Notebook: Time for a change for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Those waiting for Brian Kelly to turn back into the coach he was at Cincinnati — score first, score fast, worry about the big-picture ramifications later — are doing so futilely.

The Notre Dame sixth-year head football coach has evolved into someone at least mindful of time of possession and is leaning toward coveting it.

Especially in games like Saturday, when the eighth-ranked Irish (2-0) clash with ball-hogging, triple-option Georgia Tech, ranked 14th but favored by 2 ½ points Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson is pretty much a break-even coach in his eight-year stretch at Tech when he doesn’t control the clock (17-16, .515), and wins more than two-thirds of the time (43-19, .693) when he does.

Kelly’s splits are even more dramatic while at ND — .875 (28-4) when winning the time of possession, .543 (19-16) when the Irish don’t.

It’s surprising to an extent, because in his three seasons in Cincinnati, Kelly’s teams rarely won the clock battle but still won consistently on the scoreboard. And not only did Kelly not apologize for it, he flaunted it at the time.

The Bearcats, with two BCS teams, finished 93rd, 93rd and dead last (120th) in 2007-09, with the 2009 team fashioning a 12-0 regular-season record.

For comparison’s sake, Kelly’s 2012 Irish that went to the national title game with a 12-0 mark, finished 22nd in time of possession that year.

“There were a couple of factors,” Kelly said of the philosophical switch. “One, we were trying to sell a lot of tickets at Cincinnati. We wanted to be exciting on offense. So we were going to kind of score points, then figure out what we were doing on the other end of it.

“And if that meant outscoring opponents, we would. Here is a whole different animal. Here, you’re playing teams you can’t go into playing that way. You have to manage the game. You have to play good defense. You have to win close-scoring games, things of that nature.”

Kelly’s first Irish team finished 105th in time of possession in 2010, but ND has been lower than 61st only once since then (83rd in 2013).

The Irish stand 29th heading into Saturday in a small sample size, with Georgia Tech 55th. Truer to form Georgia Tech was third last season, behind only Michigan State and UTEP.

For the Irish to control the clock Saturday, they need to keep a strong running game going that’s put up back-to-back 200-yard rushing games to open a season for the first time since the last year of the Lou Holtz Era (1996).

Converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise stands 15th nationally in rushing yards per game (126.5) and 22nd nationally in yards per carry (6.84), two games into his career switch as a running back.

Turnovers also figure to loom large into the time-of-possession formula. The Yellow Jackets offset big concessions in yards last season with 18 interceptions, tied for 10th most nationally.

However, the Irish have strung together three turnover-free games (dating back to last year) for the first time in roughly a decade.

The 2005 Irish went turnover-free in their Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. The 2006 ND team then opened with two turnover-free games before the streak ended.

If ND does avoid turning the ball over against Tech on Saturday — and ND is 18-0 under Kelly when it does — it will be the first time in the 2000s the Irish have been able to string four such games together.

The long and short of it

Kelly has been reluctant to put his quarterback under center in short-yardage situations during his six seasons at ND, although a little less so when he’s had a tall quarterback, such as 6-foot-5 Dayne Crist (2010) and now redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer (6-4 and some change).

“I think there are times a direct snap could be effective in short yardage,” Kelly said Thursday when asked about his prevailing shotgun strategy. “You have to complement that certainly with your passing game as well.

“I’ve never been against going into direct snap if I think it can make our offense more effective.”

Kelly attributed ND’s short-yardage woes in a 34-27 win at Virginia Saturday, which contributed to an 0-for-10 success rate on third down, to a lack of variety in the running game rather than his choice of whether the quarterback lined up in shotgun or not.

“Having said that, I like taller quarterbacks for direct snap, no question,” he said. “And if it can complement the offense, I don’t see why that wouldn’t be part of what you do.”

Limited options for option

Kelly didn’t get too creative with trying to simulate Georgia Tech standout option quarterback Justin Thomas this week in practice — not that he wouldn’t have wanted to.

Last season, Kelly actually used then-No. 2 QB Malik Zaire on the scout team the week the Irish played Navy, a team similar to Georgia Tech offensively, to create a more realistic look for the Irish defense.

With Zaire out for the rest of this season and the number of healthy, recruited quarterbacks on the Irish roster down to two, Kelly stuck with his scout-teamers this week.

“You can’t really simulate it,” Kelly said. “Justin Thomas is an interesting player. The way coach (Paul Johnson) has his offense set, you really can’t get a hit on him. They protect him. They take him out in goal line to make sure he doesn’t get hit in those situations. And obviously, he has elite speed.”

So does ND’s now No. 2 quarterback, freshman Brandon Wimbush, who clocked 10.8 seconds in the 100-meter dash while running track for his St. Peter’s (N.J.) Prep track team last spring.

But Kelly now needs Wimbush to be up to speed on ND’s offense more than Georgia Tech’s, or any other opponent’s for that matter, moving forward.

“He’s very, very talented and he’s also very nervous,” Kelly said of Wimbush’s first week getting significant practice reps. “So we’ve just got to calm him down a little bit. You can just see that he knows, ‘Holy crap, I am going to play. They really mean it. Thought they were kidding.’

“He’s just a really exceptional athlete. He can run. He can throw. He’s going to have some jitters, but I think once he gets in the flow of things, he could do some really extraordinary things. It was fun to watch him.”

Fantastic four?

All four of the players who had been backing up injured starting tight end Durham Smythe got significant work in practice this week.

Smythe, a junior, suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday at Virginia. Sophomores Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, freshman Alizé Jones, and grad Chase Hounshell, a converted defensive lineman whose last significant playing time came in 2011, have combined for zero career catches on the college level.

“All of them will get on the field in different situations,” Kelly said. “And I think we’ve got a good feel for who we want in there in certain situations. But I feel all of them can be parts of the solution for us.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly speaks to members of the media during at a press conference to open the 2015 season at Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Thursday, August 6, 2015, in South Bend. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)