What is Brian Kelly's dance around defensive questions really saying?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The consistency with which Brian Kelly continues to deftly jig when confronted with pointed questions about the Notre Dame defense seems to have a purpose.

And it’s decidedly not a spot in the next rotation of Dancing With The Stars.

The Notre Dame head football coach was at it again Saturday as the eighth-ranked Irish (10-2) wrapped up practice No. 2 — outside in 62-degree weather, no less — for their Jan. 1 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl date with No. 7 Ohio State (11-1) in Glendale Ariz. …

Where the recorded high was actually 1 degree cooler than South Bend’s on Saturday.

The single most tangible, pragmatic, unequivocal nugget about the Irish D — the underinflated tire in ND’s curtailed playoff run — revealed Saturday is that a player whose first practice in almost four months took place Friday and who's most recent game was Nov. 22, 2014, could actually impact the bottom line.

Now, to what extent is yet to be determined, but he’s building momentum.

Senior nose guard Jarron Jones, back from an August MCL tear in his right knee, was up to 15 practice reps on Saturday.

“He was a little tentative the first day,” Kelly said. “Today, I thought he was more confident, and then we upped his reps. (We) started to see some good things (Saturday).

“He was a little high on some of the double teams. We’ve got to get his pads down. But he really pushed the pocket. (Without him), we didn’t have that hard inside push, which he gives you instantly.”

And that, in turn, opens lanes for Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara to ratchet up the pass rush — at least in theory.

But the overall tepid pass rush this season, the intermittently terrific and turbulent play from the Irish secondary and the production decline from the middle linebacker position, do little but coax the normally direct Kelly into a deliberate holding pattern of generalities.

The large practice window normally allows for some schematic fixes, personnel tweaks or both that won’t fit into the frenetic week-to-week grind of the regular season.

And given ND’s No. 65 standing nationally in rushing defense, 61st in pass-efficiency defense and 38th in total defense, a mini-facelift would seem to be something at least worth investigating.

Instead Kelly would only commit that getting Jones back into the defensive line rotation and getting starting outside linebacker James Onwualu back from a knee injury, that scratched him from the final two regular-season games, would improve the talent/skill set quotient.

“It really comes down to the 11 guys we’ve got out there just have to play a little bit better than they did against Stanford,” Kelly said of ND’s 38-36 regular-season-ending road loss to the Pac-12 champion Cardinal on Nov. 28.

“Look, the one thing we’ve done all year consistently, is we’ve taken away the one player that can wreck a game, whether it be (Navy QB) Keenan Reynolds or (Stanford running back/return specialist) Christian McCaffrey or any of the individual players all year. We’ve done a really good job there.

“It’s been some of the other guys that we should be able to defend with our guys, We haven’t done a very good job. We’re going to have to do that again with Barrett and Ezekiel and do a better job against the other guys.”

That would be OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett and Big Ten Player of the Year, running back Ezekiel Elliott, the cornerstones of the nation’s 12th-best rushing attack.

Despite Kelly’s wandering answers to pointed questions about the defense, it’s safe to assume he knows that OSU run offense vs. ND’s run defense is one of the key — if not the defining — X-and-O’s dynamics in the Fiesta Bowl matchup.

But the questions go deeper and broader than whatever goes down in Glendale. With what will likely be a consensus All-American, in junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, with which to build around, this should have been a defensive unit that widened the offense’s margin for error, not compressed it.

And all that dancing around by Kelly may very well suggest changes that couldn’t be executed at the end of 2015 are on the way for 2016 for the defense. That may end up nothing more than an evolved philosophy, but even that would be a welcome and necessary step.

An impact loss

Ohio State senior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington’s suspension for the Fiesta Bowl is mitigated, to an extent, by the wealth of elite talent the Buckeyes have on the edge, starting with All-America defensive end Joey Bosa.

“He’s a really good football player,” Kelly said when asked about Washington (49 tackles, 7 TFL, 4 sacks, 1 interception, 1 fumble recovered, 1 fumble forced).

“But they’re a lot like Alabama. They’re a lot like some of the great defenses. They’re going to roll out another really good football player. So we weren’t running around the office high-fiving.”

The reality, though, is defensive tackle is perceived to be the position with the biggest drop-off on the entire Ohio State team from starter to backup.

The three players vying for Washington’s vacated reps —sophomores Donovan Munger, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill — have combined for 13 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and zero turnovers forced this season.

Ohio State could elect to push Bosa inside, given the deeper talent pool at end.

Buckeye coach Urban Meyer suspended Washington, a second-team All-American, on Friday, two days after he was caught in a police sting operation and cited for solicitation.

A notable gain

The caveat in quarterback Malik Zaire’s faster-than-expected recovery from a Sept. 12 broken ankle, Kelly insists, has not and will not change his spectator status for the Fiesta Bowl. Nor will it even tempt the coach to use him as a scout-team simulator for Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett.

“I don’t know that we want to put him in a situation like that, where sometimes it becomes a jailbreak on scout team against the first defense,” Kelly said. “I don’t know that I want to risk him against those kinds of situations. I think I’ll keep him close to me.”

And moving toward what should be an extremely entertaining spring competition with sophomore DeShone Kizer.

“Phenomenal in terms of the way he’s been able to get back and move around and throw the football,” Kelly said of ND’s starter in games 1 and 2 this season. “Just incredible what he’s been able to do in a very short period of time.”

Kizer, meanwhile, has been advancing his game as well, Kelly said, particularly in the area of being able to throw on the run and efficiency in the red zone.

It helps to have No. 1 tight end Durham Smythe back taking meaningful reps for the first time since suffering an MCL tear Sept. 12 against Virginia.

An evolving philosophy

Kelly admitted Saturday he’s ready to sell a senior season/fifth year at Notre Dame to the two true juniors and two of the three seniors, technically regarded as underclassmen, who are considering becoming early entries into the NFL Draft.

The strategy worked last year, with both offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive tackle Sheldon Day returning to ND, after Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick flew out and visited with their families in person during the winter break.

Kelly, though, won’t try to squeeze another year out of Stanley, a projected top 10 pick, and understands linebacker Jaylon Smith, is in that same projection.

Senior running back C.J. Prosise, senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell and junior wide receiver Will Fuller are the other three open to foregoing their final year of eligibility, though none of them projects as high in the draft as Stanley and Smith.

“We’re pretty honest and up front with our evaluations on both sides of it,” Kelly said. “If we think he is going to drop into the third or fourth round and they can do better for themselves and their future with a degree, maybe getting a better opportunity, then we’ll tell them that.

“But I think you have to be fair on both sides. I don’t think you can paint just one picture, that everything is better if you stay. There are going to be certain situations like a Jaylon Smith, like a Ronnie Stanley, that it’s better for them if they do go to the NFL.”

Russell actually would have an extra step to go through if he decides to stay. Because he was suspended academically in 2014-15 as part of the academic dishonesty investigation at ND, he would have to successfully petition the NCAA for a fifth year.

The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2016 NFL Draft is Jan. 18.

Nose guard Jarron Jones, here in his last game action — Nov. 22, 2014 vs. Louisville —  is back on the practice field and building toward being a factor in Notre Dame's Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl matchup with Ohio State. (SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)