BY DAN GREENSPAN
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is confident he will be back next year after the Fighting Irish wrapped up a disappointing season with a blowout loss at Southern California on Saturday.
Kelly won at least eight games in each of his first six seasons, but the Irish finished 4-8 this season, culminating in a 45-27 loss to the No. 12 Trojans.
Kelly scrapped his usual late-November itinerary of recruiting in California after facing the Trojans to return to South Bend, but says it’s not related to Notre Dame’s struggles.
“I don’t believe I’m coming back early because I’m getting fired,” Kelly said.
Asked if he wanted to coach Notre Dame next season, Kelly said, “Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ll be back.”
“I always stay on the West Coast for the week and then we get into bowl practice,” Kelly added. “But obviously we don’t have bowl practice, and then they get into exams, so I’m going to use next Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to do exit interviews so I can spend a little time and get feedback from our players in terms of some of the things we may need to adjust within our program.”
Kelly’s players also backed him after the Irish wrapped up their worst season since Charlie Weis went 3-9 in 2007 with a dreary, waterlogged loss in Los Angeles. Kelly’s decision to return home after facing USC echoed a similar change ahead of Weis’ firing in 2009.
Unlike Weis, Kelly led the Irish to appearances in the BCS championship game and the Fiesta Bowl during his first six seasons.
“If anything, Coach Kelly deserves another chance if people are talking about him being fired because this is just one bad season,” defensive tackle Jarron Jones said. “Just because we have one trip-up doesn’t mean he should be fired.”
Kelly also said he plans to review every aspect of the program, including his coaching staff, beginning next week, but the first order of business will likely be addressing the fallout from defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s actions Saturday.
Tillery appeared to nudge USC running back Aca’Cedric Ware’s helmet with his cleat as the sophomore was down on the field after being hit by safety Nicco Fertitta, resulting in a targeting penalty and Fertitta’s ejection. Tillery was not penalized, but did receive a personal foul for stepping on right tackle Zach Banner’s ankle after an extra point later in the drive.
Kelly removed Tillery from the game after the penalty and said he could face further discipline for his conduct, though Kelly was not asked specifically about the incident involving Ware.
“Accountability is built within any program, and Jerry has to be accountable for his actions every single day,” Kelly said. “Jerry is a good kid. If he made a mistake, we’ll hold him accountable for that mistake.”
Video and GIFs of Tillery’s actions immediately went viral.
It overshadowed a largely positive defensive performance for Notre Dame. The surging USC offense scored just 24 points and was held under 500 total yards for only the second time during its eight-game winning streak. Instead, it was breakdowns on special teams and in the passing game that did in the Irish.
Adoree Jackson picked up a bouncing punt and ran 55 yards for a touchdown, followed by DeShone Kizer throwing an interception that cornerback Ajene Harris returned 33 yards for a score. In 17 seconds, a 10-7 deficit for Notre Dame turned into an insurmountable 24-7 hole. Those untimely breakdowns haunted the Irish all year, Kelly said.
“I thought we could play with anybody this year,” Kelly said. “We just have not been able to sustain consistent performance for four quarters. We have shown a propensity for some self-inflicted wounds, whether they be on special teams or offense or defense.”
Kelly called the defense a young group that is “ascending” and “will make big strides next year.”
As for the offense, its status will depend on whether Kizer declares for the NFL draft or returns to school for his redshirt junior season. Kizer said he has not made a decision yet.
Kelly said the school had requested draft evaluations for Kizer, left tackle Mike McGlinchey, left guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Nyles Morgan from the NFL.
Kizer did say the disappointing year gives him plenty of difficult tape to review and situations he could learn from, trying to take some positive from a bad situation.
Jones believes the same holds true for Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame.
“You never want to think about the negative stuff, because the negative stuff taints the positive memories,” Jones said.
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