A Healthy Helping of Leftovers

Notre Dame's senior class and a handful of 5th-year seniors enjoyed individual successes prior to the 2012 season. Their performance since its outset guarantees those efforts will be remembered for decades to come.

"You can see the guys that I recruited."

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly's ill-conceived but since forgiven utterance at the tail end of a Thursday night session with the local media last October ranks as a mere misstep; a relative speed bump in the head coach's 2012 ascent to the precipice of Irish legend -- two wins away from a national championship.

His team is a remarkable 15-2 since Kelly's comments caused a 36-hour stir among the ranks and across the social annoyance named Twitter. Months after the internet dust-up, Irish players told reporters, nearly to a man, that the 2012 team was different. Different in its attitude. Its close-knit feel and respect. In its belief in potential greatness.

"Not really," said senior Robby Toma when asked if he was surprised by an undefeated mark. "Even when we first came in I think we showed ability. It takes time to get used to college. Some guys are able to do it in one year, others it might take a little longer. We're confident now and it shows the way we play."

They've played the best ball South Bend has since since the early 90s. Both Kelly's surging recruits and those leftover from the former regime have developed under the guidance of the third-year head coach and his staff.

And though each class has representative and irreplaceable front line talent, its the team's seniors that have forged through years of disappointment to play their best collective football in 2012.

"We have a few fifth-year seniors but our class is kind of the last of that group," said Martin of a group in place upon Kelly's arrival. "Our class actually turned out really good. We have a lot of guys that are superstars on the team and a lot of guys that are contributors. Its tough to go through the coaching change, then a couple of decent seasons but less than we wanted. It feels good to start winning.

"If you would have told me we'd have guys like that coming in, I wouldn't have believed it. We have the best tight end in the country; arguably the best defensive player in the entire country. Then a ton of guys who are great players. Its cool to see everyone develop."

Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o are among the nation's top tier of players. Martin isn't far behind. At their best, Cierre Wood, (5th-year) Kapron Lewis-Moore, and perhaps most surprising, safety Zeke Motta, have ascended to all-star status as well.

"It feels great for sure. I don't think any one of us is ever satisfied with where we are," said Motta. "I think it definitely is (Kelly's) three-year message. The intensity the players have on the team. The want-to we all share. It's something special."

Asked if that attitude needed to be developed among the ranks, Motta could only speak for himself.

"I don't know, I enjoy practice. It's the highlight of my day, man. I've always liked coming out and playing football. That's kind of my thing."

The Ring Leader

Notre Dame is two wins away from a championship, and among its 15 best players, more than half are from its senior and 5th-year leftovers.

Chief among them is the team's heartbeat -- a player who could have departed early for NFL riches, leveling this undefeated march before it began. Instead, Manti Te'o stayed for then-undefined reason, but one that's come into focus over the 11 months.

"I just try to instill love," said Te'o of his unique leadership qualities. "I think as a leader, as a captain, whenever you have guys around you that love you and respect you and that will do anything for you, that's when you'll experience a lot of success.

"I think that as a team we've grown that mentality here.  We don't play for ourselves.  We play for the guy next to us and this university and our families and friends.  So we don't play for ourselves.  I think that's been the strength of this team."

It was the stated strength in pre-camp interviews with Martin, Te'o, Theo Riddick, and John Goodman. It was reiterated by Motta, Eifert, and Lewis-Moore. It was noted thusly by Mike Golic, Jr., Braxston Cave, and Dan Fox.

What seemed contrived player-speak at the time played out to the tune of 11 straight wins in a season most predicted a maximum of nine; most fewer still.

To be sure, "the guys" Kelly recruited have been instrumental and offer the program a bright future (the team loses just three starters from the nation's top defense). But those he inherited and developed thereafter keyed this season's magical run back to the top of the college football world.

They're bound by that march and the trials of a 22-16 start to their college careers.

"It's definitely a blessing to be a part of this team," said Motta. "To have the friends that I've met here over the past four years be part of my life. The coaching staff, my family has been able to come up to games, and to now be able to eat a nice meal on Thanksgiving -- there's a lot to be thankful for.

"Its spectacular to see the evolution and change over the past four years," he continued. "To see and witness how this program has progressed, but to see where we are as a team. Not only our record, but that we come to work every day, really play for each other, and come out on that football field and have fun.

"There's nothing I wouldn't do for the guys on this team."

Note: Click here for Part II and a review of the members of the 2012 graduating class as well as their fifth-year teammates.

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