Ready, willing, and finally able

Notre Dame's march through November and into December was rooted in the process, one that dated back to last winter.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has prepared four squads for bowl games: the 2006 Cincinnati Bearcats, for which he had approximately two weeks of practice as the team's incoming head coach following Mark Dantonio's exist for East Lansing.

That odd situation (and victory) was followed by the 11-3, 2007 Bearcats who finished the season with a PapaJohn' bowl victory over Southern Mississippi, and then his '08 Cincy squad that again finished 11-3, this time with an Orange Bowl loss to Virginia Tech.

How has his fourth bowl preparation session differed from those in the past?

"I've been on teams that didn't want to play the bowl game," Kelly stated. "They just wanted to get through it and get the season over with and get out. These guys want to play the game.

"They have a lot of gas in their tank and that's a good thing at this point. If there's any measurable based on the bowl games I've been in, I'd rather be (where the Irish are) today than where I was in other preparations."

Kelly noted that the team's attention to detail has been to his satisfaction.

"We've pushed them pretty hard. This has been all football Monday and (Tuesday). Then (today) we'll go a half-day and (today) is getaway day for our guys, they'll be out by noon.

"These last three days have been all football. Academics are not at a premium as they've taken care of all that (finals ended last week). We'll see them in El Paso on the 26th."

Notre Dame concluded its South Bend bowl preparation today. The players will travel individually and meet the staff in El Paso on Sunday.

You know it when you see it

Kelly's notation that his 2010 Irish are dialed in and ready could fall under the familiar category of coach-speak. The next time an Irish head coach talks about how poorly prepared or focused his team is – prior to a contest – will certainly be the first.

What litmus test has he used to gauge this squad's prep work to date?

"I try to get that through practice; in how quick we are, and catching the football and not being sloppy (in game situations)," he said. "Using the 12 (previous) weeks and the observations you had, and applying it to your practice.

"Where does it measure? I can tell you the first five or six, because of the way they were set up, we weren't making that evaluation. We were just keeping timing and keeping them from getting rusty.

"Today (Tuesday) was a good day. It was fast, there was high-paced action. It was supposed to be "tag-off" today and it ended up being tackling. That's a good sign."

Another good sign is the apparent focus of his players. Seniors Ian Williams, Darrin Walls, Robert Hughes and Brian Smith; juniors Michael Floyd and Ethan Johnson; sophomore Cierre Wood, and freshman Tommy Rees all made reference to their singular focus of the Sun Bowl.

Offensive coordinator Charley Molnar echoed those sentiments when pressed about the QB situation entering the spring.

Words have no meaning on game day, but it appears the 7-5 Irish considered themselves to be a 3-0 football team with the Miami Hurricanes standing in the way of an undefeated end to 2010.

First year lessons – so to speak

A three-game losing streak; a two-game losing streak; a pair of three-game winning streaks. Scrutiny at every turn.

What did Brian Kelly learn in a disjointed first season at the helm in South Bend?

"Like all other teams that I've coached – if you prepare them in the manner that I have prepared them, they will have a lot left in the tank later in the year," Kelly answered when asked that direct question Tuesday night. "There's a lot of energy in our group; they enjoy coming to play. All of these things are important principles in developing consistency within a program."

Yes, Kelly's declaration above sounds like a lead paragraph for his resume, but Notre Dame's 3-0 November finish under dire circumstances probably affords the previously embattled head coach a moment of post-season self-congratulation.

For the first time in three seasons the Irish weren't markedly worse at season's end. For the first time in at least five (if not 10) seasons, they were noticeably improved across the board.

The bodies were willing…and able

Kelly's insistence on continued competition, development and conditioning throughout the season was instrumental in the strong finish. None of that trio made more of an impact on the players than did conditioning. In a rare instance, summer internet fodder proved accurate: /p>

Notre Dame would be far better conditioned than in season's past.

"I feel like I've gotten a lot stronger even throughout the season," said junior defensive end Ethan Johnson. "It's been great. I've even gained a little weight and I feel like I can play at (he estimated 290-294) so I'm really excited."

Johnson started the season at 283-285 pounds. He offered that he concluded the 2009 campaign at 270 pounds after beginning the season at 290.

"I felt so much weaker at the end of the season last year. When we played Stanford (in last year's regular season finale) I couldn't take on a double team to save my life. Now I feel like I can take it on better and recognize it better

"Anytime you're healthy throughout the season you're able to practice well. That has definitely helped everyone on the team."

Johnson's classmate Trevor Robinson noted increased strength and stamina as well in a post-season interview. After losing 30 pounds (his choice) in the off-season, Robinson fought through a rough start to finish playing his best football – gaining weight and strength in the process.

Has there been a singular element that's made the biggest difference from 2009?

"It's really a whole bunch of things," Johnson offered. "You could say the Training Table; the way we practice (up-tempo); and just guys taking care of their bodies is a big thing.

"The onus is on us to take care of our bodies and to eat right. I just feel like guys have been doing that for awhile. When you add that together, it's going to be a better outcome.

"By the end of the (last season) I felt a lot weaker than my opponents and now I feel stronger. Not more gifted, but healthier."

That added strength and vigor jibes with what Kelly has seen from his crew in the sessions leading up to the Sun Bowl.

"This is a group for which the morale is pretty high," he observed. "When that's the case, guys like to come in and play the game." Top Stories