Change Off; Business as Usual, On…Michael Floyd ended 2010 as Notre Dame's all-time touchdown scorer through the air. He began 2011 taking over the top spot on the program's receptions, yardage, and 100-yard games list as well.
In between, Floyd endured public scorn, a dose of humiliation, humbling moments, and more scores of pundits that opined he escaped suspension due purely to his athletic prowess.
Since, Floyd has made necessary changes for the better off the field (where it matters) while improving upon his prodigious strengths between the lines.
"He spent three hours on Friday at McKinley Middle School playing with kids," Kelly noted of his senior star. "Just those little things. You see he's out there having fun with kids on a Friday before a football game. Trying to make sure that they get the right mentors in front of them.
"We continue to see the decisions that he's made in his life come to fruition."
Floyd will leave Notre Dame in possession of at least five major records (four listed above, plus yards-per-catch in a single game) and likely with a couple others in tow (he's currently No. 1 in receiving yards per game). What he'd like to exit South Bend with is 11 consecutive victories.
"Those numbers don't mean much to him. He wants to win," Kelly said of Floyd's name atop the Irish record books. "He's a ferocious competitor. He loves to play football. I think the most important thing to him is getting his degree and playing for Notre Dame.
"The rest, he knows, I think he's come to a realization that the rest of it is going to take care of itself if he just keeps an eye on those two things."
Floyd's pursuit of victory included a career first last week vs. Air Force – big No. 3 as the deep man under an opposing punt.
"He's going to get through that first guy. Whoever's coming down on him, it better be a lineman because he's going to break the first tackle," Kelly noted of his 6'3" 225-pound star. "And if you can get through that first tackle, usually you can get some guys covered up. It's the first guy that obviously is the key. Our expectations are that he's going to get through the first level and maybe get us a little bit more than 0.3 on returns," Kelly noted (less-than) half-jokingly.
As for the message board uproar that Floyd "could" get hurt in the role?
"I've never had it on my mind that we're risking injury putting a guy back there. You're going to put your best guy back there," Kelly explained.
Irish starters to excel in full-time or part-time punt return roles over the years: Dave Duerson, Tim Brown, Ricky Watters, Rocket Ismail, Jeff Burris, Allen Rossum, Autry Denson, Joey Getherall, David Givens, Vontez Duff, Tom Zbikowski, and Golden Tate (Tate didn't "excel" but did author one prime time clutch return touchdown in his final season).
Of the group, Duerson, Brown, Watters, Ismail, Burris, Rossum, Denson, and possibly Duff, Zbikowski, and Tate could be considered "irreplaceable" in their scrimmage roles, a category under which Floyd certainly reigns supreme along with Heisman Winner, Tim Brown.
Inside the InteriorThough Notre Dame's two-headed monster at running back made a late run at the team's "Best Unit" award through six games, the Irish defensive line, through depth and production alone, still deserves the honor.
One member of the group that hasn't been at full strength this season is senior nose guard Sean Cwynar, who played precious few snaps in last week's win over Air Force.
"It's really been his hand. His cast came off (Tuesday)," Kelly offered. "He felt like a new man out there today. So he's able to get back in there. He's got to be able to us his hands. He wasn't able to control both gaps. He feels really good."
Good enough to be considered fully-cleared for next Saturday's prime time tussle with the Trojans.
"He'll have a soft something over the top, but his bone growth and density are at a point where he does not need to be protected," Kelly said. "We used almost six weeks on that; he feels really good. He was pretty happy at practice (Tuesday)."
In Cwynar's stead over the last few weeks has been massive freshman talent Stephon Tuitt, a player capable of filling in at both defensive end and nose guard, as well as a three-technique tackle, despite his limited collegiate experience.
Tuitt sat out the Michigan game due to a coaching staff decision (along with fellow frosh Aaron Lynch). The Georgia native sat out the Purdue contest on October 1 due to a decision he made, and likely regretted.
"As it relates to Stephon, I just told him that we expect a lot out of him," said Kelly of his decision to suspend the freshman for skipping a Thursday class. "We've got a high bar for him. We expect him to be a leader here some day.
"(Kelly told him) ‘This is going hurt right now, but it's going to be something you're going to be able to build off of in the future.' He was obviously disappointed, but understood that a decision had been made. It was a very mature reaction based upon the decision that was made.
"His mom was involved in this conversation as well," Kelly continued. "We try to include everybody and make a decision in the best interest of him as well as the team."
Tuitt's experience at nose guard began much earlier than fans and media were aware.
"In camp we started to move him around a little bit. When you're playing a 3-4 defense and you're looking at guys, it was pretty easy to see (Louis) Nix (6'3") and then you see (Sean) Cwynar (6'4") and Hafis (Williams, 6'1"), and then you see this kid walking around and you go ‘All right, we've got to find a place to put him,' Kelly said of the 6'7" 295-pound Tuitt.
"He can play both those positions. He's pretty good."
Another "pretty good" player battling injury is junior All-America candidate Manti Te'o. Kelly offered that his defensive leader and horse would have the bye week off (from the field) and return to practice next Monday, his ankle expected to be close to 100 percent in preparation for the Trojans.
Well-PositionedRunning back George Atkinson burst onto the scene with an 89-yard kick return touchdown on his second career touch – Week Three vs. Michigan State. Last week, he scored his first from scrimmage, a one-yard dive over the pile for Notre Dame's final score.
Atkinson was recruited as an athlete, but remained at running back – his chief high school position – due to both his skill set and a dearth of bodies available to Kelly and position coach Tim Hinton entering the season.
The freshman runner, whose twin brother Josh made his field debut as a starter on the kick coverage unit last week, will apparently remain in his role for the foreseeable future.
"He's a running back. He's a running back," Kelly responded when asked specifically about G. Atkinson's future. "We've told him, ‘that's your position.'
"He's better qualified, uniquely qualified, to play the running back position. He reads holes well. He's going to be a really physical back for us. So no, his destination is running back (not slot receiver/wide receiver).
Kelly offered that while Atkinson's recruitment allowed for a move to wide receiver, it was a relatively quick decision once he hit campus.
"He had great athletic ability. We weren't really sure what position that would be until we got him here," Kelly admitted "And that's going to probably be the case again this year (with other incoming athletes).
"There's a better comfort level," Kelly said of Atkinson's personal feelings on the subject. "And he's got good ball skills, not great. He's better suited to play running back."