By the end of the week, Notre Dame will have taken the practice fields. Our long national nightmare is nearing its end: Football season is near. Even preseason practice promises new talking points.
The primary conversation around the Irish will be an old one, though.
It will not be a debate about the starting quarterback — Senior Brandon Wimbush will claim that honor.
Idle bragging about the all-time winning percentage will not precede Notre Dame’s season-opener against Michigan — The NCAA rendered that point of pride moot when it voided the Irish wins in 2012 and 2013.
Worries about reaching 85 scholarships will not be a newfound August talking point — The medical retirement of sophomore linebacker David Adams in June brought Notre Dame down to the NCAA maximum.
Rather, the driving question of the preseason, if not longer, will be about the Irish in the clutch. And it should be.
Notre Dame fell flat on its face the last two times it truly needed to perform last season, at Miami and at Stanford. Yes, there was a late comeback in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, but bowl games are outliers in nearly every aspect, including the (lack of) genuine pressure steeped upon 37 of them.
For 2018 to be considered anything of a success, that will need to change.
There will be other notes of interest this preseason, to be discussed at further length later in the week. As much as junior receiver Chase Claypool needs to find solid footing, as much as a potent safety duo needs to coalesce and as much as a running back pecking order needs to emerge, none of those worries hold any of the importance of the inability to perform in less than ideal circumstances.
The Irish know this. In the spring, head coach Brian Kelly implemented “chaos” periods to simulate some of the environment encountered in Miami to open November. Those moments include sirens instead of music, soccer balls instead of footballs, 10 players on defense instead of the usual full set. They came when Kelly decided, unannounced until it was too late to mentally prepare, something clearly lacking in south Florida when Hard Rock Stadium had entered full party mode 30 minutes before kickoff.
“Find a way to win,” Kelly said of the chaos periods in mid-April. “Overcome those obstacles and get back to doing what you do every day. Just creating that based upon preparing our team to go to Blacksburg, Va. Going to hostile environments. That’s really the crux of it.”
Kelly and his staff were roundly criticized for the Miami flop, and rightfully so. Kelly did not shy from that line of questioning afterward. No one expected the atmosphere that awaited Notre Dame. That is in the past. It no longer matters.
What matters is what the maturation shown against Michigan — even a home game can result in an undesirable moment, such as trailing 20-19 in the final two minutes just as an off-the-cuff example — and how the Irish respond to an offensive outburst at Wake Forest. The reaction to “Enter Sandman” welcoming the Hokies is the ultimate litmus test, but it is only one of a handful scheduled on Saturdays this fall.
Notre Dame does not need to succeed in all of them or even the first one to have made worthwhile progress, but faring better than last year’s 0-3 is a necessity. For that matter, describing that as 0-3 feels generous considering how terribly the trips to Miami and Stanford went.
Claypool’s mental state will reveal itself in how he does or does not earn and retain a starting spot. Juniors Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott knocking down a few passes will be a distinct result of playmakers finding their way at safety. The splits in carries between an unproven running back stable will clearly illustrate who has the coaching staff’s trust, just as it did last year.
Success amid chaos is less tangible. Preparing for it thus requires some unorthodox methods. So be it.
If it will help solve the tired trope, then spend all of preseason practice working with water polo balls or horseshoes while listening to Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” dubbed over an aux cord being dragged across a zipper.
INSIDE THE IRISH READING
— On Brandon Wimbush’s 2017 and preempting any Notre Dame QB drama
— No. 7 Derrik Allen, consensus four-star safety
— No. 6 Tony Jones, running back
— No. 5 Troy Pride, cornerback
— No. 4 Te’von Coney, linebacker, 2017’s leading tackler
— No. 4 Kevin Austin, consensus four-star receiver
— No. 3 Houston Griffith, early-enrolled four-star safety
— No. 3 Avery Davis, quarterback / running back / receiver
— College football’s new redshirt rule is a ‘chess match’ everyone will play differently
— Who needs to win their head-to-head opener more: Jim Harbaugh or Brian Kelly? ($)
— Jets sign RB George Atkinson III