ND football notebook: Kelly learns from past USC drama

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Less than four minutes into a 41-minute chit-chat with the media on Tuesday, Brian Kelly uttered words that were both from the heart and refreshingly politically incorrect.

“I think our players will be the first ones to admit that this is our rivalry game,” the Notre Dame fourth-year head coach said. “This is our game that we look forward to, against USC.”

And with that, the Twitter-verse erupted, mostly in snarky comments about Michigan.

“We go through the season and so many weeks, I think it’s on the other side — in other words, other teams really calling it their rivalry game,” Kelly framed.

The 85th rendition of ND-USC unfolds Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium (7:41 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV) in a matchup that pits the team that started 2012 season No. 1 in the Associated Press poll vs. the one that finished the regular season in the No. 1 spot.

A season later, both are 4-2 and unranked, marking just the 11th time in the 75 meet-ings since the inception of the AP poll in 1936 that both teams come into the game out of the Top 25.

The last time that happened was actually two seasons ago, when night football returned to campus after a 21-year absence and the new stadium sound system wore out Ozzy Osbourne stadium anthem “Crazy Train.”

The eventual 31-17 Trojan upset not only largely foiled ND’s Recruit-a-palooza I, it turned the Irish into their own biggest rival in a way.

Five nights after the game, a fissure in team chemistry spilled onto social media, with several players, including pillars of team leadership and former Irish tight end Kyle Rudolph publicly taking issue with some comments Kelly had uttered during a short post-practice meeting with the media Thursday night.

"They've all bought in, every single one of them has bought in,” Kelly said at the time. “(But) I coach a style of football that I want played, and we're not getting that style. A lot of the guys that are here, we're retraining."

And later:

"You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. We've had one class of recruiting, kids that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it's a process. It can't happen over night. They're getting there. They're making good progress."

Some pointed public comments by Kelly earlier that the week about de-moted-but-still-popular QB Dayne Crist and a private version of Thursday’s pointed comments with his players stirred the embers of mutiny before things erupted in the wee hours of the morning Friday.

By mid-afternoon Friday, at a regularly scheduled team meeting, Kelly mended fences with the team, according to two sources close to the program, and claimed the quotes lacked context.

“Every family's going to have good days and bad days,” Kelly reflected Tuesday when asked about it. “That might have been one of our bad days, but we talked about it. We aired out our differences. We took accountability for where mistakes were made, and we moved on from it.

“We didn't relive it. We moved from it. And so I think that's probably the point that, as you move forward, you learn from past experiences and you build off of those past experiences.”

Kelly move forward in part by largely dialing back his candor, particularly when it comes to team chemistry as well as hot-button issues such as JumboTrons and FieldTurf.

The Irish, as a team, overwhelmed Navy in their next game, 56-14, and have gone 20-5 overall since the crisis.

“There were things that were already in it place within the program, or you don't come back the next week and play really, really well,” Kelly said Tuesday. “What was clear to me is that we needed to play the game better, and I think that that's what happened. We were more succinct in our approach. We were more exact in the way we played the game, and that carried itself over.

“So there were things that we look back on now, and if we could have done them differently, we would have done them differently. But they all go toward that experience that you have as a group, and they made us better as a football team.”

One aspect that didn’t improve over time from USC night game was the impression made at Recruit-a-palooza I, something Kelly said he’ll keep in mind when version II takes place Saturday night.

Thirteen of the nation’s top recruitable seniors will join a handful of committed Irish recruits and some top juniors in attendance. Included on the guest list are standouts nose guard Matt Elam, tight end Tyler Luatua, wide receiver Allen Lazard, linebacker Nyles Morgan and multi-position prospect Bo Scarbrough.

Two years ago, the list of 12 uncommitted official visitors was just as star-studded. Of that groups — that included running back Keith Marshall, defensive end Arik Armstead, wide receiver Bryce Treggs and safety Shaq Thompson — only KeiVarae Russell ended up signing with the Irish. QB Gunner Kiel, who took an unofficial that night, ended up at ND but not before committing to LSU in the interim. He’s now sitting out the season as a transfer at Cincinnati.

So what did Kelly learn from a recruiting standpoint at Recruit-a-palooza I?

“Win the game, and you get more recruits,” he said.

Personnel matters

•An unexpected source might just be able to provide some defensive line depth late this season.

Maybe.

Junior Chase Hounshell, thought to be out of action for a second straight season because of shoulder surgery, may get a test run in 10 days to two weeks, according to Kelly.

The 6-5, 271-pounder has been limited to seven games and four tackles, all during his freshman season of 2011. Since Hounshell has already burned a medical redshirt year, playing him even for just a few games in 2013 may make some sense.

“There are issues relative to two consecutive years (out of action) where there's a potential for hardship waivers (for a sixth year) and things of that nature, where I just can't get into those at this point,” Kelly said. “But we're going to address those as he gets closer to putting the pads on.”

•Another defensive end, junior Tony Springmann, is in the early stages of rehab, Kelly said, from season-ending knee surgery. Kelly said Springmann suffered a brief setback recently when he suffered an infection.

•One of the young players who caught Kelly’s eye during the bye week was freshman wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., who only recently started practicing with the team after a longer-than-expected recovery from a January leg injury.

“Very impressive,” Kelly assessed. “He's a young man, without the injury, would probably be competing for playing time as well. Great speed and quickness, very sure-handed, has a lot of the attributes that we thought he did. So we're very excited about him, but he will not play this year.”

But he will take some ribbing this year from Kelly. whose beloved Boston Red Sox are playing Torii Hunter Sr. and the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series. Hunter Sr. notably flipped over the rightfield wall at Fenway Park and into the bullpen Sunday night while trying to catch Boston slugger David Ortiz’s grand slam home run.

“I just told him he can't have his dad throwing his body around like that,” Kelly said. “We don't want him to get hurt like that.

Hunter Jr.’s response? “He said his dad should have made the catch.”

•Kelly said freshman Michael Deeb has moved into the role of the fifth inside linebacker, with junior starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace out for the season, and that Deeb would be cross-trained at both the middle and weakside linebacker spots.

“We'd like not to have to play him if we could,” Kelly said, “but if we have a situation there where a man goes down, he's got to be ready to play. So we're preparing him to play, and he's capable of playing.”

•Grace, who had surgery in Texas after suffering a broken tibia in ND’s 37-34 win over Arizona State Oct. 5 in Arlington, flew home Tuesday.

•Senior wide receiver Daniel Smith, who suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the same game, has successful surgery during the bye week per Kelly.

“Plates, screws, all those were taken care of,” Kelly said.

•During his largely three-game absence (he played one play Oct. 5) from the Irish defensive lineup, sophomore starting end Sheldon Day continued to be listed as the starter on the official ND depth chart, and Kelly expressed optimism each week that he might be available.

The best sign that it may happen this week five weeks after spraining an ankle against Purdue? Day has been made available to the media for interviews.

“He's a guy that early in the season was a great pass rusher and wasn't staying blocked,” Kelly said. “He'll figure into our game plan on Saturday.”

House call from Dr. Lou?

Former Irish head coach Lou Holtz and members of the 1988 national championship team will be honored multiple times on campus this weekend, including at an appearance at Friday night’s pep really in front of the Hesburgh Library.

Will Kelly carve out some time to talk X’s and O’s with Holtz?

“Well, I think the question is will he carve out time for me?” Kelly said with a laugh. “Lou is extremely busy, and I think you ask him if he's got time for you, more than anything else.

“We are going to get a chance to spend a little bit of time. He's going to be part of the pep rally. I'm really excited I'm going to get a chance to spend a little time with him prior to. Hopefully, I'll be able to fit into his extremely busy sports, ESPN schedule.”

Fun with numbers

Does perception trump reality?

Check out the blind résumés from three college defensive ends:

Player A: 14 tackles, 3.5 tackles for losses of 9 yards, 1 sack for 3 yards, 3 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 touchdown scored

Player B: 13 tackles, 3 tackles for losses of 17 yards, 2 sacks for 16 yards, 4 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble.

Player C: 18 tackles, 4.5 tackles for losses of 26 yards, 3 sacks for 20 yards, 7 QB hurries, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 1 pass broken up, 1 touchdown scored.

Player C is perceived to have underachieved by some, come to camp overweight and played himself into perhaps needing to stay in school another year to still end up a first-round NFL Draft choice. Yet of the three, he clearly has the best numbers.

He is Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who did rate as a midseason All-American by one of NFL.com’s seven analysts who recently put together their halfway-point college All-America squads. (Irish nose tackle Louis Nix was mentioned as a first-teamer by three of the seven and was the only other ND player on any ballot).

Who do the other two blind résumés belong to? Player A is former ND defensive end Aaron Lynch, now a junior at South Florida and a first-rounder on some 2014 NFL mock drafts. Player B in South Carolina junior Jadeveon Clowney, still considered by most as the consensus No. 1 pick next May, despite some injury/motivation questions.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly learned alot from the aftermath of the 2011 game against USC. SBT file photo