Where do the Irish go from here?

Notre Dame’s leadership in 2014 basically was the same in 2015. In 2016, new standard setters must emerge, such as Isaac Rochell, Mike McGlinchey and James Onwualu.

The days of counting on Sheldon Day shooting a gap are gone. So too is the sudden pass-rushing rampage Romeo Okwara was on. For Jaylon Smith, the spectacular was commonplace. We may never see one quite like him again.

Joe Schmidt deftly directing traffic? Not anymore. The sure tackling of KeiVarae Russell and the physicality of Elijah Shumate are in the archives.

Remember when you could pencil in Will Fuller for a touchdown just about every game? Gone. The big-play capabilities of C.J. Prosise were a revelation in the first half of the ’15 season; a distant memory once injuries took their toll. Now he’s on to the NFL.

Nick Martin running the operation up front and Ronnie Stanley batting around pass rushers are now just fond memories. So, too, is the consistency of wideouts Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

No college football team stays exactly the same. But the carryover from one team to the next – specifically, the Notre Dame team from 2014 to 2015 – was extensive. The identity, dynamics and leadership of the 2016 Irish squad will be in the hands of others.

“Last year’s off-season was very senior-based,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer, who returns this spring with three years of eligibility and a competitive situation with Malik Zaire, who continues his comeback from a broken foot. “We took that and ran with it.

“I’m curious to see who steps up. We will have guys who have had quite a bit of experience. I will take the leadership skills I learned this year and apply it to the off-season and hopefully become a Joe Schmidt or a Nick Martin on the team.”

Leadership is not a baton to be freely passed from one player to the next. The next leaders of the team have to be willing recipients of that baton.

The coaching staff naming captains or declaring the leadership does not determine it. It has to be earned in January and February when camera crews are nowhere to be found, and in June and July when the humidity is high and the glory that comes with the college game is still a couple months away.

“It was easy (in 2015) to find our identity because we pretty much had the same exact team and you could build on a culture that was already established,” said defensive lineman Isaac Rochell.

“We’re losing a lot of guys. We’re going to have to come together to find our identity. So while there’s already a culture, you still have to build upon it. Each team has its own identity. It’s just a different dynamic and different feel. The biggest thing for us is we have to find our identity and build on that.”

Rochell figures to be one of those leaders. So, too, does senior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, who ascends to role of elder statesman on the offensive line with the personality to assume a leadership role.

“I think I’ve put myself in a position to have guys start trusting me and seeing that how I do things is just as good as anybody else who has done it before me,” McGlinchey said. “That’s obviously a goal to have people count on you and be able to look up to you.”

At linebacker, lo and behold, the former receiver – James Onwualu – is now the most experiences returning player in the corps.

“Coach (Brian) Kelly does a great job of getting the young guys to buy in,” Onwualu said. “Being someone who buys in is part of leadership. I’m hoping to be one of those leaders.  I’ll be one of the oldest guys. When you have guys competing, you just focus on scheme and building the team. We can definitely get to 10, 11, 12 wins on a regular basis.”

And yet while the Irish won 10 games for just the fourth time in the last 22 seasons, programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson in recent years and a couple of others win double-digit games on a near annual basis. Notre Dame is not at that level. How do they get there and stay there?

“I definitely believe we can become that type of program,” said cornerback Cole Luke. “I thought we could have a few years ago. It’s just a matter of working hard, taking it day-by-day, and focusing on the week ahead of you. I don’t want to look too far in the future.

“People have a need to look too far forward into the future, and they kind of take their eye off the next week. We have the talent. If we just focus, we’ll be fine. Execute and play Notre Dame football. It’s only a matter of time before we’re on the bright stage.”

Clearly, a foundation for future success has been built. The ’15 senior class walked out the door with 39 victories in four years, which is a far cry from Ohio State’s 50 in the same time period, but more in line with the days of the early ‘90s when the Irish won 40 out of 49 games from 1990-93.

“A lot of that lies on the older guys, the seniors coming back next year, the juniors that have played, and carrying over the culture that has been established,” said tight end Durham Smythe.

“If the older guys can instill the fact that it’s important to win these games, do all the things that are relevant, and really retain the culture we’ve established these last three years, that’s really what carries programs on for extended periods of time.”

Of course, it takes more than just talking about what needs to be done to match the performance of the nation’s top programs. References to Team 127 and its closeness are great reminders of the direction the Irish need to go. A steady stream of "Team 128" references is right around the corner.

The fact is with Kelly as head coach, the Irish have lost at least four times in four out of six years, including five losses in half those seasons.

Carry over is difficult. Notre Dame hasn’t won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons since 1992-93.

“We have great leaders,” said defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. “Now it’s the juniors becoming seniors and sophomores becoming juniors who need to emerge.”

“You get this sense of winning and make it who you are,” Kizer added. “There are so many teams that can win a couple games in a row, but then they can go out and lose a couple games in a row. I believe this team is now a winning team.”

When the Irish take the field in 2016, the belief that victory is at hand should be a real, tangible expectation.

“There’s never a doubt about winning now,” Kizer said. “We go out there knowing we’re going to win. Now we need to take that and apply it to who we are as a team and how we’re going to be forever.”


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