Brian Kelly Says the Bar Is Set High at Notre Dame After Last Year

Bob WienekeFeatured ColumnistSeptember 8, 2013

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 07: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on before the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

SOUTH BEND, Ind.—There were the smaller-picture questions thrown Brian Kelly's way Sunday during his day-after press conference following Notre Dame's loss Saturday night at Michigan.

How is wide receiver TJ Jones' shoulder (fine, he'll be at practice on Tuesday), Could he assess the play of inside linebacker Jarrett Grace (did good things, still has stuff to work on), and what is the status of running back George Atkinson III, who struggled catching the ball Saturday night (either catch the ball or he'll be standing next to Kelly).

But for much of the approximately 20-minute teleconference, the questions sent Kelly's way were big picture, particularly in light of the team's first regular-season loss since 2011.

"Look, when you're coming off of playing for a national championship, the bar is high," Kelly said. "So the expectations are, when you go on the road, you don't lose to Michigan, and that's really the standard that is set."

The questions came Sunday following comments Kelly made repeatedly Saturday night about the teaming needing to play smarter and more disciplined, and about Jones saying he felt like the loss was a wake-up call. The fourth-year coach was asked if there were any signs leading up to the game that his team needed a wake-up call.

"No, I mean, I think if we're in a position where we don't understand what it takes to win at Michigan, then we're missing the boat," Kelly said. "I think if you look at the game, we just have to play better and we have to coach better. I don't think there is any big-picture relevance to those quotes other than you've got to get back to work. You've got to practice harder. You've got to pay attention to detail."

One thing many who saw the 41-30 loss to the Wolverines was that this year's defense isn't what last year's was. Devin Gardner and Jeremy Gallon had their way with a unit that, in the first two games of the post-Manti Te'o Era, looked vanilla in a season-opening win over Temple and suspect against Michigan.

There are a number of concerns. The secondary was shredded by Gallon, who caught eight passes for 184 yards and three touchdowns. The front line couldn't contain Gardner, who threw for 294 yards and four touchdowns, and also ran for 82 yards. The linebacker corps looks like it hasn't yet recovered from not having Te'o on the field.

The secondary figures to be the least of those concerns. ND has had recruiting success at the position, and it's considered an area of depth.

The linebacker corps, particularly the inside spots, are a concern in that starters Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox are gone after this season, and there aren't any clear-cut favorites to replace them beyond Grace.

The defensive line is an even bigger down-the-road concern. Nose guard Louis Nix and end Stephon Tuitt were both loaded with preseason honors, but neither has played like an All-American through two games. Nix has five tackles, Tuitt three.

It's also an area where there isn't a lot of depth. It's not inconceivable that both Nix and Tuitt could be gone following the season, although each has a year of eligibility remaining. Last spring, end Aaron Lynch transferred to South Florida, and this summer, signee Eddie Vanderdoes jumped to UCLA.

After the Michigan game, Kelly opted not to point a finger at his defense, talking instead about the missed opportunities on offense. Sunday, he was again asked about the defense.

"I think there are going to be some times when our offense has to win some ballgames," he said Sunday. "I just felt like this was one of those nights where our offense has to bail out our defense."

Based on what happened against Michigan, the personnel concerns and the schedule ahead, it may not be the last night the offense will have to win a game.