Brian Kelly’s 26th training camp as a head football coach concluded in a manner similar to many of its predecessors. He felt his football team had a chance to be good – perhaps very good. But he also realized it wasn’t as immediately ready for prime time as were a sampling of previous squads.
“I thought that we needed to get off to a good start,” said Kelly of any warning signs he saw prior to the regular season. “I thought that it was important to gain some confidence with this football team and not getting off to a good start, I knew that those were there things that were going to be pretty important to this football team.
“Replacing a lot of player on the offensive side of the ball, we were gonna have to get them ready quickly. I thought we, for the most part, did. But some of their inexperience is starting to show.”
As Notre Dame fans are painfully aware, a three-loss September followed. Five close losses to teams that have otherwise not shown the ability to finish as each did against the Irish remains a source of frustration.
Could one of the last four defeats been avoided if the initial heartbreaker in Texas had gone the way of the visitors?
“I was worried about not getting off to a good start and what that could mean,” said Kelly. “I’ve never been a glass half-empty guy, always been half-full. I was expecting to get off to a good start and then letting that build, that confidence to build. Still thought we could get through that, even with an early loss. But obviously didn’t turn out that way.”
Kelly’s Irish took a two-game losing streak into last week’s bye – his offense bearing the brunt of the blame as the heretofore horrid defense rose to the occasion, allowing just two touchdowns in its last 10 quarters of football.
Conspicuous by his absence from that offense of late is sophomore slot receiver C.J. Sanders.
“I think it’s more about getting K.J. (Stepherson) on the field,” said Kelly when asked if Sanders was nursing an injury (he had hip surgery in April). “Wanting to get (Stepherson) some more touches.”
Stepherson moved into the lead role at Notre Dame’s X-receiver spot against Stanford, shifting senior Torii Hunter back to his old stomping grounds – the slot.
“It has nothing to do with C.J. because I think C.J. gives us a dimension that is really good as well,” said Kelly. “I can see us with C.J. and K.J., but I’m not crazy about getting Hunter off the field. But he’s gotta get a blow here or there. My feeling is getting K.J. on the field requires some rotation there.”
Stepherson had just one catch against the Cardinal for six yards. Sanders failed to catch a pass for the first time this season after securing one for six yards at N.C. State one week prior. (Stepherson did not catch a pass in Raleigh). Prior, Stepherson caught a 54-yard touchdown against Syracuse and snared three balls for 72 yards and a score in a late-September loss to Duke.
The freshman early enrollee adds another dimension to the Irish downfield passing game.
“He’s got explosive traits in that he can catch the ball at full speed,” Kelly offered. “He can break at full speed. He just has that explosiveness that not all of our guys have.
“We brought him along slowly because we had Torii and Corey (Holmes) out there. But he’s gonna be a tremendous football player.”
COMMITTEE TO CONTINUE
Notre Dame’s leading rusher against Texas has not led the offense in that regard since.
The leading ground-gainer vs. Nevada and Syracuse scuffled against Stanford. The breakout runner vs. the Orange has had just eight carries since. The quarterback has twice earned more ground gains than each member of his backfield trio.
Get used to it.
“Josh (Adams) hasn’t been 100 percent,” said Kelly when asked about the immediate future of his running back unit. “I think he really benefitted from the week off. He looks really good, looks like he has that burst back that he had been missing a little bit.
“Then (Tarean) Folston was banged up and really was ineffective for us for a good three, three-and-a-half weeks. He burst onto the scene with his first run against Texas and he looked really good. We never got into a consistent flow with the position.
“Dexter (Williams) comes and looks really good. I think we’re as healthy as we’ve ever been at that running back position and we know that they all can contribute in some fashion. Moving forward I think we feel better about how we can distribute the reps to all three of them.”
The trio plus quarterback DeShone Kizer has produced 150 yards per game and four yards per rush. Their aggregate 52 rushing first downs is 29 fewer than the 2015 offensive backfield totaled over its opening seven games last fall.
The running backs – sans Kizer – have just five rushing touchdowns to their credit.