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Kelly puts 2012 in perspective

Jan 30, 2013, 10:47 AM EDT

Kelly tunnel AP

There’s no way to get around the fact that in Notre Dame’s date with destiny, they were beaten soundly by Alabama. You can talk about missed tackles, shaky referees, and an offense that was just slightly off, but the reality of the Crimson Tide’s 28-point victory points to a significant gap between the nation’s best team and the Irish.

Still, that doesn’t take away the incredible accomplishment. In a season that will go down as one of the most magical and enjoyable rides of most (young) Irish fans’ lifetimes, Brian Kelly’s squad defied the odds — running the table on a regular season schedule that looked beyond daunting, and doing it with an offense breaking in a new quarterback and a defense that came out of nowhere to become dominant.

While the focus has shifted away from what’s been done to what’s to come, Brian Kelly took some time to reflect on the season that was, and you could tell there’s some genuine — and well deserved — pride for the work done last season.

“I wanted to take the opportunity to put together the final thoughts on the 2012 season,” Kelly said, opening his comments to yesterday’s conference call. “Certainly extremely proud of our entire football team for the accomplishments. Undefeated regular season. Coming into the season, the schedule looked daunting at the least. Our guys and our staff tackled it week-in and week-out. Great leadership from our senior class and it showed itself.”

That leadership was shown not just by captains Manti Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zack Martin and Tyler Eifert, but by a strong core surrounding them. Guys like Braxston Cave, a team leader in the locker room, and a local player whose family has had a presence each week by having the entire offensive line to their house for meals. (It’s no small task feeding almost a dozen 300-pound college guys.)

Zeke Motta was another senior leader that had a tremendous senior season, and his contributions kept the Irish defense solidified when it appeared that the secondary would be the team’s weak link. Motta coached up two cornerbacks starting their first games and a safety position that lost Jamoris Slaughter early and forced Matthias Farley, a redshirt freshman who was another converted wideout, into the fray.

With contributions from veterans like Theo Riddick, the senior class, a group that had drastically underachieved in the three seasons since they came to South Bend, left the program on a 20-year high. To look at what this group overcame is staggering. This group suffered humiliating defeats to Navy and UConn in 2009. Lost again to the Midshipmen and then Tulsa in back-to-back weeks in 2010. And after starting the 2011 season with a knockout one-two punch of USF and Michigan, it’s a credit to this group for simply getting up off the canvas.  That they were able to bury three years of losing, and block out the countless distractions and noise that existed this offseason says so much about this group.

While they ultimately fell short in the season’s final game, Kelly talked about the journey his team has taken in his tenure at Notre Dame.

“In three short years, when I stood before our team my first year we did not have one player on our roster that had beaten a Top 25 team,” Kelly said. “Three years later we’re playing in the national championship game with 15 plus starters coming back.”

And that’s the message for this offseason. While we’ll focus on the loss of stars like Te’o and Eifert, and wonder who will pick up the slack with both Riddick and Cierre Wood gone from the backfield, the bar has only been raised.

“We know what it looks like now relative to the national championship game and our workouts now will be in the off-season focused on getting back to that game,” Kelly said. “We have some work to do, there’s no question, but we know where we want to go. We know we’re capable of getting back to the national championship game and we started that journey two weeks ago.”

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