Irish head coach Brian Kelly has successfully convinced the masses – his team, Notre Dame fans, the media, and nearly everyone he's encountered over the last eight months – that his troops are united in a common goal: winning big. Immediately.
Its been the prevailing theme of the early stages of camp, and most accept Kelly's message because of his track record building winners. Others because they want/need too...some simply understand that if Kelly can't perform program CPR over the next 2-3 years, there may be nowhere else to turn.
Is this Irish optimism overload unfounded?
"Hence is the reason why you ask that question, because you're not in at practice," Kelly offered when asked directly about a group that's lost 21 games over the last three seasons. "It's really what happens in here, behind closed doors, where we're really developing a relationship with our players where we can push them through those spots that maybe they didn't handle as well at times.
"There are areas where it has nothing to do with the Xs and the Os. This is about developing a toughness, and demanding and setting an expectations and understanding those. That happens behind closed doors, that happens within the family."
But even the glass three-quarters full crowd should be allowed a modicum of skepticism in their purview of the 2010 defense – a unit that returns nine starters and 16 of its top 20 contributors from 2009. A unit that set the dubious program record for most yards allowed per game last fall.
Consistency is KeyThe notion of a playmaker is both overused and overvalued in today's game. Fans, analysts, scouts, student bodies, et al have embraced the notion that big plays win games.
Coaches know otherwise.
"Consistency for me is not about making plays as much as it is a consistency in the way they come to work every day: focused, locked in, giving great effort," Kelly said of his expectations, notably in the defensive backfield. "We have great coaches, we're going to put them in a position where they can succeed. That I'm not concerned with. It's all the things that I can't control: their effort, their attitude, all those things."
One expected starter that has struggled with his consistency since arriving on campus as an early enrollee in 2007 is cornerback Gary Gray. Gray was among the first players Kelly lauded for his efforts last spring, and though he's likely still in good standing, the senior from Columbia, South Carolina needs to embrace a workmanlike attitude to further impress his head coach.
"Gary Gray has to play big for us. But he's been a guy that has not been consistent on a day-to-day basis," Kelly noted when asked directly about the returning starter. "And Gary, once in awhile, needs a reminder that he has to bring his 'A game' every single day. Because last I checked I don't think he's ready to go to the Hall of Fame.
"He needs to understand the expectations we have for him – and he does, he does. I'm not here to say he's not doing it, but believe me, I'm pretty good at over-communicating my message to him that 'this is what we want.'"
Kelly's cornerbacks have an aggregate 40 starts and 72 games played among them. The final pecking order isn't set, but the three main contributors from 2009 and the spring session appear intact early in camp.
"At the end of the day, you've got (Robert) Blanton, and you've got (Darrin) Walls, and you have Gary Gray, and those are the three guys that have experience," Kelly said in an assessment of the cornerback position. "Other than that, we're tapping into zero experience."
"(Gray) hears it from me every day. He has to pick up his play; he has to be consistent. But if he does, I think we have three really good corners there and a fourth (presumably sophomore E.J. Banks) that may be inexperienced but (is) coming on."
Multiple vehicles; one destinationBereft of a single collegiate start, junior quarterback Dayne Crist is nonetheless the accepted leader of the offense. Has Kelly identified a similar player on the opposite side of scrimmage?
"I think there's a number of guys. You have to understand that the MIKE (middle) linebacker is the communicator, he's the one that's making that checks. So it always starts with the MIKE because he's talking; he's the only one that's allowed to do that. So by virtue of that position, he's always going to be in the center of that."
Sophomore Manti Te'o, who played weak side linebacker in Notre Dame's 4-3 defense last fall, took over the reigns in the middle during the spring and by all accounts, has stepped to the fore of the unit.
"But I think we have some guys like Brian Smith," Kelly continued. "You can add Harrison Smith; you add Darius Fleming, Ian (Williams), Kap (Kapron Lewis-Moore)...we're pretty good there. I like where we are relative to the leadership things on the defensive side of the ball."
A Marathon, not a sprintKelly warned the media Friday and we warned our readers shortly thereafter: don't get too comfortable with the initial depth chart: the term fluidity barely does it justice.
Safety in Numbers: "I like Harrison (Smith)," Kelly began in his overview of the position. "Jamoris (Slaughter) is another guy that has spurts; I need him to play at a high level all the time. Harrison's probably been the No. 1 guy in terms of his performance and his play has been pretty steady and consistent."
Smith famously struggled in a different scheme (and technically disparate position) last fall as a member of the defensive backfield but has impressed the coaching staff dating back to the early days of spring ball.
"Zeke (Motta) had a great day yesterday – he didn't have a great first couple days – but my point is, there's only been one guy that's been consistent back there, but again, its only been three days," Kelly noted. "The other guys? Hit and miss. So I would say its a pretty competitive situation."
A good old fashioned Five-for-All: Another position in flux is the inside linebacker spot next to the talented Te'o. Junior Anthony McDonald had the upper hand at the conclusion of the spring while classmate David Posluszny and former fullback Steve Paskorz have consistently nipped at his heels, a battle noted by Kelly in his Friday media address.
As expected, one omission (sophomore Carlo Calabrese) was accidental – you can add another name to the fray.
"It's a fluid situation," Kelly noted of the inside 'backers. "Manti's in a pretty good situation where he is...add Carlo Calabrese to that. Prince Shembo is a very, very good football player, he's going to be hard to keep out of the mix as well. There's probably going to have to be a combination of an inside/outside guy – maybe Shembo can do that. Maybe he can play some inside and outside. But that'll probably be one position that will be fluid. In other words, you're probably going to see a lot of guys playing there."
Irish fans should have their programs handy on September 4. The announced starters won't be the defense's only contributors.
"I think that's probably a little underestimated," Kelly said of his spring suggestion that 15-16 defenders had worked their way into a heavy rotation, "because we have (for example) some Nickel packages – Zeke Motta is a starter in our 3rd Down Nickel package. So I think its a little bit more than 15-16...but it'll be multiple."
Pivot Pressure: One name atop the initial depth chart that surprised at least one IrishEyes subscriber (me) was 5th-year senior center Dan Wenger. The Irish staff noted over the weekend that Wenger had a slight lead on our perceived spring sensation, junior Braxston Cave, for the starting nod.
"Its going to be hotly contested," Kelly said of the position battle. "You're probably going to see them both play."
Another competition in flux is the team's tackle tandem. Redshirt-freshman Zack Martin appears to hold the upper hand over senior Matt Romine on the left side, while Romine's classmate Taylor Dever presumably has the edge at right tackle. Dever is battling fellow senior Andrew Nuss and starting junior guard Trevor Robinson for the spot.
"Clearly, the key (to playing) at the highest level – the (opposing) defensive ends are the guys you have to find a way to block," Kelly said of the importance of the tackle position.
"Even though we don't have a lot of experience, we think we've got two guys that can handle themselves out there."
On Friday, Kelly mentioned the team had 8-10 players that could play "championship football." We correctly assumed he meant "winning football" a phrase he used following the Blue Gold Game, with "championship football" serving as the end goal. Yesterday, Kelly elaborated on the vast difference between the two.
"I think we have four tackles that can play winning football – the question is whether they can play championship football. The can play winning football; I don't know if they can play championship football because I haven't seen them when its really 'go time.'
"We'll see how they block the kid from Purdue (Kelly was referring to Boilermakers DE Ryan Kerrigan who played a fantastic game vs. the Irish last season). Then we'll know. But if we have to help them, we have tight ends; we can help them with a 'back.
"But my goal going in is that we don't have to help either one of those tackles."
- Kelly expressed optimism regarding both kickers, noting that walk-on David Ruffer (he of the 5 for 5 field goal performance last November) was "kicking the heck out of the ball on kick-offs." Expect Ruffer to handle those duties while sophomore Nick Tausch should win the placekicking battle. The head coach also offered that it was likely time to start paring down the able bodies that currently comprise the team's return units.
- Asked specifically about freshman defensive end Kona Schwenke, Kelly admitted the freshman's summer strength and weight game served as a pleasant surprise. (Schwenke looks solid at 6'4" 245). ""We didn't think he was (big enough to help out as a freshman) but the guy obviously has changed his body in a very short period of time. He's a bigger kid; he's thicker.
"Do we want him to help us this year? Absolutely not. But we're a little thin there (DE). He may have to be on the bus for us. I don't think he could have helped us when he came in for his recruiting visit. But he's really put on a lot of size; he's handling it well. But that's going to be a work in progress for us."
- Senior wide receiver Duval Kamara, he of the faulty paperwork prior to Practice No. 1, was back I the fold Monday while junior tight end Kyle Rudolph continued to rest a tight hamstring. "I'm not going to push him until he's 110 percent," Kelly said. "I think he wants to practice because we do a pretty good job of working those guys out over there (sidelined in practice)."
- With a temperatures in the high 80s Monday in South Bend, Kelly was asked if there was any late-practice fluctuation in the team's collective "buy-in" under the adverse conditions:
"If you ask (to a man) they had no idea it was hot today. If you hear otherwise, let me know"