Combine shows the Irish still have plenty of work to do

44 Comments

Think a 28-point defeat in the National Championship game put a little fuel in the tanks of the Fighting Irish as they prepare for 2013?

Well the NFL Combine did as well. If the annual meat market showed anything this week it’s that the Irish’s very best players still have a ways to go before they stack up apples-to-apples athletically with the elite of college football.

That doesn’t mean the 2012 Irish have anything to be ashamed of. Nor does it mean the professional careers of guys like Manti Te’o, Zeke Motta or Theo Riddick are sunk before they even begin. (Contrary to many public opinions that believe three days in shorts outweighs a collegiate career on the field.) But if you’re looking for something that’ll help push Notre Dame in these tough offseason months, it’s the realization that the Irish’s best players unequivocally need to get bigger, stronger and faster.

That’s not news to Brian Kelly.

“There’s no tricks. There’s no gimmicks,” Kelly said in the run-up to the national championship game. “It’s going to be basic fundamental football when you get to this level. I think it was just a maturation and a development of our football team to get bigger, stronger, faster, and then have a will. That’s been the process for us at Notre Dame.”

It was clear on January 7 that the Irish weren’t there yet. It’s also clear that after this week in Indianapolis, that the process continues.

In many ways, it makes Kelly and the Irish coaching staff’s accomplishments all the more impressive in 2012. Say what you want about a schedule that didn’t live up to its hefty billing, but the Irish squeezed every bit of efficiency out of last year’s football team, doing so while rebooting the offense with a redshirt freshman quarterback, a patchwork secondary, and an offensive line that had to break in two new starters with zero depth behind it.

The Combine also told us things we’ve known all along. For all the shake Theo Riddick has, he was never a burner. Braxston Cave, while physically stout, is limited athletically. Zeke Motta, someone Irish fans always thought had the size to be a linebacker, also turns out to run like one. And Manti Te’o’s excellence is much easier stated on the football field, not running around in shorts or answering off-the-field questions. While 12-0 can erase a lot of weaknesses, confirmation bias can only take you so far.

The silver lining in all of this? It appears many of the reasons Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly were also on display last season. While Kelly hasn’t turned out to be the up-tempo, spread offense innovator that many thought the Irish were getting, he was much more last season — program building his way to unprecedented heights with a team that probably wasn’t ready for primetime.

The strategy used to get there, the reliance on Tyler Eifert as a one-on-one match-up weapon, the showcasing of Theo Riddick as a dependable cog in the run game, and the usage of Manti Te’o as a one-man army in the middle of the defense proved, all likely trumped the personnel that the Irish are still committed to building.

And that personnel is improving. Turning Jamoris Slaughter, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick and Zeke Motta into players that get invited to the Combine is a sign that things in South Bend are progressing. In years past, guys of that ilk — especially on an underperforming Notre Dame team — got one look from NFL scouts, and that’s at the Irish pro day.

With building blocks like Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt on defense, high end athletes like George Atkinson and DaVaris Daniels as playmakers, and an intriguing two-way threat at quarterback in Everett Golson, with some elite young talent pushing him along, there’s reason to believe that last year was more of a sign of things to come as opposed to a smoke and mirrors act.

But until then, there’s work to be done.