NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Three games into the 2013 season, the Notre Dame football team continues to be an evolving group. The Fighting Irish have had great highs in each of their first three games, but they have also experienced great lows that have left both fans and head coach Brian Kelly screaming at times.
"We need to just be more of a consistent group in terms of how we play the game," Kelly said of his team at his Tuesday press conference. "They've been really good in practice. They've figured out a couple things that we were short on and we've gotten those taken care of. Now we've got to play with a little bit more consistency for four quarters. That will be the next step up for this football team."
One of the position groups that have had the most trouble finding consistency on offense so far has been the running backs. Amir Carlisle, Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson have played in all three games to date and have 30, 29 and 18 respective carries this season.
Kelly has rotated those backs as well as freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston based on game situations and personnel packages that each player's skill set best fits. That has meant sporadic reps for each of the five backs. Kelly used McDaniel as an example of a player who did not play a lot against Michigan, yet he carried the load at a crucial time last week against Purdue.
"I think the believability is in the fact that that's exactly what happens within the structure of offense and defense," said Kelly. "You've got to be ready, because you're going to be called upon. We trust that you can do the job."
"Sometimes that's easier said than done, but that's what's required of us - that the guys trust us and believe us that we're not just saying that. When we believe the circumstances are right for you to play you'll be in the game and we trust that you'll get the job done."
The lack of consistency in the running game has also been a factor in Notre Dame's slow starts on the road at both Michigan and Purdue in the first two road games. Kelly cited different situations his team did not handle well in those games as reasons for not getting going offensively, but says things have to change going forward.
"We're not going to use it as 'well that's just the way it is'," said Kelly. "That's not the way we're going to play. We need to play better out of the gates and we need to play better early. We can't rely on having a great second half comeback. That's going to wear out here."
Missed tackles have haunted the Irish defense through three games as well. Kelly says his practices have started with a tackling circuit since he has been a head coach and indicated that playing time for his defense is predicated upon being able to make tackles.
"I believe you still can demand good tackling from your players," Kelly said. "If you don't tackle well you can't be a great defense."
The defense is also still trying to become a more sound and consistent team in both pass coverages and pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The coverages and pressures the Irish use are, according to Kelly, based on the personnel groupings that are deployed during games and those groupings are still evolving. There is give and take though when deciding which way to go.
"The easy answer is probably what you already know," said Kelly. "When you bring pressure you're either giving up some zones and zone pressure or you (have to) play man-to-man."
"I still think we're not where we want to be defensively in terms of what that structure is going to be yet."
The defensive lineman was in a walking boot on the field after Saturday's game at Purdue. Kelly says Day only has an ankle sprain.
"He's made really good progress," Kelly said of Day. "He's going to stay in a walking boot today and we'll take it off tomorrow. (It is) pretty encouraging that he'll be able to practice tomorrow and then we'll see how he goes from day-to-day."
Day has seven tackles this season and had his first tackle for loss Saturday against the Boilermakers.
DaVaris Daniels Reaching His Potential
"He's two quarters of the way," Kelly said of Daniels. "He needs to be four quarters of the way. He can obviously impact a football game. We want him to impact it (for) four quarters and he's capable of doing that. It just requires that mental approach, which is coming. You can see it. You can see it in practice and you can see it in the way he's maturing off the field. He's doing all the little things. "
The junior wideout erupted for a career-best eight receptions for 167 yards and two touchdowns Saturday.
Bennett Jackson's Response to Being a Captain
"I think sometimes when you're put into that position it has a tendency to put a little more pressure on you," Kelly said of Jackson's new responsibilities this year. "You don't want to let anybody down. You want to live up to the incredible history and tradition of being a captain here at Notre Dame."
"I think he was pretty hard on himself," Kelly continued. "It was nice to see him have some success on Saturday and I hope that continues to build."
Kelly says Jackson has always had the respect of his teammates and that has not changed this season.
The safety has been used in a variety of ways this season after coming back from the injuries that caused him to miss all of 2012. He started against Temple and Purdue and has been used both to blitz and to cover running backs out of the backfield as well as in other capacities. Kelly says "trustworthy" and "consistency" are the words that best describe Collinsworth.
"He's not going to wow you with a physical presence," said Kelly. "But yet, those two words are so important at that position that he's really settled us down in that sense. He's really smart, communicates well and as you can see by the number of reps that he's picked up over the last game and a half, you could probably know what my answer was going to be relative to Austin Collinsworth - it's trustworthy and consistency."
Cam McDaniel's' Running Style
"I think we all love the way he attacks the line of scrimmage," Kelly said of McDaniel. "He's a kid that plays with a great deal of passion (and) loves the game. (I) love him off the field. He's a football player and when I say he's a football player he just loves the game - he just loves everything about it."
McDaniel has 29 carries for 125 yards (4.3 average) this season. He and George Atkinson have the team's only two rushing touchdowns.
Louis Nix Getting Double-Teamed Regularly
"He's not a defensive end," Kelly said of the nose guard. "He's in a position where he's getting double-teamed, but he's played really good football. He's done everything we've asked him to do and he continues to battle and fight and play really good rush defense."
Nix leads Irish defensive linemen with eight tackles, including one tackle for loss.
Freshman Running Backs Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston
"I like the way Greg runs," Kelly said of Bryant. "He (is) just really a physical, hard runner. He's just downhill. There's not a lot of wasted movement. He gets it and goes. When he first got here there was a lot of dancing and now it's point A to point B. I like the way he hits things - very good acceleration."
Bryant has three carries for 14 yards so far, including one carry for two yards against Purdue.
"Folston's very smooth," Kelly continued. "It just looks like everything he does is very smooth. He gets out of his breaks very, very well. (He) puts his foot in the ground and can accelerate (and) catches the ball extremely well."
Folston has five carries for 14 yards and one catch for nine yards - all against Temple. He played sparingly against Purdue and did not play in the Michigan game.
Zaire is back in good health after missing two-plus weeks due to mono. He probably felt Kelly's wrath though after Tweeting that he has been cleared to resume play - a no-no per team rules on disclosing such information. Kelly was also asked on Tuesday whether Zaire might move to the scout team.
"We're considering it," Kelly said of the freshman quarterback. "He learned his lesson relative to what is information that needs to stay within the program. He learned his lesson. He touched the stove and we've managed that and gotten through it."
Kelly says Zaire could see scout team reps to let the defense better prepare for facing mobile quarterbacks, but will also still get some reps running Notre Dame's offense at practice.