Philosophy in Practice

Brian Kelly's unofficial starting lineup has been ravaged by injuries over his first 23 games as Notre Dame's head coach. Those missed starts and time lost have had minimal impact on the end result...just as Kelly planned from the outset.

What do Dayne Crist, Kyle Rudolph, Jamoris Slaughter, Theo Riddick and T.J. Jones, Ian Williams, Carlo Calabrese, Ethan Johnson, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Armando Allen, Mike Ragone, Taylor Dever, Braxston Cave, Sean Cwynar, Michael Floyd, and Prince Shembo have in common?

Each is a starter that missed between one and 11 games in a season due to injury during the 23-game Brian Kelly era.

Each had a replacement that performed somewhere between admirably or heroically in his stead. (In order: Tommy Rees, Tyler Eifert, Zeke Motta, John Goodman and Robby Toma (Toma twice), Sean Cwynar, Brian Smith, Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Cierre Wood, Ben Koyack, Matt Romine, Mike Golic, Louis Nix, Duval Kamara, and Troy Niklas).

Why does Brian Kelly's oft-reference "Next Man In" philosophy operate seamlessly – at least more often than not?

"I'd have to take you back to where we start; in the off-season building trust with the entire group that when it's your time, you'd better be ready," Kelly said. "And that means you better do all the things necessary, even though you might not be getting first team reps, you better be ready because that's how you build a football program. Because there are going to be injuries. There are going to be times when you're called upon and you can't let your teammate down. So building that trust takes time and it can't just be done during the season."

Rees won the inaugural Next Man In award last winter. This year's contenders include Tuitt and Lynch, or if any backup is considered, senior Jonas Gray has been one of the team's five best football players this fall.

But Gray's not a true backup, not with three straight starts (a fourth guaranteed this week). Nor are pass-rush package regulars Lynch or Tuitt. Then again, Notre Dame doesn't have true backups, at least not among its unconventional two-deep.

"We don't have depth charts, we don't post them in the locker room," Kelly offered. "In terms of the way we rep out, our ones and twos (first and second string), they get similar quality reps.

"When you have an injury or you have somebody that can't go, (the) next guy knows he's prepared and knows that you have confidence in him to do his job."

Developed depth was Kelly's stated crusade from the outset. Trust is included in the process.

"When it's your chance, you're actually given it," Kelly offered as a key element to the Next Man In philosophy. "Somebody's not moving in front of you; (for example), we're not going to change Robby Toma and put John Goodman in there because John doesn't work at that (slot) position. It's definitely about recruiting depth, but it's also about, ‘Hey, these guys trust me and when it's my chance I better get it done for them.'

"In recruiting we're still at that point where we have to continue to recruit and build depth within our program."

Preparation vs. Execution

Kelly offered in August that his second Irish installment appeared to be one of the better prepared teams he'd coached. Then came South Florida, the fourth quarter at Michigan, and intermittent struggles throughout a taxing first 11 weeks.

Did he mis-read his troops before the first live bullets struck?

"No, I think they knew what was necessary; we didn't get it all the time," Kelly said in retrospect. "It's my job to find out why that doesn't occur. It's my job to lean on our team when it's not occurring. They understand, they know how to do it. They've proved they can do it. We just haven't been able to get it week-in and week-out.

"We're making really good progress in that respect," he continued. "So there was a great knowledge base in terms of what they needed to do. Sometimes, it's like anything else, you have to stay on them. They knew what they needed to do, but we have to stay on them to get this to be habit forming."

Kelly has often noted that winning is a habitual act, one that separates also-rans (read: the Top 25 fringe) from the elite. He knows the Irish still occupy the former reality.

Just by the way we have shown over the last year and a half that we can put together four wins in a row. "We don't have the right to say that we've put it together yet," Kelly said in reference to the team's modest three-game winning streak."

Pinpointing a reason Notre Dame scuffled to its seven wins has proven difficult. "When you're in (August) training camp, its 100 percent football," Kelly offered of the two ‘phases' of a season: camp vs. games. "When other things start to come into your life, then how you balance all those things relative to your preparation now takes on a different form."

Uphill Climb

Notre Dame's recent success earned the squad its second national ranking of the season (25th in the Coach's Poll; 24th in the Associated Press). After a 0-2 start – that's hell, not purgatory in a 12-game college football season – Kelly acknowledged the ranking while keeping it in perspective. "I think when you get ranked you're playing better, obviously. We started 0-2 and to be ranked this late in the season means we've played better football since that 0-2 start."

They're playing cleaner, too. Saturday, for the third time since the Irish exited Pittsburgh's Heinz Field and the season's fourth contest with a hard-fought, error-filled win, Notre Dame's offense produced a turnover-free game. In the remaining seven contests they turned the ball over between two and five times.

Protecting the ball vs. Boston College this week would ensure victory. The same practice is a must if the Irish are to record an upset in Palo Alto seven days later – one that would rank as the "best win" in nearly six years (at #3 Michigan in September 2005 was tremendous, if only in a vacuum as the Wolverines struggled thereafter).

"When we put together eight, nine, 10 in a row, then we can clearly say we have moved from that constant reminder phase to habit phase. We haven't proven that that's the case yet."

Wins vs. BC and Stanford would give the Irish victories in five straight, something the program hasn't enjoyed since Brady Quinn's final home game provided an eighth straight – not to mention final – win of the 2006 season.


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