Notebook: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly challenged Irish during off week
SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly didn’t want Notre Dame’s football team to use its early off week as a chance to catch its breath.
In the days following the season-opening victory at Louisville last week, the Irish head coach wanted to challenge his team physically and mentally. Even No. 7 Notre Dame’s assistant coaches didn’t leave town to hit the recruiting trail over the weekend.
The week, which included full contact and tackling at times, concluded with a scrimmage Saturday. The focus remained on the present.
“We didn’t have a full game scrimmage, but we needed to stay in the groove relative to the way we set up our preseason and the way we set up our preseason camp,” Kelly said. “That, plus we needed to clean up some things from the Louisville game, and third, it gave us an opportunity to do a little of advanced work on New Mexico.”
When New Mexico (1-0) travels to play Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC), it will do so without head coach Bob Davie, a former Irish defensive coordinator and head coach. Davie is still recovering from what New Mexico officials described as “a serious medical incident” following their season opener on August 31.
“We’re pulling for him, and hoping for a speedy recovery,” Kelly said. “It seems like he’s moving in that direction, and we hope for him to be back on the sidelines quickly.”
The Lobos (1-0) will be led by acting head coach Saga Tuitele, the team’s run game coordinator and offensive line coach. Tuitele will be tasked with taking on a Notre Dame team largely unsatisfied with its performance in the 35-17 win over Louisville.
In his postgame press conference following the victory, Kelly said the team needs its veterans to step up the level of their play. He said Monday those veterans did a nice job of responding in practice during the off week.
“They care so much, and they’re so committed to what we want to accomplish that sometimes it gets in the way of their performance and that performance is focusing on their technique, focusing on the little details of their position,” Kelly said.
“They just want it so bad. There’s nothing wrong with that. They just have to emotionally get it centered into the right position so they can focus on the little details of their position. They will.”
A similar mindset, Kelly said, should prevent Notre Dame from overlooking New Mexico as a showdown at No. 3 Georgia (2-0) looms the following Saturday. He wants his team to focus on one day at a time and not worry about games down the road.
“We play to our standards, we talk about day to day, and that’s how we’ve done it here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “We have so many big games on our schedule, if that’s the way we operated here we wouldn’t be able to win games. So it is just business as usual for us.”
The Notre Dame offense already had to show how it would handle the absence of starting running back Jafar Armstrong.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound junior left the Louisville game after two drives with what Kelly described Monday as a torn rectus abdominis — the ab muscle that extends vertically from the pelvis to the lower rib cage. Armstrong had surgery to repair the muscle, but Kelly didn’t offer a specific timetable for return. The Tribune previously reported Armstrong could be sidelined an estimated five-to-eight weeks.
Without Armstrong, the Irish will lean on senior Tony Jones, who rushed for 110 yards and one touchdown against Louisville, and sophomore Jahmir Smith, who tallied 24 rushing yards and two touchdowns, as its lead backs.
But Notre Dame needs sophomore C’Bo Flemsiter and freshman Kyren Williams to also be prepared for roles as Smith suffered a sprained toe in Saturday’s practice. Kelly said Smith will still practice this week.
The Irish even moved junior cornerback Avery Davis back to running back to give the position group extra depth. The 5-11, 202-pound Davis, who was recruited as a three-star quarterback in the 2017 class, has spent practice time at quarterback, wide receiver, running back and cornerback during his Notre Dame career.
“Avery is a great teammate,” Kelly said. “If I was Avery, I would be sick of the head coach too. He just wants to get on the field.”
“We’re in a need situation. He wasn’t getting a lot of time defensively, so he was anxious about the opportunity and excited about the opportunity of coming on the offensive side of the ball and seeing what he could do to help us.”
Davis played in nine games last season primarily as a reserve running back in six of them. Davis recorded 22 carries for 70 yards and five receptions for 30 yards.
Junior tight end Cole Kmet’s recovery from a broken collarbone continues to move in a direction that could end with him playing against New Mexico.
Kmet was involved in some of Notre Dame’s practices last week with various 7-on-7 drills and team work. Kelly said Kmet has been cleared to do a lot, but the staff will continue to monitor him on a daily basis to determine how much he can handle.
Kelly didn’t rule out the possibility of Kmet playing Saturday.
“Is he healed to the point that he could be? Yes,” Kelly said. “That will be a decision that we make within the program as to whether we choose to do that.”
Junior wide receiver Michael Young, who also broke his collarbone in the preseason, remains about a week behind Kmet’s recovery, Kelly said.
Notre Dame has yet to declare Saturday’s home opener as a sellout. As of Monday evening, the ticket office website listed low availability remaining in 25 of the stadium’s 72 sections in the lower and upper bowls.
Notre Dame Stadium holds a sellout streak of 267 consecutive games following last season. It’s the second-longest active streak in college football behind only Nebraska (369 games). The last home game Notre Dame didn’t declare a sellout came on Thanksgiving Day in 1973 for a game against Air Force.
Tickets for Saturday’s game can be purchased online at UND.com/BuyTickets, on the phone at 1-833-NDIRISH or in person at the Murnane Family Ticket Office inside Purcell Pavilion.
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WHO: No. 7 Notre Dame (1-0) vs. New Mexico (1-0)
WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT
WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)
LINE: Notre Dame by 34.5