Five things we’ll learn: Kicking off 2011

19 Comments

As Brian Kelly stepped to the podium this afternoon, it had been 217 days since he led the Notre Dame football team in a contest that mattered. Last we saw Kelly’s Fighting Irish, they were embarrassing a former rival in the Sun Bowl, jumping all over a wayward Miami Hurricane squad that was adrift after firing their head coach Randy Shannon. Thanks to big days by Michael Floyd, Harrison Smith and Tommy Rees, the Irish took a 30-3 lead into the fourth quarter before coasting to a 33-17 victory.

“Clearly, we’re gaining a lot of confidence,” Kelly said after the victory in a snow-dusted El Paso, Texas. “We’ve beaten some good football teams late in the year as we’ve come together and found our identity. It’s going to taste a whole lot better in the offseason talking about a win.”

Irish fans learned quite a bit from Brian Kelly during that first season, an 8-5 effort beset by injuries to key players and major speed-bumps both on and off the field. While an undefeated November and resounding bowl victory had the Irish trending upwards, that first season was what many eight-win seasons are — a bottom line devoid of any resounding conclusions.

Yet the work Kelly did in those 217 days — convincing Michael Floyd to return for his senior season, bringing in a recruiting haul filled with defensive players not seen in recent memory, and his player-first approach to handling Floyd’s March DUI — all seem to have people feeling bullish about the Irish. For a coach many worried would struggle with the off-the-field challenges associated with being the face of college football’s most visible program, Kelly’s biggest challenge in his second year as coach of the Irish is to have his on-the-field work match up with his administrative success.

As Brian Kelly kicked off the Irish’s preseason camp with a media session, here are five things we’ll learn before the Irish’s September 3 date with South Florida.

1. Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will compete for the starting quarterback job.

When 15 spring practices weren’t enough time to decide who would start fall camp as the No. 1 quarterback, Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar decided to take the competition into fall camp. In Crist and Rees, the Irish staff know what they have. In Hendrix and Golson, they’re unsure of what that’ll be on the field, but they’re fairly certain it’ll be something a bit more versatile.

While last season, Kelly and company went into camp with Dayne Crist as the only option, entering 2011 there’s a comfort in not knowing how the process will shake out just yet.

“You can make the case for any one of them,” Kelly said. “In camp, we have to do a great job of giving them the appropriate reps necessary to make these kinds of decisions.

“We have to be able to maximize the 85 guys on our roster. If we find out there’s a quarterback that can add something to the game, we need to do that.”

Based on their experience last season, Crist and Rees will be the first quarterbacks given the opportunity to win the job. But Kelly was open about finding ways to use quarterbacks as a change of pace or offensive spark, something that clearly wasn’t an option in 2010. The Irish will use the first 19 practice sessions to evaluate the roster before spending two weeks preparing for South Florida. Expect the starter to be announced a week or two before the opener, as Kelly doesn’t feel the Irish need the tactical advantage of keeping the decision “stealth.”

2. Nobody at Notre Dame is sastisfied being in the preseason Top 25.

Any recognition Notre Dame is getting in the preseason polls (they were just ranked 18th in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll) won’t be going to anybody’s head just yet.

“I don’t walk around with my Top 25 t-shirt on,” Kelly quipped. “I think I’ve said this pretty clearly and our players are in this for the same reason, I want to be in Bob Stoops’ position today, where he’s talking about being No. 1. That’s why we’re here. We want to get to the point where we’re part of the conversation as a chanpionship caliber football team. We’re not there yet. We’re thrown in the mix there, 18 to 25, pick a number out of the hat.”

Of course, some people are much more bullish on the Irish, with a few preseason publications having the Irish inside the top ten. Kelly was wise to brush off any serious questions about August rankings, as great expectations haven’t been a friend of the Irish in recent years.

3. Evaluating the Irish roster is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

When answering questions on a local sports talk radio show earlier this week, Brian Kelly revealed an interesting technique the Irish coaching staff uses to evaluate their own players. The staff evaluates every player on a three point system. If a player receives a three, he’s capable of playing championship football. If a player receives a two, he’s capable of playing winning football. If a player receives a one, he’s not ready to play.

“Last year, we had a hard time identifying threes,” Kelly said to a caller. “This year, we have a boatload of threes. You still have to put it together as a team, but we feel obviously a year into it, we have more players at that level of playing championship style football.”

Taking a quick run through both the offensive and defensive units, it’s pretty easy to see the development on the roster in one calendar year.

4. Brian Kelly wants Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray to carry the load at running back.

If there’s a spot where depth is more than a little spotty on the roster, it’s at running back. That said, Cierre Wood is coming off his first season in the lineup and he led the team in yards while averaging more than five yards a carry. But Wood can’t carry the load alone. Kelly may have referenced incoming freshman Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson in his press conference, but there’s no doubt he’s counting on senior Jonas Gray to step up and excel during his senior season.

“Jonas Gray is a very important piece,” Kelly said on air. “We expect him to play like Robert Hughes did for us last year, but faster. If he plays like that, we’re going to be in a very good position with those two running backs. We think that both of those guys can handle the chores we’re going to need at that position.”

5. If the Irish are going to meet their goals, it’s BCS or bust.

Sure the target for Irish fans is the BCS every season. But when the head coach acknowledges the same goal, it’s pretty clear that expectations are ramped up entering into year two of the Kelly era.

“I don’t know at Notre Dame that you can pick out a bowl,” Kelly said. ” We don’t have a lot of options for bowls, it’s BCS for us. If it’s a conference championship at Cincinatti or a MAC Championship at Central Michigan, it was a national championship at Grand Valley, here at the University of Notre Dame it’s a BCS bowl game. We can’t set the goal board any other way. What do you throw out there, Sun Bowl? Champs Bowl? We just don’t have any way other than set the bar at the BCS. I knew that coming in.”

With 29 practices before the Irish take the field against South Florida, both coaches and players will work toward that singular goal.