we want the right guys on the team too, coupled with the fact that he’s got great versatility. He can play tackle, he can play center, he can play guard. As you stack up decisions that have to be made as a head coach as to who you're inviting back, that was a pretty easy one.”
The coach also addressed how getting to know his players like Nuss and quarterback Dayne Crist allows him to better guide the team.
“I think it’s knowledge of what you're capable of doing more so than having more plays available to you,” he stated. “Knowing that these are plays that Dayne has executed very well over the past year. We can go back and look at the success that he’s had in reading out a particular play. I’m going to call the plays that I feel like we’ve had a history of success or that I’ve seen us execute after a year of being in this offense.”
The coach noted, again, how it was Crist desire, more than anything else, that cemented his decision to go with the senior at quarterback.
“I didn’t spend much time on anything else other than evaluating what Dayne was going to be able to do for us,” said Kelly. “We were just looking at his confidence level, his want-to, which he showed early on. He really needed this summer. So, we didn’t know until we got back working with the guys as to whether he would have that escapability that is necessary in any offense.
“There were a lot of questions as to whether he could do it. He answered those questions in my mind this summer.”
Kelly continues to be impressed with the freshmen class that has come to South Bend. He talked about the development of offensive lineman Conor Hanratty.
“I’ve been pleased,” he said of the young lineman. “You always hope in the recruiting process that you get what you think you get. We knew Hanratty was a tough kid. We knew he had to physically develop. What we liked on film was his toughness. He’ll hit you. He is taking second team reps as a true freshman. He’s swimming right now. He’s not ready to go in the game, but we got what we thought we were going to get there.”
Kelly also spoke briefly about freshman Nick Martin, and what it’s like for him playing behind his brother Zack Martin.
“He’s backing up his brother,” Kelly said. “There’s a great synergy there as you can imagine. I’m not afraid to speak my mind on the practice field if your not doing well, and Zack does not want Nick to get yelled at. So, he’s coaching him as hard as Ed Warriner is coaching him, so there’s a pretty good dynamic there.”
Kelly also stressed the importance of Theo Riddick to the team as it relates to returning the football on punts and kickoffs.
“He’ll take his blows on offense,” said Kelly. “If he needs a play or two (off) because he’s playing special teams, he can take them on offense. Theo, in his mindset, he has to be a huge impact for us in special teams. So, if he needs a blow, we are so comfortable in Robby Toma being in the game that that’s the way we have approached it.”
The coach feels the slating of practice, with the breaks the players have received, has had the desired effect of keeping the team sharp.
“We were locked in pretty good yesterday,” he said. “I think we’ve taken breaks at the right times not to be stale mentally. I think those breaks have allowed us to have a lot of energy in our practices. I felt we had our best day yesterday. They’re looking a lot better getting in and out if their breaks from a physical standpoint.”
Kelly and the players appear ready to take on all comers as the season is set to begin. As far as determination of the team overall, the coach was very matter-of-fact in saying: “Once it’s game week....it changes everything.”