Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly is sounding a bit this week like the prison warden in the 1967 film "Cool Hand Luke," who famously said: "What we've got here is failure to communicate."
Fighting Irish safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate failed to make sure the Notre Dame secondary was lined up correctly against Rice, leading to several big plays by the Owls last week before Notre Dame won 48-17.
"We've got to get these guys communicating better back there," Kelly said.
On the Owls' first scoring drive alone, the Irish let two different receivers get wide open, leading to a 30-yard pass on a third-and-6 play and a 26-yard TD pass on second and 18. Communication problems could mean even more trouble this week when the 16th-ranked Irish (1-0) face Michigan (1-0) on Saturday in the last scheduled meeting between the two programs.
Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner, who threw four touchdown passes and ran for another last season as the Wolverines beat Notre Dame 41-30, opened this season by completing 13 of 14 passes for 173 yards with three touchdowns in a 52-14 victory over Appalachian State. Despite those impressive statistics, Michigan coach Brady Hoke said he wants to see better precision in the passing game.
"That's mechanics, that's route running, that's your spacing that you need to have," he said.
Kelly on Tuesday didn't want to talk too much about his secondary but said his players "have to be more demonstrative and take more control back there."
The problem was created when safety Austin Collinsworth, one of the captains, sprained his right knee on practice Thursday, leaving the Irish without a veteran to make the calls.
"Austin was very good at it. It was part of his DNA. That was his strength of who he was," Kelly said. "These guys are going to have to take control as if they have that same kind of ability and they're going to have to do it right now. Michigan is on them and it's going to have to happen immediately."
Less than a month earlier, Kelly was saying Redfield, a sophomore who struggled to get on the field last year because he had trouble learning the defense, wasn't ready for such challenges.
"There's no quarterbacking with Max. Austin Collinsworth will do the quarterbacking back there," Kelly said in early August. "We're not going to put much on Max's plate. We're going to ask him to do his job, to do it fast and really not put a lot on his plate."
Kelly said the injury to Collinsworth changed that, and now Redfield and Shumate, a junior who started four games last season, need to make those calls. Kelly said he heard the two at work on Monday with defensive coordinator Bran VanGorder.
"I think coach VanGorder, if you were here at our meetings yesterday, made it clear during the meetings how he wants those guys to communicate. I was in the quarterback meeting room and I could hear our safeties communicating very well during film study," he said. "We're starting that way, and we just have to be more assertive in the way that we talk to each other."
NOTES: Kelly said there is no change in the status of five players who were investigated by the university for possible cheating, but said their status could change quickly if he receives word they are eligible to play. Kelly said last week that the investigation is complete and the cases were in the hands of the school's code of honor committee. ... Kelly wore a blue plaid jacket to the news conference Tuesday, saying it was the spoils for winning an annual golf tournament with some football coaches from small Michigan schools. "First and foremost, I did not lose a bet," he said.