For a change, Ir­ish seem on cruise con­trol

Kelly shows re­newed calm after back-to-back 10-plus-win sea­sons

The Morning Call - - VARSITY - BY TEDDY GREENSTEIN

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly opened his press con­fer­ence with a de­bate on the press­ing mat­ter du jour.

Namely: Why do some re­porters use mi­cro­cas­sette recorders when the vast ma­jor­ity sim­ply record in­ter­views on their phones?

“Th­ese old ones ... are they out­dated?” he won­dered.

Yes, but there’s no dan­ger of in­ter­rupt­ing a press con­fer­ence with a ring.

“There you go,” Kelly replied. “Touché.”

Kelly later ribbed some overzeal­ous me­dia mem­bers who keep track of in­ter­cep­tions dur­ing pre­sea­son prac­tices: “It’s amaz­ing that you guys keep stats. Is there a big board? How many times have I screwed up some­one’s name?”

And Kelly dropped this gem re­gard­ing the cau­tious style of quar­ter­back Ian Book: “I don’t think he’s go­ing to get many speed­ing tick­ets. He doesn’t live on the edge.”

Re­mem­ber when Kelly’s face turned pur­ple as he un­dressed a quar­ter­back after a fool­ish turnover? He wants Book to be more will­ing to roll the dice with down­field flings.

That’s one change at Notre Dame, where the vibe is un­like pre­vi­ous fall camps.

The Ir­ish are com­ing off back-to-back sea­sons of 10 or more wins for the first time since Lou Holtz prowled the side­lines. Both co­or­di­na­tors are in place. There’s a new in­door fa­cil­ity. The strength pro­gram is, well, strong. And they have a ter­rific — and prudent — re­turn­ing quar­ter­back.

“Brian has built such a strong foun­da­tion,” ath­letic di­rec­tor Jack Swar­brick said. “The cul­ture is so well set, the ex­pec­ta­tions are so clear. It’s eas­ier. I’m not sug­gest­ing it runs it­self. But we’re not chang­ing things, not try­ing to build the cul­ture or ad­dress is­sues. It’s in place.”

All that helps ex­plain why, when asked to de­scribe his sum­mer, Swar­brick paused and used one word: “Calm.”

Kelly is en­ter­ing Year 10, one shy of three of the four coaches on Notre Dame’s Mount Rush­more: Holtz, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. The fourth, Knute Rockne, lost 12 games in 13 sea­sons.

Swar­brick al­lowed Kelly to reset after his hideous 4-8 mark in 2016.

The re­sult?

“He’s not mi­cro­manag­ing. He’s not play-call­ing. He’s not the quar­ter­backs coach,” Swar­brick said. “He’s able to nar­row his fo­cus to things he can uniquely do. And I think that lifts a bur­den off him. He can be a lit­tle bit more re­laxed and com­fort­able.”

And yet at Notre Dame, misery is al­ways one “L” away. North­west­ern lost three straight games last sea­son and still had a wildly suc­cess­ful year, win­ning the Big Ten West.

The Ir­ish can’t win a con­fer­ence and might get zapped from the play­offs with a sin­gle loss, even if it’s at Ge­or­gia (Sept. 21) or at Michi­gan (Oct. 26).

Last year some clowns thought the Ir­ish weren’t wor­thy at 12-0, then dou­bled down after Notre Dame got spanked by Clem­son in a semi­fi­nal of the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off. But based on that ra­tio­nale, Alabama also didn’t de­serve to make the fi­nal four.

Swar­brick paid no at­ten­tion to the crit­ics after the Clem­son blowout.

“I didn’t read any­thing for a week,” he said. “And by the time I started read­ing any­thing, Alabama had had the same ex­pe­ri­ence.”

That Clem­son loss was like a draw­ing where some peo­ple see a duck and oth­ers a bunny.

The masses saw the fi­nal score (30-3), the half­time score (23-3) and the yardage dis­par­ity (538-248) and termed it a blowout. Tri­bune head­line: “It hap­pened again. Notre Dame mauled in its hunt.”

Swar­brick and some Ir­ish fans saw a close (9-3) game late in the se­cond quar­ter change when stud cor­ner­back Julian Love en­tered the con­cus­sion pro­to­col. Trevor Lawrence (27for-39, 327 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs) torched his sub.

A bad break for the Ir­ish? Or proof of a flawed ros­ter?

“I think Clem­son wins that game nine out of 10 times,” Swar­brick said.

And if Love stays healthy: “Cer­tainly a dif­fer­ent out­come in terms of the spread. Not the re­sult. But it feels very dif­fer­ent.”

The hy­po­thet­i­cal will never be re­solved, but the Ir­ish can answer those who think there’s a Dex­ter Lawrence-sized gap be­tween Notre Dame and Clem­son.

“Peo­ple can say (it was huge) be­cause the score was like that,” Ir­ish re­ceiver Chris Finke said. “For me and the other play­ers on the field, we didn’t feel out­matched. We didn’t ex­e­cute our game plan and didn’t get the job done, but I don’t think we were to­tally on a dif­fer­ent field, you know?”

The theme of this year’s team, the one you see hash­tagged on so­cial me­dia, is: “Sharpen the Blade.”

It fits.

After the 4-8 sea­son, Notre Dame needed all new weapons. Now it’s a mat­ter of fine-tun­ing them.

Kelly re­al­izes this. And in­stead of bul­ly­ing or mi­cro­manag­ing, he’s show­ing an easy con­fi­dence.

After laud­ing the hang time and makeup of fresh­man punter Jay Bram­blett, Kelly added a vir­tual wink: “And he’s got a ter­rific arm. Just throw­ing that out there.”

AP

Coach Brian Kelly looks at notes dur­ing prac­tice last week. Will Notre Dame bat­tle for a Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off spot this year?

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