Staying Sharp

Last week's practices offered a mixed bag for the Irish, as assistant coaches hit the recruiting trail and the team began to turn the page toward 2011. This week's sessions, though scheduled around finals, will include a first look at Miami...with three days of heavy work on tap prior to Christmas.

He's only coached three previous bowl games but Irish head coach Brian Kelly's bowl preparation experiences have run the gamut nonetheless.

"I would tell you that my bowl experiences have been as unique as any one coach could imagine," Kelly offered of his time with the Cincinnati program. "My first bowl experience (featured) two weeks of preparation with three coaches; my other (unique) experience was that I didn't get to coach a team in the BCS Bowl game, so (the Sun Bowl) is probably more common."

Kelly's first bowl game followed a 2006 season spent with Central Michigan. He was hired as Cincinnati's head coach; arrived, met his players, hit the ground running, and defeated Western Michigan 27-24 in the 2007 International Bowl.

"For me it's been taking the bowl games and my experience with each, and now coming up with and developing a plan. (Previously) so excited about being in the (other bowl games), this one has really been focused on the preparation and development of our players, so it's been more ‘normal.'"

Normal, just not routine.

"The past four or five practices have really been about timing, tempo and tackling," Kelly said of the week past. "Really when you talk about those three things, the game of football requires you to knock the rust off when there's about 30 days (between games). Our focus has been on those elements of the game that require timing – when you get away from it, you can immediately see it."

Kelly added that restoring a quick practice tempo is also key.

Riddick appears ready

In addition to buzz words such as timing and tempo, Kelly offered one basic tenet of the sport above all else when combating a layoff…

" I don't think you can go through a long lay-off unless you tackle," he said. "(Saturday) was a tackling scrimmage. It was (first offense vs. first defense). It was good to see Ian Williams back out there in a live situation; very good to see Theo Riddick back to where we remember him before he got injured."

The comment took many off-guard, but apparently Riddick is already back to his pre-injury former.

"When we played him against USC we played him sparingly because he hadn't shown that burst yet," Kelly noted. "He was able to run out and do the things necessary to get on the field, but now he's back to that second-level speed, when he hits the edge of the defense, he's gone."

Weight training, conditioning and heavy treadmill work has bee instrumental in restoring the sophomore's burst and cutting ability.

"Yesterday and today, even our defensive players were giving it that big ‘ooh and ahh' because he's got that gear back."

What does Riddick bring that was missing from the Irish offense in his absence?

"In your running game, he allows the (defensive) box to widen," Kelly offered. "When we didn't have (his) speed at that position we had to get into more two tight ends and really create our own seams in there by running downhill, direct-snap, power football.

"When you have a guy on the edge (the slot) now, (the defense) better go out and defend him…it opens up more of our zone game inside. It's a change from direct-snap power football. With Theo, you get the zone game that opens up you're running game. With Theo on the field we'll be a lot more diversified in terms of what we can accomplish."

The Irish running game averaged 105.3 yards per game over the first six contests with Riddick in the slot compared to 134.9 in the six games that followed. In each of which, Riddick out or severely hampered by injury and the Irish featured a more traditional power scheme, at least intermittently.

The passing game took a dip in his absence, with 284 yards per outing and 11 TD prior to his injury vs. 230 per game without the sophomore slot target. The Irish did throw more passing TD (15 vs. 11) over the final six games though it should be noted Riddick's slot presence could have contributed to that before as he injured his ankle in Game Seven vs. Western Michigan.

Notre Dame scored 16 offensive touchdowns in the first half of the season; 20 over the next six weeks. It's relevant that the first opponent of the season's second half, WMU, allowed six offensive touchdowns to the Irish, skewing the final numbers.

Final preparations

The Irish players and coaches will have a chance to enjoy their Christmas Holiday; a 3-4 day respite before they hit the ground running in El Paso.

"We'll try to work into a busy schedule (this week) for our players with exams, and those schedules are going to put us in some non-traditional times in terms of practice so we can get our players there," Kelly offered of this week's plan.

"But that will be (an initial) look at Miami. We'll hone in on that a little and then (December) 20th, 21st and 22nd will really be long days of football. We'll treat it almost like camp in that we'll have our guys the full day. We'll release them at noon on the 22nd and they will go home and meet us in El Paso on the 26th."

The NCAA provides players with a travel waiver so each can depart from their hometown after the Holiday break. Kelly should find some time as well after what appears to be a grueling three day practice plan early next week.

"December 20-21-22 for me are three long days that I want to get all of our work done before we even get to El Paso," he added.

Coaches on the recruiting trail will return home this week for end-week practice sessions. Those to date have been short – no longer than an hour each – which Kelly believes has kept the team, especially the seniors, focused.

"(One practice), 15 minutes of that one hour was devoted to our freshman in terms of scrimmaging," Kelly said. "So I told our guys, ‘Listen, it's 45 minutes. You better give me everything you have for 45 minutes or we'll turn this into a three-hour practice.' You know what, they're pretty receptive to that. The seniors will give you everything they have but they'll start going through the motions.

Key to avoiding senioritis? Hitting, of course.

"It doesn't matter if you're a senior or a freshman. You love to play, so (when they scrimmage)…a pretty easy one hour for us." Top Stories