Coach long enough – in Kelly’s case, more than a quarter-century as the man in charge at four stops – and you’re bound to have a few duds along the way. Season No. 7 in South Bend marks Kelly’s worst start since his final of three seasons (2004-06) at Central Michigan where a 2-3 start flourished into a 10-4 finish.
“Everywhere that I have been, I’ve had similar scenarios where our team is doing the things they need to do and it’s just a matter of time before they start winning,” said Kelly. “I believe this group is going to win for a long time. There are a lot of young players that are learning and growing.
“So as I look at this group, it reminds me of some groups I’ve had at other stops along the way. I’m very confident they’re going to start winning because they’re doing the things that I’ve seen winners do, and that is you have to stop losing before you start winning.”
Kelly made note of a media relations tidbit that this is technically the least experienced Irish squad since freshmen eligibility commenced in 1972, adding, “We’re not out-manned…it’s a team that has really good players that are only going to get better. They just need a little more seasoning and experience. I see it coming and it reminds me of similar teams I’ve coached at other schools.”
Pressed for a specific example, Kelly offered that he shared a past story of rebound and rebirth with his Irish squad this week.
“It reminds me of my Grand Valley State team in 1999,” Kelly said. “We went 5-5-1, and then we went 50-3 or 50-4. (The ’99 Lakers finished 5-5, began 1-4 in 2000, then finished with six straight wins to conclude the season – a six-pack that kicked off a remarkable run of 47-2 including two national titles.)
“It reminds me of a team that once they gain their confidence and once they break through, they’re going to have some success for a while.”
Kelly added that the building blocks of the national champion Lakers took their lumps in 1999-2000.
“We played a lot of young players,” he said. “They were young, but we pushed them pretty hard, knowing that they were going to be successful.”
Just seven Irish players exhaust their collegiate eligibility at season end. Among them, only five are regular contributors from scrimmage.
TALK IS CHEAP
Two wins in his first six outings this fall and a rough day as a result of Hurricane Matthew has done little to slow the conversation regarding junior quarterback DeShone Kizer’s professional future.
That doesn’t mean Kelly and his quarterback have been caught up in the banter.
“We talked about it before the season and that we would not let any of that kind of – whether it be Heisman talk or draft-status talk -- affect his preparation and get in the way of playing for Notre Dame,” said Kelly. “So no need to really delve into it because we spent enough time on that topic prior to the season.”
Projected as a consensus first-round pick among draft pundits – and perhaps notably, by ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper, Jr. – should he leave school following the season, Kizer has produced 51 touchdowns vs. 19 turnovers in 17.5 games behind center.
GOOD TO GO?
Out since spraining his ankle in preparation for Syracuse two weeks ago, senior running back Tarean Folston is poised to return to the fold.
“Folston looked good, I think Tarean’s ready to play,” said Kelly. “He’s had a good week. His ability to cut will impact the game. I expect him to be with us.”
Folston began the 2016 campaign with a 54-yard run at Texas, his first carry since knee surgery for a torn ACL last September. Since, the Cocoa, Fla.-product has managed just 2.5 yards per carry on his 37 rushing attempts.
Also back among the available is junior nose tackle Pete Mokwuah, a veteran of just three career contests (Texas and UMass 2015; Nevada this fall).
“Pete is going to be able give us some reps if we need him in our depth. His ankle is much better,” said Kelly of his 320-pound pivot man, likewise injured prior to the Syracuse contest. Mokwuah’s practice improvements were in direct relation to the usage of more 3-4 fronts.
“A nose that’s a two-gap guy,” said Kelly. “A big fella. Can handle some two-gap responsibilities. A big powerful kid.”