No more reading the tea leaves. No more educated guesses. Finally, a real opportunity to hear from Notre Dame’s head coach as Brian Kelly discussed his expectations for the 2015 season.
On Thursday morning, Kelly strolled to the podium running a few minutes behind his scheduled start time. But he made up for it by owning the microphone for over an hour, including a lengthy, Charlie Weisian opening statement that took many questions away from a waiting group of local media.
There’s plenty to cover, especially as camp gets started tomorrow at the Culver Academies. But here are five things I learned as the Irish head into a season with great expectations.
Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s head coach believes he’s got a team capable of winning a national title.
The optimism relayed in Kelly’s press conference was striking. And more than just the two College Football Playoff games included on the auditorium’s schedule or the newly hung Sports Illustrated cover featuring Jaylon Smith and Ronnie Stanley. Put simply, there’s no ducking the expectations.
“Our team knows where they are. They read the clippings. They know that preseason that a lot of teams are getting accolades. They know that they are,” Kelly said. “They also know it’s not going to help them beat Texas.”
But as Kelly rattled through his opening statements, confidently talking about the many strengths on this team’s roster, he made it clear that nobody inside The Gug was ducking the ultimate goal.
“Everybody knows the mission, and the fact is we don’t play for conference championships,” Kelly said. “They know how difficult it is to complete the mission. And the only way to complete that mission is to stay focused and stay on task and stay incredibly disciplined day to day or they can’t accomplish that.”
An offseason dedicated to establishing better leadership and internal motivation seems to have taken hold.
Last offseason, you wondered who would be worthy of being named a captain. This summer, it’s hard not to come up with ten names.
Returning captains Nick Martin and Sheldon Day will once again lead their respective units. Kelly called Joe Schmidt one of the best leaders he’s had, and he appears to be the singular leader of the defense. Kelly ticked off name after name after name, players you’d expect—Jarrett Grace, KeiVarae Russell, Ronnie Stanley and Matthias Farley—and some you wouldn’t.
Among that second group is safety Max Redfield. While Kelly acknowledged that just about everybody has a great offseason, he sounded genuine when he talked about the leap forward that his junior safety took.
“I think Max has realized how important football is to him,” Kelly said. “Academics is very important to him. It’s always been important to him. I think he’s seeing how important football is to him as well.”
Kelly praised Redfield for his ability to lead from the front as a vocal communicator, shown these past few days as the Irish completed some unorthodox workouts, including some military training exercises aimed at team building and leadership training.
“He has a gift,” Kelly said of Redfield. “That gift is he’s a great communicator, if given the chance. We gave him a chance the last couple of days to lead and get in front of his peers, and it was well received.”
It’s nothing but great news on the medical front, including clean bills of health for both Jarron Jones and Joe Schmidt.
While we found out earlier this week about the retirements of Mike Heuerman and Michael Deeb, the rest of the medical news was really upbeat. Almost to a man, Kelly reported good news on the rehabilitations of several players.
Nicky Baratti’s shoulder has healed and he’ll be a full participant in camp. Jonathan Bonner, after ending his spring because of a turf toe injury, will be 100 percent as well. Drue Tranquill continues to amaze coming off a late-season ACL tear.
“He’s attacked rehab like no other player that we’ve had here in quite some time,” Kelly said.
Jarrett Grace continues to make progress, looking capable of impacting this defense come Texas. James Onwualu has fully recovered from a January wrist surgery as well.
But the two best pieces of news came when Kelly gave rave reviews to the health of Joe Schmidt and Jarron Jones. Both critical pieces of the defense underwent major surgical procedures, and both will open camp working with the first team.
Credit goes to a hardworking group of players, along with Rob Hunt and Notre Dame’s medical team.
For KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, the plight of the Frozen Five isn’t quite finished.
There is still work to be done with the NCAA before KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams are fully eligible to play. Perhaps telling, Russell will practice with the Irish from the get go. Williams will await word from the NCAA, likely awaiting an appeal decision.
“They’re separate and different and distinctly different cases. So KeiVarae will practice, Ishaq will not, because the cases are different and both of them are going through the process right now,” Kelly explained.
It’s never the most comfortable situation when you’re dealing with the bureaucratic wheels of justice in Indianapolis, but Kelly seems confident that Russell’s time in purgatory is nearly complete.
“We feel confident in the information that we have submitted to the NCAA, and we feel very strong about his eligibility,” Kelly said. “We certainly were guided through this process in terms of what he needed to do. He went out and did that, but it’s now out of our hands. But we feel strong about we feel strongly about checking the boxes and doing the things that we were required to do along the way.”
Williams situation is a different one. And while Kelly is confident that the timeline won’t be drawn out, regardless of his fate with the NCAA, Kelly sounds committed to assisting Williams in any way possible, especially as he continues to pursue a career in football and earning his degree at Notre Dame.
C.J. Prosise’s move to running back is a permanent one. And Justin Brent will be joining him in the backfield.
If there was a domino to fall after Greg Bryant’s ineligibility, it was that the receiving career of C.J. Prosise is now put on hold. After an impressive spring in the backfield, Prosise will now be the team’s No. 2 running back, no longer cross-training with the wide receivers.
Joining him at running back will be Justin Brent. Up to 220 pounds, Brent is a logical move, after an impressive senior season in high school running the football and a stacked wide receiver depth chart.
Kelly made the decision recently, talking candidly about his conversation with Brent.
“I told him is if he takes the ball and runs downhill north and south, doesn’t bounce it outside—because I’m sure I’ve got two freshmen who are going to want to bounce it outside every time they touch it—if he takes it and he goes downhill and he plays physical, I’ll find some carries for him and I’ll get him on every special team,” Kelly said. “If he wants to do that, then I think I can get him some playing time.”
If you’re reading between the lines, it’s still clear that Brent’s role on this team still feels a bit on edge. That’s to be expected after the off-field headlines the Indianapolis native made last year, with Kelly pulling off any filter when discussing him.
“I think it’s going to be hard for him to get on the field because we have such great depth at the wide receiver position,” Kelly said. “Will it work? I don’t know. But he is a very gifted athlete. He’s big, he’s strong, so we’ll give it a shot and see if it does anything for us