Notre Dame Notes: 5 things Brian Kelly said

Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston, right, speaks with Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko prior to a practice in training camp this August at Culver Academies. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame's Kevin Stepherson makes a 11-yard touchdown reception against North Carolina State's Nick McCloud during the first half of the teams' game last Saturday in South Bend. (By The Associated Press)
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly speaks with the media in August in training camp at Culver Academies following an Irish practice. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
First-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko speaks with the media at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex prior to this football season in South Bend. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

The storyline for the Notre Dame football team as it heads into a match-up with Wake Forest on Saturday (3:30 p.m., NBC) is centered on: Can the Fighting Irish continue winning and, thus, remain in the hunt for a coveted spot in the College Football Playoff? However, an intriguing underlying story is that first-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko will be trying to defend against a Demon Deacons program that he spent three years helping to construct.

That was one of several topics that veteran Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly touched upon Tuesday afternoon. Here are five of those topics.

FAMILIAR FACE

No one knows the schematics involved in the Wake Forest offense quite like Elko, who practiced against it for the past three seasons. However, that goes both ways, for no one knows what Elko likes to do with his defensive unit quite like the offensive staff of the Demon Deacons.

“It’s an advantage,” Kelly said of having Elko to prepare with. “(But) Bill Rees is a bigger advantage.”

Kelly explained that Rees, the program’s personnel director, handles all of the evaluation and scouting work from a personnel standpoint, and his blunt assessment of the Demon Deacons players is tremendously helpful.

“Bill is an evaluator,” Kelly said. “It takes out the emotional piece that Mike brings.”

Kelly said that regardless of which team has any type of advantage, this game will come down to the same fundamentals that every game comes down to.

“Really,” Kelly said, “at the end of the day, this is about execution. This will be about the tenets that we have within our offense, defense and special teams.”

ELEVATING ELSTON

There is only one Fighting Irish assistant coach that has been alongside Kelly since he arrived in South Bend eight years ago this December, and that is defensive line coach Mike Elston.

Elston has served in a variety of roles, but as Kelly overhauled his staff last winter, eventually bringing in seven new assistants, whether or not Elston remained was never up for debate.

“We wanted to (retain Elston),” Kelly explained, “because the work he’s done here over the eight years, it was a body of work with two defensive coordinators. His position groups always played with a passion, a fundamental approach to the game, and he’s always been one of our top recruiters.”

Kelly interviewed Elston for the defensive coordinator position, but eventually hired Elko. That wasn’t a slight toward Elston, whom Kelly had higher plans for.

“I elevated him to assistant head coach,” Kelly said. “He’s now handling a lot of the day-to-day responsibilities that head coaches need to.”

Kelly said that Elston “has the ability to be a head coach right away,” and his increased role this season will help prepare him for that promotion when the opportunity arises.

“I really want to give him that opportunity to grow across the board,” Kelly said, “preparing him to be a head coach.”

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NO SAY

For years, Kelly participated in voting in the national coach’s poll. However, he let it go this season and is glad that he did.

“It was too difficult,” Kelly said. “Once they started to go to the (College Football Playoff) committee, the committee, to me, made my role obsolete in the sense that they could do such a better job of evaluating truly the top teams in the country.”

The playoff committee announced the initial poll of the 2017 season Tuesday evening, and Kelly believes that the current system is the best for every team involved.

“I could get a cursory view of it and look at it,” Kelly said, “but I couldn’t do the kind of job that the committee can do from 1 to 25.”

“That was my personal reason, just my own personal reason why I decided to give it up.”

THE EVOLUTION OF A TEAM

There have been a number of championship football teams that have endured a defeat on their way to the title, and Kelly said that his team is markedly improved since it fell to Georgia 20-19 in South Bend in early September.

“For sure,” Kelly said of his team and whether it is growing, “Our quarterback is maturing. I think we’re more consistent defensively. We’re communicating better in the back end of our defense. I just think overall, it’s a better football team.”

The defense has been consistently strong, as has the Irish offense. However, the offense is gaining even more steam as the season goes on.

Of Notre Dame’s first four games, the Irish offense generated over 422 yards off total offense just twice. However, in the last four games, Kelly’s guys have achieved at least that much every game.

Kelly explained that the addition of sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson has benefited the offensive production of his team of late.

After not playing (coach’s decision) in the first four games, Stepherson has five receptions and a pair of scores in the past two games.

“Kevin Stepherson adds a dimension to our offense,” Kelly said. “I think, all in all, we’re playing better as a football team than we were earlier in the season.”

FORGET THE FANS

Throughout last season and throughout the off-season, Kelly was the target of very public criticism by many within the Notre Dame fan base following last season’s 4-8 season. However, he said that his attitude was to focus on making his program better, and he never allowed the negativity from outside to have an effect on the program or himself from the inside.

“I really don’t give it much thought,” Kelly said of any criticism. “I didn’t give it much thought during the time that it occurred because it comes with the expectations of Notre Dame. If you don’t live up to those expectations, you should expect those things to occur.”

“The best way for me to go about and work during those times is to find solutions and change the storyline. That is what I went about to work at. To go home and get mad and be inactive about changing the storyline is poor leadership. So lead during those times is what you should do.”

For more on college football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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