Balancing Act

Irish prepare for Sun Bowl...and 2011 with extra set of December practices.

What a difference a month makes.

On November 6, Notre Dame football was limping through its Week 10 Bye – a 4-5 football team on the heels of a particularly ugly two-game losing skid.

One month later, the Irish are 7-5 after the program's first three-game streak to end a season since 2005 and preparing for a New Year's Eve bowl against the one rival most fans would peg as the ideal post-season foe.

The Brian Kelly Midas Touch took awhile to settle in South Bend, but it's alive and well entering the Holiday season.

"You might not think that two 7-5 football teams would get much interest but this matchup brings back some great memories," Kelly said in reference to one of the most intense rivalries of the late 80s. "We hope it's a pre-cursor of the game's we're going to play beginning in 2012."

While local Irish fans are abuzz regarding that Chicago-based matchup in 2012, the year-end battle this month seems like a gift from the football gods after a shaky first two months of a season filled with promise.

"We're excited about being part of this," Kelly continued. "A month ago we didn't know if we'd have a bowl opportunity, so we're grateful and excited.

"Our players remember the wins," he noted of the season-ending streak. "What we hope to remember the most about this Sun Bowl is a victory. That's what we've talked to our team about and we've begun the preparation for that."

That preparation will likely entail 14 practices prior to game day. That despite an allowance for final exams and four days home for Christmas with family.

"We'll release them on the 22nd. That will be their last practice and then they will meet us in El Paso on the 26th," Kelly offered of the team's welcomed Holiday respite.

Prior to that time off will be the key sessions of the bowl preparation process.

"Saturday (the 18th) will be a good two-hour practice," Kelly stated offering the team would then rest on the 19th. "The 20-21-22…those are the three most important practices because I'm going to treat those as Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday of a normal week. That way when I get to El Paso, we have our game plan in, and that becomes bonus practice time in El Paso."

Kelly won't completely release the team during final exams week (December 13-17) though the requirements will be minimal.

"We have schedules mapped out that will allow us an opportunity to meet with our players and condition our players," Kelly said of the finals break. "We won't take them unless they are free but we have schedules that allow us to meet with our players so they will not be totally away from us for that entire five or six-day period.

Starting point or climax?

It's a relevant question for a team set to lose just 8-10 of its top 35 contributors from scrimmage:

Will Sun Bowl preparations focus on the game and the possibility of a less-than-inspiring 8-5 finish? Or has spring ball 2011 started in earnest?

"First it's your seniors," Kelly noted of achieving a practice balance. They're going to a bowl game and you have 14 or 15 practices; how do you address your seniors? Do they practice in all of them? Because not all of (the practices) are leading toward Miami preparation; they're a glimpse to 2011, so you have to handle that.

"We've already talked to our seniors about what their involvement is in our practice."

One senior sure to be heavily involved is nose guard Ian Williams who is expected to play after missing the season's final four regular season contests with a knee injury.

"He's champing at the bit to get back out there," Kelly said of one of his favorite first-year players. "He moved well Saturday in a limited practice and we'll continue to add more to him. When you bring back a guy of that caliber it's a huge upgrade going into a bowl game."

As for Williams' rep threshold…that appears up to the big man himself.

"Their roles will change because Ian will get as much work as he's able to get," Kelly said of juniors Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams who performed at a high level in Williams' stead. "It's (Williams) last game playing for the University of Notre Dame and he's going to have to tap his helmet and yell really loud to come off the field because we're going to stick with him."

Regarded as the team's best defensive lineman and, as offered by Kelly, possibly its best defensive player, the Irish front seven actually improved greatly over the final three games of Williams' four-game absence, allowing a total of 22 points and a single touchdown.

Rees, Montana…Castello and Mulvey

When Tommy Rees stepped in for an injured Dayne Crist, Kelly noted that promising, un-used true freshman Andrew Hendrix could be called upon over the final three contests in an emergency situation.

That's off the table entering the season's final contest.

"He would not go into this game," Kelly said of a posited development that would burn Hendrix's entire freshman season of eligibility. "Having said that, he's getting a lot of preparation work. In some instances, we're treating this as the 2011 season. There's a balance again where you talk about preparation for the bowl game but some of these practices will be 2011 practices. That's the mix; but the game itself, you will not see him playing."

Starting and likely playing throughout is classmate Tommy Rees, he of the 3-0 starting QB record and unlikely 10 touchdown/8 interception career start.

Competition for the 2011 QB job will begin in earnest this spring. Until then, Rees is the signal-caller of the nation's most storied sports team.

"The first thing is that he gets an opportunity to continue to get reps as the starting quarterback and that comfort level to go out there everyday with the first team," Kelly said of Rees' major benefit from extra practice sessions. "But you're also getting film study and I think that's what I enjoy the most. It's not in a pressure-packed situation (as it would be in a regular game week). You don't have (just) 72 hours to get this game plan in."

'Tis better to hit than get hit

While Rees and Hendrix will both see time under center this month, it's the rest of the Irish that will have a greater impact on the December 31 outcome.

Kelly has a plan, one that benefited greatly from the age-old coaching practice of trial and error.

"It's not an exact science," Kelly said of bowl preparation. "It's something you have to live through and experience to know what the right balance is. I remember talking to (Virginia Tech head coach) Frank Beamer when we had just finished preparing our team for the Orange Bowl. And I think they had lost two, maybe three bowl games in succession and one thing that stood out that he said was ‘You still have to go back and tackle.'

"We all get caught up in being injury-free and be (healthy) going into the game but then the game can be a little too fast for you early on. So we're going to get back to tackling, some scrimmaging and some live work."

Kelly spent the bulk of his career with FCS power Grand Valley State and thus was more well-versed with a natural playoff system than the curious process that is the FBS bowl schedule. He won two bowls with the Cincinnati Bearcats (2006 and 2007) before dropping the aforementioned 2008 BCS contest to Beamer's Hokies.

Virginia Tech is 8-9 in bowl games under Beamer winning three of its last five.

"I think I've adjusted my schedule as I've learned more about the team itself," Kelly added. "That dictates what you want to do. Do you have a big (or small) senior class? Do you have a lot of young guys that you want to get reps because they're going to play in the game?

"My first couple of bowl games I was hesitant to get into contact situations but (he's learned) you have to get your timing back; you have to go tackle because there is a long lay-off between the time (of the last regular season game to the Bowl). I think I learned some of that but I think it's more that your team dictates how you practice as well.

"This will be a good, balanced schedule for our guys and I think it will give us the right preparation heading into the ball game."

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