Of all the things Notre Dame and Irish coach Brian Kelly changed this past offseason, one difference between that 4-8 disappointment and this season’s surprising success had little to do with those program renovations.
Kelly brought in three new coordinators and a new strength coach, he engaged with his team more often, he developed a more easy-going persona. All those changes played large roles in making Notre Dame a Playoff contender into November this season, but one alteration mattered more. It made the offseason workouts more effective, it made the locker room more intertwined, and it created more on-field accountability.
The seniors became leaders.
In the preseason, Kelly shouldered some of the fault for the 2016 Irish lacking tone-setting leadership. That ownership fit into the aforementioned attitude shift from the head coach.
“I realized that we had some issues going into the season,” he said before preseason practice. “Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”
Among those off-the-field issues would be the arrests of seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, both expected to be veteran presences in the Notre Dame secondary. As a whole, the 2016 senior class was lacking in bar-raising leaders. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones has more personality than can be succinctly described, but he was not necessarily a presence to be followed. Running back Tarean Folston’s knee injury knocked him down the depth chart, through no fault of his own, cutting into any credibility he may have had in front of the locker room. The same could be said for quarterback Malik Zaire.
Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell could do only so much, both soft-spoken by nature.
This leadership void was not the sole reason the Irish fell to 4-8, but it was a big reason why 1-3 became 3-6 and why 3-6 became 4-8.
The likes of fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made sure that would not be the case again. They are just the tip of the leadership iceberg in the current locker room, and they set the stage for something special in years to come. Whether that act is realized or not, this senior class deserves credit for returning it to rational conversations.
“Whether it’s this year or not, the goal is still to win a national championship,” McGlinchey said Wednesday. “If I can do my part and if it’s not this year, going to next year and years to come, if I can try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well.”
McGlinchey and Nelson have been the vocal leaders this season, though with very different approaches when speaking, one measured and thoughtful; the other blunt and to the point.
Tranquill has been the definition of leading by example, overcoming two season-ending knee surgeries to now entertain the possibility of heading to the NFL with college eligibility remaining.
Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe returned for one more go-around after being largely forgotten a year ago, his perseverance creating a needed role on this year’s offense. The same can be said for senior tight end Nic Weishar.
Each one of these, along with a number of others, helped right Kelly’s ship. As much credit as the head coach deserves for this season, the seniors earned an equal share.
“I think the legacy of the senior class was to get Notre Dame on the right track again,” Martini said. “Obviously after a 4-8 season, it was our goal to bring back the prestige to Notre Dame … so even if it’s not College Football Playoffs this year, continuing on to next year’s and creating a culture at Notre Dame that’s going to last.”
It is far too soon to tell if that culture will carry forward into 2018, but before that could even be considered, it needed to be reestablished in the first place.
Smythe and Weishar led a young group of offensive skill position players. Austin Webster earned a scholarship and a captaincy by shepherding the walk-ons and raising the bar of expectations for the entire team.
These seniors fixed an adrift program as much as, if not more than, anyone else did.
The first mentions above of the 13 individual seniors named all included hyperlinks to profiles published by the Notre Dame independent student newspaper, The Observer. Every year, The Observer puts together a special section featuring each and every senior — 26 this year, including fifth-years, walk-ons and transfers. It is a Herculean undertaking for such a small staff.
Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Ben Padanilam and Sports Editor Elizabeth Greason for keeping that tradition going, keeping it going with quality, and for filling my Friday afternoon with more worthwhile reading than usual.