Kelly wishes he had more players like Rees
Brian Kelly doesn't know what backup quarterback Tommy Rees has that allows him to perform so well under pressure, but after watching film of Saturday's storm-delayed, 23-20 loss to South Florida, he wishes more of his players had it.
"We would like more guys to be at ease with the game," Kelly said. "Tommy goes in there and the game is not difficult for him. He obviously has to get better in a lot of areas but he never appears to be overwhelmed or anxious. We had some guys who were a little anxious in their first game. He doesn't have that. He's always seems very comfortable running onto the field. It has always been a strength of his."
South Florida coach Skip Holtz worried about the tradition and pageantry of Notre Dame Stadium impacting how his players performed. Instead, it was the Irish who seemed to get swallowed up by the moment during a disheartening season-opening loss.
Kelly's team dominated statistically but had five turnovers, including three inside South Florida's 5-yard line, as well as eight penalties. A similar effort against Michigan next week could drop Notre Dame to 0-2.
"We probably played as poorly as we can play relative to execution," Kelly said. "We played hard, we fought, we had great resolve, our guys hung together, we played seven true freshman in total, so I think our future is really bright, but we have to clean up a lot of our mistakes. They're really glaring with the teams we play at the start of our schedule."
Kelly's first order of business is determining whether Rees or senior Dayne Crist will start at quarterback against the Wolverines. Dayne was dubbed the starter after a close competition in training camp but performed poorly in the first half against South Florida and was replaced by Rees, who completed 24 of 34 passes for 296 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the second half.
Kelly said he won't prolong the decision in an attempt to gain a strategic advantage against the Wolverines, in part because the offense remains the same regardless of which player starts. He said he expects to make the decision Monday.
"Sometimes you want to evaluate, 'Was it as bad as you thought or better than you thought,'" Kelly said. "In the now you get a sense and feel as the game goes but sometimes when you go back and look at film you get a better understanding of maybe it wasn't the quarterback's fault on this play, maybe it was some other factors. Film allows you to do that. We'll do that today. Then we'll make a decision where we want to go for the rest of the season. It will be a critical decision. It won't be as much what they do on the practice field but what we saw on film and who we think is the best quarterback moving forward."
When Kelly spoke of punter Ben Turk's struggles, however, he may have been speaking for the entire team. The junior averaged 34.2 yards on five punts. His first punt of the game traveled only 23 yards.
"It still goes back to how you respond when 81,000 people are out there," Kelly said. "Ben has to get through that. He's our best guy. We see that every day in practice. He has to get through that and when it's game time he has to perform. We're at the point now where the guys we have, there is not another guy. They have to get better in game situations."
The same goes for Theo Riddick, who muffed one punt that resulted in a South Florida field goal and bobbled others. Kelly said he had been making Riddick catch punts one-handed in practice to prepare him for his first game as a punt returner and the junior only dropped one all week.
"Were going to start Theo again at that position," Kelly said. "He's a one-time starter. Obviously, he didn't look great back there. I was probably as nervous as anybody else when the ball went into the air. We've got to get him through that. He's capable of doing it. He can track the ball. We have to get him to that next level."
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