With 26 seniors getting set to play their final game in Notre Dame Stadium, you could understand if media members were less inclined to discuss the challenges Wake Forest present, but rather ask Brian Kelly what it’ll be like for guys like Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert, All-American performers playing their final game at home.
But with the Irish at 10-0 and in the thick of a three-team race for two spots in the national championship game, Kelly wasn’t too eager to look back at the unexpected success of the 2012 season yet. And as Irish fans can remember from recent years, Kelly knows Senior Day is only special if it ends with the home team walking away with a victory.
“I told our team yesterday that certainly the most important thing is for them to get the proper perspective through the week. Kelly said. “What you’ll remember most is whether you win the game, not that it was your last home game. So make sure that you keep the distractions to a minimum. And if there is any emotion let that be after the game. Let’s have the emotion after the game celebrating a great victory.”
As usual, you can watch the entire press conference in the video below. But I’ve clipped a few sections I found interesting as well.
Any worry about KeiVarae Russell‘s availability this weekend has been put to rest, with the freshman cornerback passing all hurdles for any concussion and being cleared to return to practice today. But as the Irish begin to prep for life without fellow (redshirt) freshman DaVaris Daniels, Kelly talked about the opportunities for John Goodman and Daniel Smith to step into the rotation.
For Goodman, it means finally being healthy enough to get on the field.
“He really hasn’t been healthy all year. He’s battled a number of different ailments. When we ask him to go in there, he’s the center of some big plays. Obviously Michigan State and then of course Boston College,” Kelly said. “John has given us everything he has in his senior year. He’s been a great teammate. He’ll get a chance now to play a little bit more.”
Just a week or two after Kelly mentioned finding reps for Smith as a pass catcher and not a run blocker, that opportunity will come while Daniels’ collarbone mends, giving the South Bend native an opportunity to make plays via the pass on the edge of the offense.
Expect freshman Chris Brown to get some reps as well, with the freshman now the Irish’s only true deep threat with Daniels on the shelf. With Daniels gone until the bowl game, it might be an opportunity for Brown to run a few routes that don’t merely go vertical.
It’s difficult for a football coach to discuss recruiting during the season without running afoul of an NCAA rule or two, but Kelly talked about the advantages that come with a 10-0 record.
“It’s been a great year, there’s is no question. I will tell you that winning helps in recruiting,” Kelly said. “It also solidifies those commitments. We have a number of mid‑year enrollees that obviously are very excited about the direction of the football program.”
Yet Kelly was also candid about his strategy forr this recruiting class, specifically the work he and his staff did putting together key pieces before Notre Dame ever hit the football field.
“There is no mistaking that that kind of success helps you in recruiting. Having said that, I think we had made great progress coming into the season where we had a number commitments already in place,” Kelly said. “I think the winning has obviously enhanced that and strengthened those commitments.”
It’s hard to quantify the importance of recruits like Steve Elmer and James Onwualu, guys that really carried the Irish flag for a long time, helping to build a recruiting class, and often times acting as recruiters themselves at national events. In an era where the spotlight continues to build as recruits take part in combines and showcases run by shoe companies or recruiting services, a key group of players — even if they don’t have five-stars next to their name — can do more for a staff than any letter an assistant coach can write.
Notre Dame has put together the perfect storm in recruiting, holding onto key commitments like Alex Anzalone and Jaylon Smith while continuing to set their cross-hairs on some elite national talents still available. That’s the kind of success you can have on the recruiting trail at a national school Notre Dame, but only if the product on the field matches up with the sales pitch in the head coach’s office.
Saturday will obviously be an emotional moment for Manti Te’o, who will hug his parents before he plays his final game in Notre Dame Stadium. Te’o talked about the effect Senior Day had on him last year, watching his teammates experience such a special moment with their parents and families, and how it played a large part in coming back for a final season.
With rumors swirling that Cierre Wood might be playing his final game and forgoing a fifth season of eligibility, and tough decisions coming for guys like Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Kelly talked about the decision Te’o made to return for a senior season, something that Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd also did under Kelly.
“I think it’s important if you look at getting your degree and how important that is. You know, it’s what, 2.5% of all college players play in the NFL. Average career is 3.3 years,” Kelly said. “I think it’s a great case in point for a guy that understands and recognizes the value of a life versus a career. You know. His life is set up because he’s got a degree from Notre Dame.”
Still, just because the decision made sense for Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd doesn’t stop guys like Jimmy Clausen, Kyle Rudolph, and Golden Tate from leaving early. And while Kelly had less of a relationship with the three Irish stars that went three-and-out from Notre Dame, success on the field, particularly for a guy like Stephon Tuitt, could make for some tough decisions. Kelly talked about how the culture of the Irish program may help keep kids on campus until they have their diploma.
“I think it’s beginning to become more pervasive within our program that our guys are here to get a degree first, and that the NFL calling will take its course,” Kelly said. “You’re not coming to Notre Dame because you’re going to hang your hat here a couple years to go to the NFL. I don’t want to recruit that way. I want to keep that dream alive that you can have a career in the NFL, but the way I want team and program to be constructed is that you recognize the value of a degree and help your team win.
“Look, Manti doesn’t get any of those accolades unless this team is winning. Help the team win, and then all the other things are in your grasp. That’s what we’re hoping that this program is moving towards.”