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Tuesdays with BK: Pitt edition

There has been little familiarity for Brian Kelly in the opening five games of the season, as Kelly battled traditional Irish opponents that rarely showed up on the schedules of Central Michigan or Cincinnati. As the Irish prepare to face Pitt this Saturday afternoon, Kelly will square off with a team he’s battled the past three years at Cincinnati.

“I think we both know that we have a good grasp of -- they know what we’re going to do offensively, and we kind of know what they’re going to do defensively, so I think that’s a wash,” Kelly said this afternoon. “I still think this comes down to who’s better prepared and who executes better on Saturday, because we know each other so well. They’re like a conference opponent more than anything else, going into a conference game.”

The fine folks on the video team cut together some highlights from the rest of Kelly’s press conference.

A few thoughts on the presser as a whole:

The Irish coaching staff unearthed a great left tackle in sophomore Zack Martin, who saved a year of eligibility last season.

“When you look at Zach Martin as a first-time starter, each week he sees new things and maybe doesn’t handle it like a veteran starter, but those things that he has encountered already, he’s playing at a high level,” Kelly said. “He’s grading out as our top lineman at this point.”

Before the season started, even Notre Dame wasn’t sure who they had at tackle, as even the university was misspelling his first name (It’s Zack, not Zach). But Martin has been next to invisible at left tackle (a very good thing for an offensive lineman), bringing the Irish their surest blind-side tackle since Ryan Harris took over during his true freshman season.


While much of the preseason hype -- even Heisman discussion -- went to running back Dion Lewis, it’s another sophomore running back that’s risen to the forefront of the Pitt rushing attack. Ray Graham has been a monster this year, missing the Utah game to open the season, but then racking up nearly 500 yards in three games, including a staggering 277 yards against Florida International last Saturday.

Kelly discussed how the Irish need to keep both Graham and Lewis, a guy that lit up the Irish last year, in check while also making things tough on first-year starter Tino Sunseri, who has top-flight wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin at his disposal.

“You have to pick your spots. I mean, if they know and you know and everybody what’s watching the game knows that Baldwin is one-on-one the whole game, that’s not a good situation,” Kelly said. “We have to make Sunseri not know whether he’s getting help on his receiver, and that’s really the game within the game, making sure that the quarterback is not sure when it is double zone or when that corner is getting help on a particular play.”

Putting a physical wide receiver like Baldwin on an island isn’t a recipe for success, while causing as much confusion as possible for Sunseri is, so hopefully the Irish find a way to commit enough man-power to stopping the running game without letting Baldwin make the big plays that killed the Irish last season.


Speaking of Baldwin, he’ll likely be matched up again with Pittsburgh product Darrin Walls on the edge. Kelly had this to say about his senior cornerback.

“He’s been outstanding. He’s been our best cover corner consistently. He’s played through injury. He’s probably been our most professional and locked-in player, and I say professional from a day-to-day standpoint,” Kelly said. “He’s very purposeful in what he does. He’s somebody we can point to in our senior class and say, that’s mental and physical toughness. He’s displayed that each and every week.”

And if Kelly had watched the film of Baldwin getting the best of Walls last season, he did his best not to show it.

“Clearly we have a great deal of respect for Jonathan Baldwin, and Darrin Walls is a pretty good football player,” Kelly said. “I think you’ve probably got -- whether it’s Moss versus Revis, I don’t know if they’ve put it in that degree, but you’ve got two really good players out there that want to win. Again, I think within our scheme, he’s going to have to defend him one-on-one sometimes, and we feel good about that match-up, as well.”


Looking over the stats after last Saturday’s game, I was shocked to see Mark Herzlich barely make a dent in the ledger. Kelly attributed that to a schematic decision and the evolution of Theo Riddick playing as the slot “Z” receiver.

“It’s really about how you’re going to play the box for us, how many guys you’re going to put in the box,” Kelly said. “If you drop that Sam backer and you want to put him in the box, Theo is out in space with nobody over him, and that’s probably not a match-up that teams want.

“So now you take a Herzlich out of the game against BC because he’s got to stay out over Theo Riddick the whole game. I don’t know if he had a couple of tackles, but he was effectively taken out of the ballgame. If we can do that, it allows Armando to run and allows some other things to occur then he’s doing his job, as well.”

That’s an interesting look at the game inside the game, and could be one of the reasons that Boston College coach Frank Spaziani was so effusive with his praise for Kelly and his gameplan after his team was easily defeated by the Irish.


One thing is for sure: Cierre Wood isn’t in Brian Kelly’s doghouse.

“Here’s why I like Cierre Wood. It seems to be a big topic of conversation, my sideline demeanor,” Kelly said. “When I went to talk to him about that play, talk to him about the play, he said, ‘Coach, it’s inexcusable what I did. I can’t tell you why it happened. That’s ridiculous.’ He immediately took accountability for his actions. I didn’t say another word to him. I’m a Cierre Wood fan. We’re going to keep developing that young man and he’s going to be a good football player. He just needs to continue to develop, gain more confidence. He needs recognition awareness. When he sees things, he’s got to go, and he’s still thinking too much. When we can get that out of him, when he can just react, man, he’s going to be fun to play.

“I’ll tell you what, he had a couple runs, real hard runs early in the game, made that mistake obviously, you can’t put the ball on the ground in a competitive situation. But what I loved about the kid is immediately it wasn’t, well, I didn’t get the call, I didn’t hear it, I was getting a little tired, we hear a lot of that around here at Notre Dame, and we hear about it too much, and I didn’t hear it from Cierre Wood. And that’s why I’m in his camp and we’re going to keep getting him to move forward and be a really good player for us.”

Quotes like these are the ones that should have Notre Dame fans very excited about having Brian Kelly as the man in charge. While it may have been coincidental, Charlie Weis never trusted Shaq Evans after he failed to catch the crucial third down out-pattern that Jimmy Clausen threw him against Michigan. The coaching staff never said that Evans didn’t play because of it, but it threw Shaq’s confidence in a lurch as the season continued and likely helped Evans make his decision to transferred after the the initial two-deep depth chart was released.

Kelly’s made it known he’s not going to bury a kid that’s made some mistakes, even if he does get all over his case. That’s likely the difference between a college coach and a coach with an NFL background. In the NFL, if you can’t trust a guy, you get rid of him. With an 85 man roster, Weis was able to simply not use Evans. But Kelly seems to understand that guys like Cierre Wood are going to be important football players for Notre Dame, and burying their confidence is only going to hurt the team collectively. Kelly made it clear that laying the ball on the ground is unacceptable, but he also let everybody know that’ll be watching this press conference -- players included-- that Cierre Wood is a great football player.

That’s the kind of discipline-heavy leader that’s considered a player’s coach.