Young, Exciting, and…?

Work-in-progress Irish expected to produce a far more entertaining product than their more touted predecessors of 2013.

A stout offensive line. An All-American candidate at linebacker. A quarterback that can beat you with his arm and feet.

Notre Dame rode three of those four elements to a 12-0 regular season just two years ago, but the more things remain the same, the more they change, and change is the operative word for head coach Brian Kelly's football team entering 2014.

"Key positions will be manned by familiar names as well as names that will be stepping out of that tunnel for the first time," said Kelly as Notre Dame enters its final four practices of training camp. "Kind of a unique blend for a football team that I've coached here at Notre Dame."

And despite myriad questions along the defensive front, the absence of two of the team's six best overall players due to pending suspensions, and a schedule that would make Florida State blush, Kelly said the season's goal has not, and will never change.

"We don't have a conference championship to play for, so we only have one goal in mind, and that is to get in the playoffs, and that's our only focus, to be one of those four teams to get in the playoffs," said Kelly. "That's the only way you can think. There's only one way to put it together."

A chief obstacle to that end is a youth-filled roster (coupled with inexperienced upperclassmen), especially on the defensive side of scrimmage where 16 of the unit's top 24 expected contributors have less than one full season -- or no -- collegiate experience.

Youth will be served up front, a place where men fare far better than freshmen.

"We're just young. I don't know that there's a better guy in the country than (defensive tackle) Sheldon Day," said Kelly. "We think he's as good as there is. We're going to have to play two or three guys at the nose, one technique, Jarron Jones has got to continue to progress for us.  We've got to play (Daniel) Cage, who's a freshman.  We've got to play (Jacob) Matuska.  I mean, we've got to play some guys there.

"We'll play (Andrew) Trumbetti a lot, Romeo (Okwara) will play a lot. We like those guys. I already talked about (Isaac) Rochell and (Grant) Blankenship.  We've got some guys and some depth there.  We just have some inexperienced guys."

Day's work volume far exceeds that of his teammates, but as defensive line coach Mike Elston noted, even his standout junior will need respite.

"Sheldon can't be a great player when he's tired. As the saying goes, fatigue makes cowards of us all."

Nevertheless, Day will receive ample snaps in both the base defense and teams nickel and dime sub packages.

"I would say that we have plans to move him around to utilize his pass rush ability," said Kelly. "We don't have a speed rush guy per se, maybe (freshman) Jhonny Williams is probably a guy that can work off the edge a little bit.  But (Day) can benefit from some of our schemes to be an inside guy that can get some pressure, but we feel like he's athletic enough that we can do a number of things with him.  I don't think you'll see him in our 3rd-down package in one position.  We'll certainly move him around."

Pushing the Pace

In October 2010, local media began to press Kelly -- then in his first season at the helm in South Bend -- as to how long it would take his team to achieve the pace and precision of a team such as Oregon, known trendsetters of up-tempo offense.

46 months later, Irish fans might be on the brink of an answer.

To a man in August, Irish players have referenced a faster pace and preparing for said approach since summer conditioning began. Today, offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock offered another hint that the grind-it-out approach of season's past won't present on future fall Saturdays.

"I think you won't see as much rotation this year as you have the last couple years. Not as many guys are going to be involved in the game plan," said Denbrock specifically of the wide receivers unit, before offering: "The system that we're running and the speed we're trying to go it is going to be quite a bit different than what we've done the last couple years."

More snaps for the offense and a more aggressive approach -- ideally through, not up to, the red zone.

"We finished 70th in the country," Kelly offered of his 2013 red zone offense. "We have to keep it in perspective when we talk about red zone and the efficiency in red zone. Where we missed in the red zone were touchdowns. We were deficient in touchdowns (24 touchdowns in 45 red zone trips), and so what we're really looking at more than anything else is being more aggressive in play calling, getting the ball in the end zone, and really that requires us to have a plan to get the ball in the end zone…

"Sometimes you just have to be a little bit more aggressive in your play calls in getting the balls in the end zone.  We've got to score, and I made it pretty clear that we need to score more touchdowns down there."

Potentially without his top receiver DaVaris Daniels (suspension), Kelly doubtless has enough offensive weapons to do so. Chief among them is the triggerman.

For the first time in his time in the program, Kelly spoke of Everett Golson today in terms of his off-the-field attributes.

"I could give you a list of reasons," said Kelly when asked how Golson had matured. "I mean, he was spotty in attendance. He was at times late. He wasn't doing the things leaders do. Now he's first to everything.  He's the first one to speak up if things aren't going well. To answer your own question, he's matured, and he knows what great leadership looks like, and he's paid attention to it and knows what it looks like, and now he's that guy out in front, and he's not the guy behind. That comes with maturity, and that comes with knowing what good leadership looks like."

An offense that will score. A defense that could wreak havoc. A kicker that's yet to miss in the clutch. And still many more questions without the possibility of answers, at least until the Irish exit a crucial opening month that features five weekends, four games, and no trips into enemy territory.

The football team Kelly produces on Labor Day Weekend against Rice won't likely resemble the group that takes the field Thanksgiving Saturday in Los Angeles. Growth is expected. Growth, in fact, is paramount. They're not yet close to a finished product and didn't expect to be on August 19.

"We'll play faster on offense, we'll play faster on defense, and we'll all together be excited to watch this football team play and grow as the season progresses."


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