Stop and look around.
It’s mid-November. Notre Dame—for the second time in four seasons—is in the thick of a national title hunt. And the Irish are doing it without their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, defensive tackle—well, you’ve heard about the injuries since early September.
For as excited as Notre Dame’s locker room was when they saw their No. 4 ranking on Tuesday night, the hoorays are more muted around ND Nation. Is this becoming old hat? Are people waiting for the next banana peel?
Noted philosopher Ferris Bueller warned that life moves pretty fast. Well so did this football season. And with another Senior Day upon us, the wrecking ball hits Notre Dame Stadium come Sunday, and all that stands between the Irish and a College Football Playoff spot* are an iconic trip to Fenway Park and a mega-showdown at Stanford on Thanksgiving weekend.
*Yes, I know there’s more to it than that. But this is all the Irish can control.
But taking a moment to look beyond the next few weeks, we could be in the middle of something quite special. Because 2015 sure doesn’t feel like just a blip on the radar. It looks like the beginning of a serious run, a Notre Dame program built not just for the short-term, but stacked with talent that should allow the Irish to reload year after year.
Will Fuller‘s announcement that he’ll return for his senior season assures college football that Notre Dame will once again have one of the nation’s most dangerous weapons sprinting behind defenses. And with a stacked running back depth chart and three starters returning on the offensive line, the ground game shouldn’t miss a step.
The quarterback depth chart has once again turned into a champagne problem. DeShone Kizer or Malik Zaire? Brandon Wimbush? Chemistry and leadership in the position room most certainly allows this to play out differently than things did with Everett Golson.
There are players that’ll be difficult to replace. Sheldon Day, probably Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell, too. But the early look at the young talent on this defense should have Irish fans sleeping easy. Because there don’t seem to be many swings and misses in recent recruiting classes—no misshaped personnel to plug into a temporary roster hole like we’ve seen the past few seasons.
When Brian Kelly took over the Notre Dame football program, he was known as a program builder and turnaround specialist. While he achieved both of those things, he’s actually been far better in the second phase of his run as a the Irish head coach—elevating expectations and managing the machine.
Kelly hadn’t spent a fourth season at a school since he was a young thirtysomething coaching Grand Valley State. Yet it has been these last few seasons where he’s shown his best chops.
After twenty-plus years atop a program, he showed a willingness to tweak his on-field formula, making some bold new staff hires and schematic changes. He’s also pushed hard as the athletic department implemented some progressive off-field changes that should allow his student-athletes to both succeed on the field and do more than just survive the academic gauntlet. Study abroad programs and trips to Africa and Greece? Something tells me that’s not part of the recruiting pitch Urban Meyer or Nick Saban are selling.
On the field, a program once crippled by a lack of confidence now feels steadfast in their self-belief. Multiple opportunities to fold came and went this season, each one shrugged off by a game-changing play or clutch touchdown drive. Even in the loss to Clemson, it wasn’t for lack of belief. The Irish just ran out of time.
Kelly’s treatment of his team after that loss was called into question by some. It shouldn’t have been. Moral victories are long gone, and this team knew that, probably even more than their head coach.
As Notre Dame succeeds, familiar questions emerge. Will Kelly leave town and give chase to his supposed NFL dream? If he stays, can he hold on to his assistants, now viewed as key cogs in an operation surely looking to be replicated by the dozen schools rebooting their football programs.
Jack Swarbrick doesn’t seem worried. And Kelly doesn’t look like a guy exploring his options, either. After all, it was the head coach who brought in Showtime’s periscope, allowing documentary cameras into the nooks and crannies of a program that’s been sealed shut these past few years.
While some still don’t believe him, Kelly has been adamant that the goal for him is a national championship at Notre Dame. That means there’s work to be done before his bronze statue can be erected outside the (still growing) House that Rockne built.
But the stars are aligning. The talent is in place. Even if the lights go out on the 2015 season earlier than hoped, the future looks bright in South Bend.
The Irish look ready to go on a run.