Notebook: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly knows what to expect from his team

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame didn’t need an off week to learn more about itself.

In the past, open weeks on the schedule provided the necessary time to self-scout. With the help of analytics tracked within the program and analytics provided by Pro Football Focus, self-scouting happens constantly throughout the season.

“Using both of those weekly kind of keeps us ahead of the curve,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Used to be you get to the bye week and you do this heavy self-scout. We’re kind of doing that weekly now, so that’s less of a mandate.”

That left more time for the Irish coaching staff to start preparing for No. 19 Michigan (5-2) and recruiting. The off-week schedule required players to be around Sunday through workouts Thursday morning and gave them the rest of the week to themselves. Notre Dame’s coaches started to hit the road for recruiting as early as Tuesday last week.

On Saturday, Kelly returned to the University of Cincinnati, where he coached from 2007-09, to be honored with the 2009 team he coached to a 12-0 regular season record before taking the job at Notre Dame.

With everyone back on campus for No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1), the players are faced with an off week in the classroom while they prepare for Michigan.

“We’re on fall break, so getting the team in (Monday) morning and getting a chance to kind of recenter them, get their mindset on certainly the game and Michigan, and their preparation was the most important thing,” Kelly said.

What the Irish didn’t do last week was wait to prepare for the noise it will face in Michigan Stadium on Saturday (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC). Playing its last three games at home, Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t needed to operate with a silent count since the Sept. 21 loss at Georgia.

The Irish offense bungled its snap count for five false start penalties against the Bulldogs. Quarterback Ian Book’s communication with the rest of the offense didn’t work as planned.

“We’re not going to make that same mistake twice,” Kelly said. “Our guys are really tuned into understanding that the atmosphere will be loud and that you cannot be distracted if you are interested in executing at a high level. If you’re distracted, then you’re not in the right place emotionally, and our guys are pretty locked in on that.”

Saturday will provide the latest test to see if Kelly’s right about his team. It’s that ability to prepare on a consistent basis that Kelly identified as the strength of his team six games into the season.

“Our guys really stick to our process, which tends to show a consistency to your football team,” Kelly said. “It takes out a lot of guesswork in a sense as coaches we know what we’re going to expect.

“It allows us to play to our strengths and know where our weaknesses are. That’s important, because you can’t be somebody that plays up and down each and every week.

“That’s our strength. We’re a pretty consistent team from week to week. And within that, you can certainly know yourself better, and because of that, you’re better able to handle where you may be short in some areas.”

Game ready

Notre Dame shouldn’t be shorthanded when it travels to Ann Arbor this weekend. Junior running back Jafar Armstrong, who saw limited action against USC after missing four games for a torn abdominal muscle, and graduate student cornerback Shaun Crawford, who missed the last two games with a dislocated elbow, are expected to play against Michigan.

Armstrong played only a handful of snaps in the USC game. His lone carry went for a loss of four yards.

“This week will be him being factored into our game plan, playing a prominent role, and I think an impact,” Kelly said.

Crawford’s usage on Saturday remains a little less certain. Kelly expects him to be active, but he might not return to a starting role immediately.

“We’ll see at what level he can play at,” Kelly said. “But he’s a guy that I wouldn’t count out of being a contributor in some fashion, being around the ball next Saturday night.”

The Irish will have senior cornerback Donte Vaughn available to play as well.

A potential redshirt season for Vaughn has been discussed, but Notre Dame clarified this week that he’s only played in three games this season. That means Vaughn could play against Michigan and be eligible for a redshirt if he sits out the rest of the season.

Kelly guaranteed that Vaughn will play on Saturday, but he declined to elaborate on what will happen after that.

“We’ve had some conversations and they are not surface conversations about where we go from there,” Kelly said, “but I’m not going to get into them at this time.”

Extra points

• The Irish haven’t identified a clear go-to option as Notre Dame’s field receiver. A handful of different players have received opportunities to play the outside receiver position opposite of Chase Claypool. Senior Javon McKinley, junior Michael Young and sophomores Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys III have split some of the duties.

Claypool and graduate student Chris Finke have even slid into the field receiver role at times rather than sticking at their typical positions of boundary receiver and slot receiver, respectively. Kelly wouldn’t mind having an established field receiver, but he likes the options the Irish have developed.

“If you’re asking me would we like to have one guy out there that has solidified a position? Maybe,” Kelly said. “But we have been able to use a lot of young guys, and they’ve all been able to mature this year to the level where we’ve gotten some pretty good production out of them.”

• Last week, the Associated Press named Notre Dame right guard Tommy Kraemer to the second-team of its Midseason All-America team. He received the same placement in the preseason.

Even if his lofty recruiting ranking — a five-star recruit and the No. 8 overall prospect in the 2016 class according to 247Sports — continues to prop up his status with voters, Kraemer’s made significant improvements since being taken out of the starting lineup late last season in the Navy and Northwestern games.

The biggest change for Kraemer, Kelly said, came in the offseason in taking better care of his body.

“He’s in great shape physically, stronger, moves well, and I think a lot of that took place in the offseason,” Kelly said. “As a football player, he still is powerful at the line of scrimmage. He can handle most guys that he goes against. He’s a very, very underrated pass blocker, and the things he continues to work on are the consistency elements.”

• The Jim Thorpe Award announced Monday 14 semifinalists in the running for its annual honor given to the best defensive back in college football. Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman made the semifinalist list.

The list also included San Diego State’s Luq Barcoo, Wake Forest’s Essang Bassey, Texas Tech’s Douglas Coleman III, LSU’s Grant Delpit, Oklahoma State’s AJ Green, Florida’s CJ Henderson, Oregon’s Jevon Holland, Alabama’s Xavier McKinney, Clemson’s Tanner Muse, Ohio State’s Jeffrey Okudah, Georgia’s JR Reed, Army’s Elijah Riley and Louisiana Tech’s Amik Robertson.

Last season, Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love finished as one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award. Georgia cornerback DeAndre Baker eventually won it.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, greets Notre Dame’s offense following a touchdown against Georgia.
Notre Dame running back Jafar Armstrong (8) will be part of the Irish game plan for Saturday’s matchup with Michigan. Armstrong received only one carry in his return from a torn abdominal muscle against USC.

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 19 Michigan (5-2).

WHEN: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Michigan Stadium; Ann Arbor, Mich.


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Michigan by 1