"I would start with their development as football players" said Kelly. "If you go back to when I first started here at Notre Dame, Robby was kind of a forgotten name in the sense that he hadn't played a lot of football. And Manti was a freshman who, obviously, in our first evaluation was a physical player that didn't know how to play the position yet. And their progress has been steady and as good as anybody in the program."
Te'o's position coach and coordinator Bob Diaco added the following of the Irish star. "I would say that Manti is the finest football player in America, all positions, all teams in college, and that he's the best football player that I've personally coached."
Diaco's effusive praise of Te'o is a testament to the player's improvement over the off-season and through September. Always a solid performer, Te'o, along with Toma and a host of other battle-scarred seniors, have made sure that between the lines on Saturday isn't the only place their presence is felt.
"Now take that with what they do off the field: they make a huge impact on our team because they're great leaders, they're competitors, and then their friendship is the third element and they lean on each other pretty heavily, especially this last couple of weeks," said Kelly in reference to Te'o's lost loved ones last month. "So there are so many forms to it. But the thing that stands out for me is their development as football players has been as fun to watch as anything."
The pair are part of a class that's seen both ends of the spectrum at Notre Dame: a 6-6 season without a bowl (one that incidentally included a solid 6-2 start) and now a No. 9 ranking with one-third of the season gone.
"We've got a number of seniors that have been here and listened to that for the last three or four years," said Kelly of recent hype surrounding a stellar September. "I don't think last year was anything different. They've heard that every (pre-season). I know that when I came before our team on Monday, and I talked about listen, for the last couple of days you've been getting patted on the back, and told how great you are. And they're talking about games down the road that you haven't played yet.
"The response that I got to my front row (the seniors) that I got catching their eye was, 'Coach, we tune that out.' I was about to finish saying, 'And that's warranted, okay, as long as you keep it in perspective.'
"I'm pretty confident that our veteran players, in particular, they have been through this enough to know that the focus needs to be on the next practice."
Amplifying what Kelly noted as "noise" surrounding the team was a bye week that allowed for seven extra days of 'attaboys' both on campus and in the national media.
Regardless of the potential distraction that accompanies such attention, it's nonetheless better than the alternative that both Kelly and his players endured after a previous bye week.
"It's also important that they understand the success that they're having, because this bye week was a whole lot better than the bye week after Tulsa," said Kelly in reference to a 4-5 Irish team from 2010, one that limped into the bye after back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa. "They remember that, and I remember that. It's important that there's a balance there. You don't just put blinders on. But what you ask them to do is focus on the task at hand, so there is a balance there as well."
That balance affords the Irish a chance at five straight wins for the first time in six football seasons...and a little more welcomed noise as a result.