SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There’s a perception out there that Brian Kelly blames his players for losses, one on which the seventh-year Irish coach quickly pushed back when it was brought up Tuesday.
“I don’t blame players for losses,” Kelly interjected when a media member mentioned that he had in the past.
Kelly, though, has been sharply critical of players after losses over the course of his seven years in South Bend. And in some of those instances, he hasn't also criticized himself or his coaching staff, or at least been quick to do it. The latest example was Kelly describing center Sam Mustipher’s snapping as “atrocious” following Notre Dame’s 10-3 loss to N.C. State that was played on a field brimming with standing water.
But Notre Dame players on Wednesday disagreed with the notion their head coach was blaming players or throwing them under the bus in a way that was unfair or negatively impacted the locker room.
“Blame is definitely not the word,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said.
Kizer went on to give a thoughtful, nuanced answer to a question about how he reacts to his coach’s public criticisms of specific players and the negative perception that surrounds it in plenty of corners of the local and national discussion during a 2-4 season.
“In this game there are 11 guys who are required to do their job,” Kizer said. “And in order for us to go out there and to give a better result than we have in these last six games, you have to challenge guys. And when you guys (the media) sit up here and ask (Kelly) about specifics on guys, he's going to let you know exactly what happened and in order for us to not up come out successful.”
Linebacker and senior captain James Onwualu similarly understood why players were being singled out publicly by Kelly during the course of a disappointing 2016.
“That's tough,” Onwualu said. “Obviously some guys don't perform in every game and it's tough at this level. Obviously, don't love seeing that from a head coach, but sometimes it's necessary, I guess.”
Onwualu’s point here wasn’t to criticize Kelly, it should be noted. Instead, it was more that these criticisms are happening because Notre Dame lost four of its first six games.
“That can be perceived as blame, but perception is part of what we do here working with the media,” Kizer said. “James walks in and he gives an answer, and it's perceived as if he's saying that it's a horrible thing that coach puts blame on guys. But I'm sitting here having a conversation with him, and all he's trying to say is, hey, yeah, it's tough when the coach calls you out. But we take that as a challenge here.
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“We accept everything as a team. But individually you're going to have to get challenged to play your best. And when you're 2-4 right now, everyone has to point their finger at themselves and look at themselves in the mirror and accept those challenges so that we can come out and be more successful and hopefully put together the wins that we need to put together in the second half of the season.”
At least one recruit — four-star defensive lineman Donovan Jeter — dismissed the idea of Kelly unfairly throwing his players under the bus (Notre Dame has the sixth-best recruiting class for 2017, according to Rivals.com):
I'm tired of saying ppl saying coach Kelly threw the team under bus. From what I saw he's challenging them to be tougher and more passionate— 5️⃣God (@DonovanJeter) September 27, 2016
It’s worth noting, too, that immediately after Notre Dame’s loss to N.C. State, Kelly delivered an apologetic message to his team pinning the blame on himself:
“I don't think that it's necessary for coach Kelly to apologize to anybody on this football team,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It's our job to execute the game plan that they put in place, and we didn't do a good enough job doing that on the last Saturday.”
Does that mean that a highly-paid coach criticizing his unpaid players before himself or his other well-paid assistants isn’t unseemly? Of course not — at the college level, it always will be. But the captains and leaders within the program don't necessarily view things that way.
“We know he's not blaming us,” McGlinchey said. “If coach Kelly really wanted to blame us, he would come up and say it in our face like he has done before if we've screwed up.
“Obviously things can get misconstrued. Things can get misstated. We don't feel as though he's blaming us. He'll have a conversation with us personally if he wants us to get better because that's the kind of man that he is.
“He runs our program unbelievably well, and we're all lucky to have a coach like him. He takes care of us more than I could even imagine anybody ever doing. Obviously, things get said, and we're 2 and 4, and things are said after a football game. Everybody's pretty emotional after certain things like that, and things can easily get misstated, and that's all that that is.”