Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly made it clear to his roster: Their votes for 2018 captains should not be based on friendships or popularity, on seniority or production, on prestige or position. He wanted the Irish captains to be the players the roster would least want to disappoint or let down.
That metric yielded three Notre Dame captains, announced just before the Irish took the field for their first spring practice Tuesday. Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill will serve a second year as captain, joined by fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and fifth-year punter Tyler Newsome.
While Tranquill’s selection was a certainty and Mustipher’s predictable, electing Newsome with more than 51 percent of the roster’s votes might strike those outside the program as a bit of a surprise.
“For the last two years, [Newsome] has carried the message for our football program on a day-to-day basis relative to traits over talent,” Kelly said, before pointing out the difficulty for a specialist to earn such respect from a wide swath of teammates.
Unlike Tranquill with the defense or Mustipher with the offense, Newsome does not spend practice with nearly half the roster. He is off on a separate field with three or four other players. In fact, while Notre Dame spent the spring debut indoors, Newsome and the specialists headed out to the snow and its lack of kick-ruining ceilings.
Newsome has led a “SWAT” unit each of the last two offseasons. The groups split the roster into eight teams, forcing players to get to know others outside their position groups and creating mutual accountability for performances in the weight room, in the locker room and in the class room. After 2016’s debacle of a season, Kelly split up the spring set of eight teams, putting Newsome in charge of the unit Kelly expected to struggle most. Going against seven other SWAT teams, each led by captains, Newsome rallied his grouping to a spring victory before a summer reshuffling.
“When that opportunity was given to me, I felt very honored,” Newsome said. “… That wasn’t just me, that was the whole SWAT team buying in.”
That kind of leadership apparently resonated throughout the entire locker room, with Newsome now leading his third SWAT team — each spring and summer sees a fresh start. Tranquill has also led groups the last two offseasons, while Mustipher has taken the lead with a team this spring. Between the three captains, the Irish obviously have the offense and defense covered in Mustipher and Tranquill, respectively, but their leadership styles also differ, per Kelly.
“They play differently, they interact differently with their groups,” he said. “Sam is really big on involvement with his group. Drue is not necessarily. He is engaged, but he is not Sam.
“And Tyler is — he kind of marches to a different tune.”
That different tune has led to inspirational tattoos across Newsome’s upper body with plans of adding a leprechaun image to his punting foot upon graduation. It has also led to a reputation for large amounts of time spent volunteering in the area community. And it prompted a colorful retelling of 17 days spent in the hospital as a 16-year-old following a car crash. Newsome’s tattoos and volunteering can both be traced to that experience, though most of it cannot be heard in the press conference video Notre Dame released. It was edited to remove particular asterisk-requiring words, ones which, in the context, may have even been appropriate.
Mustipher, for one, wanted that different tune as a captain.
“Newsome is Newsome, he’s attacking every single day,” Mustipher said. “He was one of my personal votes for captain because I see the way the guy works every day. He’s insane about his work ethic. He truly wants to lead this team. He wants this team to be successful, and he would do anything for us.”
Tranquill’s praise echoed Mustipher’s.
“When you take a vote of your team and a guy receives over 50 percent and the third-most on the team, that speaks to the character of him,” Tranquill said. “It doesn’t always matter about production. It’s the guy that is going to bring out the best in his teammates, who is going to represent his university the best and really be the face of the program.”
Newsome will fill an interesting role as a captain from the public’s view. Obviously each of these three lead the Irish to some degree and have earned respect from their peers. They will also be the players heard from most this year, joined by a fourth whom Kelly will put up for vote at the end of spring practice.
In 2017, running back Josh Adams would provide a measure of offensive insights, left tackle Mike McGlinchey would offer blunt insights into the locker room and Tranquill relayed the emotions of the team by so clearly feeling them himself. Mustipher may pick up McGlinchey’s mantle, and a starting quarterback will serve that Adams role even better when made available to the media. Clearly, Tranquill will still be around to not even think about camouflaging his thoughts.
Newsome, meanwhile, will not serve as comic relief. Rather, he may lend a macro view not oft-seen from a player within the season, let alone from a punter.
“The way I came in looking at it in the summer of 2014 is I’m a football player first and then a specialist second,” Newsome said. “So I came in with the mindset that I am one of the guys even though my position is a specialty position. It is nice to know my teammates also respect me in that same way.”
Kelly on a fourth captain
After Newsome’s 51 percent of the vote, six or seven players finished grouped in a “logjam” for the fourth spot, per Kelly. He showed those vote totals, unattached to names, to the team to explain how close it was. He hopes that motivates the players who think they are at or near that mark to lead this spring. Toward the end of practices, a new poll will be taken of the roster, now keeping the three captains off the ballot, and a fourth captain will be settled upon.
Kelly said 25 players received votes for captain, with no ballots appearing to be made in jest by selecting only freshmen or all of one position group, for example.
“I’ve always said it’s a limited democracy in terms of how you want things to go,” Kelly said. “In this instance, my message this year has been about peer accountability.
“Last year I made the decisions, and they knew that. A lot of things last year were going to be made by me, and we were going to bring the culture back to where it needed to be. … This has clearly been a path of empowering our football team to take this over.”