Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Even if he weren't the two-time, reigning Big East coach of the year, Brian Kelly would still be a go-to guy for us reporter types. Kelly is never afraid to answer a question, and do it thoughtfully and in an interesting. Which is why he's the perfect subject for this week's installment of our spring Q&A series:
First of all, where do you keep your Big East coach of the year trophies?
Brian Kelly: Well, they're not prominently displayed for you today because you have no eligibility. But if you had eligibility, they would be prominently displayed. Certainly we use that from a recruiting standpoint. I think when you get in this recruiting process, it's important that kids see that you can be successful, and the leadership has to have that type of credibility. So we pull them out when the big recruits come in.
What has the reception from recruits been like since the Orange Bowl? I assume they know more about you now.
BK: Yeah, I think the recognition end of things now is not an issue. "Cincinnati ... didn't know you were in the Big East." We don't have to deal with that anymore. The first couple of months when I got here, we certainly did, but now it's an easier sell because you went to the Orange Bowl, you were on TV 11 out of 13 weeks on some kind of ESPN platform. So we have no problem with the recognition end of things now. And kids clearly want to be in a winning program. So it has obviously, in the last two years, made recruiting a whole lot easier.
Looking at this year's team, the obvious issue is the defense, where you lost 10 senior starters. How much does that concern you at this point?
BK: Well, it's an interesting question because early in the year last year, our defense didn't play quite as well as people had expected with the number of seniors we had. And I had to remind them, that of the 10 seniors we had on defense, only three had significant playing time. Lamonte Nelms hadn't started many games, Tory Cornett hadn't started many games, Brandon Underwood hadn't started any games -- and the list goes on. So it's less of a concern because we did it last year, and we think that we've got similar players that have been waiting for that opportunity to go out and perform. I think the biggest concern for us this is spring is, who are our leaders on defense? Last year we found Connor Barwin as a leader. I think we've got enough players to compete in the Big East for a championship. We've got to find out who those leaders are on defense.
Do you have starters in mind at a lot of places or is there really a lot of wide-open competition?
BK: In reality you're always going to point toward the guys that have some experience. I would say not one of the positions is so far along that they couldn't lose that position if they didn't come to practice and perform every day, to be quite honest with you. There's no Mike Mickens. There's no Corey Smith, who was a three-year starter. We don't have those guys on defense. Which is kind of good. Becuase the energy and excitement you have among the ranks, those guys are pretty excited to go to work every day. We don't have to worry about the kids being motivated.
When you changed defensive coordinators from Joe Tresey to Bob Diaco, you said you wanted to go to a 3-4 scheme. Is that still your thinking, and what was the motivation for that?
BK: We want to be in a position that we can, if we want to, line up in a three-down defense and play our base. But, for example, we play Dec. 5 at Pittsburgh. If we feel like we need to move the front and be in a four-down because of weather conditions and (Pitt) running the ball, we can certainly do that.
I think today's defense has got to be able to move in and out of the three-down defense. And really what we're doing is, we're saying, "I don't want to be a sub personnel three-down defense. I want to be able to evolve where that becomes a base, and from that base I can get into whatever I want. I can be in four-down, I can be in three-down." It's pretty similar to what the New England Patriots do. One week you might see them in the 3-4, the next week they're four down. And Bob's background is with that Patriot background with Al Groh. Al was with Belichik and Parcells. So that's what I was looking for, was the ability to be in a three-down or four-down, depending on what the circumstances are in the game.
Did the fact so many teams are using four- and five-receiver sets in this league, and that West Virginia and Connecticut and Syracuse seem to be going that direction, influence your thinking there?
BK: Somewhat. But yet, look at who threw the ball for the most yards in the league, and that was Rutgers. And they did it out of two backs, two tight ends and a flanker. So, I still think the core of the issue here is, you'd better be able to adjust to what you see on a week-to-week basis. I think that's the Big East. I don't think it's a spread-offense league. It's not the Big 12 from that standpoint. Whatever Connecticut says they're going to do, at the end of the day they were going to run Donald Brown. And whether they have a back to do that, I don't know. But I think each and every week, you'd better be prepared for different types of offenses in this league.
How does going to a 3-4 alter your personnel, and do you have the players to run it?
BK: Really what you're doing is, you're looking for another Connor Barwin. You're looking for a guy who can stand up or put his hand down on the ground. Everything else is the same. All the other players are the same. It's that one player that can be a hybrid player. And we think we've got a hybrid player that can do that at the level that can get us in and out of the three-down, four-down looks, and because of that it gives us a lot more flexibility. We think Curtis Young can do that for us. He's a very explosive player. He didn't play a lot last year because of Barwin and Nelms, but he's certainly a guy who can do a lot of things for us. We're pretty excited about the opportunity.
Let's go to the offensive side. You've got Tony Pike back and he's one of the only proven returning quarterbacks in the league.
BK: I don't know what to do about that. I was talking to my strength coach about this, we were going back, we think it is five years now that I have not had a quarterback come back the next year as a starter. So we're pretty excited over here, especially since we don't have to go through four (quarterbacks), either. Tony Pike is somebody we think can really grow this year. He got a taste of it, he battled through some injuries, which I think is part of the process too of maturing. You're going to get banged up a little bit. I think he's recognized how important it is for him to get stronger and physically thicker so he can take the pounding you're going to get in the spread once in a while. So yeah, we're excited to have him back. We think he can be a premier player in the league.
BK: We really do. And I think we've added to it with Jamar Howard, who's a top-flight junior college wide receiver that we're very familiar with here, especially the players since he was here. He signed but did not qualify. So everybody got a chance to see him play a little bit in spring ball and thought that he was potentially a great player. So we really feel like we've got some skill players who can make some big plays for us.
What we're really excited about it is the continuity and the development of our offensive line. Going into Year 3 now, the guys on the offensive line are a lot closer to where we want them to be, relative to running our style of offense. Jeff Linkenbach we think is an NFL player. Jason Kelce has been versatile; he started the West Virginia game at center and has played guard for us. Chris Jurek is a two-year starter for us. So we feel like for the first time, we've got a little bit more of a closer feel for where that offensive line needs to be.
How about the right side of that line, where you lost Trevor Canfield and Khalil El-Amin?
BK: Alex Hoffman was a four-game starter for us and we think he can be a very good player for us at that right guard position. If you look at Linkenbach, Kelce, Jurek and Hoffman, all four of those guys started games for us last year. The right tackle position for us is really the question mark. And in terms of who's going to play there, right now I think we've probably got three guys who are competing for it. The one guy who's had a little bit of experience there, Sam Griffin, has played a lot of football for us. I would say he's probably No. 1, and then in terms of competing you're probably looking at C.J. Cobb, who played last year a little bit. Yeah, the right tackle position right now is the one that has to solidify itself. But the other four I feel pretty good about.
How do you feel about your running game, which has given you some decent production?
BK: I think it's been OK. It hasn't been to where we want it to be. We really think the year of learning the offense for Isaiah Pead is really going to pay dividends. We think he's got a chance to be a really good football player for us. He's got the speed, he's got the ability to catch the football for us. (Jacob) Ramsey and (John) Goebel are solid backs. But I think when you're looking at where you want your offense to go, with the skill we have at the perimeter, a veteran quarterback, four out of the five offensive linemen, if we can really get that position to be more productive for us, with maybe an Isaiah Pead or a Darrin Williams -- who we redshirted last year -- along with the veterans, we think we've got a chance to be really good on offense.
The Big East looks wide open right now with no clear favorite. Would you agree?
BK: When we got here, we thought that this was the year Cincinnati had a chance to compete for a Big East championship, because the Pat Whites were going to cycle out. Well, what happened is, the juniors cycled out, too -- you know, Kenny Britt, Donald Brown, LeSean McCoy. As coaches, we've talked about, the team that plays the hardest longest has a great chance of winning this league. Because there's not one player that can take it over like a Pat White or Donald Brown or LeSean McCoy. There are some good players across the board, don't get me wrong. But I don't know if there's one guy where you go, "That's the guy."
If Tony Pike is the best quarterback in this league with Matt Grothe, I think we've both seen that they've had their ups and downs. So I think it's pretty wide open. Nobody's perfect. Everybody talks about it with basketball right now: there's a lot of flawed teams. And your schedule a lot to do with it as well. If I'm handicapping the race, which I'm certainly not, the four-and-three rotation (league home games to road games) makes a big difference.
Since it's March Madness time, I was wondering: are you a playoff or a bowl guy?
BK: I'm a bowl-plus. I'd like to keep the bowls in place. But I think there's a different opportunity with two more games, however that's manufactured. I just don't think that the schedule is such that you can't do it. And if you keep the bowls in, you take out the financial element. So what's holding it up? It's probably just the logistics of how to make that work after the BCS agreement comes up. I don't see why there can't be two more games at least to finish this up the right way.
You've done both, having coached in the playoffs at Division II. Which is better?
BK: The playoff system is second to none in terms of the focus and attention you have with your team. It's so much better than having to go to Miami for seven days and worry about what's going to happen every night. It's two different worlds. You're on South Beach leading up to play in the Orange Bowl, which is awesome. Or, you're sleeping in your own bed or you're sleeping in a hotel focused on that next game. It's a whole different mindset, it's totally different. As a coach, I enjoyed the playoff mindset much better.
Where do you see this program in five years?
BK: Well, I think competing for Big East championships every year is the model and certainly the bar. I think that we have to decide, what does our stadium and playing on campus bring to us? Can we continue to go at 32,000 to 35,000 (fans) playing on campus, or do we eventually have to do something downtown? Do we have to move this thing downtown like Pitt or South Florida? Those decisions are going to have to be made within that timeframe of five years. There are going to have to be renovations to Nippert Stadium or it's going to have to move downtown.
I really don't see it sustaining itself at 32,000. There's no revenue streams here, there's no luxury boxes. Ideally, yeah, you'd like to put enough seats in here. This is Fenway Park to me; it's a great venue. But you can't keep up with the West Virginias of this world playing in this stadium. So a decision will eventually have to be made. That's really where it's at. It's not that we don't have the ability to recruit in this area. We've already proven that. It's not a matter of, can you win at Cincinnati. We've proven that. It's really a matter of, the long-term viability of this program of competing for championships is tied into our stadium.
You've agreed to a contract here that would run until 2013. Do you think you've answered the question of whether you're here for the long haul?
BK: You know, I don't think I'll ever get over that hurdle, because if you keep winning your name is going to be out there regardless. I think every time there's a big job that's open, they ask Bob Stoops. It just comes with the territory. If you're winning at a program that people don't perceive as a top-10 program, you're always going to get hit with, "Hey, what do you think of this?"
What I've said is, this is a place you can win. And it's not just a place to rest your hat. If something out there comes along that's a great opportuni
ty, you're always going to look at things if they're better for you and your family. But Cincinnati doesn't have to be just a stop any more. You can stay at the University of Cincinnati. I think that's what I'm saying, rather than, "I'm never going to leave Cincinnati, period." What I'm saying is, Cincinnati is committed to winning championships. It's a pretty darn good job.