Kelly prepared for unique Senior Day send-off

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Notre Dame will honor the program’s seniors on Saturday, a send-off that would be made sweeter with a victory over Virginia Tech. But while Brian Kelly will greet and appreciate 28 seniors who’ll run out of the tunnel in the season’s final home game, he’s hopeful that this won’t be goodbye for most.

Because while Jarron Jones, James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell, Cole Luke, Mark Harrell, Scott Daly and Avery Sebastian are saying goodbye, there’s plenty of eligibility remaining.

So that turns Senior Day into a different one than most. Especially when Notre Dame’s head coach thinks back to what could have been.

“We don’t have as many seniors that have used up their eligibility,” Kelly explained when asked about the emotions of the upcoming weekend. “I’m crying right now because I don’t have Will Fuller. He didn’t have a senior day. Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley, Kavari Russell, is that enough?

“Those guys, they’re all juniors, and they really didn’t have a true senior day. And then there’s a number of guys that have eligibility remaining. So it’s kind of changed a little bit. Where my first couple of years you knew who those guys were. Now it’s a lot grayer as to who is a senior and who’s not a senior.”

That gray area is a source of optimism, especially for a staff looking to build on the tail-end of the season. So while the decisions on staying or going will be left until later, Saturday’s game will honor the group of established contributors that’ll be playing for a final time in an Irish uniform.

Kelly singled out his two graduating captains, seniors James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell, strong leaders who led from the front during a challenging season.

“The hardest workers during our toughest times were Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu in particular, those two guys,” Kelly said. “It was crucial when we made a change defensively, playing all those freshmen, we needed guys to lead by example. We didn’t need a guy yelling and screaming. And those two guys led by example.”

As much as this season turned into taking lumps and getting experience, there’s always going to be some of that in South Bend, a place that forces student-athletes to graduate before applying for a fifth-year. While that gives veterans and role players a shot at college football’s version of free agency, Kelly understands that’s part of the deal.

More importantly, if he’s doing his job, he expects more senior days like this one.

“When you have really good football players that have the opportunity to go to the NFL, that’s going to be a reality here at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I’d love for everybody to stay and use their four years of eligibility, and have their degree and do all that. But the reality of it is that those situations are going to keep coming up.”